By Shiv Visvanathan
One of the things I miss in the age of TV and digital news is the presence of the storyteller. Maybe it is an old-fashioned need, but I miss the magic of the moment that begins, ‘once there was’. Our sense of peace is desperately in need of myths and storytellers. In fact, as we watch the Pulwama event and after, we sense peace has lost autonomy as a narrative. Peace has been reduced to the lull between two acts of violence, an uneasy interlude. Our sense of war reads peace passively as a cessation of hostilities. Peace is more holistic and comprehensive in a way our current narratives do not capture. It is a different world. While war is anchored on the parochialism of concepts like border, security and nation state, peace has to dig deep into the unconscious of theology, philosophy and civilisation to
Our present vision of history and politics has become a handicap here. There is an irony to the Gandhian movement in India. Satyagraha as an imagination has inspired exemplars abroad, including Václav Havel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Desmond Tutu, but it has lost its passion and vigour in India. Today the Gandhian movement has died out, while Gandhians still play a role in other battles of resistance, such as the Narmada. Our ashrams are no longer pilgrimages of the imagination. They need to be revived to counter the think tanks of war and a middle class which craves the machismo of militarism.
What makes the dyingness of Gandhian ideas even more poignant is that violence and war have become technologically and strategically inventive, creating an acceptable normalcy around genocidal deaths. We read body counts with more indifference than weather reports. It is time peace as goodness challenges the inventiveness of war. As Gandhi pointed out, to be inventive, peace has to be both cognitive and ethical. It has to go beyond moral rhetoric and create experimental possibilities of peace, and it has to transform ethics into a political act that transforms the dullness of current democracy. Second, peace has to be seen as a craft, a lived world of meaning, not as a technocratic exercise. It needs daily rituals of practice where life, livelihood, lifestyle follow the codes of non-violence. For example, food has become a source of violence both as production and consumption. One has to rethink the logic of food as part of the testament of peace. The start-ups for peace have to be more imaginative than the usual start-ups of technology. Food as a cross-cultural imagination can help create the myths of diversity, generosity and justice that peace thrives on.
One has to also create a tradition of peace, a genealogy of exemplars and anecdotes, myth and folklore that sustain our everyday sense of life and living. Sadly, while we have many exemplars, we have few paradigms with which peace can confront the arrogance of war. We need a flood of peace hypotheses, efforts of men like Rajni Kothari, KuldipNayar, Johan Galtung and the folklore that went with it. Without a folklore of peace, a civilisational store of proverbs and wisdom, a social science of peace would be arid and administrative. The role of the university and civil society becomes critical because one of the institutions India has to dream of is a new University of Peace. The University of Peace was dreamt of by Patrick Geddes, watching the ruins of the League of Nations. He planned a model of peace where knowledge created frameworks of peace. Knowledge was to be a civics of peace. Tagore wove this idea into the idea of Shantiniketan. This other Shantiniketan did not survive and needs to be revived as India’s creative answer to war and Partition. Civil society must take a leaf out of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s book and create a new vision of the soldiers of peace, the KhudaiKhidmatgars. Imagine peace groups working on both sides of the India-Pakistan border in a dialogue of peace. This will help us rethink the idea of the border as a threshold of hostilities, a hinge of war rather than a fold of peace. Today we see people on the border as vulnerable. One needs to give them some sense of agency in creating counter-currents to war. Finally, one needs civilisational ideas on war, where a dialogue of religion creates an antidote to war. The role of religion in peace is particularly crucial as our conventional spiritual leaders have become handymen of the state.
One has to recognise while there is a poetics to peace, there is also a prose to routine. Time and the varieties of time become crucial in understanding peace. Waiting for peace is almost the everyday burden of women in war zones as they wait for their loved ones to come back, and dream of the return to normalcy. I remember Manipuri activist IromSharmila once telling me that normalcy meant returning to the possibility of being a woman, falling in love, going for walks untrammelled by army interrogation. Normalcy is such a rare phenomenon in frontier areas where war and insurgency have become endemic. Democracy, in that sense, is an ode to normalcy, to the rhythms of being we call peace. Recently there was a demonstration of Naga students in Delhi. The group did not ask for rights or critique the brutality of the state. All they said was that they were tired of war, tired of waiting for peace. All they wanted was peace in their lifetime, which Indian democracy is duty bound to give.
Once one realises peace is a craft, one has to prepare for it. One needs to see dialogue in creative ways. One is reminded of RaimonPanikkar’s definition that dialogue is a pilgrimage where one encounters the difference of the other to discover oneself. India and Pakistan need a dialogue in the sense that Panikkar spoke about. In this context, a dialogue of the people must be accompanied by more specialised dialogues. India has a chance to revive the power of the Pugwash movement. One has to remember that the first Pugwash conference was to meet in India till Cyrus Eaton hijacked it to Nova Scotia, his birthplace. The new Pugwash should go beyond nuclear fiefdoms and challenge the inventiveness of violence. It provides an opportunity for the satyagrahi and the scientist to blend in creative ways. The encounter between India and Pakistan must create wider models for thinking about peace.
India as a civilisation, a nation state and a democracy has a major resource to fall back on in the wisdom of our cultures and civilisations. It reminds me of an oft-repeated story from the Nazi era. Once the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, claimed that every time he heard the word culture, he reached for his gun.
The fittest reply came from a scholar, a Harvard professor called Alexander Gerschenkron. He replied that every time he heard the guns, he reached for his culture. It is time India goes beyond the grammar of surgical strikes and reaches for its cultures of peace, pilgrimage and understanding.