Revisiting the Indian Tradition of Public Dissent

Avant Propos

Writing a foreword to noted social historian and political philosopher Dharampal’s (1922-2006) book ‘Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition’ [1971] legendary Indian mass leader and socialist thinker Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979) made certain poignant observations on the Indian tradition of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and more importantly on the role and legitimacy of public movements within a democratic framework.

Under the current national climate – animated by much talk on and sparring over ‘civil-uncivil’ issues and the questioning of the expressions of public dissent in a democratic state – a reading of Narayan’s observations, Dharampal’s thoughts and historical findings of the existence of an Indian tradition of public expression of dissent as well as excerpts of thoughts of one of the most celebrated originators of the doctrine of mass protest may perhaps prove to be useful. The nature of the state and the political realm in this country may have undergone vast changes since the works proposed to be revisited were formulated and yet in their essentiality, the patterns and manifestations of behaviour between the ruler and the ruled continue to retain vestiges of similarity with past expressions of public dissent. This is not intended as an exercise in unraveling the intellectual semantics of a particular term or expression but rather an effort at revisiting a debate and tradition that had once formed part of the Indian polity and its past epic struggle for self-expression.

I – The Myth of the Hindu Despot and the Peoples’ Right to Dissent in India

Through his compilation Dharampal demolished, based on primary historical records, the fallacious notion of the Indian people being collectively as well as individually docile, inert and submissive in the extreme vis-à-vis the state. The picture that emerged out of past historical experiences was that of a balanced relationship between the ruler and the ruled and of the people’s right to express dissent and displeasure against any arbitrary statutes, irrational decrees and autocratic behaviour of the ruler. The records yielded evidence of the ‘amazing powers of resistance to the state in the common people’ when the state ‘became oppressive or transgressed the limits of its authority’, and Narayan, in his foreword, was quick to take note of that interesting historical precedence. ‘The behaviour of the five hundred and odd princes towards their people during British rule had created the general impression that the king in the Hindu polity was a tyrant and there was no limit to his power as far as it related to his subjects, who were supposed to be traditionally docile and submissive’, observed Narayan. That myth he said was broken by later studies of Hindu polity which revealed ‘quite a different type of relationship, [and] allowed even for the deposition of an unworthy king by his people.’ In fact, the exhortations to the people in the Mahabharata’s Santi Parva to rise against and depose that King which it describes as Kali (evil and strife) incarnate, who does not protect his subjects after ‘declaring “I shall protect you’ or who ‘extracts taxes and simply robs them of their wealth [and] gives no lead’ was no more being seen as mere idealization of a pre-modern past. Referring to this very republican spirit and mechanism of Hindu polity and the latest findings on it one of the doyens of Indian historical research D.R.Bhandarkar – then Carmichael Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture at Calcutta University – in his ‘Lectures on the Ancient History of India’ (1919) wrote, ‘I have attempted to set forth the evidence which, if it is impartially and dispassionately considered, seems to show that there was a time in the Ancient History of India when Monarchy was not absolute and uncontrolled. We have been so much accustomed to read and hear of Monarchy in India as being always and invariably unfettered and despotic that the above conclusion is apt to appear incredible to many as it no doubt was to me for a long time.’ Sri Aurobindo, in his essays on the ‘Indian Polity’ was more explicit while demolishing the myth of the ‘Oriental Despot’, ‘the Indian monarchy’, he observed, ‘previous to the Mahomedan invasion was not, in spite of a certain sanctity and great authority conceded to the regal position and the personality of the king as representative of the divine Power and the guardian of the Dharma, in any way a personal despotism or an absolutist autocracy: it had no resemblance to the ancient Persian monarchy or the monarchies of western and central Asia or the Roman imperial government or later European autocracies: it was of an altogether different type from the system of the Pathan or the Mogul emperors.’ Though the king wielded supreme administrative, judicial and military power it was not personal, ‘and was besides hedged in by safeguards against abuse and encroachment and limited by the liberties and powers of other public authorities and interests who were, so to speak , lesser copartners with him in the exercise of sovereignty and administrative legislation and control.’ I am not entering into the elaborate analysis of the system and concept of Dharma – that kept the monarch within bounds; it would suffice for the present discussion to point out that the ‘legists provided for the possibility of oppression. In spite of the sanctity and prestige attaching to the sovereign it was laid down that obedience ceased to be binding if the king ceased to be faithful executor of the Dharma. Incompetence and violation of the obligation to rule to the satisfaction of the people were in theory and effect sufficient causes for his removal.’

Jayaprakash Narayan’s perusal of Dharampal’s collection of documents that described incidents of public dissent in eighteenth and nineteenth century India by resorting to techniques that appeared to be similar to those employed in the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements later, made him reinforce the above arguments, namely that ‘there had developed in the course of Indian history an understanding between the ruled and the ruler as to their respective rights and responsibilities. [And] whenever this traditional pattern of relationship was disturbed by an autocratic ruler, the people were entitled to offer resistance, in the customary manner, that is, by peaceful non-cooperation and civil disobedience.’ It also appeared to him that in the event of such an action by the people ‘the response of the ruling authority was not to treat it as unlawful defiance, rebellion or disloyalty that had to be put down at any cost before the issue in dispute could be taken up, but as rightful action that called for speedy negotiated settlement.’ In short, in the ancient scheme of Hindu polity ruler despotism was nearly absent, the people had the right to dissent and register protest and such expressions were taken due cognizance of and often course corrections initiated. Of course the effectiveness of such protests, as Dharampal argued, ‘was dependent upon there being a commonality of values between the rulers and the ruled’, and once this commonality disappeared as in the case of an occupying or alien government these methods became less effective and gradually withered away. Narayan, the inveterate non-cooperator, saw the British as having destroyed the last vestiges of this rather ingenious system, of having dissolved that commonality and of having ultimately imposed the theory ‘that it is the duty of the people to obey first and then to protest.’ He discerned the continuance of this theory to the present day as ‘one of the more malignant features’ of that machine of governance [he was referring here to the ‘bureaucratic machine’] that we have adopted ‘without change’ from our colonial masters for use in a free and democratic system.

While summing up the debate, Narayan, soon to lead one of the largest democratic mass movements of dissent in independent India, made an extremely relevant observation that has perhaps not lost out its contemporaneity. While referring to the attitude of the rulers to the expressions of protests by the ruled in the last two odd decades of independent existence that he was witness to, he noted with deep insight for such future situations that, ‘had the government conceded the right of the people to disobey and resist peacefully whatever seemed unjust or oppressive to them, a code of conduct would have evolved through the past 25 years [he was writing this around early 1970 or 71] that would have set the limits of the people’s and party’s action on the one hand and the government’s action on the other.’ He was making a case for a gradual reintroduction of that commonality that had long been a unique feature of governance in the ancient Hindu polity. Dharampal similarly observed that it was not the case that ‘non-cooperation and civil disobedience are to be waged perpetually [against an indigenous government] – as is advocated of “revolution” by certain current doctrines. They are [to be] used when there is such a need. [And] the more the ruling apparatus and other centres of authority are in tune with the ruled or those affected, the less the need to resort to them.’

II – The Mahatma and His Passive Resistance

There is much talk now of how one ought not to try and attempt to emulate the methods of the Mahatma in all contexts and situations. While avoiding the quicksand of philosophical and ontological analyses of his thoughts and concepts, it would be interesting to simply read the Mahatma’s definitions of a passive resister, of civil disobedience and his firm belief in a past tradition of public dissent in India. They too appear instructive in the present situation when much qualification is being attached to the Mahatma’s usually unalloyed expressions of these terms. The mass civil disobedience technique made its renewed entrée in the Indian nationalist struggle through the Mahatma’s application of it. The earlier Swadeshi period between 1905 and 1909, had also introduced these techniques albeit in a limited manner and against tremendous state oppression. Though the movement had gained limited success it had served to shake the torpor of the masses, activated the length and breadth of the country and had proved beyond doubt the efficacy of the method of passive resistance and ‘boycott.’ Both Jayaprakash Narayan and Dharampal have argued that the Mahatma was aware of this historic tradition in India of expressing public dissent against an oppressive ruler, rule or system and therefore could, relating to it intuitively, reinvent the technique to suit the India of the 1920s and 30s.

Gandhi’s opuscule ‘Hind Swaraj’ defines a number of terms in a crisp and unadorned style. To the ‘reader’s’ contention that ‘We have always been considered a law-abiding nation’ Gandhi answered that the ‘real meaning of the statement that we are a law-abiding nation is that we are passive resisters. When we do not like certain laws, we do not break the heads of law-givers, but we suffer and do not submit to the laws. That we should obey laws whether good or bad is a new-fangled notion. There was no such thing in former days…It is contrary to our manhood, if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery. But we have so forgotten ourselves and become so compliant, that we do not mind any degrading law.’ Then obviously referring to past traditions of protest Gandhi argues that passive resistance has always been an age old technique in India and defines it, ‘The fact is that, in India, the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to co-operate with our rulers when they displease us. This is passive resistance.’ It is interesting to note that, at least here, there is no qualifying conditionality that the method can only be adopted in a state of servitude by an occupied people struggling for self-rule or that it can only be applied within the peculiarities of a colonial context. The statement somehow points at a historic and legitimate habit in India of expressing public dissent. Citing a historical instance, of which probably he was aware as having occurred in his native Saurashtra then dotted with tiny principalities, Gandhi recalled the event ‘when, in a small principality, the villagers were offended by some command issued by the prince. The former immediately began vacating the village. The prince became nervous, apologised to his subjects and withdrew his command. Many such instances can be found in India.’ The All India Congress Committee during the nationalist struggle and at the height of its idealism-phase had itself passed the following resolution, again without setting it within a fixed historical context or timeframe, interestingly it held, ‘civil disobedience to be the right and duty of the people to be exercised and performed whenever the State opposed the declared will of the people.’

It is difficult to precisely say how the Mahatma would have reacted to public movements expressing dissent in a free India considering the fact that one of his last epic fasts was aimed at his own government in order to compel it to take measurable steps on the ongoing disturbances and more importantly to force the reluctant Sardar’s hands in paying a hostile and volatile Pakistan Rs.550 million as its share of the pre-partition government of India assets. A refrain therefore from trying to define the contours of a doctrine of ‘Mahatamaism’, is what would perhaps be a wise approach to the leader’s formulations and vision at the present juncture.

III – The Indian Tradition of Expressing Dissent –historical instances?

Some remnants of the tradition of expressing public dissent against an oppressive law and non-performance of the ruler appeared to have existed in India in the recent past. The Mahatma’s statement had initially pointed towards that and later Dharampal’s unearthing of historical instances further strengthened that perception. Even the long years of external rule and invasions could not totally eradicate that method of protest, though its effectivity under various systems was either reduced or was gradually lost. It would be interesting to briefly look at some of these methods of public dissent through Dharampal’s own rendering of them. Even the arch-imperialist historian of India J.S. Mill in his multi volume History of British India records these expressions with much amazement. Dharampal refers to Mill’s description too in his introduction to the work. Describing the people’s protest in Benares against the imposition of a certain house tax, Mill narrates the curious event; it requires to be quoted at some length:

‘In order to extend the public resources of the Government, it was thought advisable to impose a tax upon houses in the several towns and cities of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Benares [sometime around 1810]: religious buildings were exempted. Such a tax had been levied for some years without any difficulty or obstruction in Calcutta, and it was not expected that any serious opposition would be offered to it in other cities. The Government was mistaken. The measure was regarded as an innovation, and was vehemently opposed.’ [In Benares the opposition was most visible and sustained.]

As soon as the intentions of the Government became known, great excitement prevailed throughout the city, and meetings of the different castes and trades were held to determine upon the course to be pursued. No obstruction was offered to the persons employed to assess the houses, but the shops were closed, every kind of occupation was abandoned, and such numerous crowds assembled on the outskirts of the town, that it was judged expedient by the magistrate to call to the attention of the police a detachment of troops from the neighbouring cantonments. Their services were not needed as the people quietly dispersed; but on the same day a solemn engagement was taken by all the inhabitants to carry on no manner of work or business until the tax was repealed. Everything was at a stand: the dead bodies were cast unceremoniously into the river, because there was none to perform the obesquial rites, the very thieves refrained from the exercise of their vocation, although the shops and houses were left without protection, - the people deserting the city in a body [moved to the outskirts of the city and assembled three miles short of the residence of the European functionaries.] A petition was presented to the magistrate, praying him to withdraw the odious impost, and declaring that the petitioners would never return to their homes until their application was complied with.[All that the magistrate could do was to refer the matter to the Government in Calcutta]

Whilst awaiting for a reply from the Government, the people of Benares continue assembled, and were joined by many persons from the surrounding districts: the number was computed at more than two hundred thousand, comprehending the aged and infirm, women and children. They were supplied with food regularly at the expense of the opulent classes, and were actively enjoined to unanimity and perseverance by their religious guides and teachers. Their conduct was uniformly peaceable; passive resistance was the only weapon to which they trusted. They continued in the open air throughout the day, but many returned at night to their homes.’

The above was not a stray event, similar such protests erupted elsewhere such as Patna, Moorshedabad, Bhagalpur etc. Even protesting posters were displayed on the streets of Benares and the magistrate calling them ‘inflammatory papers of the most objectionable tendency’ offered a reward of Rs.500 ‘for every man on whom such a paper may be found.’ Mill’s narrative was largely based on the Collector’s report of the event. On the aspect of the crowd being unarmed the Collector tracking the developments reported, ‘ Open violence does not seem their aim, they seem rather to vaunt their security in being unarmed in that a military force would not use deadly weapons against such inoffensive foes. And in this confidence they collect and increase, knowing that the civil power cannot disperse them, and thinking that the military will not.’ The Bhagalpur collector pushed for ‘vigorous effort in support of the authority of Government, while the magistrate, who held responsibility for police and military action, ‘tended to follow a quieter and somewhat less violent course.’ He revealed interesting facets of the method in his report:

‘We [the magistrate and some accompanying troops] there found about eight thousand persons assembled, but totally unarmed. The principal of them kept in the centre of the crowd so that it was impossible to apprehend them…They, however dispersed after having been repeatedly told that if they remained they would be fired at. They then requested permission to present a petition the next morning which I agreed to receive giving them fully to understand that the collection of the tax would not be suspended, nor the petition received unless presented to me in court in a regular and respectful manner. After the dispersions there remained a numerous rabble consisting partly of weavers and other artificers, the rest old women and children. I spoke to some of them who expressed an apprehension that if they began to disperse those who remained would be fired upon. But on being assured that would not be done they agreed to disperse, left the place at same time we did, and returned respectively to their houses.’

The picture that emerges is of a well-organised, disciplined, close knit group able to assemble and disperse peaceably. The Benares protesters’ petition reproduced by Mill clearly spoke of such an existing tradition in India, ‘The manner and custom in this country from time immemorial is this: that whenever any act affecting everyone generally is committed by the Government, the poor, the aged, the infirm, the women, all forsake their families and their homes, expose themselves to the inclemency of the seasons and to other kind of inconveniences, and make known their affliction and distress, that the Government, which is more considerate than our parents, may observe their condition and extend indulgence to its subject.’ The unresponsive alien rulers bound by an artificial and forced link to their subjects, quite naturally failed to appreciate the real import of the petition and the deeper appeal in it to a certain commonality.

IV – Analysing the Tradition – a method of ‘continuing interaction’

Analysing the fundamentals of the event Dharampal brings out two crucial points: one, the manner of protesting did not ‘imply any enmity between them [the people] and state power’, it is reflected in the tone of their rejected petition which said, ‘to whom can appeal for redress of what I have sustained from you, to whom but to you who have inflicted it.’ And two, the concept of the ruler-ruled relationship that the people held till then and which seems to have driven them to adopt the method was one ‘of a continuing interaction between the two’ even in a situation of apparent confrontation or friction. This method of dialogue ‘seems to have been resorted to whenever required, and its instrumentalities included all that the people of Benares employed in this particular protest.’ Political asymmetry of power was sought to be addressed and tackled through a sustained process of dialogue and exchanges. It was only later that the people of India may have realised ‘the futility of such traditional protests in relation to authorities wholly subscribing to an alien value system and who thus had nothing in common with themselves.’ Such a realisation, Dharampal contended, could only have two fallouts, it would have either turned the people to violence or ‘reduced them more and more to passivity and inertness.’ Another point regarding participation in the protest that Dharampal indicated was that it involved all sections of the city population. The official report of the event stated that at the start of the movement ‘an oath was administered throughout the city both among the Hindoos and the Mahommedans, enjoining all classes to neglect their respective occupations until’ the collector gave a positive assurance that the tax would be abolished. The magistrate noted that ‘The Lohars, the Mistrees, the Hujams, the Durzees, the Kahars, Bearers, every class of workmen engaged unanimously.’ Among these the Lohars were most active as a ‘strong and well knit group, taking the lead, calling upon other Lohars in different areas to join them.’ The Mullahs [boatmen] also observed a total shutdown and relented only when the administration threatened to confiscate their boats. And nor was this a localized city based movement; emissaries were dispatched to ‘every village in the province’ for ‘summoning one individual of each family to repair to the assembly at Benares’ in order to lend greater weight to the effort. Acceding the point that the story of the 1810-11 protests at Benares and other towns ‘does not necessarily include every form of protest resorted to by the Indian people in relation to governmental or other authority Dharampal nevertheless concluded based on a rigorous analysis of the copious historical records that these ‘should establish beyond any doubt that the resort to non-cooperation and civil disobedience against injustice etc., are in the tradition of India.’

V – Dissent within Democracy – the debate

One major characteristic of the present Indian polity that Dharampal saw as having been inherited from ‘two centuries of British rule was the ‘persistence of eighteenth century and nineteenth century British notions and attitudes regarding the place of the people vis-à-vis their government.’ He saw this attitude among the British records and continued to witness it in a democratic India. The documents showed that there was a frequent expression among governmental authorities in 1810-11 ‘of the sentiments that the people must give “unconditional submission to public authority”; that the Government must not seem “to yield to the influence of popular clamour”; that if the Government had to yield, it must be “without compromising in too conspicuous a manner the authority of Government.’ The Benares magistrate forcefully reiterated the point while reporting the situation on January 20, 1811, he wrote, “I cannot but feel very forcibly, that such a state of things being permitted to continue in defiance of public authority, has already weakened, and weakens daily still more and more, those sentiments of respect, which it is so essential that the community should entertain for the government of the country.’ Such ‘notions and sentiments are still enshrined in the rules, codes and laws of Indian Governments’ rued Dharampal.

Both Jayaprakash Narayan and Dharampal, quintessential non-establishment Gandhians who had cut their teeth in public activism under the tutelage of the Mahatma himself, appeared to be of the firm opinion that Satyagraha, civil-disobedience or non-cooperation had a place in a democratic set up. A suppression of these expressions would, they felt, give rise to violent manifestations with acutely adverse results for society and public well being. The debate on the relevance ‘of non-cooperation and civil disobedience in a free country’ Dharampal pointed out was not a new one and had raged even when the movement for India’s independence was at its height and saw the participation of a number of eminent Indians. He saw the problem rather in the perpetuation of a certain notions of power that he felt to be intrinsically incompatible with the core Indian psyche and concept of State and people. The essential problem and therein the challenge was that the ‘principle of infallibility of the state structure (and consequently of other units of power and authority) established by the British continues to survive in India even after the elimination of British power…thus, while the reality of the principle of infallibility has been more or less abandoned, the rules, the codes and the laws which enshrine it, stay. And it is these latter that appear to provide the state system its real legitimacy and sanctity. Such a state of affairs has led to a most dangerous situation’ by keeping intact ‘the distrustful, hostile and alien stances of the state system vis-à-vis the people, but [it] also makes the latter feel that it is violence alone which enables them to be heard’, Dharampal’s loaded observation continues to hold deep significance for the present state of the Indian polity.

Dharampal was clearly convinced of the place for methods such as non-cooperation and civil disobedience within a democratic set up, he saw them as ‘integral to the healthy functioning and even to the security of a free and democratic society.’ In a way they were for him ‘more crucial than stratified courts of law; the present forms of periodic local, state-level or national elections, or the rather stilted and constrained debates and considerations within such elected bodies.’ He also saw as ‘protectors of their state and societies’ those who resort ‘to non-cooperation and civil disobedience against callousness, authoritarianism and injustice.’ Without them Dharampal felt a society would ‘end up at best in some mechanical ritual; or more often likely, in a tyranny, provoking complete anarchy and armed insurrection.’

But perhaps the indomitable Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani (1888-1982), the Mahatma’s comrade in arms during Satyagraha and civil disobedience movements and one of the tallest non-conformists in the politics of independent India, made the point more forcefully when he said way back in 1953 ‘ I repudiate the view…that satyagraha can have no place in a democracy. Satyagraha as commended by Gandhiji was not merely a political weapon. It could be used in the economic and social fields and even against friends and family members. Gandhiji commended it as a principle of life. Therefore, it is absurd to say that has no place in a democracy, specially of the kind that we now have, bureaucratic centralised. All questions cannot await the next elections nor can a government be over-thrown on the basis of local grievances, which for sections of the people may be questions of life and death. The denial of the right of satyagraha would mean unresisting submission to tyranny for long stretches of time.’ Similarly, K.Santhanam (1895-1980) satyagrahi, legislator, Nehru’s Railway and Transport Minister and Chairman of the first Committee on Corruption also made a subdued but insightful intervention in the debate when he said that it is ‘essential for democratic rulers to realise that true satyagraha is complementary to true democracy.’

It is the perception of that essential balance, or as Dharampal would have termed it ‘commonality’, that seems to be lost in the current clamour, as is being lost the knowledge of a once extant robust, well-balanced and accepted Indian tradition of expressing public dissent against an unresponsive state and its wings of authority. A dispassionate revisiting of that tradition, as done by Dharampal, may perhaps add other vital dimensions to the ongoing public discourse on the issue.


  • Aurobindo Sri, The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian Culture, (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Dept, rpt. 1997)
  • Bhandarkar D.R., Lectures on the Ancient History of India – on the period from 650 to 325 B.C., (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1919)
  • Dharampal, Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition, Collected Writings vol. II, (1971) (Mapusa: Other India Press, rpt. 2000)
  • Gandhi M.K., Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, (Madras: G.A.Natesan & Co., 1921)
  • Kripalani J.B., Gandhi – His Life and Thoughts, (New Delhi: Publication Division, revised ed., 1991)
  • Mill J.S., History of British India vol. VII – from 1805 to 1835 (with notes by H.H.Wilson), (London: James Madden & Co., 1845)
  • Nair C.Sankaran, Gandhi and Anarchy, ( Madras: Tagore & Co., 1922)

Published Date: 24th, June 2011

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