Home / Opinion / Columns /  Disha Ravi and the ideas of an ‘andolan-jeevi’ named Gandhi

If the claims and assertions of the Delhi Police are to be taken at face value, India would appear to be a vulnerable nation. Even with a $2.6 trillion economy and a nuclear-armed military routinely ranked among the top five in the world, it seems to be remarkably fragile against one mighty power: not a rival nuclear-armed state, but a ragtag coalition of assorted celebrities, impassioned social activists, and the kind of people Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described as “andolan-jeevis", or those who live by agitation and activism.

The ‘weapon’ of do-gooders is not an explosive, but a document now known as ‘toolkit’, carrying nothing heavier than ideas in polysyllabic words. Such toolkits, which are common among organizations that wish to use strategies and tactics to bring about change, typically provide background information, talking points, and frequently-asked-questions and model answers for campaigners. Toolkits also suggest potential targets, offer ideas for mobilization, provide what its developers think of as catchy slogans and hashtags, as well as memes that may be funny but are often earnest, and other paraphernalia drawn from management, marketing, advertising and development campaigns. Confusing them with a plan to wage ‘social, cultural and economic war’ against India points to a deeper malaise.

In reality, India is strong—as a state, and that too with a government that has considerable strength in parliament and is run by a party with many states under its control. The administration can afford to be magnanimous to critics, but has not been; many of its core supporters tend to see critics as enemies of the nation. And the government’s disposition has the effect of making dissent not only insignificant, but also expensive. It can do this because the usual checks and balances of accountability have weakened. The judiciary upholds sound principles (the granting of bail as the rule, not an exception, for example), but these are selectively applied; its diplomats react loudly to tweets, but are barely audible when military incursions occur on its territory; and its bureaucracy treats citizens as subjects.

What such a maximalist state will do cannot easily be predicted. What’s the point of carrying a big stick if you aren’t going to use it? In recent times, several critics have found themselves behind bars: an 83-year-old Jesuit priest suffering from Parkinson’s disease; an 80-year-old revolutionary poet who is ailing; a wheel-chair bound academic denied bail to meet his dying mother; a comedian who was picked up for a joke that wasn’t told because he might have said something offensive (he’s since been released); and most recently, a 22-year-old woman who was campaigning for a cleaner planet.

The Delhi Police’s action of arresting Disha Ravi in Bengaluru and producing her before a magistrate in New Delhi, on allegations of online links with pro-Khalistan elements, was disproportionate. Lawyers have questioned the magistrate’s decision to place her in police custody for five days. Her motive seems environmental and those links, if any, inadvertent. The incident shows a literalist interpretation of colonial-era rules and an expansive reading of the law. And the arrest has become part of a conspiracy theory that even satirists and cartoonists would struggle to imagine. Compounding the irony is the use of similar tactics—hashtags and identical, simultaneous messages with the same words in bold—by the government’s online supporters, while complaining about coordinated campaigns against the nation. Toolkits are ‘how-to’ documents that accompany strategic plans. Multinationals selling toothpaste, political parties marketing a candidate, and other activists all understand that. The crucial question is the means being deployed.

In Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, American political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who runs the Non-Violent Action Lab at Harvard, challenges the idea that entrenched power can only be overthrown violently. If at least 3.5% of people support a movement, change may be possible, Chenoweth says. Governments—democratic or authoritarian—exercise power by getting people to obey rules and laws voluntarily. Regimes become ineffective when people refuse to abide by those rules. Think of the doctors and civil servants on strike in Myanmar these days. Or the Bengali bureaucrats in what was then East Pakistan refusing to comply with instructions from their West Pakistani bosses, and the eventual independence of Bangladesh. Or sit-ins at lunch counters in Tennessee that led to the desegregation movement in the US south in the 1960s. Or M.K. Gandhi’s challenge to an empire with a fistful of salt. Apparently small acts matter.

American thinker Gene Sharp had identified 200 types of non-violent actions that can be effective, and peaceful movements around the world use his manual. Peaceful resistance is an old idea; the internet gives it wider reach. Disha Ravi understands what campaigners have known all along—that non-violent activism can be effective. Thus slavery was challenged, women got the right to vote, and some authoritarian regimes collapsed. They draw inspiration from the original andolan-jeevi—Gandhi. India is lucky to have a daughter like Disha Ravi.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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