Protest in Indian tradition

Protest in Indian tradition

The Living Stream

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In the afternoon of December 26, 1810, around 20,000 people deserted Benares and sat on a dharna outside the city. A new tax on houses and shops that the British had imposed on them, they had felt, was unfair.

A group of these protesters had gathered five days ago, but the British had made them leave. Their resolve showed a different strength now. All the Hindu and Muslim communities took an oath to cease work until the new tax was lifted. The blacksmiths, the barbers, the weavers, the tailors, the palanquin bearers and boatmen, all of them stopped work. The effects were soon visible. Without the priests to do the cremation rites, for instance, corpses were being thrown into the Ganga.

The protesters berated and penalised those hesitant to join them. The police could do little to protect them. A few who withdrew from the dharna were ostracized from their communities.

The blacksmiths, who had turned up in large numbers, kept up the pressure. Their refusal to work made things difficult for a large number of farmers: new implements for cultivation and harvesting couldn’t be got or the old ones fixed.

Taking an oath not to disperse, the protesters sent a moral decree to every village in the province, asking each family to send someone to join them. Several thousand blacksmiths, farmers and weavers left their villages and joined the dharna.

Members of every community at the dharna contributed to help buy firewood, oil and other provisions needed to continue their protest. They also raised a substantial sum to support those whose families depended on their daily work. Besides, the various religious orders did their fullest to keep the protesters united.

The protesters did not take to violence at any point. Being unarmed, they were fully confident that the British would not use violence against them.

Eight days later, the British succeeded in dispersing those sitting in dharna. The police seized the boats lying unused and made it government property. They cracked down on the traders who were supplying essential provisions to the site of the dharna. They were brutally violent towards those recruiting protesters from the villages. Under pressure from the British, many landlords asked their farm labourers to return to their estates.

Shaken by the dharna -- Patna, Saran, Murshidabad and Bhagalpur also saw protests, albeit on a smaller scale -- the British, however, exempted a few religious orders and the very poor in Benares from the new tax and did not impose it in new areas.

My retelling of the above episode draws from the British official correspondence at the time, which the Gandhian scholar Dharampal has compiled in his book, Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition (1971). These documents, which he found during his research at the India Office Library, London, in the mid-1960s, offered support for an observation found in Gandhi’s Hind-Swaraj (1909): “In India the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us.” Besides Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy, whose influence Gandhi acknowledges in Hind-Swaraj, his thinking on the practice of civil disobedience also drew from his awareness of its living presence in Indian society.

The dharna that the British could only view as ‘sedition,’ Dharampal notes, would have been morally intelligible to Indian rulers. Unlike the modern State, which only expects full compliance with the law and greets any non-compliance with penalty, the philosophy of civil disobedience suggests that the rulers and the ruled are in a relationship of continual mutual engagement and not in a frozen “the State versus the People” binary where the commands of the former have to be mechanically obeyed by the latter. It asks political power to be sensitive to social suffering and stay open to revising its own conduct. Rather than a sign of weakness, this political attitude emanates care, creativity and wisdom.

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