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Violence and retaliation are never options

It’s strange to think of Mahatma Gandhi at a time when the world is talking about the Middle East.

But with each new tragedy my mind goes back to Gandhiji and the lessons he taught us.


It has become fashionable these days to scoff at Gandhiji’s historic non-violent struggle for Indian independence. Even the many Indians who don’t worship Nathuram Godse (and bizarrely enough Godse is a hero in some quarters) sometimes take the line that Gandhiji set us on the wrong path.


   There is a revisionist view of history, popular on social media, that suggests that the British left India only because they had been frightened off by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. I have even heard it said that a naval mutiny — and the threat of more mutinies to come — terrified the British into leaving.


   In historical terms, this has all the accuracy and logic of most WhatsApp hypotheses. But those who propound it have a dual purpose. One: to diminish Gandhiji’s contribution to the Independence movement and therefore counter the Congress claim that while men like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel fought for Indian independence, Hindu fundamentalists (such as the Mahasabha, the RSS etc.) had little or no contribution to the struggle.


   The second purpose is to indicate that the legacy of Gandhiji and especially Jawaharlal Nehru, turned India into a soft state, run by weaklings who were unwilling to use India’s strength against our enemies. The India that is now being created, runs the argument, is a strong, hard state, ready to use military power to impose its dominance on the region to and protect its own interests.


   As historical /political assessments go, this is kindergarten-level stuff that relies on editing out inconvenient parts of history (this so-called soft state of India actually broke up Pakistan militarily in 1971) and lying about historical loyalties: whatever Netaji’s problems with Nehru and Gandhi, he was never a Hindu fundamentalist or a member of the RSS. Likewise, Sardar Patel, the strong man of today’s WhatsApp forwards was, in reality, the man who banned the RSS.


   I mention all this because the example usually given to back up this soft-state vs hard state nonsense is Israel. Look at Israel, we are told, it is a small country surrounded by hostile Arab neighbours. But because it understands military power it has been able to dominate its region. Its army is so strong that it wins every war and Arabs live in dread of Israel's might.


   Also admired in certain Indian circles is Mossad, its spy agency. Mossad, we are told, is all-seeing and all-knowing. Not a sparrow cheeps on the West Bank without Mossad knowing about it. Terrorists do not attack Israelis because they are scared that Mossad agents will track them down and kill them wherever in the world they may be.


   That, we are told, is the model India should follow: a militarily strong, aggressive, vengeful state, skilled in covert operations and feared by its neighbours.


   It is not a particularly accurate assessment of how Israel functions anyway. Under Menachem Begin, a hard-line leader, Israel entered into talks with such Arab neighbours as Egypt. It defused its border crisis with Egypt and ended hostilities by dialogue because war had failed. Even under Benyamin Netanyahu, the current, even harder-line leader, Israel has reached out to such states as Saudi Arabia diplomatically, recognising that relying only on military solutions will not work.


"Despite Israel’s displays of military power and covert action, what security it now enjoys comes mainly from the diplomatic agreements it has struck with its Arab neighbours and from the support of the West."

   But even assume that we were to accept the Indian right-wing’s claim that Israel is a model hard-state, the important question is: has this made Israel more secure? Has Mossad managed to stamp out the terrorism that has been directed at Israel almost from the time it was created? Do the citizens of Israel feel safe?


   You only have to look at the events of the last fortnight to know what the answers to those questions are.


   No matter how many terrorists Mossad kills, no matter how many revenge missions it undertakes (such as the ones celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s Munich and in the work of such novelists as Daniel Silva) the terrorism has not stopped. Israelis are still being attacked and killed. They are still in danger.


   Nor is Mossad as omniscient as its admirers seem to think. Just as R&AW spends more time watching Pakistan than any other country, the Israeli secret services concentrate on Gaza, the West Bank and Hamas. And yet they were taken totally by surprise when Hamas launched its murderous attack.


  So, despite Israel’s displays of military power and covert action, what security it now enjoys comes mainly from the diplomatic agreements it has struck with its Arab neighbours and from the support of the West.


   It now faces an enemy it cannot defeat militarily without extracting a massive cost from civilians and losing the support of the world. The diktat pushing Palestinians out of Gaza has resulted in a terrible human tragedy. It has been condemned by many world bodies including relief agencies.


   And it is not clear that Israel can successfully launch a ground assault on Gaza given the nature of the terrain.


   Even if it does, what happens next? Once it has pulverised Gaza where do the residents go? With so little to lose, they will join terror groups and target Israelis. The cycle of death and terror will resume. That’s one reason why much of the world — including Washington — has asked Israel to reconsider its ground invasion.


   With each passing day Israel and especially its political leadership, risk losing global sympathy. As I write this it is not clear who bombed the Christian hospital in Gaza killing at least 500 people. The Israelis say it was a failed Islamic Jihad rocket that landed on the hospital. Others say it was an Israeli air strike gone wrong. Either way, each new day of death and suffering without any positive gains for Israel demonstrates the limitations of the Strong State approach.


   Ultimately countries don’t have to be strong states or weak states. They have to move beyond simplistic black and white absolutes and do what is best for their people. Whatever you may call the Indian state, strong or soft, it has usually found a balance that works to protect our people.


   This is as true of Narendra Modi’s India as it was of what went before. Forget the Bollywoodisation of events or the social media cheerleading or the hype about the creation of a strong, hard state. Consider instead our actual response to the Pulwama massacre: it was firm but proportionate .After the horror of 26/11, the government that preceded Modi’s also refused to give in to those who demanded carpet bombing of Pakistani cities.


   It is easy to make fun of Gandhiji and celebrate macho militarism now. But we risk forgetting that the path he put us on has been successfully followed by many others all over the world. The reason why Nelson Mendela was able to unite South Africa was because he took Gandhiji as his inspiration. America’s black community has made massive strides in the last few decades. That is because it followed the path set out by Dr Martin Luther King and rejected the violence proposed by such groups as the Black Panthers. Dr. King was, of course, inspired by Gandhiji.


   It is nobody’s case that violence and retaliation are never options. When all diplomatic options failed in 1971, Mrs. Gandhi sent the army in and liberated Bangladesh. Indian troops have made strong sharp incursions across the border under most recent Prime Ministers. But to look for military solutions to all political problems and to put your faith only in intelligence agencies is foolishness.


   Just look at events in the Middle East and at the position that Israel now finds itself in. Strong states can easily crumble softly.




  • SS 20 Oct 2023

    I agree with you wholly. It's very simplistic to place faith in the precept that 'might is right'. It only works till you are the biggest fish in the pond which is not always the case. People also tend to have a very binary view of the world and just go with the idea that confirms their inclination. And what's more they think all other competing views are, at best, woolly-headed, or, at worst, malicious (leading them to believe various conspiracy theories).

Posted On: 19 Oct 2023 11:21 AM
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