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Gandhi: The Colonising Object

Against the backdrop of intellectuals in the western countries projecting Gandhi as a spiritual-philosopher rather than a political activist, this article restates Gandhi's political strategy and spiritual quest. It also reminds us that we have to desist from gutting the centrality of politics in Gandhi's life and mission.

Gandhi: The ColonisingObject

Against the backdrop of intellectuals in the western countries projecting Gandhi as a spiritual-philosopher rather than a political activist, this article restates Gandhi’s political strategy and spiritual quest. It also reminds us that we have to desist from gutting the centrality of politics in Gandhi’s life and mission.


n the west nowadays, special weightage is given to Gandhi, the spiritualphilosopher, rather than a political activist. In fact, many intellectuals now seem to question whether he had any real interest in politics.1 This form of speculation is fashionable to a degree, and it may hence be important, quoting the new Tory leadership in the United Kingdom, to “get back to basics”.

Which reminds one that in the same issue of national papers one finds David Cameron, the latest Tory leader, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, that he expected party workers to personify social change, while another piece mentions that the greatest of Tory leaders, Winston Churchill, would rather have seen him die during a hunger fast. Surely, the west has come full circle in its assessment of India’s Father of the Nation, from half-naked fakir to global guru of peace.

One has a sneaking suspicion that this is not the result of a change of liberal heart, but part of a well-orchestrated political strategy that would impress on “the restless natives” of all nationalities, who now add to one another’s voices of discontent and rebellion, within the confines of the global American empire, that dissent had better be expressed, “without stepping on the grass”, to use Gunter Grass’ telling description of German revolutionaries. A newly imagined spiritual aura around India’s great political leader, who in the west’s re-written history of India achieved independence by a spiritual act, also subtly re-emphasises the civilising mission of the west, which promises to continue rewarding well-mannered high-flown spirituality with political concessions. What is a definite political no-no to Kipling’s “lesser tribes without the law”, and punished severely by stripping away their sovereignty, is to talk of socialism, dismantling capitalism, or Islamic values while having oil under one’s feet.

Victorian Radical Politician

One can then argue that far from being some mystic authentic voice of traditional Indian civilisation, Gandhi was critiquing western civilisation from within, as a Victorian radical politician, driven to rebellion by the contradictions between liberal precept and practice which he experienced as a colonised subject. Why is it important to say this? First, his mission was to restructure the liberal political framework he had adopted to fit the specificities of a colony. He had openly espoused Victorian liberal values, which he held dear along with his generation of educated Indians, and which led him first to follow through on social reform as a way to enlarged political freedoms. Almost every single action of his early years attest to this identity, whether getting his children to sing “God save the King!” or joining the medical corps during the Boer war, or even his liberal disbelief at being thrown out of a first class compartment. If he wanted Swaraj in later years to liberate the British as well, this was not the outpourings of a unique Indian sense of inclusiveness; it was the Victorian in him who always saw his British rulers as misguided friends to be re-educated, and never as enemies, in the way, for instance, as the Rani of Jhansi saw them. When he saw a political restructuring was impossible of achievement because of the very real British colonial interests involved, his second mission became how best to realise democratic values under the conditions given by the political development of the nationalistic struggle, refusing to confuse or conflate the principles of science, rationality or democracy with the contingent manifestations of colonialism and imperialism. He offered a reward for the scientific improvement of the ‘charka’. His fanatical insistence on proper sanitation, never a preoccupation of Indian civilisation, even during his Tolstoy farm days, exhausted even the modernists in his following. His insistence on sexual asceticism is more Victorian than Vedantic. His new conception of “gram swaraj” was not a retreat to a bucolic “Golden Past”, but to anchor modern democratic practice at the place where most people lived; to rescue democracy from its specific Westminster model, which left power firmly in the hands of competing elites.

It can be said with some force that this is a very particularist reading of the man and his works. The justification in defence would be that the inconsistencies in his standpoint can be rescued from the accusation of manipulative hypocrisy only, and only if, one perceives him as a political activist par excellence whose several actions were contingent upon the political necessity of achieving national independence. To identify him as a spiritual Indian, or more clearly Hindu, whose interest was not political but the recovery of the values of a traditional Hindu civilisation would immediately raise the question what these values were, who they benefited and who they suppressed. Could Gandhi, or any other Hindu, claim a “genuine pluralism” for a civilisation that had created a self-policing hierarchy of castes, the bulk of whom had been savagely discriminated against for over 2,000 years under the guise of religious sanction? Whatever the justification for such a static discriminatory system during long periods of economic stagnation, there could be none during the vast social and economic changeover that Gandhi witnessed. The Durban conference on racism has recently acknowledged that casteism was the same as racism. If purely driven by a moral imperative, a person would follow Periyar and Ambedkar to focus on the destruction of caste hierarchy. However, a leader might perceive the various political steps that would first have to be taken, independence being a key one, to achieve moral social change. The Hindu civilisation had subjugated its women, proclaimed Sati as a moral ideal, and even stripped women of the ancient religious rights they had during the tribal Vedic period. Again, a personal spiritual drive might have led to the involvement in social reform, as it did

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006 a whole generation of people in the 19th century, but a politician would think first of bringing women out into the streets to fight for freedom.

Therefore, despite western pressure to recast Gandhi solely as a spiritual leader, disinterested in politically contingent activity, and in obscure pursuit of selfrealisation and the essence of Indian civilisation, unfortunately and temporarily masked by Victorian westernisms, it is important, particularly in the wooly context of elite Indians reinventing themselves, that Gandhi’s role is re-emphasised and reexamined as supreme political leader of his times, who restructured the environment of political contestation in such a way as to win political independence for India against all odds. Clearly, he was also a man with well-articulated moral values, like all revolutionaries, from Robbespiere to Mao to Fidel Castro, and the measure of meaning in their moral struggles has to be gauged in real political terms, by how well their revolutions were able to institutionalise their values into everyday societal practice.

Historical Context

It is important to restate the early historical context of the freedom movement. Despite the present-day glorifying by the argumentative classes of the revolutionary upsurge of those times, even the most sympathetic reading can identify nothing more than sporadic, individualised, often a farcical, taking to arms.

The first and last large-scale military contestation in 1857 did find the British in desperate straits in north India, when faced in a battle by their own well-trained sepoys, and any uprising or even threat of uprising, at the nerve points of British control over India, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, would have had them suing for peace, or a peaceful exit. But this just did not happen. This vast silence to that critical outbreak cannot be explained away without reference to the very hierarchical caste-ridden nature of Indian societies, a system of differentiation that has permeated all religious denominations right down to this day.

The critical failure of 1857 is key to our understanding of what really happened at Assaye, or Seringpatanam, or earlier or later with local feudal or tribal revolts. No effective common cause was ever possible in caste-ridden India; many times the people separated by class and caste from their rulers remained indifferent to their masters’ fate. Human history records several instances of incredible victories, from Marathon to Dien Bien Phu, when the weak have destroyed the strong, because their leaders made common cause with their peoples. It was not the military skill of Wellington or Mohammed Ghori that gave victory to the invader, but rather as Mohammed Habib has noted, a kind of imploding revolution, a disappearance of seemingly vast support, when those who ruled were unable to rule in the old way (meeting half of Lenin’s dictum for social change). But the British were very well able to rule in the old way, and if they were to be challenged it had to be done in a nonmilitary political environment.

When he returned at the age of 50 from South Africa where colonialism was nakedly racist, Gandhi was already a battlehardened veteran against colonial rule. He knew that the Indian people, riven in their ranks by caste, would never actively refuse to be ruled in the old way, hence his tactical attack on untouchability to start a mass base for political action. Nor was he a failed advocate groping for a job in the motherland, but a seasoned Middle Temple lawyer who understood the restrictions imposed by the British administrative system, and the pathways to widen and secure liberties with legality. It was this skill he would use to telling effect to baffle the raj, tie it up in knots in its own inconsistencies, pitch colonial practice against avowed British political principle, all with the British voting public so to speak in the jury box. In other words, he spoke in accepted British terms to a British audience, and left them uncomfortable with their own conscience.

Gandhi’s Strategy

Whether Gandhi’s political stratagem would have sufficed on its own is a moot question; what is important is that this political drama was played out against a greatly weakened Britain during the interwar years, when Ireland had already been given freedom for fear of massive revolt, when Labour was contesting power after the General Strike, when the European ally France was prostrate, while Germany, the resurgent enemy in Europe, was itching to end the “armistice” that Marshall Foch declared the Treaty of Versailles to be, when even a romantic imperialist like Churchill knew they would go under without being propped up by America, which voiced its own populist angst against British imperialism.

For his superb strategy to succeed, Gandhi required to ensure two key factors of revolution: first, the masses had to be brought out on the streets on a regular basis with innocent legal and appealing demands, like the Salt Satyagraha. And, second, everything had to be done in open peaceful protest, almost as Thoreau and Tolstoy would have advocated, and without any show of violent opposition. The British must be made to wrong-foot themselves with every police or army assault on peaceful protests.

Each of these two factors strengthened the other. An assured environment of legality and peace would bring out the masses. To retain the masses there, Gandhi had to be very strict about only peaceful means being adopted. His calling off the non-cooperation movement after the Chauri-Chaura incident was politically necessary, if the long-term goal was to be achieved. Clothing the tactical necessity in a new morality imposed on the nation was an integral part of a strategy by which Indians and the west must view the leader essentially as a spiritual leader. The instant success of Swami Vivekananda, J Krishnamurthi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Osho and the lesser gurus, daily remade, has more to do with the selfconceit of western elites, rather than to any careful hearing their words have been given. Gandhi was an astute trespasser over this carefully cultivated western landscape; and in recent years has been given an assured pedestal of his own, as armed or economic challenge has forced the west to privilege and mythologise spiritual leaders whose


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Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

successes resonate with civilisational justifications for western hegemony.

This does not at all mean that Gandhi was a fraud, or anything but a highly principled man who carried out all his life continual spiritual exercises. All human beings, whether they acknowledge it or not, have a strong spiritual dimension to their psyches. A few like Gandhi give the spiritual function special importance, and exercise it on a regular basis. This was especially true with this leader of a vast movement, who furthermore created a specific spiritualised persona to enable him to carry out the task he realised had been assigned to him.

In times before Gandhi, from Buddha to Martin Luther, spiritual leaders have made their lives their message, to carry through great social reform movements, which had the impact of political revolutions. A distancing from a creative understanding of these complex men and their role in history arises either by simplifying their personalities to that of mere manipulative party politicians, or by dematerialising them as otherworldly saints not interested in the political realities of their lived world. Gandhi’s message is totally lost if his politics is taken away from his life. To see Gandhi as the political leader of a vast movement does not in any way reduce his stature as a spiritual person. On the contrary, it gives corporeal historical substance to that spirituality.

Spiritual Quest

If one had time and space one could analyse every one of his actions on the stage of history to pass judgment whether he was driven by political necessity or an inner-directed spiritual quest. To take a few salient instances: his support for the Khilafat movement could hardly be termed as anything else than an expedient attempt to gather Muslim support, even at the cost of driving Jinnah out of what that modernist considered the fast-gathering obscurantism of a Hindu-dominated Congress. The successful and manipulative plea to Ambedkar not to split the Hindu majoritarian camp had less the spiritual impetus for mystic Hindu identity, and more vote bank common sense. Asking Abul Kalam Azad to step down as Congress president in favour of Nehru was clearly a painful, non-spiritual political decision, at a critical moment of history, though he knew the aristocrat would not support Azad’s constituent assembly formula that had gained the enviable support of Jinnah himself. The Quit India movement in 1942 was timed with strategic precision, at Britain’s weakest moment, and calling the Cripps offer “a rubber cheque from a crashing bank” had the honest clarity of a clear-headed negotiating politician.

If Gandhi’s identity as a political leader is unassailable, the reality of his spiritual journey is not in doubt either, complex though the relationship is between the two duties he took on himself. If a thought experiment could create an observer standing outside of history, such a person could condemn the inherent hypocrisy in several of Gandhi’s standpoints. But Gandhi, like several other spiritual leaders, knew that life itself imposes doubts, confusions and contradictions on the living, who continually are faced with unenviable choices. To raise a mass following of Hindus under a semi-religious umbrella, he had to uphold ‘Sanatana Dharma’, and relinquish an attack on the caste system, that a modernist like Periyar was free to make. To keep the Congress bourgeois elite together and focused on achieving independence, he had to alienate another modernist in Jinnah and accept Partition as a consequence of his actions. Gandhi walked a tightrope between marshalling caste Hindu support and condemning untouchability; between accepting majoritarian Hindu rule, based solidly on Hindu dharma and reaching out to the Muslim communities with bridges of social reform modernity, which he himself broke from time to time to reinforce his spiritual identity for Indian and Briton alike. He compressed all the contradictions within himself and his life, for the inexorable progress of national salvation was the message of his life.

To paint a genuine, individual spiritual search, bound historically by time, place and personal necessity, with the timeerasing colour of a Hindu, “eternal” identity is unfair to Gandhi, since one must say there is no such overarching singular ethic to admire, the bulk of the people still victimised by ferocious caste distinctions, the vast majority of the poor despoiled by the rich, the women subjugated at home and at work, and the polity a mess of illiteracy, poverty and disease, which a slight unselfishness among the elite could alleviate to a remarkable degree.

Modernists like Jinnah or Ambedkar or Periyar, may have led India to better governance, but to get a chance to do so they would have needed to stymie the British with their own logic, which they couldn’t as modernists, nor did they have an effective mass base to posit a future threat as Gandhi could, if the peaceful Mahatma was allowed to die fruitless in hunger. The tragedy of the incomplete freedom movement was it had to be achieved through a non-modernist route, where achieving the “national democratic” revolution was not an explicit goal.

The path to deliverance from colonised knowledge is never easy. Gandhian thought and action find a proper context for study when one sees how they impacted the lives of the multitudinous poor, in his day, and later. Gandhi the politician knew better than others that the focus of any principled activity must be to alleviate the suffering of the poor. This could not be done by spiritual enquiry alone, but only by practical political action, by creating a strategy for national deliverance from colonial rule, the central cause of poverty, by cautioning the lawyers, doctors and engineers, the leading elements of the powerful bourgeoisie, not to become “brown sahibs”, by enforcing the discipline of constructive work and the spiritual search for truth among the freedom fighters, so that the goal of freedom may not be lost soon after it is found.

Once political state control had been achieved, Gandhi instantly struck at the festering core of the Congress calling for its disbandment as a political party, and its conversion to social workers, a call for a massive “cultural revolution”, to match Mao’s in scope and vision, but an assassin’s bullet rescued the political elite from such destability. Such a move on Gandhi’s part was profoundly a moral one, as is any great political act. His death froze the enigma of his life in time, permitting his memory to be used today as a colonising object by the west in ceaseless pursuit of global recolonisation. Indian intellectuals, however much fascinated by western mirroring of possible Gandhian reflections, should desist from gutting his record of the centrality of politics in his life and mission.




1 In the first week of 2006, an imaginative seminar ‘Gandhi: Philosophical Debates’ was organised by Javeed Alam, at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad. This seminar gave rise to this reflection.

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

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