Re-interpreting Gandhi

ATLANTIC GANDHI — The Mahatma Overseas   | Photo Credit: Scanned in chennai S.Sridharan

Continued worldwide interest and groundbreaking new interpretations of Gandhi make the mining of Gandhian thought a never-ending project. In that stream of writings Atlantic Gandhi opens a new window explaining the Gandhian construct of the ‘Indian nation’ as being deeply rooted in 19 century Atlantic revolutionary legacies; his vision, worldview and tactics as having all firmed up much before he returns to India in 1915 to put all these into practice. The book contends the popular belief that Gandhi’s South Africa experiments were novel yet merely a preparatory phase for his formidable contributions to Indian nationalism.

It was those 20 years of Gandhi’s stay outside India at the turn of 20 century that defined, refined and propagated his first encounter with ‘Indianness’ in the U.K. and then as an umbrella epithet for uniting the motley crowd of Indian migrants in South Africa. In Gandhi’s own narrative this ‘Indianness’ evolved subtly, using pre-national categories, through exilic experiences, marking his own evolution from clan to nation that was only culturally grounded. Remember, till as late as 1918, Gandhi never asked for Indian independence but only rights within the British Commonwealth!

Gandhi was let into this journey by the erudite Dadabhai Naoroji, professor of Gujarati at University College London, who was the first trailblazer germinating diasporic consciousness through his London Indian Society and East India Association, and his Poverty and Un-British Rule (1901). Prominent Bengalis like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had also articulated nationalism but more in terms of explaining the tragedy of colonialism and the romantic longing for motherland. Gujaratis instead had a long history of mercantile diaspora network across the Indian Ocean rim and evolved a pragmatic approach to politics which explains Gandhi’s initial acceptance of British colonialism.

Frame of reference

Nalini Natarajan attempts this new understanding of Gandhi by using the ‘frame of diaspora’ where Gandhi is seen not only being ‘formed’ by his diasporic experience but plays a critical role in transforming the deracinated and de-cultured ‘coolie’ into an expatriate Indian. She wonders whether it was Gandhi’s detachment from the Modh Bania Gujarati community that explains his embracing larger consciousness, first a pan-Gujarati (combining Hindus and Muslims), then cosmopolitan (with English, German, and other European friends) and finally a pan-Indian which included rich and poor, North and South, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. Like other coolies, Gandhi was pushed into the search for alternatives as he had also lost his ‘jaat-biradari’ and Kasturba’s family never accepted him and he could never visit them.

In contrast to Gandhi’s comfortable arrival, barring one incident of being forced out of a train for travelling first class, the arrival of Indian plantation workers, which laid the ground for his diasporic learning, had preceded him by centuries, and had been much scattered and far more painful and humiliating. However, Gandhi was also to encounter this term ‘coolie’ which not just signified wage-labour but was a general racist opprobrium reserved for people from the subcontinent. They were seen as people from the lowest caste and least desirable in the Indian population and were treated as carriers of disease. Gandhi being treated as a ‘coolie’ marks his first encounter with ‘subaltern’ diasporic populations — not as part of them and yet subject to similar discriminations.

As part of his anti-indenture speeches in South Africa, Gandhi speaks of ‘loose women, of ‘huddled prostitutes’ and of “women, who in India would never touch wine, are sometimes found lying dead-drunk on the roads” which again alludes to his Atlantic diasporic links. These essentially are reflections that stem not from South Africa but grounded in his readings of the 19 century Caribbean indenture. Initial migrants in the Caribbean were mainly men and minority of women who sometimes found indenture as a new space that offered greater physical and sexual liberties. If anything, such articulation by Gandhi betrayed ignorance of the tradition of Devdasis in which women were trained in fine arts and their well-being was ensured by upper caste patrons in return for sexual reciprocity which was strictly organised by elder women who controlled all property.

Curious views

Equally curious was his response to this imagined crisis where diasporic Gandhi goes to extremes in creating his sexually controlled ‘Indian’ by asking young men and women to bathe together in the Tolstoy Farm’s pond. And when boys begin teasing girls, Gandhi orders a more extreme solution asking girls to cut their long hair to ‘sterilise the sinner’s eye’ which was opposed by several of them. But all this was part of his struggle to obtain privilege and legal status of ‘wifehood’ of diasporic Indian women. Later, Gandhi emerges as champion of widow remarriages, ending of dowry and female child marriages.

Atlantic linkages

Gandhi’s location in South Africa is at the cusp of Indian and Atlantic Oceans but it is the ebbs and flow of Atlantic history rather than the Indian Ocean that resonates Gandhi’s diasporic nationalism of the lower classes, indentured and ex-indentured. But unlike Atlantic revolutionaries, Gandhi’s methods of protests not only combine both merchants and indentured labour but eschew revolutionary Atlantic proletariat’s radicalism. Yet, Gandhi’s mobilisation of ‘coolies’ and ‘peddlers’ (as Indian labour-migrants and merchants were called) in South Africa were still the outgrowth of the 19 century Caribbean cultural movements of Creolisation that had culminated in famous the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) which eliminated slavery from Haiti and forever transformed patterns of Europeans colonisation, replacing slavery with indenture. Gandhi had closely followed parliamentary debates on indentured Indians in the Caribbean especially on conditions of women.

Second, Gandhi’s most important political treatise, Hind Swaraj, was written during November 13-22, 1909, onboard ship SS Kildonan Castle sailing across Atlantic from London to South Africa. The author shows how while Gandhi’s use of expatriate technology of print (and also ship and its tech-savvy life) may be seen as modern and European, the content of Hind Swaraj are radically non-European and non-modern celebrating India’s age-old traditions and way of life. Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm are his crucibles for construction this unique ‘Indianness’ by producing right Indians. Dinabandhu C. F. Andrews is another critical link of Gandhi to the Atlantic. Like Gandhi, Andrews travelled extensively, including to the Caribbean. But, unlike Gandhi Andrews was close to cultural figures like Tagore and spiritual figures like Gandhi and shared the confidence of Viceroys like Lord Hardinge, and even Churchill.

The author uses social constructivist Benedict Anderson, of Imagined Communities (2006) fame, to read Gandhi’s construction of nationalism. Anderson believes that a nation is formed by bilinguals who traverse the length and breadth of the nation. He calls modern print nationalism as result of both capitalist expansion and rise of bilingual communities in contrast to sacred and court languages of ancient and medieval times. The author makes a distinction by presenting Gandhian nationalism not as a product of Anderson’s bilingual state officials but from the legacies of the criss-crossing creolite of the wretched of the earth across the Atlantic. Gandhi aims merely for cultural affirmation of diaspora but inadvertently ignites nationalism and political consciousness.

The author also plots Gandhi’s evolution through various ‘inexplicable blunders’ like calling Santhals useless for plantations or describing Indians as brothers of Europeans via Aryan immigrants. Gandhi’s exclusive attention to the Indian problem over the plight of Africans and his overlooking the indigenous people at home also continue to be a puzzle for Gandhian studies. This means there is so much more that still needs to be examined and interpreted. A must read.

ATLANTIC GANDHI — The Mahatma Overseas : Nalini Natarajan; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 695.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 2:45:27 PM |

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