Jeremy Corbyn, Sanghatan and the Mahabharata War

One of the most notable controversies to emerge from the Labour leadership campaign has been Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to commit to the principle of collective defence. As the UK is a member of the NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, it is obliged to follow this principle, as enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. It has been erroneously reported that Corbyn said he would never come to the aid of the UK’s allies in NATO. His actual position is that a Parliamentary vote is required before the UK commits to using armed force in this way.

Article 5

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

Corbyn’s indecisiveness is, in my view, unwarranted. Although it is established constitutional convention for Parliamentary approval to be obtained before using armed force, failing to honour Article 5 is simply a failure to fulfil international treaty obligations; even a failure to uphold the rule of law. His reluctance to take a firm stance on the matter is, in my view, a failure of his leadership.

How can this situation be viewed from a perspective of Hindu dharma? I shall consider sanghatan, the idea of unity, as well as ahimsa, non-violence. I shall conclude that Corbyn’s stance is antithetical to the former, and not demanded by the latter.

Sanghatan means unity. Success is achieved through making connections and working as a unit towards one’s chosen goal. It is about fostering a sense of community and looking out for those around us. Parallels can be drawn with both any failure to fulfil international treaty obligations and the principle of collective defence itself.  An international treaty is an agreement between nations. It is a commitment by nations to work together to achieve a common end. Failing to honour such an agreement is a failure to work together and therefore an absence of unity. Furthermore, it is damaging to international relations. Just as personal relations are necessary for sanghatan to be established within a group, so too strong international relations are required for ‘international sanghatan’. Corbyn’s indecisiveness means that other nations do not know whether they can rely on the support of the UK. This uncertainty harms the stability of the overall alliance.

Article 5, as above, states that an attack on one nation is an attack on them all. Other nations should therefore come to the aid of the attacked nation as they would if they themselves were attacked. This can be seen as one manifestation of sanghatan. When a shop belonging to some swayamsevaks in Bradford was attacked in the riots of 1984, swayamsevaks from other nagars across the country came to their aid to ensure that no further damage was done. Sanghatan therefore requires the UK to come to the aid of other countries within NATO when they are attacked. Taking a Parliamentary vote on the matter only delays this process, and could reduce the possibility of an effective defence being mounted. The UK would therefore appear to be a weak link within NATO that is harming the unity between its constituent nations.

What about the principle of ahimsa? This is a central principle of Hindu dharma, which, at is heart, involves non-violence towards other living beings. On the surface, this seems to preclude any form of military action whatsoever, as this necessarily includes violence. Ahimsa does not, however, necessitate pacifism. This is one interpretation of ahimsa that has become popular through its adoption and application by Gandhiji as India strove for independence. A non-pacifist interpretation of ahimsa therefore allows us to square upholding sanghatan through collective defence with the violence that it involves.

The guidance on how to conduct a war in line with ahimsa offers a blueprint for how the UK could fulfil its treaty obligation in a ‘dharmic’ manner. Any war must have a just cause and a virtuous purpose. Its object must be to restrain adharma, its aim peace, and all methods used must be lawful. On the battlefield, one may only act to defeat an opponent, and not to cause misery or be cruel to them. This is best encapsulated by the Mahabharata war. The Pandavas fought the Kauravas on account of the wicked acts of the latter. Adharma had temporarily won over dharma. The aim of the war was therefore to restore dharma to its position as the cornerstone of society. This was Shri Krishna’s mission, and so he favoured the Pandavas, who always acted for the betterment of the masses rather than for their own self-aggrandisement, as Duryodhana did.

yada yada hi dharmasya, glaanirbhavati bharata, abyutthaanam adharmasya, tadaatmaanam srjamyaham. paritranaaaya sadhunaam, vinaasaya ca duskrtaam, dharma samsthaapanaarthaaya, sambhavaami yuge yuge (Bhagwad Geeta, ch.4 v.7-8)

“O descendant of Bharata, whenever there is a decline in dharma and an abundance of unrighteousness, at that time I take my form. I appear every millennium to protect the virtuous and pious, to annihilate evildoers, and to establish my dharma.”

It is therefore entirely in line with ahimsa for the UK to use armed force to protect another NATO member from unauthorised attack by another nation. The nature of this attack must be entirely for the benefits of that nation and to the detriment of the rest of the world. UK forces could only attack to defeat this opponent, and must respect any rules set down by international law in doing so. Armed force should only be committed for the purpose of creating peace.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to provide military support to NATO allies when attacked does not therefore fit into a possible Hindu perspective on how to react in this situation. His failure to honour treaty obligations sours international relations, reducing the sense of international togetherness within NATO. His willingness to forego collective defence is antithetical to a manifestation of sanghatan in which community spirit drives us to help out others in their time of need. Nor is Corbyn’s stance necessitated by ahimsa if British troops act lawfully to establish peace in any military venture.


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