Shilpa Jain (Shikshantar)

Dadagiri or Gandhigiri?


A few months ago, a film was released in India that took the country by storm. Munna Bhai Laghe Raho depicted a gangster, Munna bhai, who, following his heart towards the woman he loves, decides to adopt Gandhian values and practices. As the story unfolds, he begins to see Gandhi in visions, asks him questions and receives answers, which he goes on to share with all of Mumbai through a radio program.  Principles of speaking the truth, asking for forgiveness and persevering — no matter what one’s ‘opponent’ did — were all shown through multiple examples.   Ultimately, the film portrayed the struggle between dadagiri (the way of the bully) and Gandhigiri (the way of Gandhi). 


Besides awakening an entire generation of youth to Gandhi, and generating some good laughs along the way, this film inspires me to consider more deeply where/what/how is the NOW activism today.  Using it as a backdrop, I offer my own understandings and questions.


Dadagiri starts with the belief that you are right and you need to change the other person, generally through bullying or other forms of intellectual, emotional or physical violence. Gandhigiri, on the other hard, starts with respect for each other and belief in each other’s wholeness and humanity. It seeks to find ways to hold up a mirror to the person, to reveal this humanity, which may be hidden under lies, abstractions, habits or misinformation.  Truth is highly valued, but it is not a given and is not in a single person’s hands. Rather, truth emerges through a process of being open to diverse perspectives, being willing to engage in real dialogue, and seeking a resolution which strengthens our collective humanity.


Unfortunately, I feel a lot of what constitutes activism today is of the dadagiri variety. Though many people seek to address injustice, violence and exploitation, they often make use of the same attitudes, practices and tools that generate these conditions in the first place.  Whether it takes the forms of protests, sit-ins, petitions, campaigns or projects, it all starts when we think that we are right and we need to change the other.  How can we shift to Gandhigiri when this righteousness becomes deeply embedded within us?


The ‘rights’ craze sweeping India (Right to Food, Right to Work, Right to Education, etc.) is a clear example of this dadagiri.  At its core, it undermines human dignity.  In asking for rights, power is stripped from local people and the local context and is given to the government (and therefore, to the market).  Institutions — not people, not nature — are the sources of hope, promise and fulfillment.  Government officials and corporate executives decide the policies which, in turn, determine how people will live.  People are being sold to forces far beyond their control, and on top of it, being told that this makes them members in a healthy democracy! 


To me, here’s where the film’s lessons come in. Munna Bhai exemplifies how each person, with their own power and potential, can make and re-make their own lives, and through their lives, re-shape the larger world around them.  This task is not left to experts or professional activists; indeed, there are no NGOs or civil society organizations even mentioned in the film.  Nor is it the job of current (so-called) democratic authorities. When institutional State structures appear (in the form of police and lawyers), they are made a mockery of — in line with most peoples’ feelings about their (in)ability to dispense justice.  Though most of us have been schooled, even in activism, to focus our attention on these mainstream institutions, Munna Bhai suggests the opposite. It shows that the power to make a difference lies with individual people and small groups, and this power is strengthened through the relationships they are able to nurture.


But it is important to be nuanced. I am not suggesting that everyone in the whole world should become an activist.  We each have our own unique role to play; and we can learn from and connect with one another. What I understand is the simple truth that regular people — gangsters, a radio personality, a motley crew of retired elderly folks, a teacher seeking pension, an irritated neighbor, a young man in trouble with gambling, a young girl on an arranged marriage date — in every day circumstances have a chance to change the field.  With their whole selves present and engaged, they have the ability to shift the dynamics, to re-set the stage and in fact, create a whole new play.  In a moment, they can speak truth and, through this, hold up a mirror to those before them, inviting them to revisit their own humanity.  And this is not only effective, but also inspiring and even magical.  The personal and social fabric is woven — not torn — through Gandhigiri kinds of actions, in a way that can never happen through dadagiri.


After the film, I started thinking about the way much of activism is framed today: to put it crudely, as owls vs. jobs.  On one side is the activists’ argument that we need to protect forests because owls will become extinct without them; and on the other side is industry’s contention that we need to cut down forests to feed the economy and provide viable livelihoods to many people.  Rarely are there opportunities to change the field, to offer a different framing which could invite many more into the conversation and into a more truthful resolution. For example, what if this debate was dropped and instead the question became: how can we collectively create a healthy economy which favors not just human beings but nature as well? Could we imagine a kind of work based on revitalization of the natural world, rather than on exploitation?


It seems to me what the world needs NOW is not just love, sweet love, but also better questions and more imagination to change the field.


A friend of mine, Naveen Kumar, and I were trying to imagine changing the field of other popular struggles and what that would look like.  Like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the movement against the big dam and for saving the Narmada valley. What happened was a division into two camps: the people of Gujarat (mostly industrialists) who were demanding the water on behalf of the people of drought-prone Kutch and Saurashtra, and the people of the Narmada valley, whose homes, lives, cultures and histories would be submerged if the dam was built.  What if instead of appealing to courts, lawyers, policymakers, etc., the people of Narmada traveled to Kutch and Saurashtra?  What if they offered their body labor to build local rainwater harvesting structures and supported Gujaratis in ways to manage the drought?  How would these humble and generous actions hold up a mirror to those pushing for the big dam?  How would the emergent loving relationships among people have shifted the course of the entire struggle?


Or what about with the Bhopal tragedy?  For the last 22 years, activists have been demanding not just compensation for victims but also the head of Warren Anderson, president of Union Carbide at the time of the gas leak that killed thousands.  What if instead, they had appealed to people, including Union Carbide, to come and re-build Bhopal, but this time without chemical or any other toxic industries?  There was enough goodwill and global concern at the time, that they could have gathered artists, architects, farmers, healers, etc. from all over the world.  And then invited them to dream and create a different kind of city, to embark together on living in a healthy way, with an ecologically balanced and altogether different economy.  Who knows what could have been generated then?  And the ripple effects it would have had on Union Carbide and industries worldwide?


Gandhigiri is not about shaming or embarrassing people, though the line is easy to cross.  Especially when we have good intentions, we can quickly trip and land on the righteousness high horse again.  But I think it’s our assumptions that make the difference. If we believe that the person or people we are challenging have goodness and humanity within them, then our actions will be based on respect and invitation to dialogue and see deeper.  But to do this, I feel we must move beyond right and wrong.  What’s at stake is all of our well-being, for the society and world we collectively inhabit.  To do this, we need to ask better questions of each other, make more space for creativity and imagination, and for listening and learning. 


Perhaps most importantly, we have to let go of competition and winning and antagonism, dividing the world into heroes and villains, good guys and enemies.  This may be the biggest challenge for the NOW activism.  Are we willing to build bridges across seemingly insurmountable boundaries?  And have dialogue in the tough places?  Another friend of mine, Malika Sanders, puts it beautifully: we have to offer both uncompromised truth and unconditional love in each of our words, thoughts and deeds.  Not easy, but it makes possible new relationships and deeper alliances among all of us.  After all, when we are angry, oppositional, trying to win and make others’ lose, what do we lose of ourselves in that process?


Throughout the film, we see Munna bhai interacting with a fellow gangster, Lucky Singh. Munna keeps asking him to ‘get well soon’, sending cards and flowers, asking all of Mumbai to send flowers, to encourage Lucky to open his eyes to the sickness he has (in this case, wrongly taking someone’s property).  Reflecting on this action, I started wondering whether we all need to get well soon.  Are we all sick, daily committing violence, exploitations, injustices, and nearly completely blind to it all?  Doesn’t this inherently make us agents for spreading the disease? 


I was recently part of a seminar exploring the present challenges and the future of the voluntary sector. The people present raised a lot of concerns around funding, bureaucracy, management-worker hierarchies, degree qualifications…issues that currently plague the social service sector as a whole.  Some even began to ask whether the sector needed to exist at all?  But it was difficult for many to consider that perhaps these problems are part and parcel of the way the sector has emerged, as part of an inherently destructive model of Development and civilization.  What would it mean to let go of such mainstream structures, especially those that no longer contain any vitality, either internally or outwardly?  Part of the NOW activism, to me, means recognizing our own illnesses and the external symptoms — not getting caught up in them but freeing ourselves of them by letting go of the roots.


Or perhaps that’s not quite right (not to mention, a little morbid).  We’re not sick and diseased; we’re whole, healthy beings who are trapped in a system designed to make us sick. Perhaps this is another field we need to challenge and re-name.  We need to shift the boundaries of what we understand to be healthy.  To me, this means knowing that the farther you are from nature, and from your own hands, the less ‘civilized’ you are.  The more fast food you eat, the more gadgets you have, the more concrete and steel you live under, the more the decisions about your life are made by people far away from you, who you never meet and will never have the chance to meet — these are all signs of a civilization on the verge of collapse.


For me, if in my daily life, I can challenge these illusions and get to the heart of real life, NOW.  Simple things I try to do daily, like walking and riding my bicycle, growing some food, playing with children, caring for my grandparents, living without a mobile phone, creating instead of purchasing whenever possible, help me get closer to my hands and reduce my dependency on the ‘civilized’ world.  Aparigraha (freedom from possessiveness) is vital to the revolution.


I feel Munna bhai’s Gandhigiri (and the now activism) boils down to a few principles: Embody what you believe. Do it in your own life. Consider what kind of legacy you want to leave.  See the connections among self, nature and community.  Live in the moment. And moment to moment, try to change the field. Listen to your own inner voice. Reflect that, as much as possible, in each act, word, thought.  And, above all, don’t forget your sense of humor. You’ll need it.