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Peace News in India

Milan Rai reports from the WRI Triennial in India

The War Resisters International Triennial (now held every four years, in a cunning ploy to avoid police detection and repression) is being held here in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, at Gujarat University or “Gujarat Vidyapith”. Coming from the recent ice, snow and slush of southern England, Ahmedabad is jarringly hot – but not too hot, dusty but not too dusty. The university, which was closed down three times by the British authorities during the national freedom struggle, was founded by Gandhi, and the library has an extensive section called “Gandhiana” (I just saw it while looking for the internet facilities).

I hadn’t known that Gandhi had agreed to a World Pacifist Meeting in India in co-operation with WRI. He stipulated that it must take place only after liberation from the British occupation. Unfortunately he was assassinated before that took place. This is the third WRI Triennial in India (the first and second were in 1960 and 1985-86). There’s a lot of history around the event: people with long records of struggle were being memorialised yesterday, the long record of speakers was being invoked, a lot has been done to entwine this international gathering with the specificity of long-standing campaigns for justice and peace within India.

For me, unexpected bits of personal history have been thrown up, as I encounter friends not seen for over a decade. Jean Dreze, a naturalised Indian, and Bela Bhatia, were leading figures within the Gulf Peace Team in 1990-91, whose organising phase I participated in. They’ve been involved in extraordinary work since then. Jean helped to put into place a Right to Work Act, which guarantees by federal law that everyone who asks for it can get public employment within 15 days at the minimum wage. Each family can apply for 100 days of work a year, and as the minimum wage is twice the market rate, this translates into 200 days of work a year guaranteed for the poorest families in the country. As part of a council of advisors to the leader of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, Jean also helped to push through a Freedom of Information Act which he describes as the strongest FOIA in the world. I’m in no position to judge at this moment, but for bureaucratic India to have any FOIA at all is astonishing.

Bela has been immersed in research and activism with deprived communities caught up in struggle in different parts of India, and has an in-depth knowledge of the interactions between the brutal Indian police (my words, not hers), the rightist paramilitaries, the “Maoists” and the communities these groupings attempt to control.

I put the word “Maoist” in question marks because Arundhati Roy, the first speaker at the Triennial, questioned the use of this label. I have to enter a caveat here. After an eight-hour flight, and a seven-hour train journey, and only eight hours’ sleep in three days, I was not quite in phase with the opening plenary. My ability to be present came through in waves….

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Arundhati Roy, the celebrated Indian author, questioned the “Maoist” label. Her opening remarks were highly critical of transnational corporate capitalism, as expected. They were also highly critical of the neoliberal corporate globalisation agenda, as expected. They also critiqued the impact of these forces on local communities in India, as expected. They also expressed a certain agnosticism towards different forms of struggle – as I’m sure most people must have expected. Her phrase was “a biodiversity of resistance”.

There’s been an exchange recently in Peace News about the “diversity of tactics” (though the phrase was hardly used). Smash EDO focused on the same issue as Arundhati Roy: “effective resistance”. Roy said: “That is where we get stumped. What do we do about it all?” She referred to the fight against the Narmada dams that affect millions of people in Gujarat and other states. Roy said that the anti-dam movement won the arguments, but could not handle the actuality. (For more on Narmada, see http://www.narmada.org .)

Perhaps nonviolence is the right way for us, Roy said (I assume she meant the audience), but she did not know what to say to villagers facing repression. She called violence an indicator species, a stress signal in society. Then she said (according to my notes): “I stand for biodiversity of resistance, because we have to stop this.” (My notes are not 100% reliable, some of them are not written in any known script, but this sentence is pretty clear.)

One possible interpretation (if my memory and notetaking of the event is correct) is that Roy was saying something similar to what Barack Obama said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which is that nonviolence is not always the answer and therefore there must be room for the use of force.

There are troubling questions here, which I wonder if we will explore at this pacifist convention. Gandhi himself said: “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” I’m taking this from the Wikipedia entry, which cites Bondurant, Joan V. Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, page 28.

In a letter of 22 September 1941, Gandhi wrote to a friend:

“Principles can have no exception. Two plus two can only be four. If I have made a mistake, it must be called a mistake. Can there be a different duty under stress? A mistake committed under stress may be pardonable. The moment Yudhishthira uttered a small falsehood, his chariot-wheel came down to earth. When I say that those who are not able to practise ahimsa should prefer violence to cowardice, I am not providing any exception to the principle.”

You can find this by searching Gandhi’s collected works, it’s in volume 81, page 113 (http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/VOL081.PDF). There are a lot of references to cowardice and violence. Gandhi was very concerned about cowardice – I’m not entirely sure why. I can’t help feeling that “effective resistance” is more important than “brave resistance”, but perhaps there is some underlying unity between those two things.

Last night someone at dinner said that there was not a lot of “militant nonviolence”. My ears pricked up, having used the same phrase in Peace News recently. By this, she meant “nonviolent activists willing to die for the cause”. No, there’s not a lot of that around, and that’s another question for the Triennial – I wonder if we will debate it, discuss it. It’s certainly easier to criticise the forces of tyranny than to try to grapple with our own failings.

Finally, there were a lot of other interesting contributions yesterday afternoon and last night, but the one thing I must write about is plagiarism! I don’t want to make any personal accusations, but I happen to know that the member of the WRI council who organised human bingo at the opening plenary attended last year’s Peace News Summer Camp, where human bingo was played not once but twice!

There were different lists of questions handed out to all participants in the hall. You had to find five people who, for example, had walked to Afghanistan (!), could dance like Michael Jackson, used a spinning wheel, and so on. All the statements had to be in English, Spanish and Hindi. (There is simultaneous translation into these languages, but I haven’t sampled it yet.)

I will be watching closely to see whether other aspects of Peace News gatherings have been brazenly appropriated…