*Terrorism’s Drones: Cowardice and the New Front of American Warfare

Mrs. Clinton, we are told, has been having a tough time in Pakistan, where students and journalists have apparently been subjecting her to some ‘grilling’. The intellectual standards of American media being what they are, namely pathetic, one should not marvel at the fact that any serious questioning is immediately termed ‘grilling’. It is not any less interesting that such ‘grilling’ as takes place occurs largely in countries that the US otherwise imagines as ‘unfree’.

Under the “remorseless gaze of the Pakistan news media”, says today’s New York Times, Mrs. Clinton returned punch for punch. She castigated Pakistani officials for allowing al-Qaeda safe havens, and in turn was asked whether she did not think that American predator drone attacks in South Waziristan and elsewhere in Pakistan’s frontier areas constitute terrorism. “No, I do not,” Hilary Clinton replied.

Terrorism, as we all know, is not something that the Americans engage in: it has long been an article of faith that America wages (just) wars, engages in defensive conduct, or otherwise acts to free the world of the scourge of terrorism. In recent years, Americans – functionaries of the state, policy experts, and the numerous ‘independent’ commentators whose sole ambition appears to be to authorize the actions of the state — have been particularly insistent in advancing the view that their actions always seek to minimize civilian casualties, and that technological advancements have given them the capacity to wage relentless war with precision attacks that spare civilian lives.

The most notable, and increasingly visible, arsenal in American warfare technology is the invisible predator drone. The drone attack has become the new front of American warfare, and its incidence has increased markedly over the last two US administrations, and most notably since Barack Obama occupied the White House. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially, drone attacks are bitterly resented, but not only because many civilians have been killed. To take one instance, only into the third day of Obama’s administration, on January 23rd, one of two predator strikes run by the CIA eliminated the entire family of a pro-government tribal leader just outside Wana in South Waziristan.

Whatever the rhetoric about precision attacks and the reverence for life that is the supposed feature of American liberal democracy, there is but no question that drone attacks permit the execution of an untamed and aggressive foreign policy in new and unheralded ways. Though President Gerald Ford’s executive order of 1976 banning American intelligence agencies from carrying out political assassinations has in principle never been repudiated, predator attacks are only the latest and most shameless instantiation of the repeated violation of this order. That some of the people who have been assassinated, such as the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud — killed (along with much of his family) by a Predator drone in early August — themselves led lives of violence is not disputed. There is yet a more significant consideration: if histories of war stress, in ancient times, the face-to-face combat and the rules of chivalry that guided combat, we have now moved to the other extreme where the entire intent is to wage as faceless a war as is possible. Apparently bravery, in an extension of merciless air power, now consists in bombing people into extinction, all the while ensuring that no lives should be lost on one’s own side.

As Obama struggles to reach a decision on American involvement in Afghanistan, an increasing number of voices purport to take the middle ground. The US, these voices argue, cannot win the war in Afghanistan, certainly not without a major escalation of the conflict and increase in commitment of troops; on the other hand, the US cannot merely abandon Afghanistan. The question of ‘losing face’ aside, the ‘Great Game’ must continue, unless the US is prepared to concede ground to all others who have eyes on Afghanistan, including Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan. The war, then, must be waged off-shore, with a full deployment of intelligence, cruise missiles, drones, guerrilla units, and so on. What rules of conduct will apply to this warfare? The military and the CIA, as a policy of matter, already do not make public any information on drone attacks, but the entire idea consists in ensuring that there shall be no accountability for American attacks. This is indeed the new front of American warfare: faceless, cowardly, geographically indeterminate, indeed groundless in every respect. Let us recognize terrorism’s drones for what they are.

*Naked Power and the Power of Nakedness: Alexander (the Great) & the Gymnosophists

Of all the stories told about Alexander the Great, none perhaps is as colorful as the account of his encounter with the ‘naked philosophers’ of India who have come to be known in Western literature as gymnosophists.  Teaching a survey course on Indian history, I have recently had occasion to contemplate the nature of this storied encounter, and a chance reading of Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) has brought to mind the pleasures of thinking about what might have transpired in this meeting of East and West, military might with spiritual pride, the over-dressed and the under-dressed, the power of arms and the piercing strength of words.

Alexander_the_Great_meeting_the_Brahmanes

Alexander and the Gymnosophists, from a medieval European manuscript.

Alexander is reputed to have been Aristotle’s pupil, and it is from the Greek philosopher that he might have imbibed some interest in books, philosophizing, and the nature of wisdom.  A Greek prince’s education at that time doubtless included something about India and its fabled riches.  World conqueror that Alexander sought to be, India was never far from his horizon; and it is in 326 BCE that he arrived in northwest India.  The story of his ‘invasion’ of India has been told often enough, and is not without some peculiar features, among them the fact that not a single contemporary Indian source could be bothered to note or comment on this supposedly earth-shaking event.  Though Alexander is described as having vanquished the Indian king Porus at the battle of the Jhelum [Hydaspes], it is said that Porus’s noble demeanor and valor so impressed Alexander that he allowed the defeated king to continue to govern his territories in Alexander’s name.

Alexander_and_Porus

Alexander the Great and Porus.   

 

Not along after this military triumph, Alexander’s troops mutinied and demanded that the journey back west be commenced.   The soldiers were weary with fighting; besides, if we recall the common perception of India, the country has a way of taking a toll of people.  The heat, dust, dirt, and mosquitoes of India have been known to enfeeble the sturdiest man!  However, according to Plutarch, one of the principal sources for Alexander’s military sojourn in India, the Greek soldiers had been instigated to revolt by a number of naked philosophers.  As Plutarch was to write, “He [Alexander] captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer.”  There being ten gymnosophists, each was asked one question.  Which, the fifth one was asked, is older, day or night.  “Day, by one day”, came back the answer; “upon the king expressing amazement”, Plutarch writes, the sadhu added:  “hard questions must have hard answers.  Passing on, then to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; ‘if’, said the philosopher, ‘he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear.’”  That, one suspects, is precisely the kind of advice intended for a world conqueror.

In another version, that which has come down to us from Onesicritus, Alexander’s helsman, he was dispatched by his master to seek an audience with India’s wise men.  Onesicritus was perhaps a logical choice as he had been a student of Diogenes, the founder of the school of Cynics.  Onesicritus is viewed by many scholars as having made up dialogues between Alexander and the gymnosophists, not merely in an attempt to add color to the narrative, but in the interest of representing Alexander as akin to a philosopher warrior.  Arrian, writing in the second century AD, offered yet another account:  impressed by stories of the spiritual discipline and endurance of the gymnosophists, Alexander reportedly could not contain his desire to meet them.  Alexander even hoped to take one or more of them with him to Greece [and so he did], though the oldest of the gymnosophists, says Arrian, spurned Alexander’s offer with the observation that “he had no need of anything that Alexander could give, since he was contented with what he had”; moreover, “Alexander’s companions were wandering about over all that land and sea to no profit, and that there was no limit to their many wanderings”.

 

Alexander may have known, from long before, that philosophers, at least, did not live in awe or fear of him.  Many years before arriving in India, he had met Diogenes.  Excited to meet the famous philosopher, who was lounging about in the sun, Alexander asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him.  “Yes, stand out of my sunlight”, replied Diogenes.  So, we can well imagine that Alexander may not have been entirely surprised at being rebuffed by India’s philosophers.  The story of this encounter would be circulated, often in embellished form, over the next 2,000 years, a parable about the folly of conquest, the unmatched pleasures of simple living, the dangers of absolutism, and so on.  Perhaps the most recent demonstration of the power of this story to entice readers and serve as a modern parable is to be found in Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), Vikram Chandra’s debut novel.  Here are excerpts, without comment, of the conversation between a gymnosophist (sadhu) and the translator as imagined by Chandra:
Translator:  He wants to know why you’re naked.
Sadhu:  Ask him why he’s wearing clothes.
Translator:  He says he’s asking the questions here.
Sadhu:  Questions give birth only to other questions.
Translator:  He says people who get funny with him get executed.
Sadhu:  Why?
Translator:  Because he’s the King of Kings.  And he wants you to stop asking questions.
Sadhu:  King of Kings?
Translator:  He came all the way from a place called Greece, killing other kings, so he’s King of Kings, see.
Sadhu:  Fool of Fools, Master-Clown of Clowns.  Maha-Idiot of idiots.
Translator:  You want me to tell him that?
Sadhu:  I said it, didn’t I?
Translator:  You’re crazier than he is.  He says he’ll kill you.  Right here, right now.
Sadhu:  I’ll have to die someday. [pp. 222-23]

*Going Quietly and with Dignity: The Luminous Life of Marek Edelman

Marek Edelman, a staunchly anti-Zionist Jew who was a deputy commander of the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and a true inheritor of the tradition of Jewish radicalism bequeathed by the likes of Rosa Luxembourg, passed away at his home in Warsaw on October 2nd.  In India, that same day, the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi, in whose life there is yet another model of resistance to oppression, was being observed.  The struggle to retain a memory of what Edelman stood for will now commence:  time gnaws at everything, sometimes taking little morsels, at other times satisfied with nothing but big chunks.  Memory is yet another form of the struggle in which life and death are inextricably inter-locked.

Poland had, before the war, the largest Jewish population of any state in Europe.  Few of its three million Jews survived the concentration camps; fewer still were those who offered opposition to the Germans and lived to tell the tale.  With the German blitzkrieg against Poland on 1 September 1939, World War II commenced; the Germans overran Poland within days.  The Jewish neighborhood of Warsaw was, over months, transformed into a ghetto, bounded by barbed wire and brick walls; and something like 480,000 Jews were confined in that space.  Edelman described, in a pamphlet published to mark the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the sentences meted out to those Jews caught trespassing in the ‘Aryan section’:  at 4 AM on 12 February 1941, to furnish one illusion, shrill cries woke up the population to announce that 17 Jews who had left the ghetto ‘in pursuit of a piece or bread or a few pennies’ were being executed.  The ghetto, Edelman wrote, ‘could clearly feel the breath of death.’  Over the next several months, well into early 1942, Edelman and the ghetto’s inhabitants heard stories and reports of mass executions of Jews taking place.   Edelman is candid in describing what some people still have difficulty in believing, or admitting:  ‘people dismissed as untrue the story of the wholesale slaughter of almost the entire transport of German Jews brought the previous year to the vicinity of Lublin.’  The stories were too horrible to be plausible.  ‘The ghetto did not believe.’

By early 1942, Edelman, who was active in Jewish socialist and labor politics, had come around to the view that the Nazis were engaged in wholesale and systematic extermination of Jews, beginning with the most active elements of the Jewish population.  This view was clearly expounded in the 19 April 1942 issue of Der Weker, one of several periodicals published in the ghetto.  Still, few people in the ghetto could bring themselves around to the acceptance of this view.  It would be one year from that day, on 19 April 1943, that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would commence, at a time when only 60,000 Jews were left alive in the ghetto.  Many years later, Edelman would contest attempts to elevate the number of resistance fighters beyond 220:  while it might have been comforting to believe that more of the ghetto’s residents had been prepared to enter into a struggle that was doomed from the outset, pitting young, emaciated, hungry, poorly equipped and ill-trained men against a much larger force of German soldiers armed with artillery and machine-guns, Edelman’s own resolute fidelity to the truth would not allow him to enhance the numbers.  In the three weeks during which the resistance fighters held out, Commander Mordechai Anielewicz was killed; Edelman made good his escape, living to take part in the equally futile Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Having survived the war, Edelman went on to have an eminently successful medical career, becoming one of Poland’s most renowned cardiologists.  I would like to believe that it is no accident that he treated diseases of the heart.  His fellow survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto made their way to Israel, but Edelman found himself unable to abandon one of the most poignant homes of European Jewry.  To leave Poland would have been tantamount to cutting away a piece of himself.  Like many other survivors, he insisted that those who had not been witness to the calamities of the Holocaust could not say much about how the survivors exercised their moral choices.  The uprising, for instance, was liable to be interpreted as a heroic act of resistance, but Edelman was quite clear what it meant:  ‘We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths.’

For many years after the end of the war, Edelman maintained a studious silence; but, in 1986, he finally opened up to the Polish Jewish writer Hanna Krall.  The record of their conversations, Shielding the Flame, yields many luminous insights, and I hope to advert to this book, buried amidst the thousands of works on the Holocaust, in a later post.  But for the present I wish to conclude with a brief account of the controversy surrounding Edelman in Israel.  In later life, Edelman was among the most prominent Jewish figures, and that too a survivor of the Holocaust, to embrace the view that Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians was too reminiscent of the Nazi repression of Jews.  Edelman became a vigorous critic of the occupation:  thinking, no doubt, about the massively unequal forces that were pitched in battle during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he recognized as well the enormous disequilibrium of power between the Palestinians and the state of Israel.  But, as his letter of August 2002 addressed to ‘all the leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary and guerilla organizations’, and ‘to all the soldiers of Palestinian militant groups’, makes amply clear, Edelman was equally critical of their easy and heady embrace of violence. ‘We were fighting with a hopeless determination,’ the letter states, ‘but our weapons were never directed against the defenseless civilian populations, we never killed women and children.  In a world devoid of principles and values, despite a constant danger of death, we did remain faithful to these values and moral principles.’ Marek Edelman lived a life exemplary to the last, a life of luminosity, dignity, probity and moral awareness.

*‘The Greatest Threat to the Nation’: Manmohan Singh’s Carrot and the Stick

Two years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites, or Naxals as they are often known in India, as the ‘greatest threat’ to the country.  Manmohan Singh, who has earned, deservedly or otherwise, something of a reputation in India’s educated middle-class circles as a man of integrity and even gentleness, is not known for the expression of extreme sentiments.  He was not even known as a fighter, though the steadfastness with which he refused last year to bow to pressure to undo the nuclear deal, and the ‘grit’ with which he rode the storm that threatened to remove him from power, surviving a dramatic vote of no-confidence in Parliament, have perceptibly altered some people’s previous estimation of him as a weakling or, to put it even less charitably, a mere instrument of Sonia Gandhi.  There is even the sense that Manmohan may well have mastered Indian idioms of power holding much better than those who openly flaunt their power.  Meekness may be the best disguise for strength, just as often allowing the impression of being subjected to manipulation may be a subtler exercise of power.  Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, certainly learnt these lessons well as she put the old Congress leadership through spins and turns following the death of her father and, shortly thereafter, Lal Bahadur Shastri.

The Naxals have now surfaced again, in pronouncements from Manmohan and Home Minister P. Chidambaram, as the ‘gravest internal security threat’ to the nation.  Addressing a conference in mid-September of Director Generals and Inspector Generals of Police, Manmohan admitted that there had not been much success in containing the ‘menace’ represented by the Naxalites.  ‘It is a matter of concern that despite our efforts,’ Manmohan told the gathering of the country’s highest law enforcement officers, ‘the level of violence in the affected states continues to rise.’  Manmohan has admitted that reducing Naxalism to a ‘law and order’ problem is not likely to yield the desired results, and in a recent speech he argued for a more ‘nuanced’ approach, which consists in nothing more than putting forward ‘development’ alongside the ‘maintenance of law and order’ as the twin-fold way of fighting ‘the Naxal menace gripping several parts of the country.’  Is it Manmohan’s stint at Oxford, awareness of the repression unleashed against fellow Sikhs during the height of the Khalistan insurgency, simple humanity, or what passes for his gentle demeanor that has made him less likely to embrace the more totalitarian vision of his home minister, who does not mince words when he describes ‘left-wing extremism’ as ‘the gravest challenge to our way of life, our republic and our democracy.’

Perhaps there is nothing subtler in Manmohan’s sense of how best ‘the Naxalite problem’ may be contained than the realization that the carrot may soften the blow of the stick.  Everything in the language of the state is reminiscent of India under colonial rule.  P. Chidambaram, the enlightened voice of reason, one of the heroes of India’s ascendancy into the ranks of what we might call ‘seriously developing’ nations, has even offered to make available the old colonial remedy, first practiced by the British in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), of bombing ‘Naxalite-infested’ areas from the air.  Indian Air Force helicopters with mounted guns, Chidambaram has argued, might legitimately be used to produce results.  As George Orwell noted in his essay on the debasement of the English language, the bombardment of people from the air came to be styled ‘pacification’.  The Naxalites are a ‘menace’, and the ‘infested’ areas must be rendered into submission:  but if all this sounds, as indeed it does, as though vast tracts of the land and people have become diseased, ‘tribal and other under-developed areas’ should be brought under the blessings of civilization.  I shall save for a later post my brief ruminations on the idea of ‘development’, which may be a slower way of leading ‘under-developed’ people to their death.  No state ever devised a more perfect recipe for the elimination of a people than by the promise that, for every atrocity committed under the name of ‘law and order’, they shall be compensated by the gift of a development project.  As one ponders India’s ‘Naxalite question’, it becomes transparently clear that the ‘greatest threat’ to India resides somewhere else than among the Naxalites.

*Gambling on Gandhi: On Being Timid and Taking Risks

Three years ago, the Times of India (Delhi) asked if I would write a piece for its op-ed pages on Gandhi.  I had just returned from a visit to South Africa, where, to mark the launch of satyagraha on September 11th a century ago, Shyam Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma had been screened – on a screen inside a Durban casino!  All proponents of the ‘postmodern Gandhi’ should take note.  To make my way to the screening, I had to pass by slot machines and blackjack tables.  Gandhi being a prohibitionist, the organizers decided to dish out their chosen (and from their standpoint more acceptable) form of poison:  huge glasses of Coke (‘The Big Gulp’) and large buckets of buttered popcorn.  All this, obviously, in the sweet memory of Mohandas Gandhi, on whose dietary habits I wrote a few days ago.  Have not many thousands of texts reminded us that the path to goodness is strewn with obstacles, hardships, and temptations?  And I was only going to a screening, not to the mountaintop.  In the event, perhaps that evening set me thinking about gambling, and some weeks later, when the Times of India asked me to pen an article on the occasion of Gandhi’s birthday, I submitted the article reproduced below.

Yudhisthira and Gandhi, as I argued in my article, belong to the epic imagination.  Perhaps the last thought that will come to a person’s mind in thinking of Gandhi is to associate him with gambling, but Gandhi was quite certain in his mind that he had taken an immense gamble in putting the country on the road to mass nonviolent resistance when there was no precedent in history for supposing that such resistance could be politically efficacious.  I went on to argue that we, too, should gamble on Gandhi – moving against the current of feeling which insists upon the mantras of globalization, neo-liberalization, and development as the panacea for India’s ills, it is perhaps time to take a serious look at his life, work, and ideas.  I entitled my article ‘Gambling on Gandhi’, but the Times of India’s editors must have found the idea of Gandhi as a gambler bizarre and unsettling for their readers.  So, in publishing my piece on 2 October 2006, they gave it the title, ‘Experiments with Truth’ – whatever the immense charge this title carried when Gandhi authored his autobiography, it is now prosaic beyond words.  Of course, if the Times of India is unable to take even such a small risk, the likelihood that we will gamble everything on Gandhi is much to be remote to be viewed as anything other than amusing, harmless, or quixotic.

———————-

From the Times of India, ‘Experiments with Truth’, 2 October 2006:
It is that time of the year when, in a ritual invocation, many people find it necessary to proclaim that Mohandas Gandhi, in India also the ‘Father of the Nation’, is still ‘relevant’.  There are those who, witnessing the continuing violence in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan, or the recently ‘concluded’ blitzkrieg launched by Israel on Lebanon, or indeed the myriad other instances of acts of violence, terror, and aggression that comprise the daily news bulletins, aver that Gandhi has never been more necessary.  Since the human addiction to violence scarcely seems to have diminished, the Gandhians view the Mahatma’s staying power as a self-evident truth; however, another class of his admirers read the same evidence rather differently, as an unfortunate sign of the fact that Gandhi’s teachings have been repudiated if not rubbished.  The small voice of nonviolence, many agree, is seldom heard in the din of violence.

In 1907, the Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce, published a book entitled What Is Living and What Is Dead in Hegel Today? Croce knew better than to ask if Hegel was ‘relevant’, which is, to put it bluntly, a word strictly for the unintelligent, certainly for those who are apolitical.  Nevertheless, if the more familiar variation of this question inescapably presents itself to anyone confronting the figure of Gandhi, we must surely ask what kind of Gandhi, and whose Gandhi, we seek to invoke when we wish to stress his relevance.  One of the most enduring aspects of Gandhi’s life, one only infrequently understood by most of his disciples and admirers, is that he seldom allowed himself the comfort of platitudes, just he was quite mindless of established conventions, the protocols of social science discourse, and the known parameters of dissent. Around the same time that Croce had finished writing his book on Hegel, the young Gandhi, providentially ensconced in South Africa, was embarked on a novel political and moral experiment.  Quite oblivious to history, he declared, in his seminal tract, Hind Swaraj, that ‘Nonviolence is as old as the hills’.  At the same time, he was the first to recognize that where others had embraced nonviolence strictly from expediency, ahimsa was for him an inextricable part of his being.  He was always the first to recognize that he was his own master and disciple and was unlikely to carry anyone alongside him.

Even many who openly admire Gandhi doubt the efficaciousness of satyagraha.  In his own lifetime, many claimed that it could only have succeeded against an allegedly mild-mannered opponent such as the British.  If Gandhi could not forestall his own violent death, if indeed his teachings appeared to have left little impression upon his own countrymen, should we at all expect the primacy of nonviolence to be recognized by actors in the modern nation-state system which was born of violence and, as contemporary politics more than adequately demonstrates, feeds on it at every turn?  In his defense, Gandhi argued that nonviolence is not merely a weapon to be adopted or abandoned at random will, and that practitioners of nonviolence are ethically bound to understand that shortcomings in the application of nonviolence do not reflect upon any limitations inherent to nonviolence itself.  Moreover, though it is commonplace to view Gandhi’s adherence to nonviolence as a measure of his alleged romanticism and failure to recognize the inescapably coercive nature of modern politics, it is telling that Gandhi did not construe himself as an uncritical proselytizer on its behalf.  When asked by the American journalist Louis Fischer why he did not preach nonviolence to the West, Gandhi replied:  ‘How can I preach nonviolence to the West, when I have not even convinced India?  I am a spent bullet.’ However enthusiastic a missionary Gandhi may have been in the cause of ahimsa, he abided by the injunction that it is morally indefensible to propagate teachings that one is unable to observe in one’s own life or within the ambit of one’s own community.

On a recent visit to South Africa, I attended a special screening, cosponsored by the Indian Consulate-General, of Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ at a cinema complex in Durban on September 11th.  Such is, of course, the American monopoly on world events that by far the greater majority of people will have to be reminded that September 11th marks not merely the fifth anniversary of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but also the anniversary of the coup that overthrew Allende’s government in Chile and, even more significantly, the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of satyagraha by Gandhi in Johannesburg.  This cinema stands in the midst of the Suncoast Casino complex, and by way of refreshments invitees were offered free Coca-Cola and popcorn.  Gandhians will doubtless take umbrage at this heady combination of junk food, sugared drinks, and the ultimate vice of gambling being put together at an ostensible homage to the Mahatma.  It is certainly true that the well-intentioned admirers of Gandhi remain utterly clueless about Gandhi, and do not understand that Gandhi, engaged in the relentless pursuit of truth, would have been at least as vociferous an opponent of sugar, modernity’s preeminent mass killer, as he was of alcohol.

In truth, however, the casino may be the most apposite place to reflect on Gandhi.  His followers might be reminded that Gandhi took a great gamble when he endeavored, as his assassin charged, to foist nonviolence upon India. Like that other troubled gambler and paragon of truth in Indian civilization, Yudhisthira, Gandhi gambled away everything and put his life on the spot. No more interesting gamble has perhaps ever been waged in contemporary history, and Gandhi’s critique of modern knowledge systems, his interrogation of received notions of politics, development, and dissent, and his suturing of nonviolence to mass resistance all stand forth as vivid testimony of his political genius and ethical probity.  We should be immensely grateful that he took the gamble that he did.

The question for us, therefore, is just this:  will we content ourselves with mindless discussions of his ‘relevance’, or are we willing to gamble ourselves on Gandhi?

*Gandhi’s ‘Relevance’: One More Round of Humbug

It is that time of the year when reverence will be paid to Bapu, the ‘Father of the Nation’.   There will be prayer meetings at Rajghat, the national memorial to Gandhi and, in a manner of speaking, his final resting place.  The prayer meetings will be led by the President, Prime Minister, and other dignitaries of the state.  October 2 is Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday, and the politicians, leaders of society, and other well-wishers and do-gooders in India will be lined up to garland statues of Gandhi, utter a few homilies to the great man, and proclaim his (ever-increasing, it will be affirmed) ‘relevance’ to the world.   And then some of these leaders and politicians will head home – home being one place where the laws of prohibition, a cause dear to Gandhi, cannot be enforced on Gandhi Jayanti – to chat on their cell phones, strike a few business deals, and cook up a few new ways of screwing the much-celebrated ‘common man’.

According to some of Gandhi’s detractors, the old man ought more appropriately to have been designated as the ‘Father of Pakistan’.  His assassin was unquestionably of that view, and many others in India have thought the same though in Pakistan it will be impossible to dislodge the Qaid-e-Azam from his pedestal.  Whatever similarities and differences there may be between Pakistan and India, the laudatory and hagiographic view of Jinnah has not yet taken the kind of beating to which Gandhi has been subjected in India, notwithstanding the halo of divinity which surrounds Gandhi in official pronouncements.

The characterization of Gandhi as ‘Father’ of the ‘Nation’ hides much more than it reveals in many other respects.  It has been argued that Gandhi could be ‘father’ to the nation, but found it difficult to be a father, or at least a good one, to his own sons; but perhaps the more interesting way of putting the designation of father into question is to probe whether he was not also a mother to many.  His assassin, and Nathuram Godse’s admirers among some who serve in high office in Gujarat, never doubted that the effeminate Gandhi was not fit to lead an emergent nation-state in a world that shows no mercy to those who are soft.  Gandhi just didn’t have enough manliness about him, a point that Narendra Modi, who fancies himself a ‘Chota Sardar’, seeks to make by flaunting his masculinity and flashing a sword.  There was, as I argued many years ago in the pages of Manushi, too much of the ‘mother’ in the ‘father’ to make Gandhi palatable to the restless modernizing elements in Indian society, and we are not surprised that one of his constant companions in the last years of his life wrote a book entitled, Bapu, My Mother.

In 1998, when India went nuclear, some stalwarts of the Shiv Sena were heard stating with euphoria, ‘We have shown them [Pakistanis and enemies of other varieties, including, one should assume, secular and ‘pseudo-secular’ Hindu liberals] that we are not eunuchs.’  Assuming, then, that the use of nonviolence did not render him into a eunuch, and that Gandhi did not fail his sons at every moment, did Gandhi abide very much by the idea of the ‘nation’?  Architect of the independence struggle that he was, Gandhi continued to harbor much ambivalence about the nation, or certainly about the nation-state.   His presence in Delhi on 15 August 1947 might have sanctified the idea of the nation-state, but Gandhi chose to be in Calcutta where he was attempting to broker the peace between Hindus and Muslims – more ammunition, of course, for those who always thought of Gandhi as too attentive to the needs of the Muslims.  Gandhi presents an extraordinary anomaly of a political figure who, though having led a country to freedom, had almost no emotional, cultural, intellectual, or spiritual investment in the idea of the nation-state.

So, when the prayers are sung and platitudes fill the air at Rajghat, it also becomes necessary to inquire what it means for the samadhi of the ‘Father of the Nation’ to be at Rajghat, the Ghat of Kings.  There is a civilizational touch, no doubt, in the idea that a commoner – for, in the last analysis, Gandhi held no office and was singularly devoid of possessions – alone commands the place of King of Kings.   At least in principle the idea of celebrating Gandhi’s life by inscribing his presence at Rajghat is congruent with the notion that Indian civilization has honored renunciants, and men and women of wisdom, more than kings.   But Rajghat has become a crowded place, and its other occupants are, with one exception, all previous office-bearers, Prime Ministers and President of India, distinguished and otherwise.  That exception is the wannabe King of Kings, Sanjay Gandhi.  One does really begin to wonder how Mohandas Gandhi landed up in Rajghat.