Reading Ramachandra Guha’s biography of Gandhi (South Africa days) titled Gandhi Before India has been a revelation. In it, I found this gem of a letter that Gandhi wrote to the Home Secretary of the Government of India on 16 Apr 1910, protesting the banning of his book “Self Rule.” The relevant lines are:

“In my humble opinion, every man has a right to hold any opinion he chooses, and to give effect to it also, so long as, in doing so, he does not use physical violence against anybody.”

This is in effect, the maxim that Prof. Ronald Howard uses at Stanford University’s Decision and Ethics Center in his class “Voluntary Social Systems”. It almost seems like Gandhi gave us the general maxim and we’ve been working out the details for decades now. The maxim is slightly augmented as “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone,” and in a thought experiment run through a Socratic dialog, students examine how much of the present coercive structures we take for granted are really necessary. I continue to be amazed by how simple solutions become when coercion is taken out of the picture and when we rely on voluntary action.

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune of talking to Jayeshbhai on non-coercive social structures. I was having a hard time getting an article on non-coercive land acquisition published in our mainstream media (if no one’s been recently hurt or killed, it is tough to give it space), and his encouragement to not give up was very helpful. He felt that we must strive to create an environment of freedom. Coercion is incompatible with love.

The Business Standard finally carried it today:
Using Options to Aid Land Acquisition

The broader reflection I am sitting with is this. Voluntary action rests on clarity, freedom and truth. However, if we ask why we really care about these three things, the answer seems to be love. A grand idea that my friend Madhu shared with me from his own ruminations on Vinoba and the MBL retreats was “Sneha Saadhanam” or Love (not the corny self-centered kind, but the gentle, unselfish kind) as the instrument, which resonates with me very deeply. It is what stands out to me in these stories from Gandhi’s life.

Meeting serivce heroes at Ahmedabad, whether it was the incredible tacos that Nimo fed us on Thanksgiving Day or the wonderful Patangyu school that Anjali is serving, to the amazing detachment with which Neil is working, to the inspired work Neerad is doing with village farmers, to the many enlightening conversations with Madhu and Meghna, and with everyone else who shared space with us, I feel deeply blessed.

First published on ServiceSpace, Dec 13, 2014