By Anjum Altaf
The thought of any connection between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi would not have occurred to me were it not for a remark in the much talked about biography of the latter by Joseph Lelyveld. At one point in the book, I am told, Lelyveld writes that “it would be simply wrong, not to say grotesque, to set up Gandhi as any kind of precursor to bin Laden.” The remark piqued my curiosity especially given the fact that it was written before the recent discovery and elimination of Osama. Clearly, Lelyveld was not cashing in on a coincidence. So what was it that provoked the comparison even if it were to be dismissed?
Let me state my conclusion at the outset: the personalities bear no comparison but the contextual similarities highlight major political issues that bear exploration and attention.
The word ‘precursor’ suggests clearly that it is the contextual similarity that prompts Lelyveld’s remark. To spell it out: the existence of a foreign oppressor; the emerging resistance to the oppression; the impotence of lawful resistance; the transition to mass agitation; its reliance on the wellsprings of religious humiliation; the ensuing conflict; and the resulting blowback.
The two scenarios can be described in brief. Gandhi was central to the struggle against the colonialism of the British who had no intention to cede control till such time as Indians were ‘made ready’ for self-governance. Up until the 1920s the campaign for reforms was conducted in an exemplary constitutional manner within the rules of the game and inside legislative institutions by leaders following in the steps of Dadabhoy Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The British refused to yield any ground to the moderates destroying their credibility and paving the way for “extremists” (in relative terms) who took the struggle outside the legislative institutions. The leadership transitioned to Gandhi who rallied popular opposition by espousing the religious grievances of Indian Muslims distressed at the end of World War I by the fate of Turkey, the Caliphate, and the holy places. This popular opposition was combined with agitational methods relying on civil disobedience that was intended to remain non-violent. As it turned out, it was not this opposition that made the British leave; rather it was their exhaustion at the end of World War II. But the politics of religion came back to haunt British India with communal strife and the death of a million of its own citizens.
Fast forward a quarter century from the 1920s. World War II put an end to colonialism that relied on physical presence in the colonies but not to colonialism itself. Neo-colonialism relied on the imposition of local strongmen in newly independent countries to achieve the same purposes. This model, perfected in Latin America with men like Stroessner, Duvalier, Somoza and Noriega, reducing independent countries to banana republics, came to Asia in 1953 with the American intervention in Iran and nurtured surrogates like the Shah, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and House of Saud; Islam, it was claimed, was not ready for democracy. No amount of struggle within the institutions of the United Nations survived the veto to make a meaningful dent in ensuring a voice for the oppressed. Popular leaders were eliminated to the point where the US Congress had to legislate against political assassination as an instrument of foreign policy. The transition to extremism followed, first of Al-Fatah, then Hamas and finally of bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, tapping again into the feelings of religious humiliation. Yet again, this extremism failed to redress the balance of power but engendered deadly sectarian and factional conflicts within the oppressed societies.
It is cause for thought that two men as dissimilar as Gandhi and bin Laden – the first so multi-dimensional, introspective, experimental, questioning, self-made; the second so one-dimensional, dogmatic, fanatical, a Frankenstein monster – were crowned with central roles in dramas that shared so many similarities. What was it that pulled such contrasting personalities into becoming the carriers of similar functional imperatives?
The big issue is clearly the nature of power in our world. We are locked into a configuration of nation-states where ‘national’ interest justifies exploitation of others and confers legitimacy on acts outside national borders that would not be tolerated inside them. And we are also locked into a mode of governance in which lawfully permitted means of protest are impotent in the struggle for change. The resistance inevitably transitions to extremism with, more often than not, terrible consequences for the protesters themselves.
One example of this is Iran where the American intervention in 1953 fatally skewed the development trajectory of the country sealing the fate of generations of Iranians. It cost the American military-industrial complex nothing more than a two-line apology more than half-a-century later. Such a small price is not a sufficient deterrent to exploitation and the abuse of power. Khomeini (and Iranian nuclear aspirations) emerged out of this intervention and exploitation just as bin Laden emerged out of the prolonged exploitation and stifling of popular aspirations by the Americans in the Middle East and the intervention by the Soviets in Afghanistan.
What are the consequences of such a morality of power and what do they portend for the future? Clearly, nothing of significance has changed. While the ‘rogue state’ label is used to denigrate rivals in the way of national interest, it seems hard to dispute that all states with disproportionate power, globally or locally, are rogue states of sorts. Is there any assurance that when India and China emerge as powerful global players, they would not pursue their national interests in exactly the same manner?
And while World War II put an end to British hegemony, what would it take to put an end to American power to which bin Laden proved to be a mere irritant? It is perhaps this frustrating question that provides an explanation for the chord that bin Laden struck across the social spectrum in the Muslim world despite the disputation by most of his unacceptable ways. Bin Laden is dead but the status quo in the global balance of power and neocolonialism survive. What reason is there to expect an end of the resistance to oppression? And what form would it take after Al-Qaeda is swept aside? Who will be to bin Laden what Subhas Chandra Bose was to Gandhi?
These are important questions that beg attention in the early days of Arab revolutions yet to determine the course for the future. Would there be opportunities to redefine the balance of power or would there be a drift to yet more extremism and another global conflict? What is the act in the drama that follows bin Laden? Can we only stand and wait?
The discussion is continued in a subsequent post, Gandhi and bin Laden: Further Thoughts.