Tag Archives: morality

Great Soul – further views about Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi

Gandhi and South Africa

A recent book by Joseph Lelyveld Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India was seen by some tabloid newspapers as suggesting Gandhi had latent sexual feelings towards his close friend Hermann Kallenbach. The controversy was used by the BJP Gujarat chief minster, Narendra Modi, to try to ban the book nationally. The article, in The Nation, explores the motives behind Modi’s attempts and also critiques the book itself. Read the full article by Martha C. Nussbaum:

Gandhi and South Africa by Martha C. Nussbaum, published in The Nation

Joseph Lelyveld book caused a stir even in the popular press in the UK when it was published and was banned in the state of Gujarat in India. Among the reviews, one by well-known historian Professor Andrew Roberts expressed a very negative view of Gandhi. Antony Copley of the Gandhi Foundation, and a historian himself, responded:

Antony Copley’s response to Professor Andrew Robert’s review

A Reply to Andrew Roberts’ Review of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

A new book on Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld has caused a stir even in the popular press in the UK and has been banned in the state of Gujarat in India. Among the reviews, one by well-known historian Professor Andrew Roberts expresses a very negative view of Gandhi. Antony Copley of the Gandhi Foundation, and a historian himself, responds.

A Reply to Andrew Roberts’ Review of Joseph Lelyveld’s
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

Dear Andrew,

I can see why you felt driven to write so distasteful a review of Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi. As a historian, indeed it could be said as a hagiographer, of Churchill, you must always have been on the lookout for some way of getting back at Gandhi. For all his achievements as a liberal reformer in the pre-1914 government and as a war leader Churchill died a disappointed man. His life’s ambition had been to save the Empire and he had failed and none bore so great a responsibility for his failure as Gandhi. And of course his contempt for Gandhi as the Inner Temple lawyer, posing in his eyes as a half-naked fakir, betrays his grim awareness of where his imperial ambitions had met their nemesis. Whereas as General Smuts had the insight to recognise a person of high moral stature, Churchill was hopelessly blinkered. His was an odd dichotomy for we can see in his passionate opposition to appeasement the need to stand up to Hitler but he was quite unable to grasp, as a defendant of appeasement like Halifax had, that through Gandhi was the one possibility Britain had for that gradual change from Empire to Commonwealth, one of the more admirable transpositions of British policy in the 20th century.

Jawarharlal Nehru famously told Richard Attenborough when he gave the go-ahead for his film on Gandhi, don’t turn him into a saint and I agree with you that we do Gandhi no favours by writing hagiography. Gandhi was such an exemplary leader just because of his all too human frailties. Yours is an attempt to belittle Gandhi’s achievement in the public sphere and to diminish the man in the private. You readily take up any half-truth going and turn it into calumny. It is a careless and slapdash attempt at character assassination. Wavell would be very surprised to find himself Vice-Roy in 1942: it was the unimaginative Linlithgow who locked up Gandhi and the Congress High Command after the Quit India satyagraha of August 1942. Wavell was only his successor in 1943.

So firstly, your sour commentary on Gandhi the private man.

Interpretation of Gandhi’s deeply troubled struggle to harness his sexual energies has already become a well rehearsed attempt at salacious denigration. We now understand how Gandhi sought in all those experiments with the truth, as he saw them in his Autobiography, a way of overcoming weakness and gaining strength for the awesome challenge he was undertaking against imperialism. Here is one explanation for his admittedly somewhat obsessive concern with diet. And diet was also one way at controlling sexual desire. Who are we to judge Gandhi if he convinced himself that sublimation of sexual desire was one vital resource in his awesome political struggles? Of course it put almost intolerable constraints on his followers and asceticism has always been psychologically costly. It was when Gandhi faced the simply horrendous possibilities of communal madness leading to partition, fearing that his sexual self-control was slipping and that he would then lack the force to face the impending holocaust, that he embarked on that embarrassing experiment with his grandniece Manu. Indeed, he did find the energy to bring communal harmony to Noakhali. But many have doubts about the wisdom of that experiment. But you show no interest as to what lay behind it.

And now comes another kind of controversy over his personal life. Was he the lover of the German Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach? There is nothing new here at exploring the possibilities at such relationships in the lives of famous Indians: Nehru has been seen as having such a relationship with his tutor and indeed possibly with Mountbatten. It is all grist to the biographical mill. Personally I would not want to reject such a proposal on grounds of the nature of its sexuality: we have had to struggle far too hard in our lifetime to see the acceptability of homosexuality as a part of the spectrum of human sexuality only to fall into the trap of prejudice and here use this possibility as a means of expressing contempt for Gandhi, something you seem all too ready to do. It is also worth pointing out that in Africa, a continent with such an appalling track record of intolerance, South Africa is a rare  exception, a country with an extremely enlightened legislation and indeed a recognition of civil partnership. Would that India was anywhere near being so tolerant and enlightened.

Margaret Chatterjee is the best person to comment on Gandhi’s friendship with Kallenbach. She has written so sympathetically of Gandhi’s friendships with both Kallenbach and Henry Polak in Gandhi’s Jewish Friends. Quite clearly this was the friendship that changed Kallenbach’s life, a rich Johannesburg architect, who became one of Gandhi’s earliest European followers, drastically reduced his material way of life to embrace Gandhi’s ideal of ashram poverty, deeply engaged with Gandhi over all matters dietary, and came to the rescue of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns when he bought Tolstoy farm outside Johannesburg to meet the crucial needs of Gandhi’s struggle against the pass law and internal restrictions on migration. There is a wonderful story of their journey to England together in 1914 when Gandhi criticised him for his expensive pair of binoculars and Kallenbach ended (or was it Gandhi?) by joyfully throwing them into the sea.

But a sexual relationship? Obviously one will have to look at the evidence Lelyveld has discovered but on face value it seems  improbable. The earliest use of the fast by Gandhi was when a case of sodomy came to light between two boys at the Phoenix Farm ashram. Gandhi was apparently in great distress and Kallenbach tried to dissuade him from so extreme a response but eventually concurred, and indeed there were to be two fasts, presumably because the boys after the ending of the first had renewed their affair. By any modern standards Gandhi had pretty regressive attitudes to human sexuality and just possibly behind brahmacharya, his vow of celibacy, lay some repressed element in his makeup. But we know that Charles Andrews felt strongly attracted to Gandhi but Gandhi increasingly kept him at an emotional distance, and the same was true of Madeleine Slade. Are we seriously to believe Gandhi made this extraordinary exception of Kallenbach?

It might be best to respond to your other slurs on Gandhi’s role in the public sphere on narrative order.

You point to some radical inconsistency in Gandhi the opponent of Empire working as an ambulance driver in the wars against the Boers and the Zulus. Firstly Gandhi will make no sense unless you accept his commitment to oaths of loyalty, his belief that Victoria had pledged Britain to care for its Empire and it was not to be till the outrageous massacre at Amritsar in 1919 that Gandhi brought himself to break that oath of loyalty and engage in non-violent resistance. But secondly you need to know that the  ambulance brigades were made up of all the different Indian communities in South Africa and was an experiment in nation-building and that Gandhi was deeply moved by the courage of the Boers and here was one inspiration for his freedom struggle, though in his case a non-violent one. And yes it is true Gandhi was too much a man of his times to reach out to the black majority in South Africa; that was an expansion of the imagination that his son Manilal was to undergo.

Then you find fault with Gandhi’s attitudes to one of the leaders of India’s Muslim community, Jinnah, and the leader of the untouchables, Ambedkar. Here Gandhi’s battle was as an integral nationalist. Jinnah had emerged at the Lucknow Congress of 1916 as the promising new leader of Congress but it had come at the price of accepting separate  electorates for Indian Muslims. Gandhi did not contest Jinnah’s leadership on grounds of his being a Muslim but his being possibly the classic Anglicised Indian. As Gandhi sought to make sense of where the nationalist movement had reached on his return from South Africa he was keenly aware that it had to change from one led by a westernised elite and pursuing a narrow constitutional path to one reaching out to the Indian population at large, above all to its peasantry, and becoming an authentic mass movement. He tried to undo the damage as he saw it of a separate electorate, which threatened a divide between Hindus and Muslims, by  seeking an alliance with the Khilafat movement. But indeed when this petered out the damage to communal relationships became all too apparent.

It was for this reason that Gandhi was so passionately opposed to Ambedkar’s campaign for separate electorates for Indian untouchables. Ambedkar, a brilliant constitutional lawyer and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, was a formidable opponent. Gandhi’s attack on untouchability was all of a piece. He sought the entrance of untouchables to caste Hindu temples as way of their integration into the caste system. He embarked on a fast unto death in Poona in 1932 at Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorate as a means of staving off any further division of the Indian body politic. And who would in comparable circumstance accept separate electorates for Afro-Americans or Hispanics in America or ethnic minorities in the UK?

But his stand had of course consequences. Jinnah, who might have ended his days as a barrister in London, returned to play the communal card, with disastrous consequences. However, at the end, knowing he was dying, he tried to steer the new state of Pakistan towards religious tolerance and to extend friendship to the Hindu minority.

You also ridicule Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha. Yes, it is true that violence in 1919 just possibly might have led to independence in the same way as in Ireland. John Grigg made this case a long time ago. But equally probably the colonial state would have had the power to fight back. It was this awareness that led Aurobindo Ghose, Gandhi’s most outstanding precursor as a national leader, to recognise that a tactic of violence would not work. And yes, satyagraha began to look fragile as a strategy as the world closed in on World War II. At least over Czechoslovakia Gandhi was no appeaser and indeed the Czechs did possess the powers to resist Germany by conventional means, had they not been betrayed at Munich. And yes Gandhi had no answer to the plight of the European Jews though possibly had a case against immigration into Palestine. Was he so misguided in 1942? The evidence suggests that he had every expectation that the British would stay on anyway to protect India for their own imperial interests against Japan and you overlook the obvious fact that the Japanese were allied to the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose and, had they won in 1944 – in fact all the evidence suggests they were at the end of their advance – Bose would have mitigated any Japanese brutality. The whole point of satyagraha is an argument about consequences, that a violent struggle can but lead to a violent society. Hence his calling off the campaign in 1922 following the violence at Chauri Chaura. Here is a wisdom that was widely recognised in Eastern Europe in 1989 and possibly today in the Arab Spring.

I wonder if you can bring yourself to see Churchill’s bête-noire in a more charitable light?

Antony Copley
Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent


View Andrew Roberts’ review

Nehru On Gandhi, Views On Political Culture – by Prem Misir

Gandhi and Nehru

 

In an effort to review India’s emergent move into global economic dominance I thought that it might be useful to look at a few of Gandhi’s ideas of something called ‘political culture’ through the eyes of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. And indeed, Gandhi and Nehru did not have a monopoly over ideas to craft a new political culture. But we have to start somewhere. I present these ideas randomly, not for integrative purposes.

Nehru admired Gandhi’s constant focus on the ‘right way’ of doing things; using the correct methods for doing things. Stress on using the right means to achieve ends was one of Gandhi’s great contributions to public life. Where most people think about ends, it seems strange that Gandhi would concentrate on means; but it is an extraordinary way of thinking; thinking linked to the moral law of truth that may have hugely impacted India. Nehru endorsed the use of an ethical or moral perspective on life; and both Nehru and Gandhi sought to infuse this moral law of truth in politics. Gandhi’s moral approach to problem solving brought a significant new dimension to Indian political behaviour; Nehru observed the moral impact on politics, thus:

“Politics cease to be just expediency and opportunism, as they have usually been everywhere, and there is a continuous moral tussle preceding thought and action. Expediency… can never be ignored, but it is toned down by other considerations and a longer view of more distant consequences … Bernard Shaw has said that though he (Gandhi) may commit any number of tactical errors, his essential strategy continues to be right. Most people, however, are not much concerned with the long run; they are far more interested in the tactical advantage of the moment.”

Nehru noted too the cultural impact on India of a Turkish invasion, an Afghan invasion, and a Turco-Mongol or Mughal invasion; and highlighted ‘purdah’ (seclusion of women) as one new cultural development, among others; ‘purdah’ possibly emerged during the Mughal times. Isolating women in both public and private life was noticeable in Delhi, the United Provinces, Rajputana, Bihar, and Bengal. Gandhi spoke out against ‘purdah’; through the Indian Congress Party and with the help of thousands of middle-class women, Gandhi advocated that women should have the same freedom and opportunity for self-development as males; and an end to domestic slavery. Note the constitutional provision in Guyana for the Women and Gender Equality Commission; still on paper, as the PNCR withdrew its parliamentary services on the day the item was put to the vote. Guyana is poorer with this loser mentality.

At the beginning of World War I, Pandit Nehru asked “How could we pull India out of this quagmire of poverty and defeatism…?” Nehru captured Gandhi’s answer and teaching, thus:

“… He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of these peasants and workers … all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery.”

For Gandhi, the squalor of poverty and the great divide between the rich and the poor owed their existence to foreign rule and foreign exploitation, and capitalism through introduction of technology; Gandhi was not opposed to technology per se, but believed that it should be applied to absorb labour and not produce new unemployment.

To alleviate some poverty, Gandhi devised a programme of the spinning-wheel and village industry to address the problem of India – scarcity of capital and abundance of labour. Gandhi believed that the ends, such as profitability from technology, cannot justify the means, as unemployment to attain prosperity; he understood that moral values must first triumph, as the ends cannot substantiate disreputable means, no matter how good the ends are.

But Nehru believed that the real meaning of Gandhi’s teaching was fearlessness and truth with allied action, at all times upholding the welfare of the masses. This was the period of British rule of India, at a time when deep-seated fear stalked the land; fear of British institutions. Gandhi’s voice on truth and fearlessness brought some change and a psychological reaction that enabled people to feel ashamed about their long capitulation to foreign rule; and indeed the desire to do something about it. And this is true, too, of his nationalism, inevitable for the freedom of India.

It always has been the norm that a country will first protect its national interests before it considers the international community interests. And Nehru noted that Gandhi’s nationalism deviated from that norm; for the longevity of foreign rule and exploitation in India became an irritant to the mind and distorted all thought and action; producing frustration and bitterness. But Gandhi’s nationalism had a world outlook, where he visualized a world federation of interdependent states; and Gandhi created a nationalist movement that reduced irritation and animosity that Indians felt against the British. Nehru remarked that he had not seen any other nationalist movement like Gandhi’s, largely devoid of hatred. Incidentally, Dr. Cheddi Jagan also spoke about interdependence between the North and South in his New Global Human Order proposal.

Through Nehru’s eyes, we saw how Gandhi’s passion for democracy transformed the Congress Party into a mass movement; becoming an agrarian organisation; how the success of anything was premised on the quantity and quality of benefits the masses receive; a unique and quiet kind of democracy for the masses, definitively linked to the freedom of India.

Prem Misir is Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana.

Mahatma Gandhi: A Father with No Nation – by Bhikhu Parekh

Mahatma Gandhi has most probably realised his ambition of attaining moksha [spiritual liberation] and is unlikely to return to earth. However, should he do so, he would be deeply disturbed by many aspects of contemporary India. He would be shocked at the corrosive corruption that has spread to all walks of life and eroded the great moral capital that he and his colleagues left behind by exemplifying in their lives the highest norms of public life. It is not the petty corruption of a junior government officer that would have worried him, but rather the way in which the common good of the country is constantly sacrificed at the altar of sectional and individual interest and the almost total absence of embarrassment and guilt with which it is done.

Gandhiji would be even more saddened by the depth and extent of poverty. On the official criteria of earning one dollar a day, 25% of our people live below the poverty line. But if this poverty were to be defined in terms of calorie consumption and the satisfaction of basic needs, the figure would rise to 60%. Gandhiji would see this as nothing short of a national shame. He would consider it a betrayal of his legacy that no systematic movement has been mounted for the abolition of poverty and the growing economic inequality in the 60 odd years of India’s Independence.

He would be equally disturbed by the country’s lack of an inspiring moral vision. It has set its eyes on becoming an economic super power by 2020 on a growth rate of between 5 and 7 percent. Gandhi would want to know the point of this. Economic growth exploits nature, creates deep inequality, puts enormous pressure on social and political institutions and encourages mindless consumerism. At best, it can be a means to a worthwhile goal but never an end in itself. Gandhiji would want to know what great moral and political ideals we intend to realise by means of economic growth and how we intend to make India a humane and compassionate society.

Gandhi would have been shocked by the increasing cultural philistinism and lack of moral idealism of the new middle class, on which he had placed his hopes for Independent India. The middle class of his time had a strong social conscience. It was bi-cultural and at ease with both the Indian and the Western tradition. It was both rooted and open, and took a morally serious approach to human life. It had certain standards by which it aspired to live and felt guilty when it could not.

The new middle class could not be more different. It lacks social conscience and has little regard for the worse off. It is rootless and is neither well versed in its own traditions, nor in those of the West. It is culturally and economically insecure and prone to panic. Its primary concern is to make money and spend it in shallow pursuits.

Faced with all this, what would Gandhiji have done? First, he would have mounted a campaign of satyagrahas against clearly identified and suitably dramatised cases of inequality and injustice. In doing so he would have offered the victims of injustices a badly needed alternative to Naxalism. Second, he would have built up a nationwide cadre (lok sevak sangh) of committed workers, dispersed them in villages and expected them to attend to local problems and act as a powerful check on the local power structure. Third, he would have set a personal example of incorruptibility and inspired his close colleagues to do the same. Fourth, he would have thrown up a political movement that would have cleared away the decaying and unprincipled political parties and created a space for the emergence of new ones. Finally, while confronting a situation like the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992, he would have explored all possible political ways of resolving the issue peacefully.

He would have put pressure on Hindu and Muslim religious leaders to work out a compromise, which was not impossible and perhaps suggested building a multi-religious complex around it to symbolise India’s commitment to religious pluralism. If Hindus had still insisted on destroying the mosque, he would have seen it as a grave violation of their great tradition of tolerance and an indelible stain on the national conscience. He would have felt that he had no choice but to embark upon a fast, even perhaps a fast unto death, to save the honour of the religion and the country that he loved more than his own life.

Lord Bhikhu Parekh is Vice-President of the Gandhi Foundation and a Professor at the
Centre for the Study of Democracy in the University of Westminster.

Gandhi on Economics

Due to various banking crises the British media have been more than usually interested in recent months in directors’ and CEOs’ bonuses and salaries. These outrageously high incomes are not confined of course to bankers but are normal among large companies. The majority of employees of these businesses might receive around £20,000 per year while at the ‘top of the pyramid there will be incomes of around £1 million — a ratio of 50:1. Gandhi had some things to say on the issue of income differentials:

“That economics is untrue which ignores or disregards moral values. The extension of the law of nonviolence in the domain of economics means nothing less than the introduction of moral values as a factor to be considered in regulating international commerce.”

“My ideal is equal distribution, but so far as I can see, it is not to be realised. I therefore work for equitable distribution.”

“I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no man dying of starvation in this world.”

“It is open to the world … to laugh at my dispossessing myself of all property. For me the dispossessing has been a positive gain. I would like people to compete with me in my contentment. It is the richest treasure that I own. Hence it is perhaps right to say that though I preach poverty, I am a rich man!”

“No one has ever suggested that grinding pauperism can lead to anything else than moral degradation. Every human being has a right to live and therefore to find the wherewithal to feed himself and where necessary to clothe and house himself. But for this very simple performance we need no assistance from economists or their laws.”

“The rich cannot accumulate wealth without the co-operation of the poor in society. If this knowledge were to penetrate to and spread amongst the poor, they would become strong and would learn how to free themselves by means of nonviolence.”

Quotations from All Men are Brothers, Navajivan Publishing House.

Gandhi Against Modernity – by Rex Ambler

This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997.

Gandhi wrote only one book, strictly speaking: Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule. He wanted to clarify what he meant by swaraj, a word that had come to mean a number of different things in the Indian political scene of that time (1909). Was it ‘self-rule’ in the sense that the Irish were then seeking it, a take-over of political power? Or was it something more profound and personal?

Gandhi approached these questions by asking another, what was it that Indians specifically needed to be liberated from? He came to the conclusion that it was not British rule as such, but something deeper and more pervasive. It was modern civilization. This was a relatively new and somewhat shocking idea in an Indian context, and Gandhi clearly needed to justify it. But his justification of the claim was, if anything, more shocking than the claim itself. He argued that modern civilization, as presented in the West and more specifically in Britain, was an evil force that was entirely opposed to the true interests of human beings, thus

‘The tendency of… the western civilization is to propagate immorality’(1)

The very things it boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading: far from establishing health and justice, they perpetuate immoral practice and deprive people of the self-knowledge and self-sufficiency to cope with the problems that face them.

‘Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin’ (2) lawyers have ‘enslaved India’ (3) ‘That which you consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute’ (4)

And so with every practice and institution that can claim to be modern.

This wholescale condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers. His own political guru, Ghokale, according to Mahadev Desai, ‘thought it so crude and hastily conceived that he prophesied that Gandhiji himself would destroy it after spending a year in India’ (5) But Gandhiji didn’t. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed its ideas on many occasions afterwards, even as late as 1945, 36 years on, when he said,

‘I withdraw nothing except one word of it, and that in deference to a lady friend’ (6)

the friend in question being Annie Besant.

What was going on? Why this vehement attack? And what exactly was he trying to say? Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. He was usually balanced, judicious, ready to see the good in those things which he opposed. And in this particular case we may think he had particular reason to appreciate the civilization in which he himself had trained as a lawyer, learned to think through his philosophy (with the aid of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau) and discovered the power of organized campaigns for achieving justice (from such as Bradlaugh and Besant). Was he being entirely honest? Or had he taken on more than he could properly comprehend?

It could easily be argued that Gandhi had two lines of thought which are essentially quite different, and only tenuously related. There is the shrewd thinking of the lawyer and politician on the one hand, and the idealistic and faddish thinking of the religious seeker on the other. Both appear in Hind Swaraj, it could be said, which explains its muddle and extremism. He is shrewd about tactics and PR, but hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world.

But this won’t do. it helps us to dispose of (what for us in the west may be) the difficult side of Gandhi, but it fails to come to terms with Gandhi’s own account of his intention. It may be that the dualism of our own (modern western) thinking prevents us from seeing how politics and spirituality, analysis and morality can be woven into a whole.

Look at the context to start with. He was returning from London on a leisurely sea trip with two disappointments on his mind: the failure to win support from the British government for the Indian cause in South Africa, and the new threat of violence in the Indian Home Rule movement. He wrote a letter the following year (1910) to a Mr Wybergh of the Transvaal Legislative Assembly to explain why he had written the book in the way he had.

‘The choice lay between allowing the readers of Indian Opinion (for whom it was originally intended), anxious though they were for guidance, to drift away in the matter of the insane violence that is now going on in India, or giving them, no matter how humble, a lead that they were asking for. The only way I saw of mitigating violence was the one sketched in the pamphlet”. (7)

He knew that violence would not have achieved what these youthful anarchists had in mind and which Gandhi largely had in mind too. The British were too powerful to be removed in this way, as Gandhi had been learning from his contacts in London with the Irish Home Rule movement. But how could Indians be persuaded to struggle without the violence that would surely let them down? And what precisely would they have to be struggling for? India was not South Africa with its very obvious injustice. It is evident that in setting himself to write such a book Gandhi had a difficult and sensitive task in hand.

Gandhi contrived his book as a dialogue between himself as ‘editor’ (of Indian Opinion) and the youthful but misguided revolutionary as ‘reader’, reflecting, he later claimed, the actual conversations he had in London that year (9). He pointed out to his anarchist partner, among other things, the contradiction in using the weapons of the British to eject the British. Means and ends were not so easily separable. It was also naive to suppose that in getting rid of the British they would have got rid of the problems that had dogged them for 300 years.

The oppression was not simply political: it was also, and more fundamentally, economic and ideological. If these youthful nationalists wanted to serve the true interests of India they should first identify her real enemy, which was not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He wrote some two months later in Indian Opinion:

‘We saw in Hind Swaraj, that it is not so much from British rule that we have to save ourselves as from Western civilization.’ (10)

This might at first appear to to have increased what was already a near impossible task, but as Gandhi presented it the task was made easier. For Indians already had their own economic order, morality and culture — their own civilization in fact. So to oppose western civilization quite vigorously, as Gandhi did here, was, at the very least, tactically prudent.

It was also therapeutic, given the despondency and weakness of the Indian masses. This is evident from the continual emphasis in the book on the need for Indians to recover their moral strength and to find Swaraj for themselves. It is clarified by a letter he wrote to his friend and co-worker, Henry Polak, just before writing the book:

‘If you agree with me, it will be your duty to tell the revolutionaries and everybody else that the freedom they want, or they think they want, is not to be obtained by killing people or doing violence, but by setting themselves right, and by becoming and remaining truly Indian. Then the British rulers will be servants and not masters. They will be trustees and not tyrants, and they will live in perfect peace with the whole of the inhabitants of India. The future, therefore, lies not with the British race, but with the Indians themselves, and if they have sufficient self-abnegation and abstemiousness, they can make themselves free this very moment’ (11)

If we think of Hind Swaraj in these therapeutic terms, as helping Indians to ‘set themselves right’, we can see it as an psychological exercise in confidence building: it would be aimed, negatively, at liberating his fellow countrymen from paranoia (in relation to the British), a collective inferiority complex, and over-dependency; and it would be aimed, positively, at enhancing their self-confidence, maturity of outlook and freedom of thought and action. Swaraj could be defined precisely as personal freedom and maturity.

‘We can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands’ (12)

In that respect Gandhi’s therapy is very close to Freud’s, which was being developed at the same time. But Gandhi’s depended on a polarisation of good and bad that would have given Freud some qualms. Indian civilization was not only better than the English, it was ‘far superior to yours’, he tells the English (13) it is ‘unquestionably the best’ (14) ‘not to be beaten in the world’ (15) and, indeed, ‘has nothing to learn from anybody else’ (16).The polarization is sharpened in his preface to the English translation of 1910:

‘The British government in India constitutes a struggle between the Modern Civilization, which is the Kingdom of Satan, and the Ancient Civilization, which is the Kingdom of God. The one is the God of War, the other is the God of Love’ (17)

Is this delusion of grandeur, a compensation for a sense of powerlessness? Again,

‘Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy” ( 18 )

Freud has cited ‘the withering glance’ as an example of a self-deception designed to make up for feelings of weakness. But perhaps in the context of Gandhi’s concern the compensation was part of the process of therapy that would end in a well-grounded self-confidence which was capable also of appreciating others. Gandhi gives a hint of this longer-term goal in his address to the English:

‘Only on condition of our demands being fully satisfied may you remain in India; and if you remain under those conditions, we shall learn several things from you and you will learn many from us. So doing we shall benefit each other and the world’ (19)

Polarization of good and bad also helped the actual struggle against the British, since it gave motivation to fight and at the same time gave some justification for the use of the very unorthodox weapons Gandhi had tried and tested in South Africa. Nonviolent resistance needed to be seen as worthy and powerful if it was to be effective in practice: it could not be a mere technique.

At this point the politics and the spirituality coincide exactly: the effectiveness of the political movement for Indian independence, relying on those resources that were peculiar to India and in which India had an advantage, depended precisely on spiritual values which enabled them to look beyond the politically expedient. For Gandhi himself, after all, Swaraj was always more than a political objective, though, as he admitted himself, he had little success in persuading others about this. He wrote of the book in 1921:

‘I would warn the reader against thinking that I am today aiming at the swaraj described therein. I know that India is not ripe for it. It may seem an impertinence to say so. But such is my conviction. I am individually working for the self-rule pictured therein. But today my corporate activity is undoubtedly devoted to the attainment of parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India’ (20)

The commitment to both personal self-rule and political independence was not a conflict for Gandhi, however, since the two belonged together, and the one grew out of the other. Struggling for political freedom with nonviolent means would develop spiritual aspirations as well. His problem was only that India was not yet ‘ripe’.

Part of the intention of Hind Swaraj, then, was to develop the spiritual awareness of his Indian readers so that they would not judge their situation in narrowly pragmatic or material terms. This in turn required a further criticism of the West since, on his understanding, it had rejected spiritual values in everything but matters of private life, Its tendency was all the other way, towards purely material welfare, and even then with the very crude notion that more material things meant greater human welfare. As he summarizes his view elsewhere,

‘Western civilization is material, frankly material. It assures progress by the progress of matter – railways, conquest of disease, conquest of the air. These are the triumphs of civilization according to Western measure. No one says, “Now the people are more truthful or more humble” (21)

In addition to the politician, therapist and tactician in Hind Swaraj we also hear the prophet. He is outraged by what modernity has done to the world, in unemployment, tedium and war. It has a rhetoric of justice and equality, and some individuals who live up to these deals, but its basic dynamic ensures that these things cannot be achieved. On the contrary, its primary commitment to money through control of the market (‘Money is their God’(22)) ensures that large numbers of people are kept in poverty. Its primary relation to India is also precisely that. The English

‘hold whatever dominions they have for the sake of their commerce…. They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods,’ (23)

This perspective helps us to see more precisely what he understands by modern civilization. He is thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique. It is modernity as such that worries him. And it worries him because of its devastating effect on human beings. This welcome refinement of the argument was made clearer in a speech of 1925:

‘Do not for one moment consider that I condemn all that is Western. For the time being I am dealing with the predominant character of modern civilization, do not call it Western civilization, and the predominant character of modern civilization is the exploitation of the weaker races of the earth’ (24)

He therefore wants to ask moral questions of it. ‘Is the world any the better for those quick instruments of locomotion?’, for example. ‘How do these instruments advance man’s spiritual progress? ‘Do they not in the last resort hamper it? And is there any limit to man’s ambition?… And what is all this worry and fateful hurry for? To what end?’ (25) It is therefore on moral criteria that he finally condemns it. ‘The key to understanding Hind Swaraj’, he wrote in the 1914 preface, ‘lies in the idea that worldy pursuits should give way to ethical living’ (26). He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. In this he followed some western critics, like Tolstoy, Ruskin and Emerson (27).

There was also an Indian ingredient to the critique: the idea that ‘commitment to material progress was an intoxication, a moha (as in Arjuna’s account of Krishna’s state of mind in the Gita (28)), or an illusion, maya. This in fact seems to provide the backbone to his reasoning. Note the crucial passage in the section on ‘Civilization’:

‘Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it, and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man, while he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep’ (29)

Perhaps some of the vehemence of Gandhi’s language was intended to shake people out of a sleep, out of a state of intoxication. For only by seeing the truth, behind the glamorous illusion, would they be able to resist its hold on them. Gandhi wrote to Maganlal at about this time,

‘Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief’ (30)

Gandhi’s talk, like that of a guru, was to help his disciples to wake up. When they did so they would naturally do the right thing. Part of the (potential) subtlety of this analysis is that it saved Gandhi from writing off the English as morally despicable. His attitude is rather that of sadness and pity.

‘They rather deserve our sympathy. They are a shrewd nation and I therefore believe that they will cast off the evil. They are enterprising and industrious, and their mode of thought is not inherently immoral. Neither are they bad at heart. I therefore respect them’ (31)

The polarization is aimed at civilization, not people, which provides another important reason for not resorting to violence. It also provides the basis of Gandhi’s boundless optimism, which can envisage not only the liberation of India from the illusions of this world, but also, through India, the liberation of the world!

However, it was not so important for Gandhi that this vision would ever be real ized. It seemed to he enough that it was possible, for it then motivated the struggle to realize it and set the horizon for one’s individual quest for liberation.

Even so, we might still wish to conclude, after considering this rationale of Gandhi, that he was caught in the trap of his own utopianism (32). He can oppose modern civilization so totally only because he can seriously believe that its idealistic alternative is possible and feasible. But, it might be said, since the alternative is constructed on the basis of a purely spiritual understanding of the human and historical situation it cannot even begin to be feasible. (Gandhi’s jibe about ‘merely material’ civilization might he redirected to him as ‘merely spiritual’).

Further, because he judged western civilization on the basis of its worst effects he was bound to judge it a total failure. In a revealing comment towards the end of Hind Swaraj he said: ‘I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery’ (p.96), not even the ship he was sailing on at the time, or the glasses he was wearing when he wrote those words.

This is an example of the psychological polarization I spoke of earlier, which was as much a part of his personal mind-set as it was of the political and cultural struggle he led in India. In its original context of struggle, as I hope I have shown, it was justifiable and relevant (33). Away from that context it is less secure: we need to introduce again categories of ambiguity and compromise which recognize that our ideals for society cannot be embodied in the world in a pure and unsullied form. But I am aware, in suggesting this, that I am reintroducing categories of analysis which are distinctly western, which admit of a tension, if not an opposition, between the worldly and the spiritual, the political and the personal. Our thinking in the west has undoubtedly been chastened by the modern experience of both astonishing success and appalling failure.

The question remains, however, whether the society Gandhi envisaged was, and is, ultimately possible, and whether modern society as he knew it was, and is, unsustainable. If the answer to both is affirmative, then it would make sense after all to oppose modern society in the name of something that can genuinely transcend it.

Notes and References

1. Hind Swaraj (hereafter HS), Navajivan Press, Ahmeclabad, rev.ed. 1939, p. 63.
2. HS, p.59
3. HS, p.54
4. HS, p.31
5. Desai’ s preface to HS, p.14
6. HS, p.14
7. Letter to Mr. Wybergh, May 10, 1910, in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (hereafter Writings) ed. Raghavan Iyer, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, vol I, pp.297f.
8. See the discussion of this background in Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, pp.364-376
9. HS, p.18
10. Writings, I, p.333
11. Writings, I, p.295
12. HS, p.65
13. HS, p.99
14. HS, p.64
15. HS, p.60
16. HS, p.61
17. Writings, I, p.272
18. HS, p.82
19. HS, pp. 100f.
20. Writings, I, p.279
21. In an interview for The Friend, 11 December 1931, reprinted in Writings, 1, 328.
22. HS, p.40
23. HS, p.40f
24. Speech to Meccano Club, Calcutta, 1925, in Writings, I, p345. On the later ‘refinement’ of his thinking on civilization see Madhuri Wadwa, Gandhi between Tradition and Modernity, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1991, pp.65f. 89f.
25. An interview of 1926, in Writings, I, pp.281f.
26. Writings, I, p.27
27. Cf. the 1910 preface in Writings, I, pp.271f.
28. I owe this insight to Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, Macmillan, London, 1989, pp.16f.
29. HS,p.34.
30. A letter to Maganlal Gandhi, 2 April 1910, in Writings, T, P.3,17. Cf. the Calcutta speech referred to: ‘The glamour of European civilization does not dazzle us. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find there very little to choose’, Writings, I, p.345.
31. HS, p.38
32. Cf. Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, Yale UP, Newhaven and London,
1989.
33. Cf. Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, ch 6.

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