Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Power of symbolic acts.

Champaran or Kheda satyagraha were not very big events of history when they happened in 1920s. Dandi march or salt march was also not that big deal when it actually happened in 1930, after all how important was the salt law for British raj? Their empire didn't depend on that tax money for survival that's why they didn't bother to stop a political leader from breaking it. With all the power and force into their hands why the administration chose to be a mute spectator even after knowing what Gandhi was capable of doing? When Mahatma Gandhi marched for around 240 miles to break that law what did he achieve by breaking such trivial law? But today this event is considered as an important event of the Indian independence movement. Actually this salt march in one way was responsible for initiating civil disobedience movement on national level. By this long and unusual salt march and by breaking simple law like salt law actually Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi showed to common people of India that British empire can be challenged by using nonviolent protest. He proved them with example that such a mighty empire with all power in their hands can be challenged by non violent, unarmed common people, such was the power of this symbolic act. Symbolism plays very important role in every society. It inspires people, it gives them hope, encourages them to dream the impossible. But why I am suddenly talking about this subject today? This is because of some incidents happened in India and around the world during last few months which reminded my few of these incidents from Indian history which had huge impact on thinking and behavior of common people. People may or may not agree with my views but I see many parallels between some incidents happened recently with few pivotal incidents from Indian freedom movement.

When people from all over India and across the party line stood behind group of people who started India against corruption (IAC) movement, it resulted in unique movement. It was one of the scenario which India never witnessed in long time. There was no caste, no religion, no hatred for any single person or party which united all these people, it was their anger against rampant corruption and failure of system to deliver which united them. This movement resulted in formation of new and very non orthodox political party called Aaam Aadmi Party (AAP). It won 28 seats in Delhi assembly elections and even formed a government in presence of two big and powerful national parties. Then we witnessed some never seen before incidents like, ministers of AAP government traveling by public transport for swearing ceremony, Delhi's chief minister (CM) sleeping on road side to protest against central government, people doing their own sting operations against corrupt officials, etc. These scenes were never witnessed by people before, CM even resigned after he realized that he can not fulfill main promise made by their party in their manifesto. Many people were shocked to these things, many were angry because they thought CM should never do this (protesting on road or resigning from post just for some manifesto promise), many were amazed, many were angry, confused, and what not. There is no doubt that these incidents created varied responses and lot of controversy.

Many of these acts were very symbolic, this was the first time a CM was protesting against non accountability of police force in his own state. This was the first time in many years any political leader visited his attacker to know the reasons why that person attacked him. But these actions can be considered as political stunts or drama by some people, and may be they are right only time will give answers to these doubts and concerns. Mahatma Gandhi himself was criticized and ridiculed not only by Britishers but people from his own country for many of his actions, even his appearance (specially his dress). Some called him some naive politician who didn't know ground reality in India, a dreamer who was trying to fool people by showing some impossible dream of achieving independence by nonviolent movement. They called his dressing like poor of India a political stunt. He also failed in many of his initial endeavors, many times movement took totally unexpected turns and he had to retreat (like Chauri Chaura incident in 1922) but finally his struggle helped to achieve India's independence. On similar lines this movement against rampant corruption in India may take many twists and turns, there may be some failures and setbacks but I hope that finally it achieves its goal.

Symbolism is of great significance in every society, symbolic acts have power to inspire millions. These acts can mobilize masses, inspire many to participate in struggle. One simple step like wearing khadi inspired millions to spin charkha during independence struggle. But the truth is it's relatively easy to start a movement but very difficult to sustain the intensity of movement, very difficult to maintain the same level of commitment and transparency. It will be interesting to see in which direction this anti-corruption movement goes, whether it will progress slowly and steadily towards its goal or these big and powerful parties successfully crush it before it becomes too big and create problems for them. After all they also studied history and know the power of such symbolic acts and these type of movements. They will try their best to portray each of these act in negative way. They all will try their best to ridicule any movement which raises any uncomfortable questions for them. When you don't have money and muscle power to support your cause these small but effective symbolic acts can help you to deliver your message. Power of symbolic acts is amazing and currently we are seeing its effect in India.

Thanks for reading and please share your views on this topic.

[Copyright : Vinay Thakur. Please contact the author for re-posting or publishing]


  1. Your views on Symbolism and on AAP are very apt. However, I do not agree to it when you assert that it was Gandhi who gave us the freedom. This is crap and has been forced down our throats by history text books whose syllabus is decided by a Congress-led Government. Look at any history text book in schools you will only find Gandhi's Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movements and nothing more. A nation which has had such a great civilisation and a very long history is simply summed up to say that Gandhi is the 'only' hero the country has ever produced. There are so many other leaders who strived and did their best for the freedom. They are grossly overshadowed by this Gandhi propaganda. I do not say that Gandhi was wrong nor do I have any disrespect for him. But his contribution has been overestimated and many others have died unsung. I like you concept of symbolism and have understood what you are trying to say. But I think the example of Gandhi is incorrect.

    1. Thanks Pankaj for visiting the blog and sharing your views. I or anyone else can not say that only Gandhi's efforts resulted in India's independence. It will be sign of ignorance and foolishness to say that. Independence movement was long and painful struggle for many who participated in it, sacrificed their lives or precious years of their lives to achieve it, Gnadhiji was just one of those people. That's why I wrote "finally his struggle helped to achieve India's independence".....he entered the scene at right time and helped to engage common people in this fight, this was his biggest contribution. He demonstrated that you don't need any arm training or educational qualification to become a freedom fighter, any common man can do it and he was one of them. History in any country is taught the way government wants to teach. One needs to do lot of independent study and reading to get somewhat unbiased view of historical personalities and events. I cited Gandhi just because he used symbolism very cleverly during his movement, if you have any other examples please share them, it will be great to know about them.

      Following blog post which I wrote about history sometime back might be interesting for you, have a look if you get time. Thanks.

    2. Gandhi definitely helped the cause of freedom but if India was to go by his way alone I doubt if we would have been independent even till the 70s. Non-violence is a good method and innovative. But revolutions are fought with iron and blood. Look at the French and Russian revolutions. Everything comes at a price. It was the Second World War that actually brought about the real freedom. Britain had a heavy toll although it won the War and it was difficult for Britain to control its colonies directly. That is why many British colonies became independent after World War II. And all of them became independent without Gandhi's methods of non-violence.

      Please refer:

      Independence is not a product of Gandhi's efforts. It was just that the British were helpless after the War and independence was a better way out. Further, if non-violence was such a great weapon why was it not used to curb the partition or the riots that followed partition?

    3. Country as diverse as India with so many different religions and cultures never followed a single leader so far and I dont think it will happen in future also. Before Gandhi proved power of non violent movement it was always believed that revolutions are fought only using violence, he demonstrated an alternative way, it may or may not work in given situation but it is a option, a very powerful and demanding option. No method is foolproof and universal which can work in all situations but no one can take away credit from him for demonstrating power of peaceful protest, his efforts and commitment towards his cause was phenomenal. Others pursued their path, their methods to best of their abilities and they need to get credit for that. Gandhi continued his path and others their path. Independence movement was a collective effort of many people and Mahatma Gandhi played very important role in it. One can say that he was lucky to enter at crucial juncture and some historical events helped him in his quest, but that was not planned and such things can happen with anyone.

      Why UK granted independence to India? why partition happened? who was responsible for it? are very complicated issues and are beyond scope of this discussion. Many books are written on these subjects by many eminent scholars and one should do extensive study to learn all aspects involved in these events. WW-II was important historical event and it had huge effect on fates of many countries. I personally believe nonviolence is a great way to protest and handle any dispute, because violence only breeds violence and loss of human life in any form is terrible thing.

  2. Before Gandhi proved power of non violent movement it was always believed that revolutions are fought only using violence
    - The Buddha was the champion of non-violence and he did it much better than Gandhi. However, if you look at history it is the followers who misinterpret or have their own preconceived notions and who divert from the essence of the subject. Emperor Ashok did that way back. By accepting Buddhism he championed non-violence. It was good. But with it he relaxed his army which eventually proved fatal for a great nation. Once non-violence creeped in it was a cakewalk for Arab invaders to ravage a magnificent country. Gandhi was also blinded by his own concepts of non-violence.

    One can say that he was lucky to enter at crucial juncture and some historical events helped him in his quest, but that was not planned and such things can happen with anyone.
    - Yes and had he not appeared “luckily” he would have died unknown perhaps.
    Why UK granted independence to India? why partition happened? who was responsible for it? are very complicated issues and are beyond scope of this discussion.
    - There are no singular answers to the cause of such events. But giving undue importance to something which hardly moved a hair of the British cannot be considered one of the reasons of independence.
    I personally believe nonviolence is a great way to protest and handle any dispute, because violence only breeds violence and loss of human life in any form is terrible thing.
    - So do I but not “in any form”. Murders, rapists and such other anti-social creatures cannot be dealt with through non-violence. It would be foolish of the police or the common people to make peaceful protests (read ‘satyagraha’) outside the houses of rapists and murderers with a wishful thinking that someday the evil-doers will learn the lesson on their own.

    - Pankaj

    1. If you are talking about religion then there are many examples where people used non-violence as a tool to propagate their views, Budhha or Jesus are very prominent and popular examples of this. And I don't know how you are linking philosophy of non violence with inability to fight, Ashoka was great emperor as long as he was alive, if after his death his empire disintegrated then there can be various reasons fro that. I wonder how anyone can have huge army with all weapons and armor and teach them non violence, will it make any sense? When I am talking about power of non violence I take into consideration that it is civilized society not the middle of battlefield where bombs are exploding around you, thats very unique situation, it requires response depending on that situation. One philosophy can not be the answer for every situation.

      In this post I am specifically talking about civil protests, protests for change of policy, change of governance, which can be achieved either by violence or non violence and according to me non violent way is the best and appropriate way. Gandhi was well known before he came back to India for his struggle in South Africa, so he would have gone in history no matter what he did here in India. There are laws to tackle crimes like rape and murder, people just don't go and kill these people, they need to be punished using law, that is why we need effective, transparent and well functioning legal system. What you are projecting is an extreme picture, like if I say...ohh so you want society like Taliban where every crime is punishable by death and violence is the only answer for every problem...I know you dont mean this and I also don't mean by non violence that demolish military, don't fight with anyone even if they want to kill you or surrender in front of evil. Every time we have options in front of us and if I get a option to solve the issue using peaceful method I will always choose that, it's as simple as that.

      As far as Gandhi and his contribution to Indian independence movement is concerned you can have your own opinion based on your research and studies and I have mine, it's not necessary that our opinions should match. I give him credit for what I think are his contributions and you can criticize for what you think were his mistakes. We both have that freedom.

    2. "There are laws to tackle crimes like rape and murder, people just don't go and kill these people, they need to be punished using law."

      Yes Sir and the law does not say you go and protest outside the houses of the murderers and rapists. Law punishes them using "violence" and not non-violence. And where no violence is used the criminals keep languishing in jails for years. You must have known about how Kasab was fostered for years. That is the price of being non-violent.

      "so you want society like Taliban where every crime is punishable by death and violence is the only answer for every problem."

      Did I ever say that? You are the one who is taking this to extreme, not me. What I meant was one must exercise discretion as where to use violence and non-violence.


    3. Either you didn't read my all previous comments or missed some crucial lines, I clearly mentioned in almost every comment there is no single solution for each and every problem, if situation demands use of force is the only option one should not hesitate to use it. I also never said go and protest outside murders or rapist homes, I just said let there be a strong and effective law to punish such crimes. Criminals need to be lodged in jail (or some kind of custody) while under trial, that's the part of criminal justice procedure, I wonder how can you link these things with the part of being non-violent. I didn't get that logic. Delay in justice has nothing to do with being violent or non-violent I hope you understand this.

      I clearly mentioned in my comment what I mean by citing example of Taliban like scenario, either you missed it or didn't understand what I meant, please read that comment once again and let me know if there is any confusion, I would be glad to help to remove any confusion. As I said I will always choose a non-violent way if it is an option to solve the problem, this is my way, in the same way you can have your preference. There are enough examples in history to demonstrate use and misuse of violence, success and failure of non-violence, on can go through them, study them and decide their own preferences. I have my preference, and I hope you find yours.