A Rock-Face Mirror to Indian Politics: Reflections from Dhauli
You would think that a medium-sized rock-face that can only carry so much text would evoke a reaction that is finite. Wrong. On my third visit to Dhauli, the location of a rock edict promulgated by Asoka, I was again struck by its relevance to our time and this time, it was the text on the Archaeological Survey of India’s information board that had me thinking. They summarise the First Special Rock Edict thus: “Addressing the Mahamatras of Samapa, Asoka proclaims that all his subjects are just like his own children and he wishes their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other as he desires for his own children. He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.”
The last sentence stays with me.
The drama inherent in the story of Asoka’s renunciation of war is irresistible. It captures the imagination the first time you hear it and stirs your soul when you think of the enormity of the epiphany. You forget the years of terrible, often fratricidal violence that preceded the epiphany, and Asoka’s change of heart seems to fill yours with forgetfulness and forgiveness both. You stand at the top of the Dhauli rock and think, “This was the field, this was the river of blood and that was a moment the world should be proud of.” Not quite the same field or stream, but it is hard not to be humbled by the imagined memory of that moment.
The times we inhabit are surely what the Chinese point to in their curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Bad news is everywhere—war, oppression, discrimination, cupidity and stupidity. In such times, the story of Asoka’s epiphany lights a candle of hope. Dare we dream of just such a change of heart in our times?
This time, my third visit, I remember that the drama of the epiphany is captured by another edict (the He orders his officials to be free from anger and hurry so that no body will be punished without trial.” Vindictiveness is not acceptable, nor is acting in such haste that the person at the receiving end is defenceless.
I read this in the age of an Aadhaar expansion that feels like the death-grip of a python, in the aftermath of a demonetisation that seems to have been characterised by prioritising speed over preparation and in the long-time coming but no clearer for it adoption of the Goods and Services Tax. In an age where governments—across parties—regard people as impediments and dissent as disloyalty, it is the coercive potential of instruments they create to regulate our activities that we must consider more than any transformative potential governments claim. We will lose our privacy and personal security to Aadhaar and I can no longer remember what benefits we are supposed to receive from it. Though WhatsApp polemic dismisses it decisively, real world, ground-level reports are that people did suffer greatly as a result of demonetisation. And GST seems to have created several layers of compliance—where compliance is potentially and in fact, a lever for control. Haste is disguised as efficiency and the instruments for many a future vendetta lie embedded in these policies. This is history; this is how the state operates.
What we know from Kautilya’s Arthasastra and from Megasthenes’ Indika about Maurya administration tell us about the importance given to two-way communication between the government and local communities. Officials at different levels were required to regularly tour and report back to their supervisors in a chain that ended in the Emperor’s chamber. The first Separate Rock Edict at Dhauli states, “This edict is to he proclaimed on the eighth day of the star Tisya, and at intervals between the Tisya-days it is to be read aloud, even to a single person.” The 14th Major Rock Edict states that the edicts are to be found all over the empire in longer or abridged formats so that people may learn about and conform to them.
To be fair, our government believes in talking to the people—but when the feedback loop is usually left incomplete, either in the design or by not listening, it is not really communication, is it? And this is the question I now have about Asoka’s empire too. So he promulgated these messages and had them carved everywhere, and we learn from other sources that in his time, administrative structures provided for a feedback loop, but did he listen? Did any of the other idealised kings of Indian history listen to anyone who could not insistently ring the bell before their palace and demand justice? Rama acted on popular opinion that he had been wrong to accept Sita after her abduction by Ravana, but did he not act in haste? Did he ask Sita to share with the public her experience of abduction and life as a hostage? Did he consider alternative actions? We know Asoka’s ‘mann ki baat’ but did he know what was in the hearts of his people? We are so impressed by his renunciation of war that we do not stop to ask; everything else he did must also be ideal. In an age where we have both the Right to Information and the means to learn for ourselves, are we asking enough questions of our own governments, persistently enough?
Our credulity is apparently age-old, as we like to claim about everything else—culture, democracy, tolerance. I write these words of doubt, not to detract from Asoka’s moment, but to remind myself that it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt to a distant king more than two millennia removed from my life and another thing to forsake the right to ask questions in our moment. We all need faith and magic, and as a peace activist, I am unwilling to lose the hope Asoka’s epiphany holds out to me—I need to believe changes of heart are possible. I need to believe in the power of love, to use Kenneth Boulding’s words. I need to be able to hope that those who have an ‘accidents happen’ perspective on communal violence, state-sanctioned coercion or militarisation, will someday see things differently—but I cannot afford to grant them anticipatory forgiveness. If the easiest way to raise questions about today is to raise them in the context of a 2000 year old edict, so be it.
Usually associated with a realist, pragmatic, ruler-centred politics, Kautilya’s Arthasastra recognises that the people will and have the right to rebel when their rulers are greedy or unjust. Rulers should guard against rebellion first and foremost by remaining righteous and of course, concerned with the security of the state, the text suggests measures for countering rebellion and treachery but it does not equate the two. But the beginnings of disaffection can only be understood by those who pay attention and want to learn, and disaffection festers. If you suppress or ignore it, it does not go away.
In Indira Gandhi’s centenary year, we are reading a great deal about the Emergency and it is instructive to remember that the road to that hell was also paved with good intentions. Mrs. Gandhi had a closed circle of counselors and she completely misread public opinion, so that the outcome of the 1977 election came as a shock to her. Like Asoka’s edicts and the Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki baat’ episode recordings, the mission of the 20 Point and 5 Point Programme were also laid out on street corners and in advertisements. In the interest of “order,” censorship silenced those who would have asked questions. “All men are my children,” every government tells us—this implies they know what is good for us and we should trust them—but the citizens of a democracy are not children, and anyone who spends time around children know they start out instinctively curious, egalitarian, fair and open. In a democracy, governments should consult and debate with citizens and citizens should pay attention, be informed, question and communicate with the government. Government exists to serve the public interest and this means, all kinds of people. This is the message that Asoka’s edicts also convey repeatedly: That Asoka, seeks the welfare and love of the people; that officials should behave respectfully towards them and that there should be both the perception and reality of fair-play. We are credulous about Asoka because these are values we today hold dear but these very values require us to be sceptical—our Constitution has given us all speaking parts in the unfolding drama of Indian democracy. The success of this play depends also on how we play our roles—with preparation, with courage, with faith in our values but doubt about everything else!