What Gandhi's Racism Tells Us About Anti-Racist Politics Today

Thinking with Gandhi allows us to conceptualise an anti-racism and equality that begins from anti-speciesism. Such an anti-racism can help us move towards an equality based on difference rather than similarity.

This is adapted from a series of exchanges in response to a question from a college friend, Atul B: “Was Gandhi racist towards blacks?”

Was Gandhi racist towards blacks? The short answer is: before 1906, emphatically yes; from 1906 to 1913, qualifiedly yes; after 1913 or so, increasingly no. However, we need to ask a supplementary question: what light and shade does thinking with Gandhi throw on our current understanding of racism and anti-racism? To that question, the schematic answer would be: most of us are anti-racist in a speciesist way, or by invoking the idea of a unified human species where all of us are equals.

Thinking with Gandhi — and especially, with his concept of satyagraha — allows us to conceptualise an anti-racism and equality that begins from anti-speciesism. Such an anti-racism can help us move towards an equality based on difference rather than similarity, and only an equality of difference can address many of the challenges facing the most marginalised today.

We usually locate a turning point or epiphany in Gandhi’s biography at the famous incident in 1893 when he was thrown off a train at Maritzburg. But in that incident, he is upset partially (though this is somewhat speculative, since he writes at any length about this period only decades later) because as an “educated native” he considers himself entitled to travel in first class. Most Europeans at the time would have placed Europe, India, and Africa on a descending scale of civilizations. Early Indian nationalists largely contested this only to the extent that they claimed Indian civilization was equal to the European; they, and Gandhi, left in place the rest of the racist hierarchy. His criticisms in 1893 were almost certainly not a condemnation of civilizational or educational racism: one can find many examples of such racism in his writings in the next two decades.

A more appropriate turning point would perhaps be 1906, when he helped the British by volunteering and setting up an Ambulance Corps during the Bhambatha uprising. He believed that it was his responsibility to do so as a British citizen, which is how he thought of himself. Like many others of the colonised elite who supported the British empire, he maintained his self-respect by taking Queen Victoria’s 1858 proclamation of equality at face value. Here is what he says about the 1906 experience in his Autobiography:

The Zulu “rebellion” was full of new experiences and gave me much food for thought. The Boer War had not brought home to me the horrors of war with anything like the vividness that the “rebellion” did. This was no war but a man-hunt, not only in my opinion, but also in that of many Englishmen with whom I had occasion to talk. To hear every morning reports of the soldiers’ rifles exploding like crackers in innocent hamlets, and to live in the midst of them was a trial. But I swallowed the bitter draught, especially as the work of my Corps consisted only in nursing the wounded Zulus. I could see that but for us the Zulus would have been uncared for. This work, therefore, eased my conscience.

Or as he puts it in 1939, his work in the Ambulance Corps gave him “an insight into what war by white men against coloured races meant.”

Also Read: Some of Gandhi’s Early Views on Africans Were Racist. But That Was Before He Became Mahatma

In the wake of his experience in the Ambulance Corps during the Bhambatha uprising, Gandhi begins — but only begins — questioning his civilizational racism. Like most processes of conversion, his conversion to anti-racism unfolds over years, at least until the mid-1910s. Even where conversion occurs as a thunderclap, historically speaking it takes years, sometimes generations, to unlearn the bodily and mental practices that prevailed before the conversion. So during most of his South Africa period, there is a very evident racism, thoroughly documented in Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s The South African Gandhi, though a briefer account can be found in this very damning indictment by Obadele Kambon.

The most evident marker of that persistent racism was the word kaffir, which in the South Africa of Gandhi’s time was no longer the Arabic-derived Muslim term for “non-believer,” but was one of the racist terms used to describe the indigenous South African, and especially Zulu, population. Even as Gandhi objected strenuously to the word “coolie” for Indians, considering it derogatory, he had no such objection to the term “Kaffir.” Thus, just a few months before writing Hind Swaraj, he notes in a report for the local Indian community that the protestors had been “locked up with the Kaffirs. There was not a single European officer who described us as Indians. We were called ‘sammies’ or ‘coolies’.”

It is abundantly clear also that he himself used the word in a racist sense. In 1909 he writes: “the British rulers take us to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets.” He also objects fiercely to any mixing of Indians and “Kaffirs” in prisons or social life. He demands separate lavatories for Indian prisoners and asks that they should “never be lodged with Kaffirs.” Addressing the Indian community in 1910 (note that this is after Hind Swaraj), he remarks: “Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether.”

Any reasonable analysis would have to conclude that Gandhi was, until around the early- or mid-1910s, decidedly racist. And throughout this period, his sense of solidarity is more with the white colonisers than with the natives.

But it was also a time when he begins protesting against “injustice” towards “Kaffirs.” In 1910, he decided to travel in third-class train carriages, partly in empathy with “the hardships that the Kaffirs had to suffer” in them. After around 1913, the word “Kaffir” disappears from his vocabulary, to be replaced by “Zulu.” His conversion may be connected also with his increasing opposition to caste distinctions in personal and political life: by this time, he is on occasion cleaning the chamber pot of his Dalit Christian clerk, and does not any longer himself follow the caste restrictions on eating and drinking. (The Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud noted in a recent talk that such practices led to Gandhi, after his return to India, being treated in some ways as part of the “untouchable” caste: even as Gujaratis, who considered themselves upper caste, paid homage to him, they would not invite him inside their homes — not even during the famous Salt March, when he often had to camp overnight in temporary grass huts or public buildings such as schools because nobody was willing to host him in their homes.)

By 1928, the narrative of Satyagraha in South Africa casts his solidarities strongly with the “Zulus”; his Autobiography, written during the same period, talks of the “so-called ‘uncivilized’ Zulus.” His reflections in 1939 reveal the further erosion of civilizational racism. Thus he notes that the rights and privileges of the “indigenous inhabitants” and Indians differed in South Africa, and during his time there, “it was not possible to amalgamate the two causes.” He adds:

if I discovered that our rights conflicted with their vital interests, I would advise the forgoing of those rights. They are the inhabitants of South Africa as we are of India. The Europeans are undoubtedly usurpers, exploiters or conquerors or all these rolled into one.

By this time, he is also moving towards understanding the Indian struggle in terms of a global solidarity of the “exploited races of the earth” against the colonizers. Over the last few decades of his life, then, his civilizational racism is increasingly undercut by his politics of satyagraha, which often twists free of the former.

The violence of speciesist anti-racism

It is satyagraha I would like to dwell on, for it seems to me that satyagraha allows us to think afresh some aspects of anti-racism. The curious thing about most anti-racism is that it is speciesist, or based on similarity of humans as a species. Our usual reason for anti-racism is that all humans belong to the same species, and therefore there should be no discrimination or racial hierarchies amongst humans. More broadly, human rights claims are based on the assumption that all humans share a certain equality as humans. There are differences within similarity, but only within. Further, we assume implicitly or explicitly that humans are a special species, possessing a special capacity for morality. So to recognise each other as humans is also to accord other humans equal dignity. Here dignity and equality flow from our similarity; we have here an equality of similarity.

Speciesist anti-racism is violent in two ways. First, like speciesism more broadly, it is quite compatible with wholesale disregard and violence towards other species. Thus, even though I think of myself as intensely anti-racist, I am a carnivore. I often feel quite troubled by it, and have cut down enormously on my consumption. But I have not as yet felt guilty enough to stop eating meat altogether. This is surely partially because, with the acceleration of modernity, an unavoidable distinction has consolidated itself between sapient or thinking beings (hence homo sapiens) and merely sentient or feeling beings. Regarding myself as a thinking being, I feel little guilt about eating merely sentient beings. In this tradition, when arguments are made against eating some other beings, these are often on the grounds that they — say, octopuses — are sapient, and so similar to us.

The line between sapience and sentience, between human and non-human animal, can quickly turn racist, for it can easily be made to pass through humans. We should not forget that racism itself is speciesist in the way that it distinguishes between the various races. This is why pogroms and genocides — or doctrinal racism — are accompanied by a “dehumanisation” of target populations, often by describing them in bestial terms. There is thus a profound complicity between speciesist racism and speciesist anti-racism: the latter maintains the former’s insistence on the inequality of the species, and primarily insists in being included in the highest species. Hence, as long as this distinction between the sapient and the sentient organises our politics, we will likely continue to inhabit the same problematic that produces racism.

Second, speciesist anti-racism affirms a particular kind of equality — the equality of similarity. Here humans are equal because they are similar to each other. This is violent not only because it rules out the possibility of equality with non-human animals, plants, and things. It also forgets that the equality we experience in friendship or love is a relation of dissimilarity. By this I do not mean that singular relations are with sociologically dissimilar persons — clearly, that is far from being the case. What I mean rather is that to enter into a singular relation is to be thrown into what makes that relation dissimilar from every other. Speciesist anti-racism, by strengthening the equality of similarity, also throttles our ability to experience the equality of dissimilarity and difference.

‘Satyagraha’ as surrender without subordination

As a political comportment, satyagraha is sceptical about the equality of similarity, and strives instead for an equality that affirms the most radical difference. To get a handle on the equality of difference, I think a good place to begin is a line from an essay by Theodor Adorno. What in this context I am calling the equality of difference, Adorno calls peace. He says: “Peace is a state of distinction without domination, where the distinct participate in each other.” Distinction without domination — this is the starting point for the equality of difference. The idea of participation in each other is equally important for it precludes segregation, ghettoisation, or a bland multiculturalism. Also, to participate in each other does not — should not, if we are true to the spirit of distinction — mean that we become similar to each other.

Curiously, the word “peace” — shanti — is rather recessive in Gandhi. As a political being actively involved in the grittiness of struggle, Gandhi is asking a slightly different question from Adorno’s: given that peace does not exist, that injustice is rife, how to peacefully move towards peace, to aspire for it? Put differently: what form of movement or mobilisation against injustice is consistent with peace?

Also Read: Gandhi and the Cowardice of Hindutva

What Gandhi describes as satyagraha exemplifies the form such a movement can take. Satyagraha opposes injustice peacefully — through surrender without subordination. To surrender is to render oneself vulnerable to the other. Such vulnerability is the precondition of any meaningful participation. But also: without subordination. Much of the vulnerability that the most marginal experience is privative; it is not something that is chosen. To surrender where we have no choice is merely subordination. But to surrender without subordination is to oppose injustice both fiercely and peacefully. And satyagraha need not only be practiced against opponents, in the form of civil disobedience. It can also occur as an everyday comportment — for example, when we relate to each other as friends through a surrender without subordination.

Why sentience and not just sapience?

Why call the equality of difference an anti-speciesist anti-racism? Because this word anti-speciesist, combined with Gandhi’s vegetarianism, can cause confusion, a clarification first: the equality of difference is not premised on vegetarianism. We know only too well that vegetarians have often been deeply speciesist and racist — remember Hitler — and have usually had no compunctions about practicing the most vicious violence towards fellow humans. Sometimes this happens as part of the very practice of being vegetarian, as evidenced historically in the practice of untouchability and Brahmanism, and more recently in the lynchings by followers of Hindutva of Muslims, often on the charge that the latter eat beef. So any connection forged between the equality of difference and vegetarianism would have to begin from the equality of difference rather than the other way around.

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi, Malpe, Karnataka. credit: The Wire

The equality of difference is anti-speiciesist, then, not because of any vegetarianism, but rather because satyagraha is turned towards sentience rather than sapience. Speciesist anti-racism is premised on sapience: as speciesists we mobilise by arguing, whether with our words or our bodies, that beings like us, capable of rationality and reasonableness, should be accorded dignity, should be treated as equals. True, this mobilisation is shot through with anger and fury. But even this anger and fury is justified in terms of sapience — as reasonable.

By contrast, satyagraha is anti-speciesist because it is a sapient turn to sentience. (I put it this way because, as sapient beings, we can never experience a pure sentience.) Among the translations Gandhi offers for satyagraha are “love-force” and “friendship with the world.” Combing these two translations: friendship is a distinctive form of love — it is love between equals (thinkers have long recognised that there is no friendship without equality). And satyagraha is a distinctive kind of friendship: it is a political friendship with the world, or a friendship not with intimates but with strangers. Such friendship is at odds with the equality of similarity, which works more through abstractions such as citizenship and human rights, or speciesist ties such as fraternity.

Satyagraha as civil disobedience offers political friendship to opponents — including the British, in Gandhi’s case, or white supremacists and Hindu supremacists today. Indeed, maybe beings who have lost their capacity for rationality and reasonableness, such as white supremacists and Hindu supremacists, will respond only to this (it was with such beings that Gandhi found civil disobedience unavoidable).

But satyagraha as the everyday comportment of political friendship must also be offered to allies, and to those we have historically oppressed and perhaps still oppress (after all each of us, even those belonging to the most oppressed groups now or historically, occupy privileged locations at times). The various forms of self-cultivation and self-discipline that Gandhi describes are efforts to develop the various forms of political friendship.

This anti-speciesist anti-racism is not new to the United States: the civil rights movement and the black Christian intellectual tradition are marked by a process of intense thinking with Gandhi. In 1936, Howard Thurman, mentor later to Martin Luther King, Jr, meets with Gandhi in Bardoli. Both ask each other tough questions, as Sarah Azaransky notes. Thurman asks Gandhi whether the “South African Negro” took part in the South African struggles. Gandhi replies: “I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause. They would not have understood the technique of our struggle nor could they have seen the purpose or utility of nonviolence.” As Azaransky remarks, “the limits of Gandhi’s moral imagination” would surely have troubled Thurman. But Thurman’s thinking wrests satyagraha away from those limits: his Jesus and the Disinherited, with its “Gandhian bones,” becomes the book that King carries with him everywhere. Other African Americans followed in this agonistic engagement with Gandhi, including Benjamin Mays (who met Gandhi at Thurman’s suggestion, and later mentored King) and William Stuart Nelson (who marched with Gandhi in 1946).

Also Read: Ramachandra Guha on Setting the Record Straight on Gandhi and Race

What enables this thinking with Gandhi is the concept of religion that Thurman and King rightly espy in him. Here religion is not a belief in a sovereign deity, but rather the experience of a surrender without subordination, of a freedom experienced in surrender. Such a freedom is quite at odds with our usual ideas of freedom — which are speciesist in that they are based on non-surrender, on our sovereignty and mastery over ourselves and the world. Such a freedom makes religion into an enactment of political friendship; it sets aside, or throws into the shade without abandoning, the conventional atheist critique of religion. Maybe one needs the kind of surrender exemplified in such religiosity — a religiosity available to atheists too — in order to enact anti-speciesist anti-racism; maybe, conversely, wherever people are able to experience their everyday “religion” as some kind of surrender (rather than the sovereignty over self that liberals or most mainstream religions affirm), they are already anticipatorily open to the possibilities of an anti-speciesist anti-racism.

The problems with the equality of difference

Let’s be clear: satyagraha as the striving for the equality of difference is not some kind of magic wand. The curious coexistence in Gandhi, at least in the early phase, of civilizational racism and satyagraha is a symptom of this. Speciesist anti-racism fights racisms frontally — by insisting that those whom racisms condemn to inferiority are equal in sapience to the race claiming superiority. In contrast, anti-speciesist anti-racism fights racisms sideways — by enacting the sentient vulnerability involved in political friendship. Sidestepping racism or other forms of hierarchy and domination through satyagraha should remind participants of their sentient ties, and so slowly or rapidly supplant or displace the prejudices rooted in sapience. Satyagrahis such as Gandhi often seem to hope that even where the differences persist, they will increasingly be devoid of hierarchy and domination, that what will be left is an equality of difference.

But this has usually turned out to be too sanguine a hope. For difference is rarely simply difference. Almost always, it also embodies unequal power relations. There can be little doubt that Gandhi’s attempts at an equality of difference, whether with reference to race, caste, gender or class, often only reified the old differences. A dramatic example would be the way he assumes a fundamental difference between women and men and in the process reifies a patriarchal order.

Something similar happens with caste. Gandhi saw racism and untouchability as analogous and equally violent, often remarking that Indians could not complain of racism while themselves practising untouchability. But he distinguished untouchability from caste, and till almost the late 1930s focused more in his own work on opposing the former, even while being broadly supportive of anti-caste politics. Thus he writes in 1932 to an associate:

“I quite agree with you that caste has got to go. But whether it would do so in my generation I do not know. Only let us not mix up the two and spoil both causes. Untouchability is a soul-destroying sin. Caste is a social evil. Anyway you get thoroughly well and work away against caste well and work away against caste with your usual vigour. You will find in me a good supporter.”

As part of keeping the two causes distinct, though he personally had “no scruples about inter-dining and intermarriage,” he insisted till the early 1940s that the broader campaign against untouchability did not require commitment to inter-dining or intermarriage, or to eradicating caste.  Only by the closing years of his life does he assert that “castes must go if we want to root out untouchability,” quite thoroughly failing to recognise until then the integral connection between caste and untouchability; failing also to recognise caste as a system of “graded inequality,” in B.R. Ambedkar’s phrase. Also, the way he envisaged participation — through the term Harijan, which sought to deify Dalits as the children of god, a religious solution to a political and social problem — only enabled extant forms of domination to consolidate themselves anew. (I examine the inadequacies of Harijan in Unconditional Equality; more broadly, D.R. Nagaraj explores Gandhi’s caste politics in The Flaming Feet, pointing out how, despite his intentions, it disempowered Dalits.)

Still, what distinguishes thinkers from ideologues is that the former articulate positions so complex as to provide the internal resources to question their own assertions and historical manifestations, sometimes in ways that they themselves acknowledge, and always in ways that they do not recognise and may even disavow. This happens with Gandhi too: while he adopts several positions that are indefensible, his own writings provide the resources to criticise them. And criticise them, moreover, in ways that allow us to go beyond an equality and freedom of similarity to an equality and freedom of difference. How to think with Gandhi and enact an equality of difference where the distinct participate in each other? This difficult question is another part of our inheritance from him, one that his failures bring us to.

Also Read: Enlisting Gandhi Against Gandhi

So while the equality of difference is fraught with danger, and can be trodden only vigilantly and with trepidation, it seems to me a compelling and even unavoidable path for a progressive politics today. And to go down this path, we will have to think with Gandhi and the many others who were concerned with an equality of difference — in India, most notably Ambedkar. (It is commonplace to treat Gandhi and Ambedkar as antagonists, and this is correct if one looks only at their explicit formulations. But if we think with them, then I would argue that they appear in an unavoidably parallax relation. Both strive for and valorise an equality of difference: remember, Ambedkar too is drawn to religion, and eventually converts to Buddhism. But both also feel compelled to make space for an equality of similarity. But their thinking of the equality of difference diverges dramatically, despite the shared emphasis on friendship and religion. So too does their understanding of the equality of similarity, which Ambedkar stresses far more than Gandhi, and of the relation between the two equalities.)

An anti-speciesist anti-racism today

In this spirit of thinking with Gandhi: what does an anti-speciesist anti-racism entail today? It seems to me that there is a curious relation between speciesist and anti-speciesist anti-racism. A starting analogy could be the distinction that Gandhi draws between political swaraj (or “self-rule”) and true swaraj. He recognises that, as the leader of the Congress, he is fighting for political swaraj, whereas satyagraha is directed towards true swaraj. There is a tension and contradiction between them, but between them there is no either-or choice.

Something similar could be said today. Throughout the United States, following the killing of George Floyd, the mass demonstrations have taken place because for centuries African Americans have been denied even the most basic elements of the equality of similarity. In India, the protests over the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) occurred because of the threat that the most elementary equality of similarity — that involved in citizenship — could be taken away. In both these cases, the equality of difference would not so much displace as leaven this equality of similarity — ferment it, impart to it a distinctive rise and breath.

But to leaven is also to profoundly transform. Three of the reasons why such leavening matters are evident. First, it allows us to question the ways we ourselves reproduce the exclusions of an equality of similarity. This means recognising the ways our societies are built on mastering our surroundings, rendering them subordinate, standing in reserve to be used. Second, it allows us to cultivate the comportment of political friendship, rather than allowing our relations with each other to be governed by an abstract citizenship. This means building alliances, not only on the basis of shared rights and interests, but around an appreciation of the singularities we may have as groups and individuals.

Third, even while speciesist anti-racism may recognise the racist drivers and effects of the greatest crises of our time — such as the climate crisis or the Anthropocene extinction — it will not be able seriously to conceptualise and redress these crises. By contrast, an anti-speciesist anti-racism will be able to recognise our friendship with the world, and proceed accordingly. Indeed, remaking the human relation with the non-human world, without remaking which we cannot begin to redress climate change, requires a particularly demanding equality of difference — one that is shorn almost completely of the equality of similarity.

Can ‘satyagraha’ also entail violence?

But there is also a fourth reason that has seemed especially urgent to me in the last few weeks: such a leavening might also provide a different way to understand the violence that might accompany popular protest. We usually think of Gandhi as committed to non-violence — and of course, he was. But what is the place of violence in this non-violence? To begin with, he stresses the fact that a certain violence is unavoidable in the very act of living (he points to the unavoidable violence involved in agriculture, in eating, or more controversially even in his time, in killing stray dogs), accepting that the challenge is to cultivate self and society so as to be responsible in enacting this unavoidable violence. This violence, one might say, is the violence of everyday sovereignty, and it is embodied also by the nation-state — as he notes on occasion, the political swaraj he is fighting for will inevitably involve a state with an army and police. Of course, he seeks to minimise the role of the state and of sovereign power, but he recognises some limited sovereignty — some “cracy” or “archy” — as unavoidable. There is no equality of difference that is innocent of the equality of similarity.

More interesting is another moment of violence — call it non-sovereign violence. This violence he regards with even greater trepidation. His trepidation flows from his recognition that satyagraha might integrally involve a certain violence. In one letter, he writes of his “discovery that all killing is not himsa [violence], that, sometimes, practice of ahimsa [non-violence] may even necessitate killing.” In a letter soon after to another associate, he insists that this is not an abandonment of ahimsa but a purer understanding of it. Still, as I note in Unconditional Equality, even if this is a purer understanding, it is also more terrifying, not least for Gandhi. Two days after that letter, he writes to yet another associate:

“My thinking fails me. Use yours. This new aspect of ahimsa which has revealed itself to me has enmeshed me in the web of no end of questions. I have not found one master-key for all the riddles, but it must be found … These are the problems which face us if we give up the royal road of turning the other cheek. Is the royal road the right one because it is easier to take? Or is it that we shall come upon the true path only by treading through a dangerous one? The foot-tracks which go up the Himalayas lead in all directions, sometimes even away from the destination and yet an experienced guide will take us in the end to the summit. One cannot climb the Himalayas in a straight line. Can it be that, in like fashion, the path of non-violence too is difficult? Save me, save me”. [“trahi ma, trahi ma”; translation modified]

Trahi ma, trahi ma, indeed. If we are to think of the conventional civil disobedience of turning the other cheek as the royal road (and this civil disobedience is quite compatible with speciesist anti-racism), then here we get a glimpse of another path of non-violence, one that includes violence, and is so uniquely and rarely trodden that there are only foot-tracks to mark it. Here violence is itself driven by ahimsa. This is to say that it is not the arrogation of sovereign or statist violence by insurgent citizens seeking to assert or create a new law; it is rather a violence for which there is no law, or more precisely one for which satyagrahis must find the law only within themselves, and nowhere else.

One figure who fascinated Gandhi was Harishchandra, who in the pursuit of duty prepares to bring down his sword on his wife Taramati’s neck (or son Rohit’s neck, in another account Gandhi provides), and is stopped at the last moment by divine revelation — a moment analogous to Abraham’s/Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael in Abrahamic or Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. Maybe this is because he senses there a similar violence, a violence that cannot justify itself before any general law. About the rightness or wrongness of this violence, one can only ask oneself in solitude, and never know for sure whether one is answering oneself honestly.

He writes this in 1918. The killing of policemen in Chauri Chaura follows soon after, and after that he becomes more cautious still about the violence of ahimsa. In later years, while Gandhi sometimes seems to understand his own personal acts of satyagraha and fasting in terms of the violence of the foot-tracks, he remains reluctant to understand mass mobilisations of satyagraha in these terms. For these, he insists consistently on the royal road of non-violence (with one very significant exception: the Quit India movement of 1942, which was accompanied by considerable violence which Gandhi did little to stop).

Also Read: Even in Gandhi’s Resolutely Examined Life, There Is Something Inaccessible

The question of non-sovereign violence remains today in all its compelling force. Perhaps with intensified inequalities it has become even more troubling and real. While it is relatively easy to argue for a practice of vulnerability with figures who can notice one’s sentience and vulnerability, what if one encounters opponents so much more powerful that they cannot even perceive one’s vulnerability, that one is merely an object to them, or maybe even something flicked away without noticing? The metaphor that Gandhi agonizedly used on occasion was this: can a mouse offer satyagraha against a cat? He seems on occasion to suggest: no, in such cases, all a mouse must do is die fighting violently (or more precisely, by force of arms rather than soul-force), since here the difference between violence and non-violence would be trifling, and since violence against the cat would itself here be the most intense form of vulnerability. In that moment where no possibility remains of even sentient conversion and conversation with the other, where humans have themselves been divided into species where the dominated can no longer communicate with the dominant, then trying to hurt the dominant might itself become an attempt at a sentient relation with them.

It is an intriguing and terrifying thought experiment to transport to contemporary situations this metaphor and its thinking of non-sovereign violence. Do the victims of US drones wreaking anonymous havoc from the distant skies, or Kashmiri civilians encountering an overwhelmingly more powerful occupying force, or ordinary Palestinians facing a state that has, with what many call the “apartheid wall” and other means, segregated them so completely as to make difficult any relations between oppressors and oppressed, even have the opportunity to offer anything like satyagraha in the sense of non-violent civil disobedience? Would violence against occupying forces, and even against the civilians whom these forces represent (for these are all countries that are formally democratic, and whose civilians cannot therefore avoid responsibility for the violence of their armies) remain for the most marginalised peoples as the most intense form of vulnerability?

Or take what has been happening in the United States in the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd. The protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful. But what I want to dwell on is the violence — not that by white supremacists (who were quite active where I live in Minneapolis, at least), but that by those who were upset and outraged at yet another murder of a black man by the police, the state. I remain moved by the powerful Trevor Noah video in which he asks about that violence: “A lot of people say, ‘What good does this do?’ Yeah, but what good doesn’t it do? That’s the question the people don’t ask the other way round.”

Noah is coming back to an old and important theme: in 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared that “the riot is the language of the unheard.” The unheard: mouse and the cat; two species again. To the extent we have created by now across the globe a situation with enormous structural inequalities, we are also dividing societies into species. Much of the change to redress this will have to be brought about structurally, questioning the speciesism that divides our societies. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, we “must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals.”

But in this situation, there will also be a proliferation of non-sovereign violence, the violence that Gandhi saw in his epiphany as part of the non-violence of the foot-tracks, as in its way the ferment from which satyagraha could emerge, and which can itself on occasion be part of ahimsa. How should civil disobedience be faithful to this non-sovereign violence rather than muzzle it in the name of being “reasonable” — I am sure this is a question that, in some form or other, many of the more radical activists across the United States are struggling with right now.

This is why I look at satyagraha not only with the greatest admiration but also with greatest trepidation, both equally: we cannot not go into these questions if we find ourselves committed to the equality of difference, to an anti-speciesist anti-racism, and yet these are not questions that have ready or even stable and “safe” answers.

I apologise for this long answer. It is the price you must pay for asking me about things in which I am a specialist (a word etymologically connected, of course, to species), and on which I have tarried too long also as a non- and even anti-specialist.

Ajay Skaria is Professor of History and Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance and Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India.  He is currently working on a book titled What is Democratic Secularism?