Walking With Gandhi on New Indian Roads

In the face of new social conservatism drawing from militant nationalism and global capitalism, Gandhi's philosophy may hold lessons even for his left-Ambedkarite critics.

Gandhi leading the 1930 salt march. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi leading the 1930 salt march. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the iconic status of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, there are many critiques that confront us whenever we wish to engage with him. One important critique has emerged from the proponents of a specific brand of modernity that derives its inspiration from the premises of the European Enlightenment and its discourse of secular reasoning and unilinear techno-economic progress.

In Gandhi they see a romantic and utopian critique of modernity – some sort of idealisation of rural community and celebration of puritan asceticism. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his intimate association with Gandhi, was not always easy with him. In Hind Swaraj, Nehru saw the glorification of poverty and backwardness; his ‘scientific temper’ – a product of his intellectual fascination with Marx, Darwin and Freud – was not in tune with Gandhi’s religious vocabulary. And his vision for independent India with special emphasis on centralised planning and massive industrialisation could hardly be regarded as Gandhian. And of course, Indian Marxism – the way it evolved through Rajani Palme Dutt and M.N. Roy – has often found it difficult to appreciate Gandhi’s approach to politics. With a blend of Enlightenment rationality and historical materialism they would debunk his ahistorical and ‘naïve’ idealism, his ‘utopian’ socialism, his faith in ‘trusteeship’ and deviance from the dialectic of ‘class conflict’, and as a result, his promotion of the ‘status quo’ – a semi-feudal agrarian economy apprehensive of the inevitable historic transformations.

But in our times the most vehement critique has come from the Ambedkarites. Gandhi’s approach to varnasharma and the caste question, it would be argued, was problematic. His programme for eradicating untouchability would be seen as paternalistic – a token of charity by a section of ‘forward caste’ reformers to save helpless ‘Harijans’; and his ‘reformed Hinduism’ , it would be said, was a facade. To eradicate casteism, Gandhi would be reminded, is to eradicate Hinduism itself – a project to be initiated by the politically conscious and assertive Dalits.

Yes, these critiques (even if inflated and exaggerated) are important, and we all realise that societies evolve and ideas grow through a perpetual process of contestation and conversation. And who is free from critical enquiry? Even Gandhi’s critics are not infallible. For instance, even if you love Karl Marx you cannot devalue, say, Karl Popper – his interrogation and the way, as he said, Marxism is a form of ‘pseudo- science’  – because, instead of seeing possible falsifications and refutations, it sees only confirmations of its theory – that breeds ‘conspiracy theory’ whenever it sees its opponents, and is, therefore, against the very spirit of an ‘open society’.

Likewise, even the project of modernity is not an uncontested virtue. While postmodernists seek to shatter its ‘foundations’ and scientism, eco-feminists and environmentalists see it as a violent project that promotes instrumental rationality causing the growth of a ‘risk society’. And even Ambedkarites have to prepare themselves for engaging with a possible critique. It can be said that despite Ambedkar’s brilliant art of debunking Manusmriti, his reflections on the Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads were rather shallow because rhetoric replaced the philosophic depth. His engagement with Buddhism was more political and strategic rather than ethical and spiritual and above all, Ambedkarism – in the absence of a dialogue with Gandhism or Marxism – might fall into the same trap of an exclusivist, reductionist and hence potentially authoritarian doctrine.

The point is that there is no perfect politico-epistemological map and Gandhi, Nehru, Marx and Ambedkar – they were all explorers with failures, contradictions and possibilities. Critiques are important. But a critical mind need not be cynical. It is with this spirit that we can see immense possibilities in Gandhi, even when we acknowledge the gravity of the critiques we have talked about.

To begin with, I wish to refer to Gandhi’s ‘experiments’ which indicate the quality of his mind – his transparency and honesty, his urge to grow and redefine life every moment, and his constant search for the unity of theory and practice. See the way he grew and evolved – from early childhood days to the establishment of Tolstoy farm in South Africa, from Champaran and Ahmedabad to Calcutta in 1947. He resisted the verdict of his caste association when it opposed his decision to go to England for higher studies.  He refused to wear the sacred thread even when Hindu priests were not very happy with it. He allowed John Ruskin to alter his life-project and bring the notion of dignity of labour in his vision of nai talim. And he could radicalise the meanings of all old religious ideals – Ram Rajya became the blueprint of an ecologically sensitive/egalitarian/ harmonic social order; a rigorous work on body, food and sexuality, far from remaining confined to the domain of personal salvation, became a tool for collective political resistance; and ‘feminine’ qualities like patience, perseverance and art of dying became the new language of courage for sharpening the art of satyagraha.

It was this power of innovation that gave him the strength to evolve till the last moment of his life. As Nirmal Kumar Bose narrated in My Days with Gandhi, even in those turbulent days of 1946 when all his dreams seemed to be collapsing, with his frail body he could walk from village to village at Noakhali, generate trust and faith and restore peace in a communally charged social milieu. His constant experiments and eternal curiosity, his confessions and acknowledgement of his own failures made him a seeker of truth and not necessarily a successful strategist. How do we refuse to learn from it, particularly at a time when our narcissistic leaders transform vices into virtues, falsehood into truth?

It is also important to acknowledge the importance of what Gandhi regarded as soul force. Even though the expression sounds somewhat mystical and spiritual, it is possible for every secular person to understand its meaning. It is essentially about human agency and creativity – our innate possibilities and our ability to govern our own lives on the basis of truth and love. In fact, the notion of swaraj that Gandhi pleaded for in his path breaking booklet Hind Swaraj  is based on the cultivation of soul force. This alone, as he thought, can fight the brute force manifesting itself in a heavily centralised bureaucratic machinery. Furthermore, this sort of modernity – or satanic civilisation as he used to regard it – promotes indulgence with technological comforts and induces passivity. Even in his somewhat extreme critique of railways, parliament, lawyers and modern medicine, an empathetic reader can see a quest for decentralised ‘oceanic circles’ filled with people capable of living – peacefully and harmoniously – with self-sustaining resources. It was not just Gandhi’s philosophical anarchism; it was not just a critique of colonial modernity – it was essentially a critique (even if not very sophisticated in the eyes of an academic nurtured by the likes of Herbert Marcuse and Jurgen Habermas) of the world in which technocracy replaces politics, market enters every domain of life, and ‘experts’ disempower people.

And finally, there was something unique in Gandhi’s mode of resistance. First, as history shows, it was inclusive. It could invite everyone – peasants and workers, children and women and people irrespective of their caste or religion. Second, it sought to activate the hidden human possibility in those one is revolting against. In fact, satyagraha as a mode of resistance is therapeutic. While it tries to arouse the conscience of the oppressor, it also reminds the rebel of his or her potential – the courage to say ‘no’ to what is unjust because ahimsa (non-violence) is neither escape nor cowardice, but a mode of protest that emanates from one’s commitment to truth. In a world unsettled by the routinisation of state-centric violence and the outburst of counter violence as a reactive response, a world where our excessive indulgence with identity politics causes fragmentation and breaks the possibility of communication across caste, religion and ethnicity, there is something to learn from the Gandhian principle and its art of listening and the tremendous possibility of ‘non-cooperation’ as our ultimate refuge. Imagine what would have happened had we refused to cooperate with corporate capitalism that reduces us into captive consumers by not buying or consuming its products! Yes, Gandhi demanded moral strength (in terms of fearlessness, perseverance, simplicity and the ability to live without greed) from us. How is it possible to reconstruct society without strong ethical foundations?

When on January 30, 1948 Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi, his bullets were conveying a message – the cult of militarised Hindutva would not like all that he represented – the mind of a seeker engaging with Tolstoy and Emerson, conversing with the tenets of Sermon on the mount and Islam, listening to Tagore’s notion of universalism, and pleading for an inclusive society. And today in contemporary India, Godse’s ideology of hyper-masculine, militant cultural nationalism has got yet another companion – the practice of neo-liberal global capitalism. This merger of market and religion, or militant nationalism and consumerism has led to a new form of social conservatism which is conducive to the rise of the authoritarian personality. And hence it seems to be necessary for us – even the left-Ambedkarite critics of Gandhi – to tap into the treasure he kept for us, reinvent him and dare to walk with him to create an ecologically sensitive, egalitarian and inclusive society.

Avijit Pathak author is professor at the centre for the study of social systems, JNU. 

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