From icons like Nelson Mandela, Aung Saan Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa, Irom Sharmila to mass movements from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street to Jal Satyagraha by oustees of Omkareshwar Dam project in Ghoghalgaon in India, protagonists and practitioners of non-violence and non-cooperation continue to keep alive our interest in Gandhi. Intellectual enquiries into the phenomenon called Gandhi, therefore, continue to inspire new and more nuanced interpretations of his life and contributions with scores of books published each year.
However, most of these anthologies remain rehashed chronologies. Only a few of these seek to explore new materials and even these get distracted into uncharted terrains of Gandhi’s private life, which is further sensationalised by media. Rarely someone manages to restrict his engagement to Gandhi’s thoughts alone; and even more rarely someone manages to decipher Gandhi and make a value addition to the existing body of knowledge. The book by Faisal Devji, aptly titled, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence , presents one such rare work and should be celebrated as a collectors’ item.
There is something strikingly distinct about Devji’s style. He invokes, then whets the intellectual taste-buds of his readers and then takes them on a roller-coaster ride in richly sourced complex of abstract ideas. Invariably a chapter opens with provocative exposition on the Mahatma: like quoting from Kanji Dwarkadas who calls Gandhi “scrawny, half-starved, self-denying… wizened little monkey defying the terrible British lion” or with a very convincing exposition of Nathuram Godse’s in his trial on Gandhi’s assassination where the assassin explains how it was “to thwart Gandhi’s betrayal of the majority’s faith, as well as to prevent the Mahatma himself from being betrayed by Muslims, that Godse felt obliged to kill him.”
Non-violence as a creed
Another chapter opens with how Chauri-Chaura incident leading Gandhi to call-off his non-cooperation movement at-its-peak in 1922 was seen as driven by “his fear of losing control over its potentially revolutionary drift” where non-violence may lose its shine. Gandhi’s dealings with violence, concludes Devji, are far more radical than those of his revolutionary peers like Hitler, Lenin or Mao. This is because non-violence, for Gandhi, could only prove its claim to moral superiority by being tested against violence. This makes Gandhi countenance the greatest violence if the outcome of its churning produces non-violence as a creed. At the same time, says Devji, Gandhi must not be seen as a moralist thinker detached from mainstream politics for such an appreciation of him makes us miss Gandhi as the greatest exemplar in modern times.
Throughout his experiments with non-violence in South Africa, Gandhi claims rights for his fellow migrants neither as Indians nor South Africans but rather as ‘citizens’ of the empire. Indians were as much stakeholders in the empire for they provided labourers and soldiers for it to secure its domains. Secondly, this experience in South Africa also made Gandhi see minorities as ultimate upholders of national values. And since no majority was possible at the imperial level, the empire became his ideal mode for building a liberal global order.
Instead of pushing for national freedom, Gandhi in initial years envisioned India being part of this transformed empire; a collection of self-governing units that were equal and permitted free flow of people and products. This logic explains his two great struggles on behalf of the empire; one for the rights of Indians within it and the other for the preservation of the Caliphate in deference to the wishes of Britain’s Muslim subjects. But this logic makes him a stauncher imperialist than the British themselves.
Gandhi was to gradually lose faith in this empire project and shift his focus from building the imperial liberal order to the needs of India’s freedom struggle. This was to make him increasingly grounded in Indian wisdom and traditions, with the Mutiny of 1857 becoming a major source of his techniques.
Gandhi’s non-violence was premised on refusing to treat life as an absolute value. This was so central to timelessness in Indian idioms on life-and-death cycle. As long as preservation of life remained the basis for all political action, he said, it could never address high moral principles. Only by giving up the thirst for life, the epitome of which was represented by modern war, could the urge to kill be tamed and non-violence evolve as a way of life. In politics, the task of non-violent resistance was to expose evil’s precarious position and draw support from this evil by appealing to his inherent virtues.
Devji calls Gandhi a ‘philosophical anarchist’ who not only disconnects sovereignty from the state, but also believes that the willingness to suffer empowers the weakest of the weak by making him the master of his choices. So, instead of human rights which are to be protected by the State violence he talks of basic duties that make every man his own sovereign. As early as in his 1909 manifesto Hind Swaraj , Gandhi contends how freedom and thus sovereignty were immediately available to anyone fearless enough to accept suffering by withdrawing cooperation from an unjust order.
Gandhi would write letters to Adolf Hitler narrating his techniques of non-violence and urging Hitler to stop the War. This was aimed at converting the fascist leader instead of seeking his victory or defeat. The same was his advice to Jews whom he urged not to impose themselves on Palestine with the help of British bayonets and instead use non-violence to assert German ideals. Such efforts made his peers see Gandhi as politically naïve with Winston Churchill ridiculing Gandhi’s techniques. But Gandhi had the same advice even for the British. Gandhi was pained to see how the use of violence in defeating Nazism had resulted in the creation of greater violence i.e. the atomic bomb.
Prima facie, this instantaneous evaporation of whole populations in atomic war left no space for ‘manifest’ sufferings of Gandhi’s non-violent soldiers to convert enemies. But Gandhi soon came to the conclusion that “It [non-violence] is the only thing that atomic bomb cannot destroy.” If anything, this extreme violence seemed to bring an opportunity by making non-violent resistance still far removed from any political outcomes, thus making it a pure moral agency. This way Gandhi saw a sure possibility to subordinate politics to morality thus spiritualising politics. It is in this backdrop that political independence of India was not seen by Gandhi as validation of either his theories or praxis.
If anything, his half-a-year with independent India saw him disenchanted in the face of the triumph of politics. Gandhi was seen as supporting the deployment of Indian troops in Kashmir. Was it his despair or was Gandhi seeking to turn the conflict in Kashmir into a last opportunity for non-violence? Devji explains it with reference to Gandhi’s obsession with ‘direct dealing’ where he had urged Britain to leave India without partitioning it saying that, even if it has to be, it must be the decision of the Congress and the League. War between India and Pakistan therefore was his last hope for India and Pakistan developing their friendship without fear.
To sum up, for common mortals, this book based on Devji’s earlier essays has to be read at least twice to get any grip on his analysis. This is especially so as his long twisted sentences often make it a bit of a difficult read. But this is perhaps compelled by the author’s need to present an extremely nuanced analysis on the Mahatma as the greatest political thinker of our times.
THE IMPOSSIBLE INDIAN — Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence: Faisal Devji;
Harvard University Press, 79 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02318.