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For whom the Bell Tolls?

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The bell tolls for the dictator and the despot – said a UN survey. The bell may toll for the despot, but does it toll for despotism?

The Buddha Jatakas tell us the story of a merchant who, about to die while returning home through a forest, hid his wealth in a pit and covered it with earth and a slab of stone and entrusted his companion and most faithful servant with the secret. His son was a child. The servant promised to restore the wealth to the boy when he came of age.

Years passed. “My master, it is time you took charge of your wealth,” the old servant told the merchant’s son, now a young man, and led him into the forest. But, reaching a certain spot, the old man suddenly grew wild with rage and called his young master names. The baffled young man returned home and the servant too followed him after a while, as if nothing had happened.

Months later the sequence was repeated – the old faithful imploring his young master to relieve him of the burden of his secret but, once in the forest, growing extremely rude. This happening for the third time, the young man sought the advice of a sage who had been his father’s friend.

“Does the chap behave crazily at the same spot, every time?” asked the sage.

“That’s right,” replied the young man.

“Next time he does so, push him aside and dig at that very spot,” was the sage’s advice which the young man found to be no less strange than the old servant’s conduct. He, nevertheless, followed it. Lo and behold, that was the spot where the merchant’s wealth lay buried.

Apart from telling us that every material object has a subtle influence on human mind, the story is an example of the sway wealth can exercise in the mind of an average man.

The same law applies to power. If the Jataka story presented the moral in an exaggerated way, history and our own age have proved time and again that there are very few people who do not tend to turn stupid when in power – and do not continue to go worse if the opportunity to wield it is longer. “As for men in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of infallibility that they do their utmost to ignore truth,” said Boris Pasternak.

Hence the optimism expressed in a UN study report that with the steady rise in the awareness of the rights democracy bestows on man, the bell tolls for the last generation of dictatorial and despotic rulers, hardly brings any consolation. Greed for indulging in an exercise of dictatorial power lurks behind the bright face of idealism in most cases. With one giant dictator bowing out of his crumbling throne, a score of Lilliputian ones will pop up here and there – in the cities, bazaars and villages – in the ‘developing’ nations in particular. Most of them are ephemeral, but survey the face of any one of them at the moment of his glory and you have met an imbecile and arrogant Nero. You meet him during a “Rasta Roko” – commanding his excited battalion to cut down the half-century old roadside trees for paralyzing the traffic, smacking his lips with his sudden taste of power over a few thousand stranded men and women blinking haplessly. You meet him during a communal riot, his eyeballs dancing like the ping-pong as they reflect the arson ordered by him. Not unoften you meet that lusty spirit in the glistening baton of a law-enforcing official thrashing a pedestrian who had violated his order.

As psychologist Adler saw it, “Achieve! Arise! Conquer!… Whatever name we give it, we shall always find in human beings this great line of activity – this struggle to rise from an inferior to a superior position, from defeat to victory, from below to above.” (Quoted by Heinz L. Ansbacher and R. Rowena in The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler.) This human trait could lead him far indeed  when utilized for progress of knowledge, of consciousness. But the state of ignorance we are in perverts it. Camus put forth this perversion pointedly: “We can’t do without dominating others or being served… The essential thing, in sum, is being able to get angry without the other person being able to answer back.” (The Fall)

The hungry little imp of tyranny concealed in most human beings is anxious to exert itself – and a dictatorial position provides him with the luxury in its complete bloom. But to ascend to power in the one of the several normal ways and then to capture it craftily and to possess it for life is not easy. No wonder that the tyrant in a man should burst forth in an opportune moment, when anarchy rules the roost, when a harangue or two can yield what it should ordinarily take a decade or two to achieve.

But just as the ephemeral mob-leader is born out of the crowd’s readiness to submit its collective impulse to him, the dictator is born out of a population’s readiness to be supplicant to him. As an apology for their cowardice and their inability to challenge him, the people imagine superhuman powers in him and the dictator takes recourse to everything that comes handy, ranging from demagogy to the worst of crimes, to fit into the popular imagination. “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount,” wrote Churchill in While England Slept (acknowledging the Indian origin of the proverb).

Ancient Indian sages tried to check this weakness in people who were in power, through moral, ethical and philosophical education, by cautioning the princes, nobles and executives about the consequences of their Karma. It seems to have had a sobering effect on many. Sometimes it cultivated an ascetic mood in the ruler. He renounced his authority or lost interest in it, his attention going over to other-worldly values. That, certainly, was not the ideal solution to the problem. The ideal – to act with authority but without falling victim to one’s ego remained a far cry, possible only at long intervals of time.

But there are examples of a leader’s total commitment to the ideal of democracy checking him from hugging his status as a dictator once a crisis was over. A kind of democracy was in vogue in the city-state of Rome when it was attacked by a neighbourhood enemy, in the 5th Century B.C. When the unprepared Romans had lost all hopes of surviving the attack, some of them ran to a wise farmer named Cincinnatus, busy tilling his land. He was made the dictator. He asked all the able-bodied Romans to gather at one place, each one bringing with him as simple a thing as a wooden plank.

At the dead of night they made a ring round the enemy camp, each one planting his plank in front of himself. In the morning the enemy found itself practically imprisoned inside a wooden fortification. It surrendered.

Cincinnatus, his commission done, made a beeline for his land and resumed driving his plough, turning down his countrymen’s offer of a life-long dictatorship.

Can the tyrant in us be tamed by such idealism? To a great extent it can be, provided the idealism is cultivated. The process must begin with the leaders themselves setting examples in upholding the principles of democracy and not their own image. (A ceiling on the size of their cut-outs – that primitive and vulgar manner of impressing the people with size or volume– could very well be the first concrete step in that direction!) Lessons on rights and duties in regard to democracy must form not only an indispensable part of the syllabi in the schools, but every person aspiring for a position must be made to learn them compulsorily and there is no reason why a candidate in order to be eligible to contest an election should not be required to pass an examination on the subject.

True democracy can perhaps be possible only when man has realized his equality with fellow beings at a spiritual plane. Until then the danger of despotism and tyranny have to be warded off with “eternal vigilance”, for despotism will not disappear with the disappearance of the pronounced despot alone; tyranny is not the monopoly of only the branded tyrant.