Decoding satyagraha and its power to persuade without spite

The Gandhian satyagraha as a political, strategic tool merits greater understanding and deeper discussions, says Infosys Prize winner Karuna Mantena.
Last Updated 16 February 2024, 19:17 IST

What could the Gandhian idea of satyagraha bring to a time of polarised political thought? Does it have the ideological muscle to offset political narratives built on anger and othering? Are we being reductive with our assessment of the nation’s founders and its history? Karuna Mantena has been engaging with these concerns – she is revisiting some of them in her upcoming book which she calls an “intellectual biography” of satyagraha. A professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a co-director of the International Conference for the Study of Political Thought, Karuna was in Bengaluru to receive the Infosys Prize in Social Sciences for her research on the theory of imperial rule. She spoke with R Krishnakumar. Excerpts from the interview:-

How significant is the award to the work you’ve been doing with political theory?

It is an amazing honour. I do a lot of work beyond publishing and scholarship which is, usually, not appreciated. An award like this helps me to see that all of that is connected to making an impact. The Indian political, intellectual and academic scenes have been expanding in enormous new ways in the last 10 to 20 years. I see that in the number of students who come from India and then return to continue in teaching. I work predominantly with the history of ideas and political theory. That conversation has also been thriving in India.

Do you see a renewed public interest in post-independence India? What could be driving it?

For many years, there has been a certain dismissiveness about the world views of Nehru and some of the founding figures – that they were merely imitating Western ideas but now, there is a real sense of how these ideas were thought through and adapted to Indian circumstances. There is an understanding that these processes involved intense conversations on how to transform this country. I think that is partially driving this interest. This also comes at a time when we see some of the founding institutions and ideas coming under fire. That has been one of the trajectories of the past 20 years. A generation of students who are now doing law or politics come separated from their parents’ world views. That is also driving the energy and, maybe, also a sense of crisis about the kind of institutions that can be built and protected over time.

The Gandhian way of dissent has been one of your areas of interest.

When democracies grow, they tend to criticise their founders in their process of moving on. Gandhi created such an impact that everyone had a view on what he stood for. What is surprisingly missing in that debate is satyagraha as a method to do politics. Gandhi was specific that non-violence is not only about avoiding violence; that form of dissent also involves staging, conduct, and a position in which you are willing to hear others. He believed that people would listen without coercion or intimidation. These tactics, and their success in certain circumstances, have not been studied deeply.

How do these tactics hold up in a polarised world?

With disruptive protests, those you are arguing against are going to be resentful, they are going to be angry. You have to find ways to mitigate that because resentment makes them entrenched, they feel attacked. In this context, both Martin Luther King and Gandhi spoke about separating the individual from the system, about giving the individual a way to dis-identify with the system. In the very complex debate on caste, Gandhi tried to say that a true Hindu should have an ethical foundation that disavows untouchability. If you want to persuade people, you can’t spend your time attacking them. Yelling will stop them from listening. I’m trying to look through the history of protests for examples on how contemporary protests could learn from them.

Karuna Mantena.

Karuna Mantena.

Credit: Special Arrangement.

What is your sense of the conversations around Gandhi’s positions on caste?

It is an important debate that has been simplified. What he tried as a means has been confused with the actual end. Understanding satyagraha can make sense of his positions. The big dispute was whether or not Hinduism can be reformed from within. The really hard question was – how do you get people who are privileged in a system like caste to have an interest in its reform? He struggled with this very serious question. In a way, upper-caste Hindus are the ones with the power to transform the system. How can you energise them to find some interest in this reform? Some of the Ambedkarites and Marxists thought that the answer was to get rid of the system and to re-educate. Gandhi thought that it was not a very realistic strategy.

You have written about the ideal protest being a perfect convergence of the means and the end. Can you cite an example?

The perfect confluence is when the form of the protest embodies the message, without you having to speak. The salt satyagraha and its strong symbolism, for instance. The resistance against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was a more self-conscious attempt at the Gandhian form of protest, reflected in the readings of the Constitution and the vigil to protect it.

What is your upcoming book on Gandhi about?

It is one way of reconstructing Gandhi as a political thinker. The book will be an intellectual biography of satyagraha. The conceptualisation of satyagraha changed a lot over time. I’m trying to go very closely to the episodes in Gandhi’s campaigns and career to see when the innovations happened in the theory and practice of satyagraha. I’m committed to the idea that Gandhi saw satyagraha as both a morally and practically superior form of protest. We take the moral account but we have to reconstruct his view of politics to understand why he thought it was practically superior as well.

(Published 16 February 2024, 19:17 IST)

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