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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

On Gandhi's 53rd Death Anniversary
Fuel from a Freedom Fighter

31 January 2001


January 30th marked the 53rd anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi. Since his death he has been elevated to the ranks of Hindu saints of the 20th century. But one should not forget that first and foremost he was a freedom fighter. As has been commented by one American scientist, Vern Bullough, 

"Inevitably much of what has been written about Gandhi has bordered on idolatory, overlooking his flaws and humanness." 

Majority of those who perpetrated this crime on Gandhi were Indian intellectuals and politicians who pigeon-holed him to the status of a Hindu icon. They also made sure that this Gandhi icon being brought out of closet on two days of the year (January 30th and October 2nd) for homage, and for the balance 363 days to be hidden beyond touch.

Gandhi on the use of Violence

Though non-violence was his chosen method of agitation, Gandhi did not underestimate the need for violent methods to overcome aggression of the demonic state and its authorities. This is because, especially during the last decade of his life, he recognized the limitations of non-violent methods against adversaries who were rabid, reckless and not given to reason. It could be inferred that though he developed the non-violent confrontation with his oppressors [British imperialists] in the late 19th century in South Africa, the events of Second World War as well as the parallel liberational war conducted by Mao Ze Dong in China, made Gandhi to realize that his non-violent methods of agitation had limits.

However, selective regurgitation of Gandhi's thoughts on overcoming fear by the politicians and pundits (who had their own axes to grind) has made it difficult for millions to agitate against oppression. One possible reason for this occurrence is because the popular autobiography of Gandhi, The Story of My Experiment with Truth, comes to a close in the year 1921. But he lived for another full 26 eventful years, during which he continued to write passionately and modified his beliefs according to the new developments in India and the world.

Let me offer seven quotes of Gandhi on the use of violence, as culled from the book, The Way to Communal Harmony - a Gandhi anthology, compiled and edited by U.R.Rao [Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1963]. The original sources of these quotes are mentioned at the end within parentheses.

(1) Retreat out of fear is cowardice and cowardice will not hasten a settlement or the advent of non-violence. Cowardice is a species of violence which it is the most difficult to overcome. One can hope to persuade a violently inclined peson to shed his violence and take up the superior force of non-violence, but since cowardice is a negation of all force, it is impossible to teach a mouse non-violence in respect of a cat. It will simply not understand what non-violence can be, because it has not the capacity for violence against the cat. Will it not be a mockery to ask the blind man not to look at ugly things?

Maulana Shaukat Ali and I were in Bettia in 1921. The people of a village near Bettia told me that they had run away whilst the police were looting their houses and molesting their womenfolk. When they said that they had run away because I had told them to be non-violent, I hung my head in shame. I answered them that such as not the meaning of my non-violence. I expected them to intercept the mightiest power that might be in the act of harming those who are under their protection, and draw without retaliation all harm upon their own deeds even to the point of death, but never to run away from the storm centre. It was manly enough to defend one's property, honour or religion at the point of sword. It was manlier and nobler to defend them without seeking to injure the wrong-doer. But it was unmanly, unnatural and dishonourable to forsake the post of duty, and in order to save one's skin, to leave property, honour or religion to the mercy of the wrong doer. I could see my way of successfully delivering the message of Ahimsa to those who knew how to die, not to those who were afraid of death. [Young India, Oct.15, 1925]

(2) Every Indian, be he Hindu or any other, must learn the act of protecting himself. It is the condition of real democracy. The State has a duty. But no State can protect those who will not share with it the duty of protecting themselves. [Harijan, Feb.10, 1940]

(3) Self-defence can be violent or non-violent. I have always advised and insisted on non-violent defence. But I recognize that it has to be learnt like violent defence. It requires a different training from that which is required for violent defence. Therefore, if the capacity for non-violent self-defence is lacking, there need be no hesitation in using violent means.

[Harijan, Mar.2, 1940; suggestion to Manoranjan Babu and other friends from Noakhali, regarding the difficult situation faced there by the Hindus.]

(4) I have said that for those who do not believe in non-violence, armed defence is the only remedy. But if I am asked to advise how it can be done, I can only say, 'I don't know'. [Harijan, Oct.16, 1940; in the context of terrorization of Sindh Hindus by Muslims, Gandhi received a letter from Shamlal Gidwani holding Gandhi's advice of non-violence as contrary to the teachings of Lord Krishna.]

(5) Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, may be the Government of the day, to do the work of defence for him. A coward is less than man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women. [Harijan, Sept.15, 1946]

(6) What I saw and heard showed me that people are apt to forget self-respect in order to save themselves. There is no Swadeshi and Swaraj for persons who will not sacrifice themselves or their belongings for their honour. [Harijan, Jan.5, 1947]

(7) My Ahimsa forbids me from denying credit where it is due, even though the creditor is a believer in violence. Thus, though I did not accept Subhas Bose's belief in violence and his consequent action, I have not refrained from giving unstinted praise to his patriotism, resourcefulness and bravery. [Harijan, Nov.16, 1947]

It is interesting to ask why Gandhi, towards the end of his life, came to acknowledge the need for violence against oppressors. I think that he came to understand that the arsenal of oppressors were becoming more powerful. When he began non-violent agitation in South Africa, Gandhi's adversary was not using aerial bombs. But in the 1930s and 1940s, air-attack became a chosen arsenal for aggressors against their opponents and non-combatant civilians. This could have made Gandhi to reluctantly revise his complete reliance on non-violent agitational methods.

Prabhakaran in Gandhi's Steps

How Prabhakaran began to eclipse the TULF in the mid-1970s has been analyzed by certified pundits, quasi-pundits and pseudo-pundits in India and Sri Lanka during the past 15 years. But what has not been delved in depth is why Prabhakaran eclipsed the TULF leadership. One reason I would suggest for the failure of TULF leadership in checking the Sri Lankan state aggression is due to its blind faith in Gandhian non-violent methods, without even adhering to Gandhi's advice properly on the limitations of non-violent methods. In this sense, Prabhakaran was more intelligent than the legal brains of TULF, though he did not receive a conventional tertiary education.

Not a week passes without someone writing in the Sri Lankan press about what Prabhakaran is doing and how he is doing it. Here is one recent account by a quasi-pundit [Arjuna Hulugalle], which appeared in the government mouth-piece, Ceylon Daily News, of January 24th.

"Mr. Prabhakaran may not have won the war. He has not lost it either. His power lay in the ability to evolve a philosophy that political assassinations, bombs in public places, violence against civilians, suicide bombers and the sacrifice of children were noble acts. The ends - the creation of Eelam - justified the means. His philosophy was perhaps not a unique phenomenon in the history of guerrilla warfare. But it has been one of the most successful in practice. He trained his militants, motivated them and led them as a great tactician as if well versed in the writings of Clausewitz. The special hallmark of his combatants was the cyanide pill hung round their necks. They went to battle to kill or killed; one of them was equal to twenty soldiers of a conventional army."

The quasi-pundit continues,

"The genius of Mr. Prabhakaran was that he was able to take on two national armies. Starting with a small band of musketeers, he built a formidable force with sophisticated skills and technology funded in a variety of ways, some legal (contributions of the Tamil diaspora and the huge worldwide legitimate business transactions) and others illegal. He has kept going on for nearly 18 years with increasing ferocity...."

What is noticeable in this assessment is that, there is not only grudging admiration for a formidable adversary, but also subtle deception of history. The quasi-pundit mentions one authority namely Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the Prussian general, who wrote a treaty on war, Vom Kriege [On War]. Intentionally or unintentionally (due to his ignorance), he fails to mention openly another freedom fighter, a senior contemporary of Clausewitz, George Washington (1732-1799), who was less intellectually-oriented than Clausewitz. I think Washington is a better comparison for Prabhakaran than Clausewitz. Also not mentioned in the above-mentioned analysis, are the 20th century freedom fighters who are predecessors of Prabhakaran, such as Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Mao Ze Dong, Fidel Castro and Yaser Arafat. Why?

Jealousy among the Sinhalese is one reason. Sri Lanka has not produced anyone else in the past two centuries who can be compared in equal terms to these notable freedom fighters. The quasi-pundits [including the Indian Tamil opinion makers such as N.Ram, Cho Ramaswamy and Subramaniam Swamy as well as the scribes belonging to the spurious 'University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna'] in their sermons, show revulsion to Prabhakaran's addiction to cyanide pill. But Mahatma Gandhi has endorsed such a mode of action for freedom fighters. Here is one of his quotes in late 1947, written after Indian independence.

"Man does not live but to escape death. If he does so, he is advised not to do so. He is advised to learn to love death as well as life, if not more so. A hard saying, harder to act up to, one may say. Every worthy act is difficult. Ascent is always difficult. Descent is easy and often slippery. Life becomes liveable only to the extent that death is treated as a friend, never as an enemy. To conquer life's temptations, summon death to your aid. In order to postpone death a coward surrenders honour, wife, daughter and all. A courageous man prefers death to the surrender of self-respect. When the time comes, as it conceivably can, I would not leave my advice to be inferred, but it will be given in precise language. That today my advice might be followed only by one or none does not detract from its value. A beginning is always made by a few, even one." [Harijan, Nov.30, 1947]

Exactly two months after this passage appeared in print, the Great Man met his death peacefully at the age of 78 years and 120 days.

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