Secular Events

An Experiment With Satyagraha

This is the ninth part of Dr. Prabhakar Kamath’s latest series on Managing Life Without God and Religion In The Twenty First Century. Links to all published parts in this series can be found here.

This was not to be my next article in the series ‘Managing Life Without God And Religion.’ The ferocity of condemnation of Gandhi and scorching criticism of the basic principles of Satyagraha by so many Nirmukta readers compelled me to share with Nirmukta readers my experiment with the practice of Satyagraha in its most diluted form to tackle the problem of rampant corruption in a small geographical area in India. Space does not permit me to give all details here, but I will delineate the basic facts. If the evidence presented in this article does not convince readers about the efficacy of Satyagraha principles in the social context, I am afraid nothing will.

Journey Back Home

In December 1979, I returned with my wife and two small children to India after being in the U. S. for over nine years. I knew that I would be facing unending challenges in a country where, at that time, just about everything, including rice, sugar, kerosene, cement, water, electricity just to name a few, was in short supply, and the corrupt government, which controlled these essential items, had the people by their throats. Youngsters who read this article might not have any idea how different India was in the late 70s and early 80s. Indira Gandhi’s government returned to power in January 1980, and Sanjay Gandhi and his Congress Party goons were running India. In Karnataka, the stealing of booty from the people by corrupt bureaucrats went all the way to the top, like it still does. Even though India appears to be more prosperous now corruption has become worse, not better.

Mental Preparation

During nine plus years in America, I had been thoroughly spoiled by freedom from oppression, and so I knew I had to prepare myself to face the horrors of India. Those days the horror of India began immediately after one landed at any airport in India. Any person arriving from the U. S. A. was an easy target of Customs Officials. In preparation to my return to India I studied for several years Gandhi and his nonviolent methods of fighting injustice. I realized that if I was to merely manage my life in India, I would either have to pay bribes like everyone else did, or I would have to fight back. Gandhi often said that the real battles are fought within one’s heart and not out there in the public. I decided that if forced to, I would fight back nonviolently using the basic principles of Satyagraha. However, Satyagraha required that I must first reform myself by practicing certain codes of conduct, which would stand me in good stead during my struggle just to live in India as an honest citizen. I knew too well that it was beyond me to adopt principles of Satyagraha in my own life except in their most diluted form. For example, I could neither be a vegetarian nor a celibate. I had no delusion of starting a movement to “root out corruption” in the community I was going to live in.

Codes Of Conduct For A Satyagrahi

Failures in life are often due to all too common human weaknesses. I mentioned in my earlier articles that mental blocks such as passivity (inability or unwillingness to act) and fear of authorities are at the root of most people’s suffering in India. I had identified these in myself as well as in Indians I met in the U. S. After several years of ceaseless contemplation, I adopted the following seven basic principles in my personal as well as professional life to counter common human weaknesses I had identified in myself, and attempted to practice them diligently in all my dealings on a daily basis. I decided that no matter what happened in India, I would stick to these principles.

  1. I shall not tell others to do what I cannot do myself. (This was to counter my hypocritical tendency)
  2. I shall not indulge in personal attacks against people I disagree with. (This was nonviolence in its most diluted form)
  3. I shall do exactly what my conscience dictates me. (This was to counter my fear of criticism, which often hindered me from doing the right thing)
  4. I shall not indulge in loose talk. (This was to counter my tendency to handle truth lightly)
  5. I shall neither enter politics nor seek public office. (This would curb my hunger for power)
  6. I shall reduce the gap between what I say and what I do. (This was to counter my tendency to talk big and do little).
  7. I shall always admit my mistakes. (This was to make me a little humble).

I observed these seven highly diluted Satyagraha principles during the next eighteen months I spent in India in my dealings with a large number of common people and bureaucrats. Let me share with the readers the result thereof.

Introduction To The Great Indian Bureaucracy

It did not take long for me to encounter one roadblock or another. When I applied for a simple license to drive a motorcycle, I started getting the runaround. I knew that Indian bureaucracy was corrupt to the core, but I did not know then that it was such a well-oiled system of oppression that could dishearten even the most determined citizen. No matter what I did, I was unable to get my license to drive the motorcycle without the help of a broker. I was not ready to tell them that I would drive without a license, as I knew that I would create intolerable stress on all my relatives living in the town. I was new in town and everyone was apprehensive about what I might do to bring disgrace on them. I paid Rs. 45 as the bribe for obtaining the license, which ordinarily cost just five rupees. Thus my first experiment was an utter failure. However, the bribe I paid was not all a waste. I got to know firsthand how the corrupt Indian government worked. My frustration and anger spilled over in a stern letter I wrote to the chief minister Gundu Rao, a thoroughly corrupt man himself. He forwarded my letter to Mr. Nizamuddin, who then ran the R.T.O. This man disbarred brokers from all R.T.O (which was published in a newspaper) and wrote a letter to me that the problem would be tackled soon. By now I knew better.

Forming A Core Group

I sent a copy of the newspaper article and Nizamuddin’s letter as evidence of some success to ten people, and requested that we meet and see if we could tackle this problem at the grassroots level. The truth was we had no idea what were getting into. I gave a press release saying that we had launched a forum to address consumer’s concerns in Udupi Taluk. The minutes of our first meeting became the first issue of our newsletter, which some time later became a newspaper. When people came to know about the Forum, they came in droves with their complaints. We held public meetings to address problems with specific government departments, which were packed with people who had infinite grievances. We educated people to demand service from local officials without having to pay bribes. We did not hinder people who wanted to pay bribes and get legitimate or illegitimate services because it would be impossible to prove anything without cooperative witnesses.

Perception Of Being A Principled, Fearless And Selfless Organization

We put into practice every single principle I mentioned above in all our dealings with the people as well as bureaucrats. We listened to people’s complaints with much empathy and humility. We kept publicity to a minimum and depended upon the word of mouth for our work to be known to people. Within a few months, Consumers’ Forum of Udupi became well known across the state as a principled, selfless and fearless organization, which taught people how to fight nonviolently for their rights. Several small as well as big towns established their own Forums. We knew that many of these organizations would not last long since people leading them knew little about the basic principles of Satyagraha, which guided the conduct of Udupi Forum. In Mangalore, Professor Narendra Nayak started Consumers’ Agitation (Balakedarara Chaluvali) and a newspaper by that name.

The Goal

The fundamental goal of the Forum was to educate and empower people who did not want to pay a bribe to obtain services that were their due. We taught them to give up their passivity by refusing to do anything for them except to educate, guide and be available to people as a supportive organization. We insisted that they do the legwork themselves. This forced them to become active in their own cause. We countered their fear of authorities by standing by them during their struggle and using the newspaper to publicize their cause. By means of these two tactics, we empowered them to look the officials in the eye and demand service. We merely supported them and mobilized public opinion on their behalf. We gave wide publicity in our newspaper to the struggles of people who fought for their rights. We made sure that we printed nothing but truth. We avoided attacking officials personally no matter how corrupt they were. We never threatened officials; and never abused them verbally. We demanded justice and did not take no for an answer. We merely reported what they did. We avoided making mistakes. When we did, we humbly apologized for the same. We refused to support people who were in the wrong. Regardless, we heard that many local officials asked for transfer to other areas of the state.

This Was Just A Test

The truth was that I was like an amateur scientist who wanted to test if he, too, could split atom if he followed the guidelines laid down by a highly respected scientist who had already split it. I had neither the ambition to expand the movement to other areas, nor the inclination to make great sacrifices needed to do so, nor the financial resources to sustain me. My test proved to me beyond any doubt that Satyagraha could get results when applied diligently even in its most diluted form by an earnest activist. In the final analysis, the reform of a society begins with the reformation of the leader himself. As I wrote in my previous article, one must put a leash on one’s deep-rooted weaknesses such as hatred, greed, jealousy, hubris, etc. before venturing out to apply Satyagraha principles in the social context. This requires years of contemplation and on-going training. The leading activist is the weakest link in this chain. For, once the leading activist succeeds, he/she could easily fall prey to weaknesses such as greed, hunger for power, haughtiness and the like. Once the public sees these traits in the activist, the organization he leads dies quickly.

Case Study: In the previous article I gave two examples of individuals using Satyagraha method to get justice. Let me end this article by giving an example of how a person of “weak section” gave up his passivity and fear, and looked corrupt authorities in the eye and demanded service without paying a naya paisa of bribe. Here is his story as I described in my book titled, Servants, Not Masters.

Sheena Naika, a Girijan (hill tribe) laborer, had been sanctioned a so-called HUDCO 5 Loan of Rs. 3,000 by the Taluk Development Board (T.D.B.) of Udupi for building a small cottage on his three cent plot. This plot of land had been granted to him by the Government according to law. To get the first installment of the loan he went to the office of the T.D.B., which, by the way, has a reputation for corruption comparable to that of the Taluk Office. The T.D.B. clerk told him that in order to get the first installment he would have to part with 10% of it.

While working as a laborer at the hardware shop of Shanbhag, an activist, Sheena Naika had heard about the Forum. He now sought Shanbhag’s guidance in the matter of getting the loan without having to suffer the ‘cut’ of 10%. One should note here that, in India, it requires extraordinary courage for a poor, backward class person to refuse to pay a bribe. Sheena Naika had apparently hoped that Shanbhag would talk to the T.D.B. officials and ‘fix things up’ for him. He was not prepared for the reply he got from Shanbhag: “Sheena, this is your battle, and only you should fight it. We will stand by you and offer you guidance. We will make sure that no harm will come to you. If you don’t succeed, we will fight for you till our last breath. You have got to trust us.” But Sheena Naika was ‘not ready’ yet. A disappointed Sheena Naika went to the T.D.B. office to receive only 90% of the first installment of the loan.

Several days later, Sheena Naika came back to Shanbhag. He was somewhat ashamed that he had not accepted Shanbhag’s counsel earlier. He was now ‘ready’ to do whatever Shanbhag might ask him to do. Shanbhag urged him to demand 100% of the second installment from the clerk and to threaten that he would report against him to the higher official if there was any cut. Thus encouraged by Shanbhag, this time around Sheena did exactly as he had been advised, but was quite taken aback by the clerk’s challenge: “Go, tell my boss. Who cares? He too gets a share of this!”

Sheena Naika returned to Shanbhag in great anguish, asking what he was to do now. Shanbhag said to him, “Go to the Taluk Development Officer himself and report the matter to him. Ask him if it is true that he receives a share of the ‘cut’.” Back went Sheena Naika, mustering all his courage, and did exactly as he had been advised. The T.D.B. Officer almost fell off his chair, as he had never before had anyone talking to him like this. Not knowing what to make of it, he called his clerk into his office and instructed him to give Sheena Naika his full installment immediately. Obviously the superior official wanted to cut his losses and hush-up the matter. When he received the second installment of the loan in full, Sheena Naika’s joy knew no bounds.

But this joy was short-lived. That very evening the obstinate clerk paid a surprise visit to Sheena Naika’s house. Upbraiding Naika for his temerity, he threatened him with dire consequences, such as withholding of the license to build his cottage, if he continued to be rebellious. Poor Sheena Naika was quite frightened; he had not expected all these complications when he agreed to fight for his rights. Back he came to Shanbhag, asking for more advice. Reassuring him that all would be well in the end, Shanbhag quietly drafted for him a letter addressed to the T.D.B. Officer. It contained a detailed account of the threat the clerk had made, and it asked for the officer’s immediate intervention, failing which Naika would go to the higher officials. The letter made it very clear that a copy of it had been mailed to the Forum for publication.

The letter had a devastating effect on the T.D.B. Officer. Apparently there are very strict special laws against the harassment of backward classes by government officials. The Officer was now faced with the prospect of his nefarious activities being exposed; moreover, there was the likelihood of a reprimand from his superior officers. He had to disassociate himself quickly from his clerk’s malfeasance. So he called in his clerk for a thorough dressing down right in front of Sheena Naika. He threatened the clerk with dismissal if this matter appeared in the columns of the Forum’s newsletter. The clerk, now almost in tears, apologized to Naika for his behavior and begged him not to go to the higher officials or to the Forum. He promised to make restitution of the ‘cut’ made earlier in his loan.

Now Sheena Naika was no longer the meek-mannered underdog that he used to be, but a resolute citizen. He not only got his money back, but also prevailed upon the clerk to make restitution of the ‘cuts’ in the loans to his neighbors. He told the clerk that he would not be able to restrain the Forum from publishing his letter to the T.D.B. Officer. Thereupon the clerk, terribly nervous and in tears, came to me and begged me not to publish the story in the Forum’s newsletter – for the sake of his little children, as he put it. Denying that he had ever asked for a bribe, he said that he had accepted it only because it had been offered to him. I assured him that I knew full well all that was happening in his office. “Don’t bother to deny anything,” I said to him politely. “But, don’t ever again get caught with your pants down either.” I offered him tea and assured him that the story would not appear in our newsletter. At first he would not believe me. He kept begging of me to destroy the file itself. I assured him that we had no file on him and that he had nothing to worry about. I reassured him that I was not going to deprive him of his livelihood. The grateful clerk left my house with his eyes moist.

The news of Naika’s triumph spread like wildfire in the Girijan community, which had suffered untold harassment at the hands of the T.D.B. officials. Good old Sheena Naika had suddenly become their beloved Sheena Anna (elder brother), the leader. They came in droves to seek his counsel and pay him their respects. When they complained to him about their own difficulties at the T.D.B. office, he urged them to do exactly what he had done. “If you have any problems there,” he told them, “tell them that I sent you!”.

At the Forum’s first anniversary function, guess who inaugurated Consumer Education & Protection Foundation, Udupi? None other than Sheena Naika himself!

Soon people from different parts of the State began to inquire about the happenings in Udupi. Letters started coming in from Bangalore, Hubli, Bijapur, Mangalore, Basrur, Sullia… Almost overnight the Forum had blossomed into a viable instrument of the people’s will.

Let me remind the readers here that all that happened here was that I merely tested the basic principles of Satyagraha in their mostdiluted form to tackle an all-pervasive problem plaguing India in a small geographical area. Imagine how potent this weapon of mass empowerment could be when a greater person than I wields it deftly in the service of modern India. In my opinion the benefit and efficacy of Satyagraha in resolving India’s problems far outweigh those of all other methods advocated by some of the readers.

(To be continued)

About the author

Prabhakar Kamath

Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About To Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.

Links to all articles in Dr. Kamath's earlier series on Heretics, Rebels, Reformers and Revolutionaries can be found here. Dr. Kamath' series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.

8 Comments

  • Thank you Dr. Kamath for a first hand account of ‘Satyagraha Lite’. In the context of community organization and activist commitments, here’s a couple of follow-up questions:

    1) During the ‘team-building’ phase, one consideration receiving increasing contemporary emphasis is ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusiveness’. In other words, there is a case being made for pro-active attempts to make activist teams as ‘representative’ as possible. Given these fairly recently recognized diversity requirements according to which a more active recruitment of the under-represented maybe called for, is Satyagraha’s apparently passive recruitment strategy (of simply letting the leader’s action speak to prospective recruits), up to the task?

    2)The very first principle of even dilute Satyagraha is “I shall not tell others to do what I cannot do myself. ” A caveat worth stating maybe that the requirement of informed consent of a participant is NOT obviated even if I only tell others to do what I CAN do myself. Consent is not often not explicit from say, dependents and family members of a Satyagrahi, whose interests may nevertheless be staked in the cause irrespective of whether they maybe informed about the same. Considering that you were already a parent yourself at the time of undertaking the Satyagraha experiment, do you think that your approach addressed these obvious concerns related to family responsiblities (and possibly professional obligations) adequately?

    • Arvind’s question # 1) During the ‘team-building’ phase, one consideration receiving increasing contemporary emphasis is ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusiveness’. In other words, there is a case being made for pro-active attempts to make activist teams as ‘representative’ as possible. Given these fairly recently recognized diversity requirements according to which a more active recruitment of the under-represented maybe called for, is Satyagraha’s apparently passive recruitment strategy (of simply letting the leader’s action speak to prospective recruits), up to the task?

      My response: Proactively building an ‘inclusive’ or ‘representative’ team is the ideal. However, as you know well, India is divided into a million groups across gender, class, caste, sub-caste, language, educational level, religion, financial status, skin color, location, profession, and whatnot. It is a potentially nightmarish situation. Let us say that the leading activist is Brahmin by birth, but secular in outlook. He recruits a person of a certain scheduled caste to be part of his team. Next thing you know another person from a different scheduled caste wants to know the basis on which the leading activist picked him. In dealing with Indians the leading activist must keep in mind the constantly operating centrifugal forces, which could adversely affect almost all his decisions.

      The reality is that when it comes to doing controversial work in India, it is next to impossible to collect ten people, regardless what group they belong to, who truly believe that THEY SHOULD DO SOMETHING to change the bad situation in their respective geographical area. It might take six months of active ‘recruitment’ to collect ten committed people. (Nine of these ‘committed’ people would drop out within one month.) This might require the leading activist to meet with hundreds of people in different social situations; casually raise the topic of corruption in his coversations, and make a case for uniting the affected, and offer organizational leadership. In a given geographical area of 500,000 population, one should be happily surprised to collect ten truly committed people. Such is the level of passivity, fear, cynicism, skepticism, hopelessness, helplessness and despair even in the educated people, -especially in the educated people- when it comes to doing something about any social problem, leave alone corruption. When the leading activist does succeed in collecting ten people in his core group the only thing uniting them would be their commitment to fight injustice. Such a group necessarily transcends all diversity. Such a group might not be inclusive or representative, but it would gain wide acceptance from all diverse groups due to its members’ commitment to selflessly fight injustice by educating and empowering all people regardless of their diversity. Our own group in Udupi consisted mostly of “upper class” Brahmins belonging to different castes and languages. And yet since we took up cases of people of all diverse groups including scheduled caste and tribes, the issue of our being an ‘exclusive’ Brahmin group never arose. Besides, we never refused anyone who wanted to be in the core group. The truth was that there were few takers.

      Arvind’s question # 2) The very first principle of even dilute Satyagraha is “I shall not tell others to do what I cannot do myself. ” A caveat worth stating maybe that the requirement of informed consent of a participant is NOT obviated even if I only tell others to do what I CAN do myself. Consent is not often not explicit from say, dependents and family members of a Satyagrahi, whose interests may nevertheless be staked in the cause irrespective of whether they maybe informed about the same. Considering that you were already a parent yourself at the time of undertaking the Satyagraha experiment, do you think that your approach addressed these obvious concerns related to family responsibilities (and possibly professional obligations) adequately?

      My response: The above code was meant to promote moral authority of the leading activist and to avoid the risk of him being branded as a hypocrite. Strictly following this code would immediately distinguish him from all other ‘leaders’ who don’t do a damn thing but keep telling others to do this or that. In practice, the leading activist never tells any citizen to do anything he does not want to do, is not fully prepared to do, or does not know the consequences of his actions on himself as well as on his family. There is always a risk to one’s life, limb, wealth and what have you when one decides to challenge a wrongdoing powerful entity. However, when a citizen sees in the leading activist earnestness, and trusts him to protect him, he is more likely to take the risk. It is the stark knowledge of this potential risk that is at the root of most people’s unwillingness (a polite way of saying cowardice) to get involved in a movement like this. In India today, in contrast to days of Gandhi, very few people are willing to make even small sacrifices for the welfare of the society. I lost count of wealthy people who patted me on my back and said, “You are doing a wonderful job! If there were ten people like you this country would be a better place to live,” and yet did not open their wallet to pay the token membership fee of Rs. 25.

      In the course of my work, a group of police officials threatened me with dire consequence if I did not give up my struggle. They could not do anything to me because Mr. Nizamuddin became to Director General of Police. When he came to Udupi, he invited me to meet with him. When I went to meet him, all the police officials who had threatened to deal with me mercilessly “no matter who you are,” were standing in attention outside the building! I looked at them and smiled. My wife knew the risks of the business I was involved in. If I was killed, my two little boys would have become orphans, but that was the risk I was willing to take.

      • The final sentence of your comment is quite telling. Even dilute Satyagraha needs intense resolve if it is to work. In general your explanation ought to be borne in mind by any of us who may have half a mind to plunge in headlong into an agitation with no motivation but a fleeting frisson of rebellion and with next to no assessment of risks. We had briefly spoken of this in an earlier conversation as well.

        • That is why I keep telling readers that years of mental preparation is needed to lead even a very small movement doing controversial work in India. Most NGOs don’t realize this. One does not become a neurosurgeon just because he decides to do so. He has to undergo 8 years of rigorous training in surgery under the supervision of qualified surgeons before practicing neurosurgery. Unfortunately, for youngsters desiring to lead a movement in India, there are no mentors. That is why they need, at least, to read Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. They would also need ceaseless contemplation, introspection, awareness-raising, and mental fever before jumping into this type of work. Aside from self-reformation, one must learn to deal with people’s mental blocks, constant, uncalled-for criticism, personal attacks, fault-finding, petty-mindedness, and other neurotic issues unique to Indians. One must learn to accept the idea that no matter what he does with best of intentions, he will have to deal with people whose only expertise is in criticizing and fault-finding. The vast majority of people are extremely brilliant at talking and airing opinions. Very, very few have the brains or the guts to do anything.

          • Well, unless you’re in a K-12 library, I’d hope you’d have more than a single reference aisle. Oh wait — I just realized — you’re the old guy hanging out in the ch71dren&#82li;s section. Thanks for the tip, you overeducated pervert!

  • I have observed,during last 50 years,that all those who are corrupt in all walks of life,have well decorated small puja-rooms with a dozen idols of gods, in their hpuses. Dr.Kamath you may be able to explain this phenomena.

    • Religion and ethics parted ways a long time ago. Originally religion came into being to bring law and order in the society. Religion has degenerated into a set of rituals to please gods for wealth and health. Without the restraints of ethics, holy hypocrite religious people indulged in every despicable act without compunction while indulging in religious rituals. Look at our so-called leaders: Yeddiurappa, Reddy brothers and other first class rascals in all political parties. They have no clue that the idea of worshiping gods was to motivate people to become “god-like.” God was defined as one superpower endowed with ethical attributes. These men are not only ignorant but also evil to the core.

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