Out of India: Grin mightier than the sword

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The Independent Online
NEW DELHI - Some forms of non-violent protest are uniquely Indian. Take the gherao, for instance. A factory owner emerges from his limousine and is mobbed by angry workers. They never hurt him: they just surround and immobilise him for hours, or even days, until he gives in. This works fine in a country pulsating with more than 850 million people but you wouldn't find a gherao succeeding in places like Alaska or the Australian outback. But in Calcutta it is easy to assemble a Wembley Stadium-sized gherao.

The laugh-in was devised recently by a man in Bangalore named M D Nanjunda Swamy. He is not much of a comedian, and the few jokes he tried telling me (admittedly, they were translated out of the local Kannara language) fell so very flat I couldn't even pretend to chuckle.

But Mr Nanjunda Swamy does not earn his living being funny. He came to humour rather late in life. By training, he is a professor of constitutional law, a former MP for Karnataka state and a connoisseur of jails. 'I've seen the insides of almost all the prison-houses of Karanataka,' said Mr Nanjunda Swamy, 55, a serene and rather quiet man with silvery hair. A champion of Karnataka's small farmers, he has dared to challenge the state's despotic Chief Minister, S Bangarappa, by laughing at him in a big way.

Earlier this year Mr Nanjunda Swamy gathered 50,000 farmers to sit outside the state secretariat and tried to 'laugh the government out'. They had tried all the usual forms of non-violent protest - sit-ins, blockades, refusing to pay taxes, picketing, blockading roads - but the state government remained unmoved by the farmers' pleas for land reforms and an increase in produce prices. The farmers' only reward was getting arrested or shot.

The farmers, surrounded by policemen, just sat on the lawn outside the government building and told jokes against Mr Bangarappa. And the jokes? 'They were puns, actually,' Mr Nanjunda Swamy said. After warming up the farmers with a little word-play, it was enough simply to say 'Bangarappa]' over the megaphone and the farmers would shake with laughter. The police made no arrests ('How could they? All we did was laugh') and no public property was damaged. 'It's as easy to make people laugh as to make them angry. Laughter can be a very powerful weapon against the government,' Mr Nanjunda Swamy said. However, when confronted with these jeers, Mr Bangarrapa, who is as rhino-skinned as any politician, did not flee the secretariat weeping and immediately resign.

Still, Mr Nanjunda Swamy was undeterred.' Bangarappa is a very uncouth man. I imagine he didn't take it much to heart. But come election time, I think the voters will remember how ridiculous he is.'

Mr Nanjunda Swamy took a page from Mahatma Gandhi's thinking on non-violence. Gandhi called it satyagraha, which in Sanskrit means 'a pressurising for truth'. Gandhi is said to have been influenced by the story of a prince in one of the Upanishads (Sanskrit philosophical treatises). 'The prince asks his father the meaning of life,' Mr Nanjunda Swamy said. 'His father, the king, dismisses him in disgust, and tells him to go ask Yama, the god of death. The prince does, and that is satyagraha.'

This talk of death brought us to hunger strikes, an everyday occurrence in India. A hunger strike is less shocking, perhaps, in a nation where so many people are starving to death than it would be in reasonably affluent Britain. But Mr Nanjunda Swamy claims that since independence from Britain, tens of thousands of Indians have gone on hunger strike but nobody has died on one. '. . . these people today, they say they'll fast until death, knowing that they'll break the strike in one or two days.'

No, the laughing protest has more possibilities than a hunger strike. You don't often die from laughter. But where's the challenge? Politicians, be they in Bangalore or Downing Street, are simply too easy to laugh at.