The Guardian, Aug 11, 2001


Face to Faith

Causes and effects

Salil Tripathi

The Guardian

Saturday August 11, 2001

On February 4 1922, in the village of Chauri Chaura in northern India, a group of processionists marched through narrow lanes, shouting slogans against British rule. This was not an isolated march, but part of the vast, nationwide, peaceful civil disobedience movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi. It was two years since the Indian National Congress had passed a resolution demanding Swaraj (self-rule). In the northwest, the Khilafat Movement was in full swing, and the protests against the Rowlatt Act were spiralling throughout India.

When the procession in Chauri Chaura ran into a group of policemen, they continued to shout slogans. Perhaps it was frustration, or the humiliation of facing defiant civilians. Whatever the reason, the police turned violent on the non-violent processionists.

The shocked people of Chauri Chaura chased the police constables all the way to the local police station. There they set fire to the building, killing 22 officers. Gandhi's non-violent struggle for independence had suddenly turned violent. Gandhi was shaken. Sitting in Bardoli in western India, he termed the incident "a divine warning", and decided that tempers had to cool. He could not afford to lose the moral authority that he sought, of trying to convince the British rulers that their whole imperial project was ethically flawed.

Against the advice of his senior allies in the Congress, he suspended the non-cooperation movement. He was to write: "God has been abundantly kind to me. He had warned me that there is not yet in India that truthful and non-violent atmosphere which can justify mass disobedience which can be described as civil, which means gentle, truthful, humble, knowing, wilful yet loving, never criminal and hateful. God spoke clearly through Chauri Chaura."

I have often thought of this incident in the last year, during which we have seen the civil society protest against globalisation, by moving from one city to another, taking on the Establishment of corporatist and statist interests. Its critics have called it "the travelling circus of anarchy" or "protest tourism". Its supporters believe the rudderless youth of the world have discovered a new cause. From Seattle to Quebec, Prague to Genoa, thousands of impassioned young people have turned political, and peacefully protested against what they perceive as inequities in the world.

While their appeal is moral, the protests have been accompanied by violence, usually against property, but at times against people as well. In Prague, one activist justified the action of other activists who hurled acid at Czech policemen, by saying that the Czech police were legitimate targets in the war. In Genoa, the slain activist was carrying a not insubstantial fire extinguisher for a purpose that can only be surmised as violent.

Would the anti-globalisation movement benefit from a similar dramatic gesture to that of Gandhi's? When he suspended the non-cooperation movement many Congress leaders felt he had committed a Himalayan mistake. Independence, they believed, was only an inch away. Gandhi defended his decision: it was not an act of cowardice, he was to write in 1930; his decision was based on his philosophy of Satyagraha, the basis of his civil disobedience campaign.

Satyagraha means insisting upon the truth. It implies an unwavering commitment to the means, not only to the end, however important the end may be.

Gandhi insisted there was no room for violence, whatever the provocation and that steadfast commitment to non-violence remained his hallmark. For Gandhi's genius lay in understanding the immense moral power of self-restraint. He never ignored the vital distinction between British imperialism and democracy. He had faith that good sense would prevail, the tradition of fair play and justice would emerge triumphant.

If India wasn't ready for it, he was prepared to wait. His reasoning was: violent emotions are too powerful and must be controlled; he could not risk the movement he was trying to build to be derailed by violence.
After the rioting in Goteborg, presciently anticipating the violence in Genoa, the critic of neoliberal economics, Susan George said as much. She argued against wanton destruction of property and violence. Her reason is tactical: greater violence would mean the bourgeoisie would lose their stomach for political change, and their support, she argues, is vital. Some of the young and impatient anti-globalisers believe that a few shattered shops and property are a small price to pay for the right to protest. (Yes, Gandhi did believe in making a bonfire of British clothes, but they were not looted goods. They were usually contributed voluntarily by their owners who switched to locally made clothes, following Gandhi's call for self-reliance).

Today's protesters miss that important point. Their great moral appeal is that they are speaking out for the dispossessed. And who are the dispossessed? The sick in the third world who can't afford expensive medicines; the poor in the developing world who cannot export their products to the developed world which has artificial trade barriers; the destitute in the poor countries who see their governments burdened by debt and unable to build schools and hospitals.

Pitting them against the fat cats is no contest. They have won their moral argument. Must it be spoilt with violence - even if the provocation is real?

Many activists in the crusade against globalisation like to believe that if he were alive today, Gandhi would have blessed their struggle. They could not be more wrong. Remember Chauri Chaura.