During the anti-colonial struggle, nationalism made people think about ways to oust (colonial) injustice. Today, nationalism is being asked to play the opposite role: Prevent people from thinking about questions of justice.
“I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state…You will not easily find another like me.”
― Plato, Apology
“I think, therefore I am”, said Descartes famously. What makes people think? In the history of the world, people have thought most challengingly under oppression. It is thinking against oppression that has brought new thinking into the world. Even the idea of history itself, from being the story of emperors and their conquests, now includes the story of people’s struggles against conquests and emperors. Socrates, whom Plato refers to as a “gadfly” of Athens, had infuriated its authorities for praising their arch-rival, Sparta. In our times, it will be considered a similar offence if an intellectual from Delhi praises Lahore.
For raising questions regarding the system of Athenian justice, Socrates was ironically put to death. The accusation that he was corrupting the youth was a moral cover-up against the fear of a man who could think. Galileo, among so many others, were charged with heresy by the church in the medieval era, when their thinking made discoveries contrary to religious beliefs. In modern Rome, a 35-year old Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned and sent to a camp for his opposition to Mussolini. At his trial, the Fascist prosecutor said about the Marxist theoretician, “We must prevent this brain from functioning for 20 years.”
To think itself is to resist the designs of power. And that scares power, for it is paranoid about resistance. Power can be understood as a narcissist who is alarmed by the possibility of anyone disturbing his reflection on water. A person’s thinking is a ripple that disfigures power’s self-refection, causing power to tremble in rage, if not anxiety.
The Finnish poet and aphorist, Paavo Haavikko, said “real delicacies” like “oysters, salmon and power” are “raw”. He means, like the taste of oyster and salmon, power tastes best when served naturally. The nature of power is its raw temptation of violence, its temptation of raw violence. Power, by its nature, will always prevent new thought, for it will threaten its existence. All power can do newly, as we have witnessed in history, is devise newer methods of coercion. It is not just newer technological modes of torture that the state invents, but newer laws, to prevent people from expressing themselves and questioning the excesses of power.
Gandhi as gadfly
We faced enough of both during the anti-colonial struggle. Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930, a nonviolent, civil disobedience movement to break the salt tax enforced by the colonial government against the local people, was not merely a form of political protest. It was a method of resistance that Gandhi, the gadfly who irritated the British empire, developed from thinking on nonviolence. It was a unique method to challenge power without using violence. If violence becomes a part of any movement of resistance, it easily allows power to respond with a superior force it has at its disposal. Power has no qualms about using an unequal measure of violence to meet any violent resistance against it. Such resistance movements are at a real risk of elimination. Gandhi’s method of challenging power by not only avoiding violence but inculcating a whole language of nonviolent protest caused immense moral and political discomfort to British rule.
By thinking nonviolently, Gandhi opened up radical spaces for protesting against the colonial government and its machinery. Thinking is possible only when a certain space for nonviolence exists within itself or else, even resistance takes on the quality of the power it resists. Gandhi’s resistance gains meaning and force only because it refused to respond to the colonial regime in its language of violence. Violence may claim logic on its side, but the danger with logic or logical thinking, is that it is hugely invested in naturalism. By using naturalist arguments, one may endorse violence in a resistance movement, but it is soon to lose moral and ethical justifications against the violence of power. To argue violence is natural is to argue that human beings are naturally violent. But it is power that is constructed on the idea of violence. It is possible to critique it only because human beings have ethical possibilities, which are opposed to this naturalist justification of power. To argue human beings are naturally violent pushes the idea of justice into a naturalist realm, where violence takes on a just mantel. The argument quickly relapses into the “logic” of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It is against such logical end games that thinking comes into being.
Thinking breaks into the logic (and law) of violence by asking questions of violence. Gandhi’s satyagraha is a movement of thinking translated into practice that asked questions to the colonial regime. If we go by the ethically challenging assumption that all power is ultimately illegitimate, then all thinking against power is equally legitimate. In such a view, thinking itself is an act of ethics, for it raises questions regarding the legitimacy of power, which is inherently violent, hence unethical.
When Ambedkar challenged Gandhi before being coerced into the Poona Pact of 1932, he too raised a question against what he thought was Gandhi’s unjust way of coopting the ‘untouchables’. Gandhi’s method of dealing with Ambedkar’s challenge was going on a fast unto death. Gandhi’s method of nonviolence – Ambedkar called it “blackmail” – faced its limits before the latter’s challenge. But does thinking break down in this moment of political confrontation between Ambedkar and Gandhi? Not at all, as we can see. For in the case of both Gandhi and Ambedkar, the act of thinking is to push the boundaries of belief.
The belief system of the social, cultural and religious world, for the sake of perpetuating itself, may resort to violence, and resemble that same raw delicacy of power. Thinking against power, hence, is also thinking against beliefs, and naturally comes into conflict with it. Gandhi was challenging Hindu beliefs as much as people’s belief in the idea of violence. Ambedkar challenged Gandhi’s views further regarding the same matters, and took the debate further. Unlike a violent face-off, the encounter between Gandhi and Ambedkar opens up questions regarding the limits of the nonviolent method, its (morally) coercive tactics. To Gandhi’s credit however, his method allows us to challenge him, raise questions, and think against the limits of his nonviolent resistance. Even today this debate is alive, irrespective of our taking sides in the matter of whether Gandhi was justified or not in using the threat of self-annihilation to prevent Ambedkar from making the British agree to separate electorates for the untouchables.
Even if we are on Ambedkar’s side, we may admit that Gandhi’s action ironically elevates Ambedkar’s position, as Gandhi’s gesture borders on violence, playing a politics of life and death. But because Gandhi suffers for it as much as he forces Ambedkar to suffer it, there is a space created for us to think about the limits and possibilities of such a politics. The encounter between Ambedkar and Gandhi is one of the most fascinating political encounters in modern history as the two men resisted each other with their demands, and engaged with each other’s ideas in a way as if nothing was more serious and more urgent. It is an encounter that fascinates us today because of the debates it creates.
Only open, thinking encounters can create questions and debates. Godse shooting Gandhi was a closed and violent encounter that helps no debate, unless you want to justify murder. To justify murder requires no thinking. All it needs is belief. After nearly 70 years of having gained independence, we are again faced with old questions. India is today a democracy, and by definition that means a state and mode of government that allows thinking bordering on dissent. But suddenly there seems to be a consensus – in the name of nationalism – that thinking which goes against power is dangerous.
During the anti-colonial struggle, nationalism made people think about ways to oust (colonial) injustice. Today, nationalism is being asked to play the opposite role: Prevent people from thinking about questions of justice. Is the new political definition of nationalism based on an assumption of consensual coercion where thinking is disallowed within it? Is nationalism a celebration of the narcissistic, logical and naturalist construct of power instead of the critical, ethical and liberating idea that once inspired Gandhi and Ambedkar?
The love that is indistinguishable from the love for violence in the name of nation-love is a love that can only be defended violently. The opposite of this love – raging and thriving in the pages of our anti-colonial struggle – is the love that comes from criticism. Criticism is a form of nation-love that allows thinking and dissent against power, for power is far from delivering justice. The only moral legitimacy the state has comes from its pledge to impart justice. That is why we believe in the law. Ironically, however, some of our laws are still dragging on since colonial times, and even by logic, we can see they are of no help as they are as opposed to our finding justice now as they were then. In a bizarre twist of historical fate, we are still facing and fighting the vestiges of colonial rule through its extending laws.
How can the most logical of nationalist love and pride accept such a thing? In his famous lecture, ‘What is Called Thinking?’ the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, began by saying that memory “is the gatherer of thought”. We are gifted the ability to think by memory, as it opens up space for us to remember. Just as the struggle of man against power, as Milan Kundera wrote, is a struggle of memory against forgetting, we can say the same for the struggle of thinking against violence. If our historical memory is the source of this violence in the name of nationalism, we must ponder over a simple fact: What thinking (about our past) have we given up, in order to be left with only violence. In other words, what have we forgotten of our history, that made us think once but today only makes us want to destroy each other? Not only gadflies need to ponder over this question.
Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. 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.