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Not waiting till Greek Kalends

(By Pyarelal)

During our last detention at Poona in 1942, I had the opportunity to discuss at length with Gandhiji various aspects of his ideal of trusteeship, and how it could be realized in our present-day world. In the course of our talk one day he remarked: “The only democratic way of achieving it today is by cultivating opinion in its favour.”

I put it to him that perhaps the reason why he had presented trusteeship basis to the owning class was that while non-violence could command many sacrifices from the people, it was not reasonable to expect anyone to present his own head in a charger. “So instead of asking the owning class to do the impossible, you presented them with a reasonable and practicable alternative.”

Gandhiji : “I refuse to admit that non-violence knows any limit to the sacrifice that it can demand or command. The doctrine of trusteeship stands on its own merits.”

Pyarelal : “Surely, you do not mean that the change would depend upon the sufferance of the owning class and we shall have to wait till their conversion is complete? If social transformation is effected by a slow, gradual process, it will kill the revolutionary fervour which an abrupt break with the past creates. That is why our Marxist friends say that a true social revolution can come only through a proletarian dictatorship. You too have taught us that in politics reformism kills revolution. Does this not equally apply to social change? Anyway, if non-violence has the power to induce the opponent even to immolate himself for the sake of a higher principle, as you maintain that it can, why cannot we get the owning class to renounce their vast possession? You concede that vast possessions are today largely the result of exploitation? Why bring in trusteeship? Many people honestly believe, it will prove to be no more than a make-believe. Or is it that, after all, there is a limit to the power of non-violence?”

Gandhiji : “Perhaps you have the example of Russia in mind. Wholesale expropriation of the owning class and distribution of its assets among the people there did create a tremendous amount of revolutionary fervour. But I claim that ours will be an even bigger revolution. We must not underrate the business talent and know-how which the owning class have acquired through generations of experience and specialization.

Free use of it would accrue to the people under my plan. So long as we have no power, conversion is our weapon by necessity, but after we get power, conversion will be our weapon of choice. Conversion must precede legislation. Legislation in the absence of conversion remains a dead letter. As an illustration, we have today the power to enforce rules of sanitation but we can do nothing with it because the public is not ready.”

Pyarelal : “You say conversion must precede reform. Whose Conversion? If you mean the conversion of the people, they are ready even today. If, on the other hand, you mean that of the owning class, we may as well wait till the Greek Kalends.”

Gandhiji : “I mean the conversion of both.”

Noting the look of surprise on my face, he proceeded: “You see, if the owning class does not accept the trusteeship basis voluntarily, its conversion must come under the pressure of public opinion. For that public opinion is not yet sufficiently organized.”

Going back to what he had said only a little while ago, I asked: “What do you mean by power?”

Gandhiji : “By power I mean voting power for the people-so broad-based that the will of the majority can be given effect to.”

Pyarelal : “Can the masses at all come into power by parliamentary activity?”

Gandhiji : “Not by parliamentary activity alone. My reliance ultimately is on the power of non-violent non-co-operation, which I have been trying to build up for the last twenty-two years.”

Pyarelal : “Is the capture of power possible through non-violence? Our Socialist friends say that they have now been convinced of the matchless potency of non-violence-up to a point. But they say, they do not see how it can enable the people to seize power. You also have said the same thing. Therein, argue the Socialists, lies the inadequacy of non-violence.”

Gandhiji : “In a way they are right. By its very nature, non-violence cannot ‘sieze’ power, nor can that be its goal. But non-violence can do more; it can effectively control and guide power without capturing the machinery of government. That is its beauty. There is an exception of course. If the non-violent non-co-operation of the people is so complete that the administration ceases to function or if the administration crumbles under the impact of a foreign invasion and a vacuum results, the people’s representatives will then step in and fill it. Theoretically that is possible.”

It reminded me of what Gandhiji had once told Mirabehn: “Non-violence does not seize power. It does not even seek power; power accrues to it.”

Continuing his argument Gandhiji said: “Moreover, I do not agree that government cannot be carried on except by the use of violence.”

Pyarelal: “Does not the very concept of the State imply the use of power?”

Gandhiji : “Yes. But the use of power need not necessarily be violent. A father wields power over his children; he may even punish inflicting violence. The most effective exercise of power is that which irks least. Power rightly exercised must sit light as a flower ; no one should feel the weight of it. The people accepted the authority of the Congress willingly. I was on more than one occasion invested with the absolute power of dictatorship. But everybody knew that my power rested on their willing acceptance. They could set me aside at any time and I would have stepped aside without a murmur. In the Khilafat days my authority, or the authority of the Congress, did not irk anybody. The Ali Brothers used to call me Sarkar. Yet they knew they had me in their pocket. What was true about me or the Congress then can be true about the government also.”

I conceded that a non-violent State or even a non-violent minority dictatorship- a dictatorship resting on the moral authority of a few-was possible in theory. But it called for a terrible self-discipline, self-denial and penance. In the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavata, there is the description of a non-violent law-giver or head of a State. He is a person who has severed all domestic ties; he is unaffected by fear or favour, anger or attachment; he is the personification of humility and self-effacement. Through constant discipline he has inured his body to all conceivable rigours of the weather, fatigue and want. But suppose, the author poses the question, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. If through old age or illness his constitution is undermined so that he can no longer withstand the rigours of his penance, what then? To that hypothetical question the unrelenting answer given is: Let him in that event mount a pyre which he himself has made and immolate himself rather than indulge in weak self-pity and molly-coddle himself. “Personally I agree,” I concluded, “that such a person alone is fit to be a dictator under non-violence. If anyone is frightened by such a description, let him look at the Russians fighting in temperatures below 40 degrees frost. Why should we expect a softer solution under non-violence? Rather we should be prepared for more hardships.”

Gandhiji confirmed that under non-violence people have to be prepared for heavier sacrifices if only because the good aimed at is higher. “There is no short-cut to salvation,” he said.

“That would mean,” interpolated my sister, “that only a Jesus, a Mohammad or a Buddha can be the head of a non-violent State.”

Gandhiji demurred. “That is not correct. Prophets and superman are born only once in an age. But if even a single individual realizes the ideal of Ahimsa in its fullness, he covers and redeems the whole society. Once Jesus had blazed the trail, his twelve disciples could carry on his mission without his presence. It needed the perseverance and genius of so many generations of scientists to discover the laws of electricity but today everybody, even children, use electric power in their daily life. Similarly, it will not always need a perfect being to administer an ideal State, once it has come into being. What is needed is thorough social awakening to begin with. The rest will follow. To take an instance nearer home, I have presented to the working class the truth that true capital is not silver or gold but the labour of their hands and feet and their intelligence. Once labour develops that awareness, it would not need my presence to enable it to make use of the power that it will release.”

He ended up by saying that if only we could make people conscious of their power - the power of non-violent non-co-operation-the realization of the ideal of trusteeship would follow as surely as morning follows night.

Towards New Horizons, pp. 90-93