“The war neither began with us nor is it going to end with our lives.”
– Bhagat Singh
On April 13, 1919, in violation of a British colonial ban on meetings or gatherings, peaceful protestors assembled in Punjab, India to object to the killing of nearly 30 Indians in a previous protest. Unprovoked and without warning, colonial forces arrived and opened fire on tens of thousands of unarmed, defenseless Indians, mostly Sikhs, indiscriminately killing 379 men, women, and children. An estimated 1,200 were wounded.
The onslaught known today as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, or the Amritsar massacre to Punjabi natives, is said to have lasted 20 minutes. Yet, despite its brevity, for the move to action it spurred throughout colonial India, it remains a seminal event in the fight for Indian independence. One man, 12 year old Bhagat Singh, was especially moved. The massacre planted in Singh’s young mind a longing for the freedom of his people that would propel him forward by any means necessary.
Eventually, he would be hung by British colonial authorities for his propensity to fight brutal occupation with every method employed against the Indian people. In the wake of his death, for the majority of the world which does not know or care about the necessity of armed struggle, he has been forgotten. His story, and those like his, has been put on the back-burner while men like Gandhi have been memorialized as the embodiment of what oppressed peoples should do when faced with a conscienceless occupier.
Such is not far from the expectation of Palestinians in the wake of decades of Israeli apartheid and occupation: In one form or another, the question has been asked, ” Where is Palestinian Gandhi ?”
Though, even if ridiculously, it could be speculated as to where Palestinian Gandhi might be – a thought to be revisited later – we ought to ask why anybody would pose this question at all. The reality is that asking this question is nothing more than a sinister method of delegitimizing Palestinian armed resistance and self-defense. It is a tactical ploy to remove the focus from the violence Israel continues to perpetrate against Palestinians in order to place the impetus for peace solely on those suffering most. It is, in its purest form, victim blaming. And it has been incredibly effective.
“In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.”
– Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)
Nonviolence played a significant role in Indian independence, absolutely; but the premise that, under the tutelage of Gandhi, it was the premier force driving the nation toward liberation is a cherry-picked version of history. It downplays into nothingness the fact that the post-WWII crown could no longer maintain the brute force and financial obligation needed to run a global empire. Indigenous American scholar Ward Churchill, in Pacifism as Pathology, dismantled the myth that nonviolence effectively acted alone or in a vacuum unto itself:
“… Gandhian success must be viewed in the context of a general decline in British power brought about by two world wars within a thirty-year period. Prior to the decimation of British troop strength and the virtual bankruptcy of the Imperial treasury during World War II, Gandhi’s movement showed little likelihood of forcing England’s abandonment of India. Without the global violence that destroyed the Empire’s ability to forcibly control territories (and passive populations), India might have continued indefinitely in the pattern of minority rule marking the majority of South Africa’s modern history, the first locale in which the Gandhian recipe for liberation struck the reef of reality. Hence, while the Mahatma and his followers were able to remain “pure,” their victory was contingent upon others physically gutting their opponents for them. “
At best, Gandhi worship ignores – at worst, it erases – the revolutionary actions of people like Bhagat Singh and others who galvanized the resistance movement in colonial India. It removes the context of fear created by armed struggle, a reversal of the fear that underpinned British control of a country where Brits were enormously outnumbered. George Orwell, the famous author of 1984, as a former officer in the Indian police noted:
” Gandhi has been regarded for twenty years by the Government of India as one of its right-hand men… It was always admitted in the most cynical way that Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against taking any action that would make any difference. The reason why Gandhi when in prison is always treated with such lenience, and small concessions sometimes made when he has prolonged one of his fasts to a dangerous extent, is that the British officials are in terror that he may die and be replaced by someone who believes less in “soul force” and more in bombs. “
The material and philosophical reality of nonviolence is one of insufficient means dictating for itself an impossible end. The sectarian nature by which many proponents of Gandhian doctrine preclude or lambaste the use of armed resistance only helps doom a people’s fight for liberation because it effectively counteracts any positive gain they together might achieve. A truly encompassing, liberatory praxis must recognize the use of armed resistance as a legitimate and necessary method of achieving liberation. The dismantling of the Gandhi myth is therefore of primary importance in attaining such a praxis.
But what about Gandhi, the man himself, with his political doctrines aside? Recently, feminist writer and activist Arundhati Roy shared her own criticisms of the late nonviolent leader , saying:
” The story of Gandhi that we have been told, is a lie. It is time to unveil a few truths, about a person whose doctrine of nonviolence was based on the acceptance of a most brutal social hierarchy ever known, the caste system. Gandhi believed that a scavenger should always remain a scavenger. Do we really need to name our universities after him? “
There are, of course, more critical views of Gandhi’s personal habits – his methods for testing his resolve for celibacy for instance – but at the core of his legacy lies an irrational, one-sided lore of a man whose message and methods were inadequate, however helpful, and whose moral character was as flawed as anyone else’s. The real reason Gandhi is lauded while revolutionaries like Singh are diminished has more to do with what we do not know and why we are not taught it, than with what we think we know.
In other words, if we were taught the truth that armed resistance does bring about significant change, we might be inclined to try it.
Reclaiming Resistance from Israel’s Tactical Propaganda
“Respect existence, or expect resistance.”
Knowing the pitfalls of Gandhi’s character/nonviolence, that in reality his methods could only be successful when buttressed with armed resistance and the bankrupting of Britain’s military and financial prowess, why would anybody ask “Where is Palestinian Gandhi?” Well, it’s pretty simple, really: If people buy into the idea that there ought to be a Palestinian Gandhi to do what the myth of Gandhi dictates, then if no Palestinian is successfully doing it, the rest of the world can continue to blame Palestinians for Israeli-initiated violence instead of holding Israel accountable.
More importantly, if Palestinians deviate from the doctrine of nonviolence and endorse armed resistance, Israel can portray itself as victimized, or at least only retaliating in an “equally” matched conflict. This is tactical propaganda. If looked for, it is openly visible in the current struggle for Palestinian liberation.
Mainstream media has constantly berated fighters in Gaza for using armed resistance in the face of overwhelming occupation. A principle mechanism of this berating has been the method of blaming-both-sides equally, regardless of the lopsided causalities of Israel’scurrent and past military offensives. Hamas, an entity ironically helped to prominence by Mossad as a counterweight to the PLO, has been dubbed the central objector to proposed ceasefires by Israel, Egypt, and humanitarian agencies despite the fact that Israel has far more frequently been the provocateur . After Hamas does reject any ceasefire terms, the question of Palestinian Gandhi is mouthed ad nauseam.
But there can be no great peace negotiator when every ceasefire calls for the continuation of Palestinian oppression. Such proposals are not negotiations – they are the demands of a wolf clothed in the rhetoric of the sheep to elicit international sympathy. Palestinians know this, and by majority have claimed an acceptance of such a ceasefire would be a condition of living death .
In the film Rang de Basanti, a historical fiction of Bhagat Singh and his comrades’ revolutionary actions, a group of young friends retrace and relive the struggle for Indian independence. In the course of their reenactment, they discover the corruption of their own government through the death of a loved one and come to understand Singh’s motivations for armed struggle. When they attempt to nonviolently challenge the corruption that led to their friend’s death, they are met with brutal repression, another of them having been beaten into a coma.
They assassinate the Defense Minister of the Indian government, the man responsible, in response. As the Indian government attributes the assassination to terrorists, effectively martyring a corrupt official, in their last act the group seizes a radio station to finally tell the truth about the corruption they acted against. They, like Singh, willingly die for the people they love.
Whether or not their actions were warranted, they did something far too many have not: They realized that in order for nonviolence to work, those trying to kill you have to care about you.
Israel’s Zionist government does not care about Palestinians. The so-called terrorism Israel says it is fighting, in reality, is the armed resistance created by the terrorism it commits. If Israel were really concerned with the alleged “terrorism” of Hamas, its most prudent action would be to immediately cease participating in the terrorizing of Palestinians. Such is the nature of cyclical violence, but by no means is it equivalent when one party has the6th most powerful military in the world and the backing of United States military power while the other has rocks and homemade rockets.
But this is at the core of asking “Where is Palestinian Gandhi,” to delegitimize Gazan resistance by decoupling the material reality of occupation from the right to self-defense. Jeff Sluka captured it well inNational Liberation Movements in Global Context:
” The condemnation of liberation movements for resorting to… armed struggle is almost invariably superficial, hypocritical, judgmental, and unfair and tends strongly to represent another example of the generalized phenomenon of “blaming the victim.” The violence of the situation, the per-existing oppression suffered by those who eventually strike back, is conveniently ignored. The violence of the oppressed is a form of defensive counter-violence to the violence of conquest and oppression. In no armed national liberation movement I know of in history has this not been the case .”
After decades of war on Palestinians, Israel has threaded through itself a clearly defined and widely endorsed, yet often unarticulated, acceptance of violent oppression. It is a fully rationalized phenomenon for its government, with full confidence of Israeli Zionists and their sympathizers abroad, to carry out odious acts of state-sanctioned terrorism against Palestinians. Yet when those murdered, so clearly revealed in the scope of recent events, grow weary enough to fight against occupation, their resistance is totally fetishized, their humanity dehumanized.
As in the lived and cinematic experience of Singh’s life, getting past the Gandhi myth is essential to understanding the material reality of what is happening on the ground in Gaza today. This understanding must lay bare the conditions of occupation, colonization, and apartheid. When we fully grasp this, we ought to remember a people’s natural right to armed resistance. Blaming Palestinians for fighting oppression from a racist, Zionist government is outright victim-blaming. It makes us tools of oppression.
If we really must ask “Where is Palestinian Gandhi,” we should realize they likely are buried under the rubble of an Israeli missile.
Frank Castro is a Latino American educator, writer, and Jackson, Mississippi native now living in the Bay Area. Read more of his writing at americawakiewakie.com .