July 5, 2013 By KS Shameer

A Touchstone to Measure Your Gandhi

gandi faisal devji-2_0In Mahatma Gandhi’s life, opposites collide in such a way that we can defend him as rightly as we can demonize.   Idealism and realpolitik have never vied with each other so powerfully in the life of any other person. Faisal Devji brilliantly captures this dilemma in his new work on Mahatma Gandhi: The Impossible Indian, Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence. He says: “The part-challenge and part-desire in the approach of so many among Gandhi’s bitterest enemies, Hindu and Muslim nationalists, not only illustrates the remarkable persuasiveness of his politics, but also tells us how difficult it was for the Mahatma’s foes to decide whether he was transparent in his sincerity or, on the contrary, a consummate hypocrite.” So die-hard defendants as well as hardcore critics of Gandhi can take this book as a touchstone against which they can measure their understanding of the person who both influenced and repelled many great leaders and political thinkers of the 19th century.

Devji develops Hanna Arendt’s analysis of German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s concept of friendship and its political relevance into a daring dialectics on Gandhian politics. Devji talks about three kinds of relationships. Firstly, there is liberalism, ‘the elaboration of social order based upon the freedom of ownership and contract. (It is the freedom of ownership that determines the actions of men by status, property or labour they might possess)’ (page 69). Secondly, ‘the bond of friendship entails the activity of choice, premised as its upon distinguishing the person befriended from all others, while (thirdly) that of brotherhood implies inherited commonality that enters politics only to destroy the differentiation of such a choice.’ (Page, 67).  ‘The point’ is ‘that while friendship must recognise its condition of possibility in the world of discrimination, the condition of brotherhood can only be thought of as a unity already given in advance.’ (Page, 67).

Devji argues that Gandhi was trying to forge political ties among all communities in India on the basis of friendship. Mainly, Gandhi tried to make this tie more relevant in the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. His opposition to inter-dining and intermarriage is interpreted along the lines of fraternity. Gandhi stood against both on the ground that they obliterate the difference between two friends (or communities) and blur two distinct identities.  This might help us interpret Gandhi’s fasting against Ramsey Mc Donald’s Communal award (http://www.islaminteractive.info/content/politician-not-mahatma-episode-not-epoch-maker) using the very same terms. Imperial administration’s allowance of the award was a liberal contract or it is division of privileges in terms of brotherhood, which has the potential to bring the parties concerned to mutual incrimination and allegations of injustice.

One can argue that Gandhi’s focus on friendship between communities has forced him to forsake marginalised classes in the society, which can’t be fit into his theorisation about the ties between the equals. Devji says: ‘It was instead a very particular relationship that could only subsist between certain classes of people, in this case among religious communities like Hindus and Muslims, or political classes such as the Indian and the British. Indeed the Mahatma was quite clear that friendship, or mitrata, was only possible among equals, while those like the so-called ‘Untouchables’ who were placed by history or politics in a position of inferiority had to be engaged by the principle of service, or seva, instead.’ (page 72)
Also, we can’t make it sure that Gandhi always sticks to the principle of friendship, to the exclusion of brotherhood and liberal ties, in all his activities. Devji shares this concern in the following words: ‘ Now Gandhi can and indeed has been accused of promoting his particular brand of friendship only to preserve the privileges of a specially Hindu discrimination in all relations of caste and religion.(The classic account here is Dr BR Ambedkar’s What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables). Such as it is, however, this discrimination is argued coherently enough to leave no hypocritical gap between prejudice and friendship, so that the Mahatma’s discourse only becomes falls when he falls, as does now and then (emphasis is that of reviewer), into the language of interest and brotherhood.’ (page 90)

Another drawback in drawing the line of fraternity between communities is to take them as monolithic entities by ignoring their flaws and highlighting their stark demands as genuine. An example of mutuality Gandhi maintained between the Hindus and Muslims is his support of the Khilafat Movement that the latter posed and his desire that latter would agree to the demand for the ban on cow-slaughter as a friendly gesture towards the former. In fact, the Khilafat agitation was a highly emotional pan-Islamic appeal, which does not strictly come under the normative category of Islam, though Gandhi sanctified it. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal rejected Muslim leaders’ resorting to Khilafat as having of little consequence in the future of Islam (In fact, Gandhi preferred present to future and past 94-97). We can see how the disciples of Gandhi still pampered this Muslim sentiment, many decades later, by legitimising their retrograde stance in the Shah Bano case as well as in the ban of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. That he entrusted the task of abolishing untouchability to Hindu Mahasabha speaks volume about his screwed understanding of Hindu society as a monolith under which Dalits are subsumed.

The real test of Devji’s dialectics is the Partition of India. And he brilliantly analyses it using the dialectics: Still possible even today is the old hierarchical notion of brotherhood, in whose terms the Muslim is defined as Hindu’s younger brother (and so also his sexual rival), a notion that is set up for a rhetoric of betrayal and violence, complete with evocations of the division of a parental inheritance. This inheritance, India, was nevertheless imagined as the mother of both Hindus and Muslims by Gandhi and other nationalists (thereby mixing the terms of brotherhood with those of fraternity: comment by reviewer). So Mahatma’s repeated descriptions of the partition of India as the vivisection of a mother by her sons represent an interesting reversal of a Solomonic parable, for which it is the son who is partitioned between two mothers. (Page 91)
One can read The Impossible Indian as a follow-up of Devji’s two earlier books: Landscapes of Jihad and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity where he presents al-Qaeda as a moral political agent which is fundamentally motivated by sacrifice like Gandhi. But al-Qaeda adopts, in contrast to Gandhi, sacrifice along with victimhood which it in its turn imposes on the liberal order. Non-violence is not born of victimhood, nor is it meek surrender. It is an ‘action’ born of a strengthened atman (consciousness) ever vigilant to be on the track of sacrifice, which it imposes on itself. Atman which is prone to non-violence, is fearless. ‘Even in the early days of his political and spiritual career, the Mahatma struggled to rescue the anarchism of those who feared only God and were thus willing to risk disorder in upholding the truth from that represented by terrorists who spread anarchy out of pure wordly and so immoral fears having to do with foreign or indeed any other kind of domination. (page 152) Terrorists, out of this fear, sacrifice their life considering life as a material construct, thereby perversely altering the moral content of sacrifice, while ‘the paradoxical thing about Mahatma’s glorification of sacrifice in the name of an ideal rather than gross reality such as life, however, is that its rejection of this reality as an absolute value also entailed protecting it.’ (page 187)

So, here comes the moral of the entire discussion of Gandhi’s non-violence: ‘If the spiritualisation of politics meant anything, it was this eminently realistic dedication to an ideal that took precedence over life’s own reality.’ (Page 189)
As far as nationalism is concerned, Gandhi’s thought did have nuances which mark it out from its anarchic and violent forms. Devji identifies Gandhi’s nationality as portable commodity carried by minorities like Gujarati traders in South Africa, the breeding ground of Gandhian political thought. These minorities ‘did not identify’ themselves by their country of origin “and also remained unimpressed by numbers.” But in Modi-fied Gujarat, with its ‘achievement of territorial as well as political integrity together with the liberalisation of Indian economy’ helped these diasporic minority ‘to reclaim their homeland in new ways.’ The model they now exhibit is no more portable, but fixed, chauvinistic and Muslim.’
For anyone who believes that political philosophy in the present time does not exist in isolation but it reflects the light of the past to guide us right towards an uncertain future, Devji’s book is a must read.

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