Featured image ‘Agony Map of Kashmir’ by Orijit Sen
“When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes their duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”
‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817-May 6, 1862)
It wasn’t for the sheer love of pathetic fallacy that I picked up Henry David Thoreau’s Collected Works for my visit to Kashmir this summer. Regardless of the fact that Thoreau remains the writer I go back to, year after year, this time my return had a pronounced purpose. As students around universities in India debated sedition, and Gandhi and Tagore became regulars in our discussions of nationalism; Thoreau remained conspicuous by his absence. Gandhi is famously known to have taken the name of his own movement from Thoreau’s 1849 essay on Civil Disobedience, earlier titled as ‘Resistance to Civil Government’.1 Once when travelling with Gandhi to France, Roger Baldwin, the chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, commented on the “extremeness” of Thoreau’s doctrine, Gandhi promptly told him that the latter’s essay contained “the essence of his political philosophy, not only as India’s struggle related to the British, but pertaining also to his own views on the relation of citizens to government” (Hendrick). However, while most Indians know that this American writer inspired Gandhi’s ideas of passive resistance, few like to talk of him as an anarchist and an individualist, the bane of public opinion, the defender of a militant white abolitionist who was hanged by the American state on charges of treason and a raging abolitionist himself who refused to cooperate with his own “free” government because it actively promoted slavery.
On Thoreau’s birthday today, I attempt to reread the essay that inspired the Indian Independence Movement. I hope to go back and trace the glaring omissions in our own definitions of ‘independence’ and the convenience with which we have laid aside some of the most central tenets of Thoreau’s essay. ‘Freedom’ as defined in ‘Civil Disobedience’ is inextricably linked to our responsibility of ensuring another’s freedom. By making this uncomfortable proposition, Thoreau all these years later, still continues to challenge “professedly democratic governments across the world, who believe themselves to be humane and enlightened” (Myron) but who continue to subjugate those they consider to be their cultural/religious others. However, the most important thread that strings almost all of Thoreau’s works together is that of the ethical nature of one’s allegiance to the state. Time and again, he protested against the American state. In ‘Civil Disobedience’, Thoreau refuses to lend his name to the acts of his own government—
At a time when Black people in America are becoming the hapless targets of police brutality, when that repulsive tagline #AllLivesMatter is being used to counter the protest of #BlackLivesMatter and in our own backyard, protesters and mourners in Kashmir are being killed by our security forces with an unprecedented brutality executed in our names, it becomes imperative for us to remember Henry David Thoreau with even greater urgency.
What Thoreau brought on the table was not just the question of political liberty but more importantly the question of ‘consent’. It is natural to fight for one’s own freedom and dignity but Thoreau reminds those who consider themselves to be free, that they have a moral and an ethical obligation to fight for the rights and freedom of those who are enslaved in their names. Being white in America had its advantages and having a good education even more so. Thoreau was a free man in Massachusetts, but asked himself the big question- could he be a free citizen of America, when there continued to be a legal system in place for holding at ransom the freedom and dignity of millions of black people? On July 4, 1854 after the conviction in Boston of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, Thoreau delivered a passionate lecture at an Anti-Slavery Celebration, at Framingham, Massachusetts, condemning the repulsive Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act forged as a compromise between the southern slave holding states and northern ‘Free’ Soilers, allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves to their rightful owners in the South. In his speech, Thoreau furiously refuses to be party to this gruesome act of capture—
In the context of the Kashmir conflict, this should be the defining moment in the subjectivity of every Indian. We are wont to reminding the people of Kashmir, the “freedom(s)” that India affords them, and promptly mention the horrors that await them if they chose (as they deserve) to go to Pakistan. Time and again, we pose as a free people. This comes with a string of Whatabouts. A fellow traveller to Kashmir retorted to my mention of militarization in Kashmir, “What about North Korea? What about Saudi Arabia? What about Pakistan?!” It is amusing to see the average Indian entertaining such delusions of freedom when every day, Kashmiris are being tortured, killed, encountered, disappeared, raped in their names.
While hailing ourselves as the upholders of freedom, we rely on that grand myth of the army as an instrument of peace and security. The army saves us from ‘terrorists’ and ensures our ‘freedom’. A signboard on the Srinagar airport says, ‘CRPF, Peace Keepers of the Nation’. The huge billboards of the Airport Authority of India colourfully feed into this myth. They are all about pictures of snow capped mountains and endless empty roads, lined with the tallest poplars. The roads are snow white, smooth with no trace of the boots of army men. But as roads go, those in Kashmir are empty under curfew. Or they are bloody, soaked in the blood of protesting Kashmiris. And that hardly befits the image of a serene carriage driver, driving away into the sunset. I have lost count of the number of times I have been forced to hear, “If the army was not fighting for you this very moment, you wouldn’t be “freely” speaking as you are now.” But then of course, while I continue to write this in the comfort of my tiny but uneventful hostel room, the army-police nexus in Kashmir is simultaneously ensuring that ordinary Kashmiris don’t walk and live freely. A greater part of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ is devoted to his objections to the existence of a standing army—
Interestingly enough, while Gandhi borrows his critique of mechanization from Thoreau as most Gandhi scholars have noted, they fail to point out that this critique extended to a denunciation of the standing army- men representing the killing state machinery. Thoreau’s critique of machines goes beyond ideas of progress and rests on our understanding of ourselves as humans. Men must fight against being machines of the state, of public opinion.
Thoreau warned Americans against having an undue respect for laws-ecclesiastical laws, constitutional laws. At the forum condemning slavery in Massachusetts, he participated in the burning of the American constitution, for it comprised of laws that trampled on the liberty of a whole people. Recently the conversation in India has veered towards the ‘reformation’ of AFSPA. Some among us are deluding ourselves with a false sense of optimism pertaining to the imminent reformation of this draconian law. These are the same people, who pose concern at the awful fate of the Kashmiris, sermonizing that they absolutely MUST be given justice. Few days back, a dear friend conveyed to me passionately that we must give justice to the Kashmiris. To begin with, the very contention that any ordinary Indian could pass a judgement on or “give” justice to the Kashmiris is problematic and steeped in a sense of entitlement. Then of course there is the obvious paradox in upholding the idea of a state that makes possible such a gross violation of justice on human grounds as the same state that would give justice to those it brutalizes. The irony is not lost on me. In ‘Civil Disobedience’, Thoreau inverts the law on its ahead and puts his state Massachusetts on trial, the conduct of which has condemned not just the slave but also its so-called “free” citizens to a vast and indefinite loss.
It is clear to me that at the present juncture every conscientious Indian must inevitably feel this loss. Rather what we feel is a staunch sense of entitlement and an incomprehensible confidence in one’s own opinion. “I am entitled to have an opinion on Kashmir without deriving it from any book what so ever. Unlike you people, I have common sense”, an acquaintance recently told me, after I offered him a book on Kashmir. This peculiar brand of Indian common sense ensures the blood on the streets of Kashmir. This common sense makes way for the killing, maiming and mutilation of more than a thousand Kashmiris in the past few days. This brand of sense allows us the luxury to pontificate while Kashmir burns. “How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it?” wonders Thoreau, who professed to dissolving the union between himself and the state by refusing to pay his taxes and declaring the American constitution “evil”. He refused too, to collaborate with the state in the name of what we are so used to citing in the context of Kashmir, “order”. A familiar feature of protests by Black Americans and Kashmiris, is the “colonial-splaining”2 that has accompanied them. We elucidate on the right means of doing protests, so that ‘order’ may be maintained in the society. In ‘Civil Disobedience’, Thoreau mentions that, “Under the name of order and civil government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness”. And that is what we do, when we venture to teach those on the receiving end of violence, to be calm, to be peaceful, to be less angry.
The last but perhaps the most important claim pertaining to our Civil Disobedience Movement was that of non-violence. In the latest scenario, this has been cited perhaps too many times. Yet while Thoreau did talk of ‘passive resistance’ which he never considered to be ‘passive’, he is not unaware of the perils of ‘institutionalized violence’ or the violence embedded in the ‘wounded conscience’ of a citizen who gives her consent to the subjugation of another.
It was perhaps this reason that led him to write an impassioned defence of Captain John Brown who on October 16, 1859 led a raid of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with the intention of arming slaves with weapons from the arsenal. Within thirty six hours all his men were killed and Brown was arrested, tried and hanged for treason. However this failed insurrection did not prevent Thoreau from proclaiming that Brown was “the bravest, humanest man in all history”.
Anyone who writes of Henry David Thoreau cannot fail to mention that he had his reservations about the ‘multitude’. While he spoke with a collective against slavery, he emphasized time and again, the need to come back to oneself, to ask ourselves the difficult questions of what it means to be truly alive. His politics began with questioning his own subjectivity, rejecting his privilege, looking at himself through another’s eyes.
Thus the reclusive, contemplative naturalist of Walden who sat for hours alone by the Walden Pond, who walked for miles through the forest without a soul in sight, considered his solitude as the prerequisite to his political convictions.
Interestingly enough, Thoreau died of tuberculosis that he contracted while counting rings of tree stumps after a rain storm in the cold December of 1860. This count reveals to the naturalist the age, the history of the tree. The trees in Kashmir are a testimony to this history. For decades they have absorbed the blood and the shrieks that characterise the forests in Kashmir. Perhaps that is why Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem ‘The Pastoral’ imagines the bird as a witness to the gardener’s death. “Humankind can bear everything. No need to stop the ear to stories rumoured in branches”. In Henry David Thoreau one finds both the bird and the gardener. You cannot pass by without listening to his song.
- Thoreau’s original essay was published in 1849 under the title ‘Resistance to Civil Government’. It was in 1866 that the essay appeared posthumously with the title ‘Civil Disobedience’ in an anthology of Thoreau’s excursions and political essays entitled ‘A Yankee in Canada’.
- A term I recently came across on social media and found it particularly apt in describing the attitude towards the protests.
Thoreau, Henry David. ‘Civil Disobedience’. Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Joseph Wood Crutch. New York: Bantam, 1854. 89-110
Thoreau, Henry David. ‘Slavery in Masachusetts’. The Thoreau Reader. July 4, 1854. Web. July 10, 2016. < http://thoreau.eserver.org/slavery.html>
Thoreau, Henry David. ‘A Plea for Captain John Brown’. The Thoreau Reader. October 30, 1859. Web. July 10, 2016. < http://thoreau.eserver.org/plea1.html>
Hendrick, George. The Influence of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to Gandhi’s Satyagraha. The New England Quaterly, Vol. 29. No. 4. December 1956.
Shahid Ali, Agha. ‘Pastoral’ from The Country Without A Post Office’ in the Collected Poems published as ‘The Veiled Suite. 196. Penguin: 2010.
Simon, Myron. ‘Thoreau and Anarchism’. Michigan Quaterly Review. Web. July 10, 2016 <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mqrarchive>