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Posts Tagged ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’

Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.

Nathuram-Godse_GettyImage

Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.

Gandhi_in_Noakhali,_1946

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.

 

[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]

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India and Pakistan are so close and yet so far apart.   One is tempted into saying that no two countries are so similar, and yet the two countries have gone to war, and have been nearly lured into war, on several occasions.   The distance from Amritsar to Lahore, the two greatest cities of the undivided Punjab, is a mere 53 kilometres.  A super-fast train, of the kind found in Japan, China, and in most of western Europe, would have traversed this distance in 10 minutes.  However, approaching the border from either end, travelers must navigate the shoals and eddies of the modern nation-state system at Wagah.  On the Indian side, the last station is Attari; from here, it is a mere 3 kilometres to Wagah; and, in between, one might say, is “no man’s land”, where the “formalities” that are necessary at border crossings are transacted.

The distance from Wagah to Lahore is 29 kilometres, and a tad less is the distance from Wagah to Amritsar.  But this is one crossing that is not meant to be navigated at will, and certainly not in a vehicle of one’s choosing.  One might cross on foot, provided one had a visa; more commonly, the crossing is attempted on the Samjhauta [Agreement] Express, as the train that ferries Pakistanis and Indians across the border is optimistically if not gallantly named.   But supposing one was looking to take a journey from Amritsar to Lahore in one’s own car, as one might from, say, Seattle (Washington State, USA) to Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada).   Google Maps tells me that on Interstate 5, I can cover the distance of 147 miles in less than 3 hours.  However, when I put in Amritsar and Lahore into Google Maps and sought directions, I was advised, as would anyone else who cared to undertake such an exercise, that the distance between the two cities by car is 5,385 kilometres and would ordinarily be covered in 110 hours!  If, like most drivers from South Asia, one cannot be even remotely bothered by posted speed limits, one might perhaps knock off a few hours, though I suspect that the continuous transgression of such limits, in certain parts of Tibet or the PRC, may pose some hazards.  Why, however, mention Tibet at all?   The stated route takes one not due west, but rather south to New Delhi (as if in tacit acknowledgement of the fact that no such trip would be possible without the mandarins that staff the corridors of power at the Secretariat), and from there southeast to Uttar Pradesh and thence to Nepal, and then west and largely north through Tibet and China to just east of the eastern border of Tajikistan before one makes one’s descent through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK, though, naturally, it is known as Azad Kashmir in Pakistan), Islamabad, and finally through Pakistan’s province of Punjab to Lahore.  What else need one say about the impossible distance that intimacy often creates?

Google Maps:  Driving Directiosns from Amritsar (India) to Lahore (Pakistan), a distance of 53 kilometres.

Google Maps: Driving Directiosns from Amritsar (India) to Lahore (Pakistan), a distance of 53 kilometres.

It is characteristic of the peculiar relationship into which Pakistan and India are now bound that Wagah chiefly occupies a place in popular lore as the site of one of the most unusual rituals of the nation-state system.  Tourists flock in numbers each evening to see, shortly before sunset, the Beating Retreat Ceremony:  across the divide, the two countries lower their flags and armed soldiers stage a highly orchestrated set of maneuvers.  For the ethnographer of nationalism, Wagah is as rich a site as any to comprehend the semiotics and rituals of the modern nation-state and the mobilization of symbols and sentiments in creating a nationalist sensibility.  Pomp and ceremony have long been handmaidens to nation-state exhibitionism; and there is, of course, no nation-state without a national flag.  What is most striking about the spectacle is that the audience, at either end of the border, are permitted the sight of the other but no more, the thought of intimacy but nothing that would occasion its realization.

Every Indian visitor to Pakistan has recounted the warmth with which he or she was received in that country; Pakistan feels very much like ‘home’.  Much the same can be said of Pakistani visitors to north India.  It is also apparent that, in some fundamental respects, the two countries, notwithstanding their shared heritage, have moved in different directions; nevertheless, the sense of what is common to both is overwhelming.  Why, then, the distance?  Many people are inclined to argue that the animosity that exists between India and Pakistan reflects not the sentiments of the people of the two countries but rather is an attribute of the logic of the nation-state system and the zero-sum politics that shapes the foreign policy of each country.  This is unquestionably true; and, similarly, there can be no gainsaying the fact that what NGOs describe as people-to-people contacts are likely to make a much greater difference in facilitating peace than ministerial-level dialogues, meetings between foreign secretaries and other bureaucrats, and yet more state-sanctioned conferences.

Still, once one has conceded that enhanced civil society interactions are the sine qua non of a peace between Pakistan and India, the nagging feeling persists that there is something a bit more  inexplicable which characterizes the relationship between India and Pakistan, producing distance when is there is so much intimacy.  In a number of his writings, Freud noted the tendency of people who are very close to each other to exaggerate what divided them:  he referred to this phenomenon as the narcissism of minor differences, sometimes substituting “small” for “minor”.  His magisterial essay of 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents, offers a commentary on this dynamic with an observation about “communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.”  Elsewhere he had occasion to comment, “Every time two families become connected by a marriage, each of them thinks itself superior to or of better birth than the other.  Of two neighboring towns each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt.”  The Scots and the English, Shias and Sunnis, Serbs and Croats, Hutus and Tutsis:  to these pairs, and to the loveless rivalries that beset English football clubs, one might add Pakistan and India.  It may, perhaps, require more than the display of brotherly and sisterly sentiments to bring Pakistan and India out of the curve of enmity.

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