Book review: The Disobedient Indian by Ramin Jahanbeglo

The book reiterates the primacy of a discerning individual who dares to question those wielding power.

In these troubled times, more and more people are turning to Gandhian thoughts for answers to contemporary dilemmas. The fault lines of democracy are too evident to ignore. Though democracy is about questioning and dissenting, citizens tend to turn servile and conformist, losing their will to question and dissent. There is a rise of mediocrity and complacency. Dissent is sometimes treated as sedition. These are ominous portents that can pave the way for democracy to descend into dictatorship.

Iranian-Canadian political philosopher and academic Ramin Jahanbegloo has come out with a study of Gandhian philosophy of disobedience. The Disobedient Indian explores disobedience both as a principle and as a political tool. The book reiterates the primacy of a discerning individual who dares to question those wielding power. Jahanbegloo says being like Gandhi today doesn’t mean wearing khadi or acting like a saintly person but having a disobedient mind. "In today’s world, the rise of populist politicians across the world signals a worrying trend of obedience, complacency and conformism among citizens of the world.’’ In this climate, it is imperative to reiterate our right to disobey.

Jahanbegloo finds that the contemporary world is characterised by populism and mass immaturity and propelled by a process of thoughtlessness. ‘‘For many around the world mediocrity has become a norm of living and violence a mode of dying.’’ On democracy, he says it is about questioning and dissenting. "The real task of dissent is to challenge and defeat the twin corruptions of democracy: Imposed conformism and normalised complacency." Also, he argues that the main weakness of contemporary politics is lack of courage and outspokenness.

The first part of the book explores the formulation of the idea of disobedience down the ages while the second part takes a critical view of Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of disobedience. Jahanbegloo traces the historical development of the idea through philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, George Woodlock, Henry David Thoreau and Sartre. He then focuses on Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired generations of freedom fighters with his anti-colonial struggle on the plank of disobedience. Gandhi always considered it a duty to disobey unjust laws. He firmly believed that every citizen is ultimately responsible for every act of the state. Though Gandhi respects the state, he wants the city to be on constant vigil on those wielding power. ‘‘Far from being an invitation to chaos and violence disobedience is a constructive and creative attitude in pursuit of self-reflecting and non- conformist society,’’ the author states.

Not everyone is capable of disobeying. For Gandhi, all forms of resistance against authority are also modes of seeking truth and harmonious exchange. ‘‘No disobedience is practised in the name of wrongs.’’ Unless there is a belief in the minimum of shared moral values, there is the danger of the disobedient mind turning to violence. ‘‘If humankind is looking towards a future, it necessarily requires convictions and commitments, but it also requires Socratic rebels, of the mind and of action, who have the courage to swim against the tide and think against the drift to superfluity and meaninglessness.’’

Jahanbegloo presents a Gandhian philosophy of resistance and dissent as a third option in today’s politics, the other two being conformist and complacent obedience and political violence. It can be an answer to value crisis in the world. Of course, Gandhian politics is fundamentally ethical politics. It is Gandhi’s deep conviction that ethics and politics are inextricably linked. Jahanbegloo extensively quotes Gandhi to buttress his hypothesis. According to the Mahatma, ‘‘the golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision.’’

The author who had undergone imprisonment in Iran is aware of the hurdles in imbibing the philosophy of dissent in the present situation. ‘‘Learning to disobey unjust laws which are presented by today’s politicians as just and legitimate is not an easy task.’’ Jehanbagloo finds the Gandhian philosophy of disobedience innovative and revolutionary. About its relevance today, he contends that many decades after his assassination “the Gandhian moment of the political undoubtedly plays a crucial role in responding to the shortcomings of democratic passion and inclusive governance in our world.’’

The book is a timely reminder in a climate of intolerance in the context of lumpen politics, the rise of undeserving leaders and the looming threats of dictatorship. Any effort towards the democratisation of democracy is always welcome. The work also underlines the growing influence of Gandhian thoughts across the globe. The legacy of the Mahatma lives on. The Disobedient Indian is a seminal work that examines profound thoughts in a simple style. Extensive notes here are handy for serious readers and researchers.

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Book review: The Disobedient Indian by Ramin Jahanbeglo

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