Gandhi, Secularism, and Cultural Democracy

(on the occasion of the birth centenary of Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)

“Gandhiji at Prayer Time, Parnakuti, Poona”, gouache on paper, 1944. The artist is Chittaprosad, the great advocate of the rights of workers and revolutionary artists. Nikhil Chakravarty described in the newspaper People’s War the circumstances under which he painting was done: “Saturday the 6th of May. The papers flashed the news that Gandhiji was going to be released [from the Aga Khan’s Palace, where he had been detained after his call to the nation to “do or die”] at 8. Without a moment’s ado, Chittaprosad and myself took the next train to Poona. Excitement and speculation ran high, but the people as a whole seemed to be as yet too dazed to celebrate it as a day of national jubilation.”

Since the high and the mighty in this ancient land of ours will use the opportunity of Gandhi Jayanti to garland the statues of the Mahatma and spin the usual homilies about the eternal values of truth and nonviolence, values which are being shred to pieces in India, I can turn to the more humble work of attempting to lay out briefly what remains of Gandhi in an India that is increasingly taking the turn towards becoming a Hindu nation.  The attacks on Gandhi are coming fast and furious from every corner.  His assassin, Nathuram Godse, is being hailed by some Indians as a martyr, a true shaheed.  Reportedly, Godse is trending at #1 on Twitter in India. Gandhi’s statues are vandalized and in social media he is accused of the worst atrocities that can be imagined.  Yet Gandhi was in his lifetime synonymous with India.  When Nehru was once asked what is India, he replied with this short sentence:  “Gandhi is India.”

Outside India, as well, his reputation is increasingly under assault, often from those of Indian origin.  In Fresno, a small city some 250 kilometres from Los Angeles in California’s Central Valley, over 5000 Sikhs have signed a petition demanding that a bust of Gandhi in the Peace Garden at the local state university be removed because they hold him responsible for the genocide of Sikhs at the time of Partition.  Young Sikh students who have not even graduated from high school claim that when they walk by Gandhi’s bust, on which the words “My Life is My Message” have been etched, they feel “traumatized.”  Do they even know what “trauma” means?  Some of the evidently less thoughtful Black Lives Matter activists have in like fashion convinced themselves that Gandhi was an outright and unrepentant racist, blissfully unaware that every prominent Black civil rights leader in the United States acknowledged standing on Gandhi’s shoulders.  The same holds true of the leaders and activists in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and other architects of anti-colonial struggles in Africa, such as Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.

One might put it differently:  any serious discussion of ideas in the public sphere is becoming increasingly difficult, and in this respect it is not Gandhi alone who has suffered—and similarly it is not in India alone that a frightening ethno-nationalism is now unabashedly on display.  Some days ago, I was pleasantly surprised to read that India’s Minister of External Affairs had said publicly that the Buddha and Gandhi were “the two greatest Indians” in the country’s history.  That could have been the subject of a substantive discussion and serious intellectual disagreement; rather, the most notable reaction came from Nepal, where they pounced upon the minister for claiming the Buddha for India.  The Buddha was, of course, born in Lumbini, which is now in Nepal—but such a reaction, steeped in mind-numbing identitarianism, is befitting the proverbial frog in the well. I suppose that the thousands of books on Indian philosophy which feature long discussions of the Buddha’s sayings, or extracts from the various canons of Buddhist thought, should now be censored since the Buddha cannot be claimed as an Indian.  Or perhaps these books should now be classified as works of “Nepali philosophy”.  Just as unfortunately, in an act of craven submission, and no doubt with the intention of maintaining friendly relations with a “neighbour”, India’s Ministry of External Affairs at once tendered an apology and admitted that the Buddha is “Nepali”.

Whatever the difficulty, then, of airing ideas, particularly unfashionable ones, in the public domain, the basic proposition of this short essay may now be set out very clearly.  It needs to be said, at a time when “Hindu pride” and “Hindu rage” are overtaking the country and making many people in the country feel unwanted, that Gandhi was both a devout Hindu and a firm and resolute believer in secularism.  He was also unequivocally clear, particularly in the last few years of his life, that it was imperative for every Indian to stand by secularism. It is necessary to say this in the boldest terms, before parsing secularism in slight detail, since the BJP has for many years spawned nonsense about “pseudo-secularism” and lately gone on a rampage against Nehru as the supposed architect of the idea of secularism in the Indian context.  But in truth Gandhi was himself always firmly committed to secularism, though he derived his understanding of it from many different sources and rarely spoke of “secularism” as such.  One can go further and even argue that, as he came to witness the flames of communal passion erupting in Calcutta, Bihar, Noakhali, Punjab, and elsewhere in 1946-47, Gandhi would begin to embrace the view that every Indian had to be prepared to subsume his or her religion to the ideal of secularism.  Writing in Harijan on 29 June 1947, he put it this way:  “Religion is no test of nationality but a personal matter between man and his God.  In this sense of nationality they are Indians first and Indian last, no matter what religion they profess.”

Gandhi at the dargah (mausoleum) in Mehrauli (Delhi) of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, a renowned Sufi mystic, saint, and scholar associated with the Chisthi order. His visit took place on January 27, 1948; three days later, he would be felled by three bullets fired by Nathuram Godse.

However, in characterizing Gandhi as simultaneously a “devout Hindu” and a “firm and resolute believer in secularism”, I wish to signify both his differences from Nehru and the fact that, as someone far more attuned to the Indian sensibility than Nehru, Gandhi derived his secularism from a multitude of sources.  At the unavoidable risk of simplifying, it may be said that Nehru’s ideas of secularism were derived, generally speaking, from the Enlightenment traditions of the West and, more specifically, from the bourgeois notion of individual freedom and autonomy.  It is these same traditions which would in time enshrine the distinction between the private and the public and consign religious belief strictly to the domain of the private.  Gandhi was altogether in agreement with this mode of thinking, at least in the last phase of his life, and unhesitatingly declared, more than once in the months before his assassination, that “religion is the personal affair of each individual.  It must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs” (Harijan, 7 December 1947).  Ten days later, at a public gathering, Gandhi even urged his fellow Indians to disavow their religious identity:  “Let there be no Hindus, no Parsis, no Christians, and no Jains. We should realize that we are only Indians, and that religion is a private matter.”

If there was only this much to Gandhi’s thinking, there would have been little to distinguish between him and Nehru.  However, where Nehru was a non-believer (nastik), Gandhi had a much more complex and profound relationship to Indian traditions of religiosity. One source of both his religious worldview and his secularism was the bhakti-sufi traditions of India and I would go so far as to argue that Gandhi should be viewed as the last great representative of the sant tradition.  His veneration, or rather what I would call “critical veneration”, for Tulsidas is well-known, but the emphasis on that in scholarly work has somewhat obscured his interest in Narasinha Mehta, Mirabai, and Tukaram.  But a remark of his, again in the pages of Harijan (31 August 1947), furnishes another set of remarkable cues about his thinking on religion and the public sphere.  To quote him at some length, “All subjects will thus be equal in the eyes of the law.  But every single individual will be free to pursue his own religion without hindrance, so long as it does not transgress the common law.  The question of the ‘protection of minorities’ is not good for me; it rests upon the recognition of religious groupings between citizens of the same state.  What I wish India to do is to assure liberty of religious profession to every single individual.  Then only India can be great, for it was perhaps the one nation in the ancient world which had recognized cultural democracy, whereby it is held that the roads to God are many, but the goal is one, because God is one and the same. In fact the roads are as many as there are individuals in the world.”

Gandhi was adverting to the ideal of advaita in invoking the multiple roads that lead to God. It is at the same time a characterization of “cultural democracy”.  The alert reader may object that, thus far, nothing that has been cited from Gandhi’s writings so much as mentions the word “secularism”, although the same reader may discern the spirit of secularism in Gandhi’s frequent pronouncements on the “liberty of religious profession to every single individual.”  But Gandhi did in fact emphatically speak of, and for, secularism:  indeed, the preceding passage from the Harijan article of 31 August 1947 says this:  “The state is bound to be wholly secular. I go so far as to say that no denominational educational institution in it should enjoy patronage” [emphasis added]. Secularism was the very essence of the “cultural democracy” that, in his reading, characterized the Indian past and perhaps rendered it distinct from other nations.  Thus, when Gandhi is calling for a “wholly secular” state, he is calling for the renewal of cultural democracy—a renewal that is perforce necessary at every turn.  If contemporary India is finding it so difficult and even offensive to swallow the idea of secularism, supposing it to be a foreign import from the West that colonized the country and still colonizes our imagination, might it find some succour in the idea of “cultural democracy”? It is perhaps time that we started thinking about how the language of “cultural democracy” could be harnessed to furnish all Indians, and especially aggrieved Hindus, with the assurance there is another way of forging a nation without shedding the past.

Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist

In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi.  As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.  In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States.  Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism.  A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).

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Adolescence and Lessons from Home and the World

Part II of a Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson–“The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist”

In the second part of Rev. Lawson’s recollections of his childhood in Massillon, Ohio, he discusses his school years, the fights he got into with some other boys, and, most critically, the fact that though his father and mother had differing (if predictably differing) views on how he should address the taunts or challenges from other boys, the environment at his home was nurturing and that his parents were one in being determined to see young Jimmy and his siblings shape up to be decent, reflective, and morally responsible human beings. But in this portion of the conversation Rev. Lawson also discusses at some length his father’s work as a pastor, shares some lovely and intimate details of life in the household of a black family, and reflects on the political context — lynchings of Black people, America’s entry into World War II, and, what is often overlooked, the importance of the African American press. The African-American press was vibrant and even prolific; at one time, the Pittsburgh Courier, which Rev. Lawson mentions reading in the public library, had at its peak during World War II a subscription of around 250,000 and correspondents in several parts of the world. There were other African American newspapers which, as I have elsewhere written (including this piece called “King and the Mahatma”, Open Magazine, 29 September 2020, though longer scholarly articles are forthcoming), carried detailed coverage of the Indian independence movement and generally offered unequivocal support of the nonviolence struggle for freedom whose chief architect was Gandhi. The excerpts reproduced here take us to the end of young Lawson’s schooling.

Rev. James M. Lawson with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist: Recollections of Childhood and the Experience of Racism

A Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson—Part I: “Jimmy, What Good Did That Do”

Today, September 22nd, marks the 92nd birthday of the Reverend James M. Lawson, once described by Martin Luther King as the greatest strategist of nonviolence in the US.  I have, on this blog, penned a couple of essays on him over the last 2-3 years, and also included excerpts from our recorded conversations extending to around 26-27 hours which commenced in December 2013 and are now slowly but surely being edited with the aim of creating a compact book on the greatest living practitioner of nonviolence in the United States, one whose experience in training three generations of nonviolent resisters and dissenters extends over 70 years.  Our first conversation took place shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, and was largely on the subject of Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US support of the apartheid regime, and the place of nonviolence in modern politics.  We discussed at length both Mandela’s achievements and what we both saw, though perhaps in different in complementary ways, as some of the shortcomings of the struggle in South Africa—shortcomings which, judging only from the continuing strife and plight of black people in South Africa, may have been considerable.  Excerpts from this discussion will be shared in this blog on the death anniversary of Mandela.

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Just Who Are the Racists? And the Progressives? Excerpts from a conversation with Rev. James Lawson

Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”.  Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson.  John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.  Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.

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Identity and the Colossal Failure of Contemporary Electoral Politics

Part III of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion.  I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88).  That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history.   It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi.  Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes!  Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.


Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference

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Identity and Beyond:  Families, Nations, and Interculturality

Part II of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

Those who do not recognize the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America.  What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic party to the Vice-Presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the President, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life.  Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a Black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration.  Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years:  they participated in political demonstrations against racism, discrimination, and injustice, discussed decolonization in Africa, and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’.  These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, “my mother’s people.  In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs.  From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community.  It was the foundation of her new American life.”  In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children:  “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”


A baby Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and her paternal grandfather, Oscar Joseph, during a visit to Jamaica. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

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The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

Part I:  Black, Desi, and (Just) American:  Identity and the Political Ascendancy of Kamala Harris

(in 3 parts)

Let us first, in speaking of Kamala Devi Harris, dispense with the two sets of commonplace observations being aired since Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the President of the United States, named her as his running mate. Harris is described as a prolific trailblazer: she was the first Black, the first Indian American, and the first woman elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco and later as the Attorney General of California. She is only the second Black woman to serve in the US Senate, having been preceded by Carol Moseley Braun who represented Illinois for one six-year term in the 1990s, and Harris is the first Indian American to serve in the Senate. She is now the first woman of color to join the presidential ticket of the country’s two major political parties and, should the Democrats prevail in the November Presidential election, she would obviously become the first Indian American and African American to hold the Vice-Presidency of the United States and would be well-poised to make a bid to become the first person in all these capacities to preside in the White House and perhaps dominate the politics of the Democratic party over a good part of the next generation.  If all of this were not exhausting enough, she is also the first nominee of either party for the position of either Vice President or President to have graduated from one of a group of what are known as Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—more precisely, from Howard University, apparently dubbed at one time the ‘Black Harvard’. Harris is clearly what is called an ‘achiever’, and is not shy in being characterized as one—though she seeks in principle to soften what might otherwise be seen as boasting by quoting her mother, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”


Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan.

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A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day

Los Angeles, August 15th

As India marks the 73rd anniversary of its independence, it is once again an opportune moment to reflect on what remains of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that led to India’s deliverance from colonial rule.  The country might seem to have weightier subjects on its mind: the coronavirus continues to cut a blazing trail through much of the country, and whatever actions the state has taken to stem the transmission of the disease have evidently been woefully inadequate.  Tens of millions of people have been thrown into the ranks of the unemployed.  Many people have been cheered, and some startled and dismayed, by the bhoomi pujan conducted by the country’s Prime Minister, who is supposed to represent every citizen without distinction, at Ayodhya in consequence of the 2019 Supreme Court decision that left the path open to Hindu nationalists to raise a grand temple in honor of Rama at his alleged birth place.  That such a ceremony, which seems to be not only about building a temple to augment Hindu pride but also coronating a king, should have taken place at a time when the pandemic is exacting an immense toll says something about the priorities of the present regime.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the bhoomi pujan, Ayodhya, 5 August 2020.

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Emergency in India, Faux and Real


On the night of June 25-26, forty-five years ago, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, acting at the behest of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, imposed an emergency in India and suspended all civil liberties. Speaking to the country on the morning of the 26th from the studios of All India Radio, Mrs. Gandhi stated that the emergency had been necessitated by “the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.” She warned that “forces of disintegration” and “communal passions” threatened to tear apart India and that she was impelled to act from the desire to preserve the country’s unity. “There is nothing to panic about”, she advised her fellow Indians, and, as if to assure them that the drastic step that had been taken to put the Constitution of India into abeyance was not being done to advance her own interests, she insisted that “this is not a personal matter” and that it “is not important whether I remain Prime Minister or not.” Continue reading