View the Ahima Conversations series here:
It’s been a while now since Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom day became a contentious moment in our public life. The simple, multi-faith prayer meeting on the lawns of Gandhi Smriti, presided over by the Prime Minister, still routinely happens. But inevitably, it is news of some glorification of Gandhi’s assassin that goes viral on social media.
For many Indians this situation reinforces a long-held belief—namely, that nonviolence began and ended with Gandhi.
On the contrary, the story of nonviolence after Gandhi is deeper and richer than is commonly acknowledged. A large volume of both academic and activist literature has continuously documented the innovations in nonviolence theory and practice over the last 70 years.
How can this diversity of experience in and striving for nonviolence be made accessible to the general public and in particular to the Internet generation?
This is the question that led me to launch a Youtube channel called ‘Ahimsa Conversations’ on 30th January, 2020.
Ahimsa anchors the enquiry in India, though this Sanskrit word is increasingly recognized across the world. Conversations declares the global intent of this platform. After all, our ability to dialogue lies at the heart of the civilizational journey of our species.
Of course, there is persistent political and ethical opposition to the idea of nonviolence. The claim that the violence of the oppressed is justified, and at times necessary, is shared by people who are otherwise at opposite ends of the political spectrum – from Maoists to advocates of Hindutva.
Nevertheless, in societies across the world there is evidence of an intense striving for nonviolence. For example, in Colombia, work on nonviolence was born out of violence-fatigue in a society plagued by half a century of civil war.
In 1999 the American documentary film ‘A Force More Powerful’, used vivid video footage of successful nonviolent political struggles through out the 20th century, to give an inside view of how and why these movements made nonviolence a viable mode of action.
However, public discourse mostly remains focused on what is winning – violence or nonviolence? This may be entirely the wrong question.
Instead, there is merit in asking how the striving for nonviolence is alive, well and ‘kicking’ in ways that are often not obvious.
Documentation of large, history-making nonviolent struggles often overshadows strivings closer to the grassroots or in the innards of society. ‘Ahimsa Conversations’ is one way of countering that and raising awareness about the diversity of action and scholarship on the dynamic between violence and nonviolence.
In the process we get living evidence that validates Gandhi’s faith in the efficacy of nonviolence. We know that in the darkest hour of Partition violence Gandhi felt his experiment in a politics of nonviolence had failed. But, as the scholar Sudhir Chandra says in his episode of Ahimsa Conversations, quoting Gandhi, ‘ahimsa kabhi diwaliya nahin hosakti’ (nonviolence can never be bankrupted).
So there is Sushma Sharma, the principle of a Nai Talim school at Sevagram, who sees this approach to education as the foundation of a nonviolent society. There is Ulka Mahajan of Sarvahara Jan Andolan, who shares her experience of finding that nothing frightens those in authority more than fearless people demanding their rights peacefully.
Acharya Srivatsa Goswami, a Vaishnav scholar, explains why ‘ahimsa parmo dharma’ remains a powerful anchor despite violations and aberrations. Historian Faisal Devji explains how the study of nonviolence led him to interrogate the nature of terrorist violence.
Mao Valpiana from Italy explains how his childhood was shaped by his mother taking him to the remains of a concentration camp where his grandfather had been incarcerated and killed because he was a Socialist and he opposed fascism. Today Mao is the leader of the nonviolence movement in Italy.
So far 50 Ahimsa Conversations with activists, scholars and business people, from 10 different countries, have been published on-line. At one level this is a form of open-source research, with each video-recorded conversation being placed in the public domain under the provision of ‘Creative Commons attribution’.
As an activist endeavor Ahimsa Conversations is, quite unabashedly, intended for those who are drawn to the value of nonviolence but sometimes feel daunted about how to bring it into action.
In terms of looking for solutions to immediate problems, these conversations provide not answers but food for thought. They are also a way of reaffirming faith in possibilities we cannot at this moment see, let alone actualize.
Who is to say how any words and thoughts in these conversations could inform, inspire and creatively provoke those who have never otherwise thought much about ahimsa.
In a time of darkness there is merit in listening closely to those who have kept the pathways lit simply by continuously, relentlessly striving for and experimenting with nonviolence.
Perhaps ‘Ahimsa Conversations’ can serve the function of a light-house with a far-reaching beacon. Even in a raging storm that beam of light can help bring ships into harbor.
Rajni Bakshi is author of ‘Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi’ and curator of ‘Ahimsa Conversations’, a Youtube channel.