Gandhi and the Cowardice of Hindutva

At a time like this, when Hindutva has become dominant, it becomes especially relevant to ask: why does Gandhi consider Hindutva evil?

This article provided the basis for briefer remarks made in a talk at the Indian Association of Minnesota on September 29, during celebrations of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

One of the dangers of an event like this is that we all come, pay homage to Gandhi, and go away with no change in our relation to ourselves or the world. Gandhi has become – like Martin Luther King here in the US – one of those figures whom everybody invokes, including those whose politics and everyday lives are opposed to everything that Gandhi stood for.  Whenever I am asked to attend a Gandhi event, I worry that I might participate in this process of taming Gandhi, making him into a sweet old toothless man whom everybody loves to love. And we as people of Indian origin can go home, feeling good about having produced such a great man, sunning ourselves in his reflected glory.

So I think it is important to ask: what is Gandhi’s legacy, and how would we nourish and cultivate it? We often say that Gandhi’s message was nonviolence. That is not wrong, but it is not enough. The challenge is to think with him, and ask: what is the nature of his nonviolence? Thinking with somebody involves not so much sticking to the letter of what they say as eliciting the potentialities of their concepts. If we think with Gandhi, it seems to me that we can come to nonviolence only after passing through two other terms first – courage and evil. An account of nonviolence that does not spring from an understanding first of courage and evil runs away from what is most thought-provoking in Gandhi.

Let me begin with the word courage. Let’s go back to 1918, slightly more than 100 years back now. Gandhi has just finished the Kheda satyagraha. This is his third major satyagraha since his return to India in 1915. Earlier, there had been the mill workers strike in Ahmedabad, and the one in Champaran in Bihar 1917, where he took up the grievances of the indigo cultivators. These three satyagrahas have made him a household name in India in just three or four years after his return from South Africa. In everybody’s mind, he is associated with ahimsa or nonviolence.

And then, he declares that he is going to recruit soldiers for the British army. He goes on a recruitment tour of Kheda. Many nationalist leaders are baffled. So are ordinary Indians. Why is this man, who has been talking of ahimsa, now asking people to pick up arms? Gandhi is adamant, however. And in his later years too, he insists that he would have done exactly the same thing.

Also read: Dublin to Srinagar, Gandhi Steps on Barbed Wire at 150

Without go into the details of his explanations, all I wish to stress is this: Gandhi sees no contradiction between his ahimsa and his recruitment drive. How is this possible? For our purposes today, Gandhi’s explanation could be rephrased this way. Satyagraha requires a courage greater than that involved in picking up arms. If you have the courage for ahimsa, for confronting the British, then it is fine to not join the army. But most people do not join the army not because of a strong moral objection (if this was the case, they would have opposed the British vigorously in other ways) but because they do not have courage to even to take up arms, let alone to practice ahimsa. So the first step towards ahimsa must be to develop courage. Those who do not have courage can never take up ahimsa.

Abhay, the Gujarati word he translates as both courage and fearlessness, is a crucial term in Gandhi’s vocabulary. When Gandhi says ahimsa requires greater courage than that required for bearing arms, this does not mean it requires a greater amount of the same courage that those who bear arms have. It means a different kind of courage – not physical but moral courage. Above all, moral courage involves questioning oneself, reflecting on whether one’s actions are right or wrong.

Moral courage installs an equality within oneself, so that one is internally divided. To be internally divided is to develop a conscience, to become capable of having an interminable conversation with oneself about right and wrong, beginning with the right and wrong of one’s own actions. This internal division is also, paradoxically, the first requirement for integrity: those without moral courage cannot have the integrity necessary to recognise right and wrong – they are not capable of morality, ethics or religion. At best, they are capable of moralism, that weaponisation of morality which consists in unquestioningly accepting and defending the dominant values of one’s social circle. They will just follow, both in their actions and their thinking, the path of least resistance. Such moralism is the opposite of moral courage; it is moral cowardice.

Also read: What Gandhi Believed Is the Purpose of a Corporation

This brings to my second word, evil. To have moral courage means, amongst other things, recognising and naming evil when we see it. Gandhi is very liberal in his use of the word evil and other analogous words such as adharma, irreligion. (The Gujarati words he uses are rakshashi, which he usually translates as evil rather than demonic, and adharma.) His use of this cluster of words occurs most often in the context of three phenomena – ‘modern civilisation’, untouchability, and Muslim and Hindu nationalism.

So the second point I wish to stress is his willingness to use words such as evil. We usually shy away from a word like evil, because we think of it as too strong. To call something evil, we usually think, is to be intolerant. But Gandhi, whom we think of as a paragon of nonviolence, is very free with this word. I think Gandhi’s use of this word, and our reluctance to use it, is indicative of something. All too often we confuse non-violence with not rocking the boat, with refusing to take a strong stance, with not calling things wrong (actually, more precisely, not having the moral courage to recognise a wrong).

In such an understanding, nonviolence becomes an especially tame version of see no evil, hear no evil, and do no evil. That is to say, while we may not ourselves do injustice, we also avoid seeing the injustice around us. But in Gandhi’s terms, to avoid seeing injustice is not merely to allow injustice to happen; it is to actually participate in injustice. If there is an injustice that we keep quiet about, or even do not have the moral courage to recognise, then we are guilty too. This is why he uses the word evil so frequently – to name injustice.

This brings us to the question: what does he call evil? Or, put differently, what is injustice for Gandhi? Let us look at one of the phenomena for which he reserves the word evil – Hindu nationalism or communalism, or what we today call Hindutva (in his time, the word Hindutva has not yet come to be attributed exclusively to, or for that matter claimed exclusively by, Hindu nationalism). He criticised Hindutva repeatedly. And perhaps because his vision of Hinduism was so opposed to theirs, because he made the poverty of their conception of Hinduism so evident, the followers of Hindutva detested him, and it was one of them who finally assassinated him.

Also read: How the RSS Detested Gandhi

(These days, I am sometimes tempted to think that perhaps Gandhi’s most important contribution to the life of post-independence India was the very manner of his death. His assassination by Godse, a figure so closely associated with Savarkar and Hindutva, likely played a crucial role in the eclipse of Hindutva for at least three generations. Those three generations provided the breathing space for the newly independent Indian state to create, within the limits of liberalism, institutions that affirmed the secularist values of individual dignity, freedom of expression, separation of powers, and religious freedom. It also provided the space for the more complex Hinduism than Hindutva to develop ways of coexisting with a secularist state.)

At a time like this, when Hindutva has become dominant, it becomes especially relevant to ask: why does Gandhi consider Hindutva evil? And why, despite his many criticisms of liberal secularism, does he fight for a liberal secularist state in India?

The answer to these two questions is relatively straightforward. For Gandhi, justice involves the equality of all beings. The reason he is critical of liberal secularism is because even at its finest, it can only think the equality of humans abstractly, and it cannot at all think the equality of all beings. Because of this, liberal secularism’s equality is premised on the domination of the world, on exploitation of other beings and of other humans. But precisely because liberal secularism is at least driven by an idea of equality, even if a flawed one, he has a respectful critique of it: he senses that it keeps open the possibility of a more unconditional equality, an equality that is more sensitive to difference.

By contrast Hindutva – like white nationalism, or contemporary Zionism and Islamism – is to its very core antithetical to equality.  This is so in four cascading ways.   One, it cannot allow for even the abstract equality of all humans.  it is premised on the superiority and primacy of Hinduism, just as white nationalism as premised on the superiority and primacy of western civilisation. And Gandhi, while a passionate Hindu, is not insecure enough to say that Hinduism is in some objective sense superior to every other religion.

(To ask whether one religion is superior or inferior to another already requires understanding religion primarily sociologically rather than ethically, and this understanding Gandhi would have considered irreligious. Hinduism was the religion he loved most, but to love something or someone most does not require considering them superior to other things or persons).

Two, there is the way it makes the claim that all Hindus are equal. (Its critics often do not recognise enough this ostensibly equalising aspect of Hindutva; they forget that Savarkar opposed caste discrimination). Hindutva makes this claim by confusing equality with identity.  This is a completely wrong way of conceiving equality between sentient beings.

True, equality is identity in mathematics. (‘Equality’ is the first word in Gottlieb Frege’s famous ‘On Sense and Reference,’ and it is asterisked with a footnote: ‘I use this word in the sense of identity, and understand “a=b” to have the sense “a is the same as be” or “a and b coincide.”’) But civil, political, or social equality is not mathematical equality.  Equality between sentient beings is premised on difference: or rather, the equal must remain irreducibly different from each other.

Three, mistaking identity for equality, Hindutva tries to exterminate difference, or at least have only as much difference as is politically expedient.  On the one side, this exterminatory politics involves trying to exterminate difference within what is posited as the putative Hindu community – only those differences are permitted to survive which submit to Hindutva, which do not disagree with it.  But amongst sentient beings (as distinct from, say, rocks), diversity without disagreement cannot be called difference. An early moment in this exterminatory drive is Gandhi’s assassination; today it continues with the assassination of M.M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, and so many others; it continues also in the vicious attacks that Hindutva’s proponents mount on all those who criticise it.

On the other side, this exterminatory politics involves trying to exterminate all that cannot participate in this equality-as-identity of Hindus.  Repeatedly, as we know, this side of exterminatory politics has turned genocidal, and will turn genocidal again.  Indeed, because of its striving for equality-as-identity, there can be no Hindutva – or white nationalism, Zionism or Islamism for that matter – that does not at least contemplate genocide.

Four, because it insists so much on identity, Hindutva cannot have moral courage; it becomes moral cowardice.  Moral courage, as we saw, requires the ability to question oneself, to ask about right and wrong in dogged ways.  And the insistence on thinking of oneself in terms of identity does not allow for this questioning, for this cultivation of difference within oneself.  Such moral cowardice makes it possible for us to rest easy with depriving our fellow citizens of basic rights, as is happening currently in Kashmir with only few murmurs of protests from the rest of India.  Maybe it is their deep and unspoken anxiety about their moral cowardice – about their lack of the deep and intense bravery that is moral courage – which makes proponents of Hindutva substitute for it talk of fi56-inch chests, or righteously shout down, as not only internet trolls but some of our famous TV anchors do, those who show even the slightest moral courage.

For someone like Gandhi, this moral cowardice of phenomena like Hindutva was more troubling than its exterminatory politics.  He would have seen it as the source of its exterminatory politics.  The German-American thinker Hannah Arendt, who herself who barely escaped the German concentration camps, made a somewhat similar observation about Adolf Eichmann, one of those most responsible for overseeing the genocide of Jews.  His evil, she observed, was not so much diabolical or radical as it was banal – springing out of thoughtlessness. One might add: thoughtlessness is the way moral cowardice manifests itself in everyday life – doing without reflection what is socially expected. This thoughtlessness modern society is particularly prone to, not least because of the way it reduces occasions for solitude.

I have already taken up too much time, so I will not say much about the term that has shadowed this talk – nonviolence.  Let me just note: why nonviolence? Very simply put, because evil must be fought in a way that recognises the equality and humanity of the actual bearer of evil.  Nonviolence or satyagraha becomes thus a way of fighting evil that sacrifices the self rather than the other, and by doing so gives moral courage to the other.  Sometimes, as Gandhi himself noted, nonviolence might itself require violence (controversially even at that time, he defends killing stray dogs under certain circumstances), and only moral courage can help one discern whether one is fooling oneself when one uses violence in the name of nonviolence. This is why nonviolence must begin with moral courage – without it, one cannot even distinguish between violence and nonviolence. This may also be why for Gandhi phenomena like Hindutva are evil and irreligious – they make a virtue of moral cowardice.

In concluding, let us ask: how to pay homage to Gandhi. It is usual at times like this to recall the exhortation attributed to Gandhi – Be the change you wish to see in the world. I have not found any such remark in Gandhi, but it is in principle possible he could have said something like it. Still, my sense is that by itself it is a little anodyne. To talk only of change is not faithful enough to Gandhi – one has to talk of a change that brings in questions of courage and evil, or in other words of social justice. So maybe a more meaningful way to pay homage to Gandhi would be to cultivate a conscience, to develop the moral courage to find an evil that we hold ourselves responsible for, and fight it nonviolently.

Ajay Skaria is professor of history at the University of Minnesota. He is the author ofUnconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance and Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India. He is currently working on two books, one tentatively titled Ambedkar’s Revolutions, and the other on Indian secularism.