*The Rhetoric of Relevance and the Graveyard of Gandhi

(Also published on the website of HIMAL Magazine)

As India prepares to mark the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, the tired old question of Gandhi’s ‘relevance’ will be rehearsed in the press.  Once we are past the common rituals, we are certain to hear that the spiral of violence in which much of the world seems to be caught demonstrates Gandhi’s continuing ‘relevance’.  Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the Presidency of the United States furnishes one of the latest iterations of the globalizing tendencies of the Gandhian narrative.  Unlike his predecessor, who flaunted his disdain for reading, Obama is said to have a passion for books; and Gandhi’s autobiography has been described as occupying a prominent place in the reading that has shaped the country’s first African American President. Obama gravitated from “Change We Can Believe In” to “Change We Need”, but in either case the slogan is reminiscent of the saying with which Gandhi’s name is firmly, indeed irrevocably, attached:  “We Must Become the Change We Want To See In the World.”  Obama’s Nobel Prize Lecture twice invoked Gandhi, if only to rehearse some familiar clichés – among them, the argument, which has seldom been scrutinized, so infallible it seems, that Gandhian nonviolence only succeeded because his foes were the gentlemanly English rather than Nazi brutes or Stalinist thugs.

Let me, however, leave aside for the present both the question of Obama’s Gandhi and the liberal’s Gandhi, and turn rather briefly to some more general problems in the consideration of Gandhi’s place in world history.  The Gandhi that is known around the world, and to a substantial degree even in India, is principally the architect and supreme practitioner of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and the prime example of the ‘man of peace’.  The general sentiment underlying this view is clear enough, even if one thought of bringing to the fore evident objections to such a characterization of Gandhi.  One might argue, as some historians have, that the role of Gandhian nonviolence in the achievement of Indian independence has been overstated, or one could adopt the view, a more nuanced and interesting one, that ‘peace’ was not particularly part of the vocabulary with which he operated.  The centrality of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truth) to Gandhi’s way of thinking aside, if one had to add another set of terms that might signify his practices and thought alike, then one would perforce think of brahmacharya (celibacy, closeness to God), tapasya (sacrifice, self-suffering), aparigraha (non-possession), and so on.   Though silence was an integral part of his spiritual and political discipline, Gandhi studiously avoided speaking of shanti (peace).  One of the many reasons he did so is that peace has all too often been used as the pretext to wage war.  Describing the barbarous conduct of the Romans some 2,000 years ago, the historian Caius Tacitus put it rather aptly: ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  I suspect, moreover, that if Gandhi had been alive to see how he has been packaged, sold, and denuded of all insights and vitality by the practitioners of what are called ‘peace studies’, he would have been rather pleased at his insistence on nonviolent resistance rather than on peace.

Supposing that Gandhi is a supremely world historical figure, what is being invoked is the principal figure in the twentieth century associated with peace and nonviolence.  But this Gandhi, many will be surprised to hear, is a somewhat impoverished figure, one who cannot easily be reconciled with the Gandhi who was an emphatic critic of nearly all the critical categories of modern political and humanist thought.  Let me, by way of illustration, take up very briefly two ideas that have reigned supreme in our times.  Most political thinking in the West over the course of the last century has been riveted on the question of ‘rights’, and recent political movements in the West have, in addition to the rights of the individual, vigorously asserted the rights of groups, whether defined with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or some other marker of identity.  Gandhi, at least in the received view, might reasonably be seen as falling entirely within this framework.  One can surely describe Gandhi as someone who initiated the modern campaigns against colonialism, racism, and xenophobia, and in this respect he can be viewed as an advocate of the right of people to live an unfettered life of dignity.

And, yet, if one should thus be tempted to assimilate Gandhi into a pantheon of the champions of human rights, one would doubtless be obscuring his profound skepticism towards the discourse of rights.  Rights are ordinarily claimed against the state, and those desirous of staking claims look up to the state to safeguard their rights. Gandhi recognized the state as, not infrequently, the most egregious violator of rights, and generally had little if any enthusiasm for the modern nation-state.  Indeed, Gandhi is distinct among modern political figures in decisively rejecting the narrow association that the idea of citizenship has come to have with the demand for rights, and in reinstating the concept of duty.  At the height of a struggle with the ruler of his native Rajkot late in his life, Gandhi averred that “in swaraj based on ahimsa, people need not know their rights, but it is necessary for them to know their duties.  There is no duty but creates a corresponding right, and those are true rights which flow from a due performance of one’s duties.”

We can also, in a similar vein, turn to Gandhi’s unflinching skepticism towards ‘history’ as a dramatic example of his repudiation of the liberal traditions of learning of the modern West and of the categories of thought marshaled by modern knowledge systems.  The story of how Indian nationalists responded to the colonial charge that Indians were deficient in the historical sensibility has been told often enough and need scarcely be repeated here, but suffice to note that nationalist thought was heavily invested in the idea of history and the commitment to history took many forms.  Whatever the ideological differences between armed revolutionaries, liberals, constitutionalists, Indian Tories, and Hindu supremacists, they were all agreed that that an Indian history, for and by Indians, was the supreme requirement of the day.  Here, as in so many matters, Gandhi struck a lonely path, departing from the main strands of nationalist thought.   It would be trivial to suggest that Gandhi did not lack an awareness of the past; but had he lacked such awareness, it is far from certain that he would have viewed his ignorance as a shortcoming.  Gandhi’s indisposition towards viewing the Mahabharatra, Ramayana or the puranic material as a historical record is pronounced; but he went much further, as in this pronouncement from 1924: “I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history.  It is my pet theory that our Hindu ancestors solved the question for us by ignoring history as it is understood today and by building on slight events their philosophical structure.”  Though I myself am a teacher of history, Gandhi’s profound misgivings about the enterprise of history strike me as just and even prescient.  Among other considerations, such as his manifest concern about the pernicious attempts to transform Hinduism from a religion predominantly of mythos to one of history, he was also fully aware that nineteenth century ideas about history, and the inevitability of human progress, were but forms of social evolutionism.  Gandhi resisted the idea that the only history that India could live out was someone else’s history.

My point here may be encapsulated in the following way:  Gandhi has an inescapable presence in intellectual and public spheres, and in the knowledge industry, but in the most predictable ways.  The shapers of opinion and the framers of knowledge have entirely neutralized him, or, in the provocative language of Hind Swaraj, for which ‘world history’ has absolutely no use, rendered him effete.  (Elsewhere, I have written extensively on the cultural politics of sexuality surrounding Gandhi’s life, and my use of ‘effete’ is quite deliberate and self-reflexive.)  There is room for him as an Indian nationalist who articulated some unusual ideas of nonviolent resistance, forged a mass anti-colonial struggle against the British, fought to bring peace to communities torn apart by violence, and agitated for various social reforms.  It is unnecessary, for the purposes of this argument, to point to those critics who would describe him as a reactionary, a friend of the industrialists, an enemy of Dalits, an opponent of class warfare, and so on.   Recently, Mayawati and the Slovenian philosopher-clown Slavok Zizek have found common cause in describing him as more violent than Hitler.  Gandhi’s admirers have, it appear to me, sanitized him enough, and evidently have little patience for his withering critique of modernity, his strictures against Western systems of education, his sexual Puritanism, or his indifference to what I could describe as the regime of modern aesthetics.

Thus, on the eve of the anniversary of his assassination, the question of his ‘relevance’ strikes me as supremely irrelevant.  We should think rather of liberating Gandhi from everything that has beautifully conspired to constrain him.  First there were the Gandhians, a largely unattractive and insipid if well-intentioned lot who, like many practitioners of formal religions, followed all the external signs but showed little of the creativity of Gandhi.  Then there have been the infernal statues, towards which the pigeons have shown an admirable irreverence that would have made Gandhi laugh.   As the Gandhians aged and the statues had normalized Gandhi, the peace studies practitioners came forward with their institutionalized programs of study for peace administrators and conflict managers.  This narrative has many other chapters, but it should by now be transparent that the rhetoric of relevance has been the graveyard of Gandhi.