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Gandhi's Interrogation

Gandhi's Interrogation

The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi edited by Judith M Brown and Anthony Parel (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp 273, Rs 395.

Gandhi’s Interrogation

Rudolf C Heredia

F
rom the time of Mahavir and the Buddha, Indic civilisation has always responded to the authentic renouncer. This in the final analysis was the basis of Gandhi’s appeal to the masses. In turn he called them to selfless service or nishkamakarma. But we have no real Mahatmas among us today, just too many laghumanavas, small persons, all too comfortable questioning others, uncomfortable interrogating themselves.

Given the present interest in Gandhi, this is a timely collection of essays across a wide spectrum of perspectives and issues. Understanding Gandhi is not just important for India and its national freedom movement. His theory and practice of ahimsa and satyagraha, swadeshi and swaraj, sarvodaya and sarva-dharma-samabhava have become reference points far beyond this country for any serious discourse on non-violence in our violent world.

Religion and Nationalism

The first part of this collection contextualises Gandhi’s “historical life” (p 9). Yasmin Khan introduces us to “Gandhi’s World”. Porbandar, where Gandhi grew up, was at the crossroads of many historical currents. This gave young Mohandas, an observant and sensitive person, “the insight of a local boy matched with the global insight of an international observer” (p 27), from which vantage point he later sets out to reshape the freedom struggle in India. His professional legal training in England exposed him to a western civilisation he was not quite at ease with. With his Hind Swaraj (1909), he became its enduring countercultural critic. From the shy, failed lawyer on his return to Gujarat, Jonathan Hyslop’s essay traces “[t]he transnational emergence of a public figure” by the time he returned to India (p 30).

Judith Brown concludes the first part with a presentation of “Gandhi as nationalist leader” (p 51). His self-image as a pilgrim in search of truth and a champion of

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The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi edited by Judith M Brown and Anthony Parel (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp 273, Rs 395.

non-violence is essential to any understanding of his vision of swaraj as self-rule and the new society he wanted Indians to build together. Though he successfully mobilised the masses with the many satyagrahas he launched, there were not many true Gandhians even in his own Congress Party; not many at the time understood, let alone accepted, his vision for independent India. Yet he remains a more crucial figure for India, and with a far wider significance outside the country, than any other Indian of that period and after.

The second set of essays on “Gandhi: Thinker and Activist” (p 69) begins with Tridip Suhrud’s survey of “Gandhi’s key writings” (p 71). Gandhi was not a systematic thinker, and the thematic unity is not in his writing but rather in the way he lived out his thought and action. No wonder he could say: “my message is my life”!

Akeel Bilgrami next discusses “Gandhi’s religion and its relation to his politics” (p 93), particularly Gandhi’s refusal to separate the two. Gandhi’s understanding of religion and his practice of politics brought the two together in a creative and innovative praxis. He insisted: “there could be no politics devoid of religion…. They subserve religion. Politics devoid of religion are a death trap because they kill the soul” (Young India, 24 March 1924). But Gandhi’s Hinduism was a “maverick mix” of Advaita-Vedantin ideas, Bhakti ideals, Jain anekantavada (many-sidedness) and syadvada (relatively) of truth. Buddha and Jesus were exemplars of ahimsa for him. His was an attempt to spiritualise power and humanise religion. This was clearly at odds with the realpolitik of the Westphalian nation state, so eagerly embraced by religious nationalist today: cuius regio, eius religio!

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In his essay on “Conflict and Violence”, Ronald Terchek emphasises how Gandhi as an idealist still has “a compelling realism” (p 128) to his understanding of power and wants to empower persons to enhance

their human dignity. This power must be domesticated and not allowed to dominate; it must be diffused, not concentrated at the expense of others, but made accountable and transparent. Thus Gandhi contextualises and “judges power by both the ends it serves and the means it employs” (p 129).

Thomas Weber discusses “Gandhi’s moral economics”, tracing its inspiration to John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy (p 135). Weber sets out the moral context for Gandhi’s critique of western materialism and its industrial civilisation, which he rejected as dehumanising and exploitative. Gandhi’s ideas on bread, labour and non-consumerism, of nonpossession and trusteeship, of swadeshi and sarvodaya have been ridiculed and dismissed as utopian by both socialists and capitalists. And yet the collapse of socialist command economies and the most recent free-market meltdown should force a rethink of old hardened positions before they do irreversible damage to our world.

“Gandhi and the State” by Anthony Parel elaborates Gandhi’s vision of a good state, “surajya” (p 166). He was against an aggressive, soulless machine-like state and also opposed to a Machiavellian subordination of all values to reason of state, the raison d’etat of realist politics. Though a religious person himself, he did not want a religion-based state. His state was not to be a homo geneous, organic community but a pluralistic, political one. The good state would protect rights, internal order and external security. It would not be a powerful nationalist state but a minimalist, ethical and moral one, supported by civil society and voluntary agencies.

Tanika Sarkar’s critique “Gandhi and Social Relations” provides a useful counterpoint from the left to the other contributions in this collection (p 173), in particular of Gandhi’s understanding of class and caste, his attitude to property and inequality, to adivasis and dalits, to gender and sexuality. For Sarkar, Gandhi’s politics “carried the seeds of self-transcendence

vol xlvi no 46

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and self-cancellation” (p 192). This seems rather harsh but it can also be read as an indictment of those who rendered lip service to his ideals and then compromised them rather shamefacedly.

The third part is on “[t]he contemporary Gandhi” (p 197). Harish Trivedi’s survey of the “literary and visual portrayals of Gandhi” demonstrates how Gandhi’s legacy cannot be ignored even as India tries to come to terms with it (p 199). Anthony Parel takes this forward in his discussion on “Gandhi in contemporary India” (p 219) and describes the new political canon Gandhi left. Gandhi wanted his country to be non-violent, inclusive, egalitarian: sarvodaya was the way to surajya. Gandhi has left us an agenda and given us a framework within which to work at this goal. However, contemporary India has known violent divisions and secessionist movements, religious extremism and communal frenzies, endemic inequalities, and this even with rapid growth. Indeed, if we acknowledge Gandhi as the father of the nation, then we are but his lost children now.

In reviewing “Gandhi’s Global Legacy”, David Hardiman points to Gandhi’s “technique of non-violent civil resistance” or satyagraha, as his most important legacy (p 239). It has had an impact on the political discourse across the world and inspired similar movements on other continents, i e, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Though Marxists have disparaged and dismissed Gandhi, their own ideology has not proved any more durable. The contemporary ecological movement also finds inspiration in Gandhi though there is little in his published writings concerning nature.

In a final “Conclusion”, Judith Brown recalls the many Gandhis presented in this collection and the different way in which they have been appropriated (p 258). However, in spite of the extraordinary impact of this Mahatma, the India of his dreams remains very much just that. And yet he still challenges those who encounter him to examine their fundamental values and how these work their way into society and polity.

Interrogating Gandhi

This is a valuable Companion for those with some acquaintance with Gandhi who

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november 12, 2011

want to engage in further encounter with Gandhian discourse. Most contemporary critics interrogate Gandhi with the convenience of hindsight and a rather generous helping of self-righteousness. Thus the modernists, who disparage his ahimsa as naively idealistic, have no real answer to the violence in our world except to use more violence to suppress it. A war of state terror against the terrorists only perpetuates a spiral of violence in an ever more violent world!

Again, those who decry Gandhi’s aversion to class struggle have themselves been insensitive to other forms of inequality that lie beyond their ideological blinkers, like patriarchy and gender, race and caste. Moreover, those critical of his approach to dalits and tribes have not shown themselves to be above creating sub-caste divisions and partisan privileges even among scheduled castes and tribes. Nor are they above romanticising tribals rather than empowering them to take their place in the sun.

On the other hand, the self-proclaimed Gandhians, isolated in their ashrams, have little credibility themselves when it come to engaging with the issues of the day, whether it be communal violence, endemic corruption or caste atrocities. It would seem they have reduced Gandhism to vegetarianism and satsang (prayer meetings)!

We do need an authentic critique of Gandhi. All true Gandhians would welcome this. But more than interrogating Gandhi, we need to allow him to question us. Beyond moral platitudes and legal niceties that postpone rather than implement any real solutions, what is our answer to increasing levels of collective violence? Other than continuing disputations on how to define the poverty line, what do we have to say about the increasing inequality in shining India, especially to those below the poverty line? Other than idolising women rather hypocritically, how do we respond to issues of gender justice and atrocities against women? Other than using surveys to make more sophisticated projections, what stand do we take on the electoral manipulation of vote banks and patronage politics that perpetuate rather than address communal divides? Are our dalits and tribals any better off today

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after all the programmes planned for them, and implemented more in the breach than in actuality?

Inspired by Gandhi, back in 1973, E F Schumacher cogently argued in his Small Is Beautiful for a practical “economics as if people mattered”. We need to reassess our new economic policies and revisit Gandhian economics instead of uncritically embracing the market or dogmatically pursuing failed statist control. While command economies have run aground, the financial crisis precipitated by free-market financiers is characterised by greed, consumerism and lack of trust. The first, among financiers and those they financed and profited with, caused it; the second on all sides, of lenders and borrowers, fuelled it; the third, of bankers and investors, now perpetuates it.

Gandhi’s Critique

We should allow Gandhian economics to suggest three key corresponding principles for a viable and sustainable economy. First, there is enough for every one’s need but not for everyone’s greed; plain living and high thinking for a better quality of life; all property must be held in trust as its necessary social and ethical imperative. Rarely are those who have caused a crisis the ones to remedy it. Yet we are trying to remedy the crisis with more of the same by the very persons who got us there in the first place!

Gandhi rejected both the homo economicus and the homo politicus on which modern economies and state policies today are premised. So too we need to reread Hind Swaraj and see how far Gandhi’s critique of parliamentary democracy applies to our own elected representatives who are more adept at stalling Parliament and rushing to the speaker than at addressing and debating real issues. Instead of the vibrant panchayati raj on which Gandhi would have founded the state, we have an alienated and alienating top-heavy bureaucracy and a corrupt political class on top; instead of an economy premised on need, trust and frugality, we have a market-based, profit-driven consumerist economy; instead of a civil society that foregrounds duty, tolerance and inclusiveness, we have one that is increasingly demanding and self-referent, intolerant and

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ethnocentric. Surely we need to reassess Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence This collection of essays is a good comour stance on collective political violence, Has Declined (Viking, 2012). panion for that journey. whether by state or non-state actors, We need a deeper engagement with rather than take shelter in the ambiguities Gandhi than the Bollywood version of Rudolf C Heredia (rudiheredia@gmail.com) is of recent work like Steven Pinker’s The “Gandhigiri”, best categorised as Gandhi-lite. an independent researcher based in Mumbai.

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november 12, 2011 vol xlvi no 46

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Economic & Political Weekly

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