Elaborating on Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts on the meaning and importance of truth and drawing a parallel between them and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s recent public speech on speaking truth to power,S.N. SAHU explains the abiding relevance of Gandhi’s teachings to our post-truth times.
ON the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 152nd birth anniversary, we gratefully recall the centrality of Truth and non-violence to his worldview, and the indispensability of these two ideals to all his activities directed towards the freedom of India from British rule and the progressive social transformation of Indian society.
He had the challenging goal of applying truth and non-violence at the planetary level for achieving sustainability and justice that were, according to him, endangered by the accelerated pace of modern civilisation. This, in his view, was responsible for the incessant multiplication of wants and desires.
It is quite heartening to note that these two enduring ideals – truth and non-violence – are commanding greater attention and renewed focus in multiple fora, including the judiciary and academia. Supreme Court judge Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, in his Justice M. C. Chagla Memorial Lecture delivered in August, asserted:
“[I]t is not difficult for one to understand why democracy and truth go hand in hand. Democracy needs the power of truth to survive. As such, once can consider “speaking truth to power” as a right every citizen must have in a democracy, but equally as also the duty of every citizen”.
In its judgment in the case of Ajit Mohan & Ors. vs. Legislative Assembly of the NCT of Delhi in July this year, the Supreme Court referred to the selection of the term “post-truth” as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionary in 2016. The term was defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The apex court then sharply observed, “The obfuscation of facts, abandonment of evidentiary standards in reasoning, and outright lying in the public sphere left many aghast.” This erosion of reasoning to understand truth has been the bane of the post-truth age.
The Supreme Court proceeded to state, “A lot of blame was sought to be placed at the door of social media, it being a source of this evolving contemporary phenomenon where objective truth is becoming a commodity with diminishing value”. The calculated attrition of truth through recurrent false narratives and falsehoods by the powers that be underlines the intense relevance of truth, which Mahatma Gandhi called as God to restore sanity and strength in the twenty-first century world.
On March 6 2021, news media organization NDTV’s Prannoy Roy, during a televised discussion with professor Amartya Sen, asked him about his amazingly relevant course on Truth, prepared by him for Harvard University, and its relevance in the present age when trust-deficit and truth-deficit is at its peak.
Professor Sen stated that he was increasingly convinced that a lot of the difficulty in the world arises from people’s perception of truth being so limited. He invoked the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who wanted to be a better person by being more intelligent. He further added, “Being intelligent has not much to do with being a better person. But he thought that a lot of our failure, our inability to do the right thing arises from our intellectual failure and, in particular, not understanding the truth. And there is a big need for understanding the true nature of the Indian economy and the society and the polity, in the context of the differences and debates that we happen to encounter in the world.”
There is indeed a massive and wilful failure to understand the truth about India, its history, its diversity, and the struggle and protest movements of people for establishing a better society informed by constitutional values.
It is in these assertions in favour of truth that Gandhi’s enduring legacy anchored in truth and non-violence assumes greater significance for our post-truth age thriving on webs of lies.
For Gandhi, truth was associated with plurality and diversity, and not uniformity. He wrote:
“Truth has no form. Therefore, everyone will form such an idea or image of Truth as appeals to him, and there will be as many images of Truth as there are men. These will be true as long as they last. For, they enable a man to obtain everything he wants.”
The spirit of what he said is writ large in the aforementioned lecture of Justice Chandrachud when he said:
“It is important to remember that every person – rich or poor; male or female or belonging to a third gender; Dalit or Brahmin or otherwise; Hindu, Muslim or Christian or belonging to any other religion – has the inherent capacity to identify the truth, and differentiate it from falsehood.
With progress in society and annihilation of the notions of patriarchy and caste supremacy, the opinions of women, Dalits, and other marginalised communities are slowly but gradually starting to be regarded as “truths” in India”.
Mahatma Gandhi, while addressing a prayer meeting in 1947, said:
“People professing different religions have mingled to form the Indian nation and they are all citizens of India and no section has the right to oppress another section. The power derived from the sword or from numbers is not real power. Truth is real power.”
His famous statement that “I do not want India to be wholly Hindu, wholly Islamic or wholly Christian but wholly tolerant with all its religions coexisting side by side and flourishing” captures the truth of India as a confluence of civilisations, in contrast to the theory of clash of civilisations advocated by American political scientist Samuel Huntington.
The failure of people to accept the religious pluralism of India, which is the manifested truth and a constitutionally ordained reality, amount to violence to truth. Any attempt not to accept India’s multifarious diversities by imposing the notion of “one nation, one culture” is nothing but negating the truth associated with the idea of India, which is so integral to the vision and action of Gandhi.
Hence, Justice Chandrachud said that it is difficult to rely on the State to determine the “truth”, and stressed on the “determination of truth through deliberation and discussion by the citizens – by paralleling, combining, and expounding the claims of truth in the public sphere”.
Mahatma Gandhi defined non-violence from multiple perspectives. For him, non-violence was much more than non-application of force in day-to-day life.
He understood non-violence, among other things, as a method of dissent, as a process to sharpen one’s mind, the ability to accept facts and appreciate someone’s quality. It meant engaging with others through dialogue, discussion and deliberation and ushering in social transformation by employing non-violent means so that, inter alia, women are socially enfranchised, illiteracy is removed, living standards of people are improved and the judiciary is reformed for ensuring quick and inexpensive justice to people.
All these methods and means are now considered indispensable for public reasoning to arrive at the truth and understand it so that appropriate measures can be taken to address the challenges confronted by humanity.
Gandhi, in his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’, claimed that he only had glimpses of truth and not whole truth. So like scientists who, while experimenting with matter, examine hypotheses and keep their minds open before finding the results, Gandhi was also open to explore the diverse realms of truth.
Non-violence in the context of climate change
It is instructive to note that non-violence is now considered as a normative principle, along with sustainability, respect and justice, to save humanity from the dangers of climate change and global warming.
Naveen Patnaik appealed for inclusion of non-violence in preamble of constitution
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik appealed to the Union Government to incorporate ‘non-violence’ in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
On March 23 this year, the Patnaik-led Odisha government passed a resolution in the state assembly to include non-violence in the Preamble of the Constitution. The resolution marked the commencement of a year-long celebration of the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s first visit to the state on March 23, 1921.
Patnaik persuasively argued that the inclusion of non-violence would be decisive to counter divisive forces out to polarise society and divide people on the basis of faith, caste and other identities.
In his M C Chagla lecture, Justice Chandrachud stated that to use truth to criticize someone powerful is akin to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, in which truth is used as a form of non-violent resistance against those wielding power. He added:
“As such, “speaking truth to power” aims to wield the power of “truth” against the powerful, be it an imperial power or even an all-powerful State. Crucially, the assumption is that the act of speaking the “truth” will counteract power, and obviate a predisposition towards tyranny.”
As democracy in India and across the world faces severe assault from those who thrive on false narratives and assume power by mobilising people on falsehoods, we need to harness the power of truth and non-violence by following Mahatma Gandhi, whose life and work assumes greater relevance than ever before.
(S.N. Sahu was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K.R. Narayanan. The views expressed are personal.)