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Updated: January 29, 2013 04:41 IST

Gandhian thought as a global project

Swaran Singh
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Ramin does not provide a clean theory of ‘Gandhian Moment’ yet he succeeds in making a convincing case of its global ramifications and potential

Debates on responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine in international relations redefining the conventional absolute state sovereignty, and the increasing success of non-violent dissent — from fall of Berlin Wall, to Arab Spring to sit-ins at Wall Street — kept re-enforcing Ramin Jahanbegloo’s longing to theorise on the ‘Gandhian moment’ in politics. He now defines ‘Gandhian moment’ as a point where non-violent resistance reveals its transformative powers in the hearts and minds of all those struggling for the opening of a democratic political space.

In our increasingly violent world of religious, ethnic, racial prejudices, these successful experiments in ‘militant non-violence’ seem to him laying the foundations of a new ‘cosmopolitics’ where the idea of resistance to absolute sovereign will become a cardinal duty of all citizens. Whereas his first book Gandhi: Aux sources de la non-violence in 1999 dealt with Western influences on Gandhi, The Gandhian Moment is driven by this sense of exploring Gandhi as a global project.

Political thinker

Ramin calls Gandhi the most original political thinker of the 20th century. This originality lies in Gandhi’s attempt to reconstruct the dominant discourse of European scholars of ‘social contract’ origins of state and politics. For Gandhi, politics is not just pursuit for power but pursuit of ethical values. Unlike social contract theorists who conceived of an absolute sovereign, Gandhi envisions an enlightened anarchy where each citizen becomes his own ruler. Gandhi replaces European idea of ‘Social Contract’ based on ‘fear’ or ‘free will’ with a political community organised around inherent mutuality and solidarity of humans.

This idea of service to fellow humans put him at odds with celebrated utilitarian like Jeremy Bentham who sought ‘greatest good for the greatest possible numbers.’ For Gandhi, true civilisation is not a linear progression towards greater prosperity but a manifestation of ‘good conduct.’ Similarly, democracy for him is guaranteed not by state providing for ‘rights’ but by citizens’ commitments to their ‘duties’ including protecting the state from any abuse of power. He conceives of non-pyramidal structures with responsibilities of governance being located in village communities involving direct intervention of people in public sphere.

In Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi himself declares how he is wrongly likened to Utopian Socialists or Philosophical Anarchists even when he never favours revolutionary violence. All his active political strategies — non-cooperation, civil disobedience and constructive programme — are essentially premised on non-violence, seeking to transform one’s adversaries through self-purification, not destroy them.

Ramin believes that Gandhi’s political journey was primarily civilisational. Being grounded in Indian traditions of creative dialogue and cultural pluralism Gandhi’s vision of political emancipation was essentially dialogical and moral. In fact, his solidarity goes beyond humans to all living beings and he is critical of unscrupulous exploitation of environment. As a result, his economic model of trusteeship espouses environmental friendly and appropriate technologies of Charkha (spinning wheel), Khadhi (homespun cotton) for building a harmonious society of ‘simple living so that all might simply live.’ His equality included gender equality and transcends religion, ethnicity and caste.

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, by the time Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, he was fully convinced of both the ethical legitimacy and practicality of Swaraj not being possible without ensuring unity amongst Hindus and Muslims, upper caste Hindus and untouchables and especially between elites and masses. Gandhi knew that this was possible only by using techniques of satyagrah (seeking truth), swadeshi (indigenisation), swaraj (self-rule) and sarvodaya (rise of all). Gandhi consciously avoided use of metaphors like Rashtra (State) or Rashtriyta (nationalism) and instead preferred to use Swadesh (one’s own cultural and ecological space) which had deeper and wider connotations. His coinage of Harijan was to turn petition-based movement of 5,000 educated Congressmen to a movement of 300 million Indians.

Apart from ancient Indian traditions, Gandhi’s Swadeshi was inspired by the Bengal Swadeshi Movement of 1903-1908 so aptly articulated in Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghare Bahare (Home and the World) which elucidates on strategies of self-reliance and passive resistance. Gandhi expands these further by adding his creed of non-violence which was presented by Gandhi as a weapon of self-purification and empowerment. Similarly, Gandhi learned from Maulana Azad about the pluralist Sufi understanding of Islam while Abdul Ghaffar Khan introduced him to the practical virtues of non-violent Islam. This resulted in making Gandhi’s engagement of Islam and Islamic scholars both so thorough and enduring though he failed to convince Jinnah.

Apart from his regular use of Qur’an in his evening prayers his life-long struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity won him accolades even from his opponents. Ramin shows how Gandhi turns once fundamentalist pan-Islamic Azad into a secular nationalist and proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity. But while Azad did not hold non-violence as an article of faith but only as pragmatic strategy, non-violence of Ghaffar Khan achieved spirituality even higher than that of Gandhi himself; at least, so believed Khan’s contemporary biographer J S Bright. Turning battle-ready Pathans into a 50,000-strong force of completely non-violent Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God) was nothing short of a miracle and very intriguing for the British. By his own admission though, Ghaffar was inspired by Gandhi.

Martin Luther King Jr., who used Gandhian techniques for his civil rights movement in the United States, globalised Gandhi much beyond South Africa and the Indian subcontinent. King believed that Gandhi had not only restored Christian love but uplifted it from being mere interaction between individuals to a potent force for social transformation. Like Gandhi’s Ram Rajya, King’s Beloved Community was based on total connectedness and network of reciprocity which became the basis for his conception of ‘conciliation’ so central to conflict resolution toady. Ramin shows how this globalisation of Gandhi has been carried further by other great leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama and Aung Saan Su Kyi on one hand and more recently by the ‘Arab Spring’ of people’s movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Gandhi also shared difficult relations with several stalwarts of his times. While Ambedkar called Gandhi ‘reactionary’ and Savarkar found his interpretation of caste flawed yet Jinnah blamed Gandhi for making Congress a Hindu Party. They all criticised Gandhi’s genre of ‘spiritualisation’ of politics which is what makes ‘Gandhian moment’ such a potent force.

More than ever, the world needs Gandhi today. Especially, in the face of Islam and Muslims being portrayed as synonymous with terrorism populist ideological responses of political Islam to Western hegemony have proved counterproductive. Ramin exhorts Muslim leaders to draw upon not only Gandhi but upon the non-violent contributions of people like Ghaffar Khan and Azad. For Ramin, Gandhi’s formulations of self-examination, self-criticism and self-purification and their adaptations by leaders like Ghaffar Khan and Azad provide useful tools for taking Western models of conflict resolution towards more nuanced models of non-violence and peace.

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