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Why we need Gandhi and Mandela today

September 30, 2017 09:32 IST

'Religion is but one trait where intolerance manifests itself.'
'We come across ‘chosen’ races, communities, political ideologies, economic systems, all lending themselves to discriminatory arrangements, which trample the rights of those considered beyond the pale of whatever is the favoured calling,' says Shreekant Sambrani.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

The most basic human right is that to life itself, not merely in terms of simple physical existence, but a life of some meaning and dignity.

This must be informed by the realisation that one is not alone in exercising this right. The Bible says, “No man is an island.”

Therefore, our individual pursuit of this right must be guided by the overwhelming consideration that in doing so, we do not harm anyone else’s right, either intentionally or accidentally.

 

If we transgress, we must face its consequences. This is the basis of all ethical systems governing civilisation, albeit at its simplest. It also defines moral behaviour.

Such consideration leads to the quest for human and humane values for individuals and societies alike. An abiding adherence to it would also ensure sustainable development.

All of us wish to celebrate whatever gives us joy. In India, these celebrations have been taking an increasingly raucous form and cause disruptions.

If the celebrants were to concede the right of reasonable peace and quiet to their neighbours, their joy would not diminish; they would also not earn the ill-will of those disturbed.

There is also a disturbing, somewhat militant, tendency in the observance of certain religious or social practices. Those who display them claim that it is their right to do so, ignoring or defying a similar right of the others.

The upshot is a confrontation, with possibly disastrous results. Our society has long recognised the perils of such behaviour. Hindu religious processions accompanied by musicians would mute their instruments while passing mosques.

This respect led to amity and peace between the communities. Pre-eminent masters of musical instruments considered most auspicious by Hindus, the shehnai in the north, and the nadaswaram in the south, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Sheikh Chinna Moula respectively, were devout Muslims and revered by the Hindus for their virtuosity.

This noble behaviour, which went beyond just tolerance and epitomised mutual respect, was enshrined as Sarva Dharma Samabhava, equal respect for all faiths. It implies that my existence as a devout and pious religious being is only enhanced if I respect your right to do so.

Our ancient sages said ‘ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti’ — the truth is one, but its seekers interpret it differently. How can we accept a dogma, which calls for acceptance of one interpretation above all and defines those who do not subscribe to it as infidels?

Religion is but one trait where intolerance manifests itself. We come across ‘chosen’ races, communities, political ideologies, economic systems, all lending themselves to discriminatory arrangements, which trample the rights of those considered beyond the pale of whatever is the favoured calling.

Being so divided into groups, we subordinate our human rights to those of the group and its narrow identity. The group does not necessarily respect its individual members, thinking that the group is larger at all times than any of its constituents.

More often than not, the group justifies its distinct identity in confrontational terms with those of others, justifying the exercise of our basic rights at the expense of others.

This violates the very basis of all ethical systems. Our rights must always be informed and circumscribed by a respect for those of the others.

Mahatma Gandhi took no joy in celebrating Indian independence, for which he had struggled all his life, because it was marked by unprecedented communal carnage in Bengal and Punjab. He went instead to some of the worst hit areas of what was then East Pakistan, to heal the wounds of the victims.

When the Indian government contemplated withholding payments due to Pakistan in view of mounting tensions between the two countries, Gandhi opposed it as immoral. He stood his ground and the government abandoned the plan.

This is among the finest examples of unqualified and absolute adherence to basic human rights and human values as the guiding principle of all our behaviour, individual and collective.

At the end of the last century, one had feared horrendous bloodbaths after the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It required Nelson Mandela to help usher in an era of harmonious peace in the rainbow civilisation, notwithstanding the great suffering of his people and his own self.

Humanity is one and indivisible. Narrow sectarian interests have never achieved any worthwhile results. All great discoveries of science and technology, advances in philosophy, achievements of creative and performing arts did not arise from anything other than human values.

We do not consider Einstein Swiss, Shakespeare English, Lincoln American, Mozart Austrian, Picasso Spanish, Gandhi Indian, da Vinci Italian, Kant German, Bradman Australian, Descartes French, Lao Tzu Chinese or Chekov Russian. They were, at all times, simply exalted human beings, who enriched all of us.

As Indian sages of yore put it, “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” or the whole universe is just one family.

Therein also lies the realisation that we share not just a common heritage, but also a very fragile spaceship called the Earth. Its resources are limited, be they essentials for life such as pure air or water, or those used to produce various of our requirements, such as minerals.

El Niño knows no geographical or ethnic boundaries; it affects alike both South America and South Asia. Manmade calamities, too, transcend manmade borders. The ozone hole, melting snow caps and the Asian Brown Haze affect all parts of the world.

We need to learn from Gandhi and Mandela that wiping tears of the victims at times stress is the defining human trait. Admitting the existence of intolerance and hate in a pluralistic society, along with the most stringent efforts to deal with them, is the order of the day.

Anything less would cause it to forfeit its claim to being humane and civilised.

Shreekant Sambrani
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