There has been this old game around Gandhi, of piling up selective readings to either defend or question the man’s credentials. It appears, he has left everyone enough scope for both possibilities.
If this suggests an inherent contradiction that Gandhi carried with him throughout his life, then he himself attests to that fact and even suggests a possible way to overcome it. First, he acknowledged he was a bundle of contradictions. He also said that if there arose any confusion regarding a particular point of view held by him, the reader should refer to his last thought on the matter. He had also mentioned, since his writing is aphoristic and lacks precision, that it is open to several interpretations. These then are the points of caution that Gandhi himself lays down for his future readers. Whatever opinion one may have on those, one notices an openly acknowledged experiment with the act of thinking itself – an experiment which is also unlike the language of science, lacking precision, and hence open to numerous possibilities.
Now there is a serious difference between the idea of ethics and the idea of an experiment. Ethics is based on a primary attitude towards the other, while an experiment is a trial-and-error method to achieve a desirable end which may or may not be ethical. At least an experiment or its result is not necessarily bound to any ethical formulation or concern. So how could Gandhi strive to be ethical and experimental at the same time? The philosopher Jean Filliozat says in a discussion with Emmanuel Levinas and Jean Wahl:
“Gandhi treats the question of violence as the primary problem. On the one hand, he supposes – with the whole of Indian civilisation – that the enemy of violence is not another violence; violence opposed is not the opposite of violence. On the other hand, the putting into question of the I in the presence of the Other is justified from the general Indian point of view, in any case from the point of view which Gandhi inherits, without being a philosopher himself, in a completely different way to the one that you (Levinas) spoke about”
Gandhi, of course, does formulate a point of reconciliation, a point of convergence, between ethics and experiment, to tackle the question of violence. The experiment with truth, which for him was also an experiment with politics had a fundamental ethical premise for Gandhi. That ethical premise was based on two unshakable doctrines: non-violence and regard for the other. Even there, you encounter a further twist. Gandhi’s idea of non-violence is not an achieved or achievable idea but an idea which lives through an everyday contact and struggle with violence. So Gandhi in a way was more preoccupied with the question of violence and it is only by this everyday negotiation with the question of violence that Gandhi strove to bring a measure of non-violence into the world. But how was that possible? By practicing, in Gandhi’s case, Satyagraha, an act where you weave, speak, keep silent, and spin a different language into the heart of political aggression.
Gandhi was aware of the philosophical paradox of this non-violent act, negotiating political violence: Satyagraha was in its negativity a non-doing, or an undoing of a certain kind of politics, a refusal to act violently under provocation, while it was by its very act of doing so, a positivity, an expression of one’s presence in the world, of confronting violence with concrete acts of nonviolence.
One can understand this paradox of negativity and positivity further, through Gandhi’s assertion of self-control and love. Self-control was a negation of activity while love was its positive side, its desire and appeal, the positivity that propelled it. Gandhi’s sense of ethics then, lies within this double pull of withdrawal and expression. To withdraw in order to express, to express by withdrawing, is the unique mode of Gandhi’s ethical politics. All experiments with politics, and with truth, will have to retain these ethical paradoxes.
There is one question left unanswered. Why is truth and politics the same yet not the same? Because though politics, as Gandhi said, encircles like a snake, and to grapple with that snake is politics, he was also aware that the meaning of life (or truth, or love) is not limited by politics. In other words, our lives are more than politics, we live within the political yet our possibilities are not limited by politics.
Fighting a war, without weapons
For example, Gandhi understood truth only through the battleground of politics. There was no moksha without facing the other – the other you love and who is yet your adversary. He probably got the idea from the moment of the Gita in the Mahabharata, when Arjuna pauses before the war begins, placing his chariot between the two armies, and asks Krishna the most important question about war ever asked. It was a moment which had perturbed Hegel, and he confessed he hadn’t come across any parallel to it in European history and culture. Not only did Hegel find the “situation… contrary to all conceptions we Europeans have of war” but also “contrary to all our demands of a poetic composition and to our habits to the meditation and presentation to an entire philosophical system.” This moment was also understood differently by various thinkers and nationalist leaders. But it must be said in passing, Hegel had identified the strict caste structure working within the knowledge and value system imparted in the Gita, like Ambedkar did later.
Gandhi realised the importance of Arjuna’s pause, but finally, like most others like him, upheld Krishna’s decision to fight. Gandhi gave that a major twist by accepting the logic of war but abandoning its weaponry. It sounds like the acceptance of the internalisation of violence by abandoning the concept of war. According to Gandhi, the idea of self-control and self-effacement that Krishna proposes makes such a non-violent idea of a battle possible. So Gandhi introduces within the Mahabharata another idea of battle, which is less literal (and more ethical) than the way either Aurobindo or Tilak understood it. The meaning of politics here for Gandhi is the battleground itself, while truth is the reason we battle without arms, for truth is the possibility of an end to enmity.
When it came to distancing truth from tradition, Gandhi clearly said, “The true dharma is unchanging, while tradition may change with time. If we were to follow some tenets of Manusmriti, there would be moral anarchy. We have quietly discarded them altogether”.
In Gandhi, we find a distinction between truth and religious tradition. For him, it is truth, and not tradition, that is eternal and universal. “Nothing in the shastras which is manifestly contrary to universal truths and morals can stand”. The idea of truth sounds like a matter of choice, albeit an ethical/moral choice, which can distance itself from any tradition to uphold what is seen to be a more universalistic principle of the ethical life. Truth also seems to be non-textual for Gandhi, as all texts are part of tradition and Gandhi is more interested in making truth, making dharma, making ethics, weaving and spinning it into the world of antagonisms. Gandhi also famously said he was not interested in the historical Ram but in a concept of Ram that was more of a spirit, emptied of historical facts. It sounds closest to Kabir’s idea of Ram.
From Ambedkar to Noakhali
There is no doubt that Gandhi’s idea of ethics faltered before the ethical and historical challenge of Ambedkar. Gandhi, to begin with, prioritised certain decisions before granting Ambedkar his place as an intimate antagonist. The decisions were not to allow Dalits any form of power, legal or political, that would challenge the dominance of caste Hindus. It was a purely political decision by Gandhi and all his ethical concerns were a means of defending that decision. This was, by Gandhi’s own principles, an act of violence where closures were declared even before the politics at stake was acknowledged and met. Gandhi’s fast unto death on the Poona Pact was a politics of aggression, and an abandonment of ethics. The politics of death against the British was not the same as the politics of death against the ‘untouchables’. Gandhi was against all sovereign power, but to turn his self into a sovereign power that challenged politics had different meanings in different contexts. In his battle with Ambedkar, Gandhi was less generous than he was, however limitedly, with Jinnah. The politics of love and truth cannot masquerade as a politics of blackmail. Despite challenging the idea of tradition, Gandhi still preferred to work within the concerns of the (Hindu) community. His inability to challenge the comfortable social and political structure of his community, despite pushing the community’s beliefs at the level of ideas and even practices (cleaning of toilets, etc), led Gandhi to narrow the possibilities of his politics vis-à-vis Ambedkar.
Where perhaps Gandhi’s politics reaches its most intense relevance for our times is his sojourn in Noakhali. In Gandhi’s own admission, he was going to Noakhali to die. Gandhi said his “technique of non-violence was on trial” in Noakhali and it “remained to be seen how it would answer in the face of the present crisis.” If this technique of non-violence “had no validity,” Gandhi reiterated, it were better that he himself should declare his insolvency. At Srirampur, Gandhi admitted: “It is very clear to me that my mere word carries very little weight. Distrust has gone too deep for exhortation.” He also said he had not come to Noakhali “to hold an enquiry”.
These observations show that Gandhi had come to Bengal without any thought of doing politics, but to nevertheless find out the state of politics. He found to his horror and dismay that the only politics he was capable of launching – the politics of truth or satyagraha – was extremely difficult in the circumstances. Gandhi was firm that he was not interested in getting the police substituted by the military or the Muslim police by the Hindu police. When Chief Minister Suhrawardy tried to bypass a charge against his government regarding a murder case, saying there were many versions of the story and even he was being accused of complicity in the matter, Gandhi lost his temper and charged Suhrawardy saying: “Yes, you are responsible not only for that murder but for every life lost in Bengal, whether Hindu or Muslim.” It was an open politics of truth, where Gandhi used moral pressure on the state administration to quell the mayhem.
Gandhi tried to take the central questions of daily life away from the sphere of political representatives. He suggested “to both Hindus and Musssalmans … (to) not look to the Muslim League or the Congress or the Hindu Mahasabha for solutions of their daily problems of life … The political institutions might be left to deal with specifically political questions but how much did they know about the daily needs of individuals.” Gandhi seems to make a distinction between social and political life, which in turn would manage to establish a distance between political power and the possibility of mass violence in the social sphere. One can read it as Gandhi’s indication towards the emergence of a social history as against the history of riots and genocides. To hold the government morally accountable, to steer people away from the politics of rumour and governmentality, throws up serious possibilities for politics and resistance in our times.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi