Posts Tagged ‘Mohandas Gandhi’


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968.  Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age:  the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle.  King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt.  This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum:  there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.

King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years.  I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others.  Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles.  He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.



Rev. James Lawson discusses his phone call inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, the meeting at his church on April 3 and plans to go forward with a march with or without the court injunction in place.   Copyright:  Jeff McAdory/The Commercial Appeal.  Source: http://www.commercialappeal.com/videos/news/2017/01/12/rev.-james-lawson-recalls-inviting-martin-luther-king-jr.-memphis/96495746/

What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett.  The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited.  I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.

Vinay:              At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960.  I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.

Rev. Lawson:   I think that’s reading into it.

Vinay:              You think it’s reading into it?

Rev. Lawson:   It’s also something else.  Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.

Vinay:              Can you say more?

Rev. Lawson:   How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.

Vinay:              Was he at that time?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, absolutely.

Vinay:              Already? In early 1960?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, yes.

Vinay:              Undisputedly so.

Rev. Lawson:   Undisputedly so.  I watched it.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be.  Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world.  He was not the chosen one.  I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62.  The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way.  They said it then.

Vinay:              Yes.

Rev. Lawson:   They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way.  King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work.  They rejected that idea, and said no to that.

It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC].  Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible.  That’s excluded from these [academic] books.  Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism.  It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed.  It does not arrive with tactics in place.

Vinay:              Yes, it’s a process.

Rev. Lawson:   It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new.  We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds.  I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.

Vinay:              I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.

Rev. Lawson:   In Atlanta.

Vinay:              In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.

Rev. Lawson:   What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself.  That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’

Why?  Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together.  They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta.  His father is a member of that group.  King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to.  Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time.  They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta.  King is hesitant.  He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.

King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership.  That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta.  Now the students do not understand that.  I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.

King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that.  Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that.  Others close to him had no about that.  He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.

Vinay:              Yes, all of them, right.

Rev. Lawson:   Now none of that is in these books.

Vinay:              Yeah.  Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who.  Mohandas.

Rev. Lawson:   Yes.  Mohandas K.

Vinay:              Gandhi, yes.  Mohandas K.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right.

Vinay:              He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.

Rev. Lawson:   He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.

Vinay:              Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.

Rev. Lawson:   Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is.  Exactly.  You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies.  It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think.  In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around.  You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.

Vinay:              Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments.  Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia.  Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              Right yeah.  It’s locally started, locally initiated.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.

Rev. Lawson:   By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany.   I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.

Vinay:              Right.

Rev. Lawson:   He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.

Vinay:              Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following.  It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this.  Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany.  The perspective then generally amounts to the following.

Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany.  Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India.  In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here.  This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …


Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested by Albany’s Chief of Police, Laurie Pritchett, after praying at City Hall, on July 27, 1962.  Source:  AP Photo.


Rev. Lawson:   Yes, I know the story.

Vinay:              That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story.  The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably.  Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there.  Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?


Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett & Martin Luther King, Jr.  Source:

Rev. Lawson:   Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff.  It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling.  When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.

There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves.  How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked.   One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard.  Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.”  He said that boldly years ago to me.

King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure.  Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable.  I don’t know them myself.  King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.



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(after a viewing of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”)

No matter how often one might have heard the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, it never ceases to astound.  G. H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician with whose life Ramanujan’s story is inextricably intertwined, put it poignantly when he remarked that his collaboration with him was “the one romantic incident in my life.”  Even those who are mathematically illiterate are touched by the story.  It is a romance that nothing can kill.  And when the life of a mathematician appears as a romance to ordinary people, then one can only turn to Hamlet’s admonishment to his friend:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


Srinivasa Ramanujan with one of his legendary notebooks.

However sophisticated the interpretations surrounding Ramanujan’s life and his extraordinary genius, the bare outlines of the story appear in a form that is inescapably present to every reader of the narrative, which goes something like this:  A little-known, indeed rather obscure, Indian mathematician was toiling away as an office clerk in Madras in the early part of the 20th century.


Srinivasa Ramanujan’s birth home in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

Though recognized by his peers in Madras as man of unusual mathematical gifts, Ramanujan could find no one in his vicinity capable of understanding the theorems which he had a habit of recording in his notebooks.  Meanwhile, Ramanujan had been published in the journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.  Ramanujan eventually, and altogether fortuitously for the history of mathematics, came to the attention of G. H. Hardy, quite possibly the greatest mathematician of the day in the Anglo-American world. The two would commence a famous intellectual collaboration after Ramanujan had been brought over to Britain.  Alas, five years in Britain, while they would bring Ramanujan to the notice of fellow mathematicians all over the world, would also be his undoing.  The inhospitable climate and food took its toll of the fastidious Brahmin, and a year after his return to India in 1919 Ramanujan passed away at the age of 32.

GH Hardy

G H Hardy, Cambridge mathematician.

At first glance, a casual reading of Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which has inspired the film of the same name, might appear to convey the impression that the Ramanujan-Hardy encounter is best read as a ‘culture clash’.  Hardy, writes Kanigel, was a “Fellow of Trinity College, the mecca of Cambridge mathematics, hence of English mathematics” (111); Ramanujan, on the other hand, was largely an autodidact, and was bereft of any degree.


The Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1914.

Though Ramanujan spent five years at Trinity College, and the two worked in close proximity throughout this time, Hardy was little aware that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian and that his complete rejection of meat, fish, poultry, animal lard, and, I suspect, eggs was leaving him starved in a country that for centuries had remained clueless about vegetables.  (Now that Britain had been civilized by South Asians, at least this problem has been addressed.)  Even less would Hardy have understood that vegetarianism alone is construed by some as a religion—though, as shall be seen, Ramanujan’s religiosity went well beyond dietary preferences.  Watching this film, where episodes that point to the difficulties that Ramanujan encountered in being able to satisfy his hunger without violating the tenets of vegetarianism with which he had grown up appear intermittently, brought to mind an evening in 1992 I spent with T.G. Vaidyanathan, a comparatively little-published but maverick thinker (and even more so teacher) of great reputation.  TGV, as he was known to friends, was visiting New York; we walked to dinner; and when I inquired whether he had any preference for a particular cuisine, he stated only that he was a strict vegetarian.  What stays with me from our conversation that evening is TGV’s remarkable rendition of his faith:  Vegetarianism is my Bhagavad Gita, he told me.


So with Srinivasa Ramanujan, except that he further expressed himself as inspired by the Goddess.  Hardy, by contrast, was an unflinching atheist.  But this was not, as is commonly supposed, a clash between the mysterious and spiritual East and logos-centered West.  True, there are moments when the film might appear to descend into such clichés, as when Hardy, in a moment of exasperation, berates Ramanujan for ignoring “proofs” and relying on “intuition”.  However, Kanigel wisely eschews the satisfaction of embracing the easy distinction between the spiritual Orient and the material Occident that continues to inform many popular readings of their encounter, gesturing instead at least at what are some of the more fundamental questions that emerge from the collaboration of these two minds.  Both Ramanujan and Hardy were consumed by numbers, though there is the arresting question about what we mean by numbers at all—and particularly very large numbers, broaching, shall we say, infinity.  What did either of them understand by numbers?  What, in turn, were the sources of their creativity, and what might the fact that Ramanujan was unschooled have to do with Hardy’s inability to comprehend how Ramanujan’s mind worked?  How, Hardy asks Ramanujan more than once in the film, do you know what you do know?  How do you arrive at these theorems?  Is there, in other words, a method to this madness—for surely it was madness that drove Ramanujan to his results and then to extinction?


The Hardy-Ramanujan narrative is a parable about the politics of knowledge and the incommensurability of knowledge systems. Against Hardy’s repeated insistence that Ramanujan offer “proofs”—which I would liken to the stations of the cross, the steps that culminate in the apotheosis of mathematical truth—for his theorems, the South Indian Brahmin countered that the “proofs” barely mattered. If a theorem was correct, then what need was there for proofs?  Hardy’s knowledge was more than merely bookish; nevertheless, he had been schooled in certain styles of mathematical thought and was bound to a bookish conception of mathematical rigor.  What Hardy barely recognized was that his own knowledge, formidable as it may have been when measured against other mathematicians, had constrained him; Ramanujan, in contrast, was unburdened by formal learning, and that was also the source of his extraordinary creativity.  To me, Sir, Ramanujan told Hardy, “an equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”  Now Hardy could simply have dismissed this as a nonsensical remark, the residual effect of superstition from which the mind of a Hindu, no matter how much given over to the work of logos, is never entirely free.  Or he could have assimilated Ramanujan’s statement to a worldview for which he had some affinity, namely that mathematical truths have something of the ineffable about them, a beauty and purity which approximates spiritual truth.  Or he could have taken Ramanujan’s strange expression of truth as a tacit invitation to at least momentarily unburden himself, desist from proof-seeking, and allow a less charted framework of knowledge to inform his work.


Ramanujan (center) with other scholars at Cambridge University.

There are, as the film amply suggests, a great many other features that are important to an understanding of the Ramanujan-Hardy narrative and an appreciation of the immense odds against which Ramanujan had to struggle.  The racial element was always present, if not in their relationship, certainly in Cambridge and in wider mathematical circles:  an unschooled, “bloody Indian” had slowly but surely established himself in the Mecca of mathematics and cut the venerable dons of this institution down to size.  Kanigel misses out, however, on the politics of sexuality that is incipient in a narrative which has tacitly opposed a masculinized Hardy representing the imperial and ratiocinative vigor of Britain to an effeminized, vegetarian, superstitious Brahmin belonging to a subject race.  Their story, though it has never been read this way, is also a parable about how ostensibly neutered and highly objective forms of knowledge are also captive to dominant registers of masculinity.  But, amidst these and many other strands of thought that emerge from this story of the meeting of two minds, it is the politics of knowledge to which we must remain supremely attentive as we continue to grapple with this story.


The first of three postage stamps released by the Government of India in honor of Ramanujan, this one on the centenary (1997) of his birth. Few Indians have been conferred such official recognition.

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The history of colonial India was, one might say, bookended by political trials.  The crimes of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, were showcased in lengthy impeachment proceedings against him in the British Parliament from 1788-95; towards the end of 1945, the first of a series of Indian National Army (INA) trials generated an extraordinary upsurge of sentiment against the British and doubtless hastened the end of two hundred years of colonial rule.  Nearly every pivotal moment in the history of British India was similarly marked by a political trial:  one can enumerate in this respect the trail of Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857-58, which signified the formal end of the Mughal Empire, the two trials (in 1897 and 1908) of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who represented, in the colonial vision, the ‘extremist’ phase of Indian politics, or the various trials, on charges of sedition, treason, conspiracy, or revolutionary violence, of Aurobindo, Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, M. N. Roy, and Lala Lajpat Rai, each of whom nonetheless represented a different constituency of anti-colonial Indian politics.


Occupying a remarkable place in the arena of state activities in colonial India, political trials were never just only a form of contestation between the state and its colonized subjects.  Such trials of state were generally never convened without the expectation that, in the dramatic setting of the courtroom, the performance of both the state and the rebels would be received with utmost attention; and though not all trials were accompanied by fanfare, by the loud trumpeting of the triumph of justice, they were each in their own way spectacles to which the entire nation stood witness.


Subhas Bose with Officers of the INA

The setting for the INA Trials was indeed dramatic:  having fled from India in January 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where the Nazis assisted him in setting up a Free India Center.  In December 1941, the German army had agreed to hand over to Bose such captured prisoners from the (British) Indian Army as were agreeable to joining the Indian Legion, a military force that Bose was establishing though it was to be placed under German command.  It is in Europe, then, that Bose started recruiting captured Indian POWs to aid in the liberation of India, though he had comparatively little success:  only 2,500 of the approximately 17,000 POWs could be induced to join the Indian Legion.  Meanwhile, the theatre of war had moved to the Asia and the Pacific, and it is in September 1942 that the first Division of the INA comprised of 16,300 men was raised under the leadership of Captain Mohan Singh.  A year later, Bose summoned the remnants of the INA, renamed it the Azad Hind Fauj [Free India Army], and energized it, in a move reminiscent of Gandhi’s “Do or Die”, with a simple but entrancing slogan:  “Chalo Delhi.”


In 1943-44, the British had instituted the first courts-martial of British Indian Army personnel captured as INA troops.  However, these trials excited little attention, and even most historians have scarcely paid any attention to them:  much of the Congress leadership was behind bars, and, moreover, the Congress position, as articulated by Nehru, was that however patriotic and well-meaning INA men might be, they had “put themselves on the wrong side and were functioning under Japanese auspices.”  What has become known as the INA Trial, launched in November 1945, was a different story.  The INA had seen significant military action in the Imphal-Kohima sector and INA troops had become the stuff of legends.  Bose himself had died in a plane crash in August 1945; though the circumstances of his death were deemed highly suspicious by many, his apotheosis as the great martyr had taken place.  Nevertheless, Britain’s victory in World War II as part of the Allied forces was decisive, and the INA had been disbanded in May 1945.   Soldiers who had engaged in traitorous conduct could not be allowed to go unpunished.


Military Parade of the INA at Padang

In putting Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and Major-General Shah Nawaz Khan on trial on the charges of murder, abetment to murder, and “waging war against the King-Emperor”, the British scarcely anticipated the uproar that ensued.  The Congress Working Committee passed a resolution in sympathy with the prisoners.  Nehru, in a speech delivered on November 3, two days before the prosecution was launched, stated that “the trial of the three INA officers will be of historical importance. . . .  It touches the sentiments of the whole nation.”  Demonstrations in solidarity with the accused were held throughout the country, and Gandhi and Patel were among those who visited the accused in jail.  A Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim had been put on trial, in unintended homage to Bose’s own defiance of communal divisions, and the Congress defended all three men.  The Defence Committee was made up of a stellar list of legal and political luminaries, headed by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Bhulabhai Desai, who argued that the accused could not be tried under the Indian Penal Code and that international law was applicable in this case, was largely responsible for the defence; and much has been of the fact that Nehru, who had ceased to practice law at least 25 years ago, donned his barrister’s gowns and made a couple of appearances in court.


Jawaharlal Nehru and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, to his right, proceeding to the INA Trial.

The outcome was preordained:  all three accused were found guilty and handed down a sentence of deportation for life.  Meanwhile, however, a mutiny had broken out on several of the ships and shore establishments of the Royal Indian Navy, and all this made transparent that, in the words of the feminist and socialist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, “it was really freedom versus bondage that was really on trial.”  Acting under immense pressure, army chief Claude Auchinleck, in whom rested the final authority to dispose off the case, commuted the sentences of the three defendants.


Crowds Gathered Outside the Red Fort during the INA Trial

The trial, I have implied, can well be seen as a locus for the colonialist sociology of knowledge, the micro-politics of power, and the cultural politics of resistance. To appreciate, nonetheless, the singularity of the principal INA Trial, I shall suggest only three lines of inquiry.  First, it is striking but not surprising that the trial was held at the Red Fort, rather than a courtroom. The Red Fort had been the seat of the Mughal Empire, and the British chroniclers of the great rebellion of 1857-58 noted that when the British reoccupied Delhi in late 1857, they signified their dominion over India by rendering profane the sacred space of the Mughals and defiling it with the consumption of pork and wine, both taboo to observant Muslims.  He who seeks to show his authority over India must command the Red Fort.


Secondly, why did the Congress, which had earlier adopted the view that the INA recruits were patriots but nevertheless misguided in their willingness to join a fighting force aided by fascists, so unambiguously take up the defence of the INA accused? Were Congress leaders positioning themselves for the provincial elections and the struggle ahead?  Was this a final attempt on the part of the Congress to project itself as an organization that alone could withstand the furies of communalism?  And, finally, does the mass popular sentiment in support of the INA accused suggest that Gandhi had been sidelined or does it contrariwise point to the fact that the Quit India movement had moved India irrevocably towards freedom?  Whatever’s one outlook on these questions, the centrality of the INA Trial in the narrative of late nationalism cannot be doubted.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in print as “The Call to Freedom:  How the INA Trial Hastened the End of British Rule”, The EyeIndian Express (Sunday) Magazine (3 January 2016).









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Review of Faisal Devji, The Impossible Indian:  Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2012).  

[First published in The Book Review, Delhi, Vol 37 no. 10 (October 2013).]


It was not so long ago that Mohandas Gandhi was, at least to the academic world, a largely forgotten figure.  In the 1980s and 1990s, as postcolonial thought in its various inflections became quite the rage in significant sectors of the Anglo-American (and Indian) academy, and the ‘master narratives’ of the Enlightenment, as they were called, came under sustained interrogation and assault, attention would come to be lavished upon those figures who were viewed as the torchbearers of resistance, critical of deeply embedded frameworks of interpretation that had given succor to elites, and harbingers of a politics of emancipation for those, especially, relegated to the margins.  Curiously, though Gandhi is a critical figure in the histories of struggles against colonialism, racism, and the oppression of women and minorities, he remained singularly unattractive to the most prominent postcolonial theorists and intellectuals of other stripes.  He was seen as a distinctly unsexy figure, dismissed as a ‘doer’ rather than ‘thinker’, scarcely worthy of the company of Aime Cesaire, C.L.R. James, or the much lionized Fanon.  The stately Edward Said was habituated to giving lists of the great figures of anti-colonial resistance, but in the thousands of pages of his writings there is barely any mention of Gandhi’s name.  When at all attention was bestowed on Gandhi by a famous intellectual, it was more for effect than out of any serious consideration of his thought, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s extraordinary and one should say careless attempt, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), to suggest that sati could be associated with “Mahatma Gandhi’s reinscription of the notion of satyagraha, or hunger strike, as resistance.” As she adds, “I would merely invite the reader to compare the auras of widow sacrifice and Gandhian resistance.  The root in the first part of satyagraha and sati are the same” (p. 298). Since when did satyagraha and “hunger strike” become synonymous?  Fasting is no doubt part of the grammar of satyagraha, but does anyone suppose that satyagraha can be reduced to hunger strike?  And is there no distinction to be made between fasting and hunger strike?  One would have expected a great deal more from someone who has been a relentless advocate of careful and hermeneutic readings of texts.


Much, however, has changed in the course of the last decade.  Gandhi has found favour in the most unusual circles, though for reasons that are far from apparent, and scholarship on him is flourishing.  It surely cannot be that the world is in the throes of violence—indeed it is, but not demonstrably more so than in previous decades—and that Gandhi now appears not only eminently sane and reasonable but prophetic in his insistence on nonviolent social and political transformation.  It may be that many of the most widely admired figures of our times, among them Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi, have openly declared themselves as beholden to Gandhi in helping shape their worldview.  Even the Commander in Chief of the greatest military force in the world, Barack Obama, has described Gandhi as his spiritual and political mentor, and he once went so far as to tell American schoolchildren that if there is one figure from the past with whom he could have dinner, it would have to be Gandhi.  (We need not pause here to reflect on how the evening might have shaped up, since Gandhi ate very little and well before sundown—yet Obama’s observation seems to have been offered without any pinch of salt.)  It is certainly possible to entertain the idea that, at least from the scholarly standpoint, other ideologies—liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, constitutionalism—are seen as having run their full course, and that some indulgence towards Gandhi’s ideas is seen as permissible.  All too often, of course, nonviolence has been the last rather than the first option for those who style themselves revolutionaries.


Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian is easily both one of the most stimulating and disturbing books in the Gandhian cornucopia.  Devji proposes to set forth ‘a new case’ for Gandhi ‘to be considered one of the greatest political thinkers of our times’ (vii), just as the analytical philosopher Akeel Bilgrami, another relatively recent convert to Gandhi’s ideas, has argued that Gandhi was ‘the greatest anti-imperialist theorist who ever wrote’.[1]  Much has been written on the subject of nationality, but Devji’s reading is altogether fresh:  considering the role of Indians within the empire, he argues that ‘it was neither India nor South Africa that provided Indians with a nationality, but satyagraha, considered as a practice without origin or destination of any territorial sort’ (49).  Gandhi in this fashion also controverted the usual assumptions about ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’, a language born of modern political arithmetic, and a letter to Jinnah in 1944 reinforces the notion of nationality wrought in the crucible of struggle:  ‘The only real though awful test of our nationhood arises out of our common subjection.  If you and I throw off this subjection by our combined effort, we shall be born a politically free nation out of our travail’ (cited at 64).  Devji writes with considerable elegance and even panache, to be sure, but also with the aim of unsettling conventional readings and what we deem to be ‘common sense’.  One of the more fruitful results of this intellectual exercise is the chapter tellingly entitled, ‘In Praise of Prejudice’—shades here, as throughout this book, though hardly acknowledged, of the impress on Devji of the seminal readings of Gandhi, and more broadly of Indian political culture, advanced by Ashis Nandy.  Gandhi worked to develop ‘the prejudice that remained between Indians there into a basis of friendship’ (70): neither friendship nor prejudice are amenable to a calculus of interests. Though both friendship and brotherhood furnish models of egalitarian relations, Devji argues convincingly that Gandhi was ‘an advocate of the former against the latter’ (71).  Unlike brotherhood, which may be ‘flouted a hundred times without ceasing to remain brotherhood’, friendship rests on a much more fragile foundation, having ‘to remain disinterested to be itself’ (69).  Devji weaves into this discussion a consideration of Gandhi’s stance on the Khilafat Movement and pan-Islamic politics, a subject on which even Gandhi’s most ardent admirers have often found themselves parting company from the Mahatma.  Devji’s complex interpretive moves cannot be rehearsed here, but suffice to say that he does not agree that the ‘Khilafat episode’ must be reckoned as one of Gandhi’s greatest failures.  Quite to the contrary, it is here that Gandhi demonstrated the true meaning of friendship, and it is only a cheap calculus of interests which makes us suppose, quite erroneously, that Gandhi sought reciprocity from Muslims—for example, a promise to refrain from cow slaughter—in exchange for his support of the Khilafat cause.


The six chapters that have been patched together to comprise this book thus bristle, to varying degrees, with arresting insights—even if, as is sometimes the case, our understanding of Gandhi is not visibly advanced. A case in point is the chapter entitled ‘Bastard  History’, where Devji tackles the question of Gandhi’s ‘intellectual and political antecedents.’  Brushing aside those conventional histories which invoke the names of Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau, or Raychandbhai and Gokhale, Devji avers that, with the possible exception of the Swadeshi Movement, ‘it is impossible to point to any historical example that might provide a precedent for Gandhi’s use’ of nonviolent practices and his deployment of the ideas of ahimsa, satya, and so on.  If Devji is unfamiliar with the work of, say, Howard Spodek on the antecedents of Gandhian satyagraha in Gujarati political culture, or of Dharampal’s treatise on the history of civil disobedience in Benares, it would be a severe shortcoming; but if he has deliberately chosen to ignore these histories, and many more come to mind, the reader would certainly profit from understanding why they are of no consequence.  But this is scarcely the worst of the matter:  Devji then makes bold to suggest that ‘Gandhi’s ideas and practices emerged instead from a past of conflict and violence’(11), and he suggests that the ‘Indian Mutiny of 1857 . . . provides the only historical precedent for several of the practices by which Gandhi’s politics was known, including  non-cooperation, encouraging native manufactures and the working out of  new moral relationship between Hindus and Muslims’ (11).  The Rebellion of 1857-58 gave rise to Hindu-Muslim fraternal relations, much to the consternation of colonial authorities; Gandhi similarly championed Hindu-Muslim unity.  Muslim soldiers in 1857 were keenly aware of Hindu concerns about ritual pollution without believing in them; and, in a similar vein, Hindus supported the cause of the Caliphate under Gandhi’s leadership (29).  But, apropos Gandhi, the argument borders on the bizarre.  Devji has established absolutely nothing:  he admits that ‘Gandhi’s own references to the Mutiny were invariably negative’ (11), though, in truth, Gandhi scarcely mentioned the Rebellion.  It is not accidental that though elsewhere in the book Devji routinely cites Gandhi, as he must, this chapter does not have a single reference to Gandhi’s writings or pronouncements.  What Devji has to say of the Rebellion is interesting enough, but as an exercise in the genealogy of ideas that informed the worldview of Gandhi, the chapter is utterly unconvincing. 


Devji’s book bears the subtitle, ‘Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence’, and it to this that we may finally turn for the centerpiece of Devji’s argument.  There is no gainsaying the fact that the question of violence is central to any assessment of Gandhi’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual outlook, even if the instinct of most people has naturally led them to ahimsa in thinking of Gandhi.  There are some commonplace arguments that are now firmly established in the scholarship, among them Gandhi’s distinction between nonviolence of the strong and the nonviolence of the weak, his avowed preference for violence over cowardice (134), and his frequently voiced claim, especially towards the last several years of his life, that he preferred that India be left to anarchy rather than continue to have the country subjected to British rule.  The notion that the British were there to mediate between the Hindus and Muslims is one for which Gandhi rightfully had absolutely no respect.  Gandhi entertained a suspicion of the ‘third party’ (169), whether the colonial state, the national state, or any other body—an idea first seeded in Hind Swaraj (1909):  the doctor, for example, comes between the patient and her own body.  Here, however, Devji becomes too entranced by his own argument, and cleverness lords it over judiciousness and wisdom.  Thus, we are assured, Gandhi had ‘a desire for civil war’ (161), he was despondent over the refusal of the Congress, the League, and the British ‘to heed his advice about the desirability of internecine warfare’ (164), and that he remained ‘cheerful’ as the violence raged all around him (168).  Indeed, there may have always been the ‘temptation of violence’ for Gandhi, but we might just as well accept Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’


Why, then, the ‘impossible’ Indian?  Each reader will make her own interpretive moves, and some will no doubt gravitate towards the view, held among others by Ambedkar, that Gandhi was one ‘impossible’ person, cunning, disingenuous, and a master of manipulation.  Others will surely embrace the view that stands at the other extreme, and is best typified by Einstein’s admission that it was nearly impossible to believe that someone such as Gandhi ‘ever in flesh and blood had walked upon this earth’.  The Gandhians are likely to suggest that the Mahatma made no impossible demands upon others that he did not first impose upon himself.  Yet what Devji has in mind in describing Gandhi as ‘the impossible Indian’ seems to be far removed from all of this, and may even extend well beyond the reading that he himself explicitly puts forth, namely that an impossible tension exists between Gandhi’s stern advocacy of nonviolence and his keen sense that the most genuine embrace of nonviolence resided in the confrontation with, rather than mere repudiation of, violence.  In invoking Gandhi as ‘the impossible Indian’, Devji appears to be gesturing at the kind of possibilities suggested by Derrida in his essay, ‘Avowing—the Impossible: “Returns”, Repentance, and Reconciliation’.  The impossible enhances the potential of what exists; or, put differently, the possible only revels in its full potential in the face of the impossible.  There is no wise and ethical politics without the impossible.  Whatever its other limitations, Devji’s The Impossible Indian suggests as much about Gandhi and in this respect has opened up new avenues of exploration into the rich politics and inner life of a person whose contribution to contemporary political and ethical life by any measure was sui generis.

[1] Akeel Bilgrami, ‘Gandhi’s religion and its relation to his politics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi, eds. Judith M. Brown & Anthony Parel (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 107.

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An epidemic of fasting has of late engulfed India.  Some months ago, the social reformer Anna Hazare, whose activities over the last three decades had been largely confined to his village Ralegan Siddhi or the area around it, or at most to his native Maharashtra, burst upon the national scene with a 5-day fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to highlight the problem of corruption.  Hazare again pressed his demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill with a spectacular show of force at the Ramlila Grounds in August, and much of India’s attention was riveted on the 74-year old man who, having put his body on the line with an indefinite fast, seemed to have stunned the government into submission.  Many decades ago, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, George Orwell, in an appreciative if critical assessment of his life, marveled at the fact that Gandhi would take a public decision to fast and, as it seemed to Orwell, the entire country would come to a standstill –– not once, or twice, but on a dozen or more occasions.  Not for nothing was Gandhi the Mahatma.  Some in our times have marveled at the fact that a former truck driver who has something of the appearance of a country bumpkin, and who seems to have little in his personal appearance, demeanor, oratorical skill, or worldview that might resonate with the middle classes, should be the one to revive memories of a time when Gandhian nonviolent resistance rewrote the rules governing dissent.


When Hazare went on a fast, so did 65 other men and women at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.  Seventeen of them persisted to the end, breaking their fast on the thirteenth day alongside Hazare.  One other who followed in Hazare’s wake has now come into the limelight:  Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi, the detractors of both say, are joined at the hip. They have openly expressed admiration for each other, though Hazare has stated that his advocacy of Modi does not extend beyond the Chief Minister’s apparent skills in shepherding Gujarat to the model ‘development state’ in India.  Two weeks ago, Modi commenced his ‘Sadbhavana’ mission, and his letter to the public, issued as a full-page advertisement in newspapers across India and featured on his slick website, which is available in five languages, described his 72-hour fast as ‘a prayer for togetherness’.


The twenty first century, wrote Modi, ‘did not begin well for Gujarat.  In 2001, the devastating earthquake on our Republic day, took a very heavy toll.  In the subsequent year, Gujarat became the victim of communal violence.  We lost innocent lives, suffered devastation of property and endured lot of pain.’  Many see this statement as the first expression of atonement by Modi in the nearly ten years since the pogrom against Muslims, in which Modi and many senior officials in his government are believed to be implicated, took over 2,000 lives and rendered tens of thousands more homeless.  ‘I am grateful to all those’, Modi adds, ‘who pointed out my genuine mistakes during [the] last 10 years.’  Modi does not, of course, admit that it was largely the Muslims who were the victims; indeed, like any good officer of the law, he is careful not to mention any community by name.  It is Gujarat that became ‘the victim of communal violence’:  the passive construction encourages the reader to believe that there was no agency in the killings; no responsibility can be assigned for the crimes that occurred.


Every action, Modi had infamously said when the killings were taking place, leads to a reaction, ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai’; as Donald Rumsfeld put it, apropos of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad and other atrocities following the American invasion of Iraq, ‘Stuff happens.’  When the Supreme Court ruled that it would send the case against Modi back to the High Court, Modi and his friends swiftly interpreted the gesture as a vindication of the Chief Minister.  ‘God is great’, Modi had tweeted, but his public letter on the eve of his fast does not even remotely advert to this background.  His letter concludes with the rationale for his fast:  Modi will ‘continue to pray to the Almighty’ so that he develops the strength that prevents him from harbouring ‘any ill-feeling or bitterness’ towards those who defamed the state of Gujarat and maligned him personally.


No sooner had Modi announced his fast than he began to be taken to task.  The Congress, not surprisingly, described it as a ‘gimmick’, and it was soon characterized as a ‘five-star’ fast and public ‘spectacle’ when it surfaced that Modi would hold the fast in Gujarat University’s Convention Hall amidst 2,000 policemen, elaborate media arrangements, LCD screens, ten counters to receive bouquets and gifts, and teams of medical specialists.  Meanwhile, Shankersinh Vaghela, a one-time BJP leader who is now one of the more prominent faces of the Congress in Gujarat, announced that he would counter Modi with his fast at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram.   The Sabarmati Ashram is a hugely symbolic site, but not only for the obvious reason that it was here that Gandhi established a foothold upon his return from South India or that it is from the ashram that Gandhi launched his march to Dandi.  Sabarmati Ashram, in a shocking repudiation of everything that Gandhi stood for, shuts it doors to Muslims seeking refuge from marauding bands of killers in 2002.  Even if Gandhi’s legacy has been mercilessly dumped in his home state, even if at every turn middle class Gujaratis have rejected him as the very antithesis of what a modern, developed, and respected nation-state ought to look like, Modi and Vaghela have not been slow to understand that Gandhi’s name still carries immense cultural capital.


Hazare, Modi, Vaghela:  these are only the more visible faces among countless numbers who in India have taken to fasting, and in their midst are the likes of Irom Sharmila, a 38-year old woman from Manipur who has been fasting since 2000 in her quest to have the state repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian piece of legislation that activists describe as the death-knell of democracy.  Gandhi never had to suffer the indignity of being force-fed; Irom Sharmila, by contrast, has often been force-fed, released, and then re-arrested on her resumption of fasting.  Her long struggle is more reminiscent of the ‘cat and mouse’ game waged between English suffragettes, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and the British government which led to the imposition of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, popularly dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.  Nevertheless, in India the comparison with Gandhi is almost always unavoidable.


Gandhi was the modern master of the fast; and, yet, he did not just stumble upon fasting, nor was he the first to come to an awareness of how the body could be inserted into the body politic and create waves.  In one of his lesser-known plays, “The King’s Threshold”, William Butler Yeats wrote about a practice long extant in Ireland (and, though Yeats was not entirely aware of this, in India).  When a creditor was unable to collect an outstanding loan from a debtor, and found himself unable to call upon the forces of the state to help in the redressal of his grievance, he would come and sit outside the debtor’s door and refuse to move –– and thus refuse to eat.  To sit dharna in India similarly means to render oneself into an obstacle; and this act of ‘door-sitting’, as more than one Indian medieval text in India informs us, has fasting as its necessary concomitant.  India even had its own form of the medieval duel.  It was not unknown for the debtor to commence fasting when the creditor refused to partake of food at his doorstep.  We speak today of surrogate mothers and fathers, but India had long pioneered the idea of surrogate hunger strikers.  If, as was often the case, the creditor was a moneylender, he occasionally hired a Brahmin to sit and fast in his place.  Whoever prevailed could claim justice on his side.


There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini.  This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting.  King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99).  The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests.  As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events that transpired in the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha.  Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’ –– the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruins.  Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).    Elsewhere Kalhana describes the contagion of fasting:  in 1211 AD, when the Brahmins at Aksosuva ‘held a solemn fast directed against the king’ to protest against the pillage of their monastery, the Brahmins ‘in the capital’ followed suit, and were in turn emulated by ‘the members of the Temple Purohit Association’ (VIII:898-900).  Hunger strikes had become so common, if Kalhana is to be believed, that officials were appointed to be especially ‘in charge of hunger-strikes’ (VI:14).


Though there is nothing to suggest that Gandhi was aware of the Rajatarangini, there is but no question that he had some familiarity with Indian traditions of hunger striking.  He termed most hunger strikes, which he distinguished from fasts, as a form of ­duragraha –– a distinction that today is upheld in the contrast between anshan and upvasa.  Gandhi would have been the first to recognize that there may never be anything like a pure fast, entirely free of coercion –– certainly not if one’s fast is in the public domain, or likely to have political consequences.  Many of the principles of fasting to which he adhered are now common knowledge, and everyone recognizes, for example, Gandhi’s insistence on listening to one’s inner voice, or his idea that fasting is a form of communion between oneself and one’s own God.  Rather than trying to resolve whether Hazare, Modi, Vaghela, and others meet the standards that Gandhi set for himself when he embarked on a fast, we might try to aim at a different comprehension of the Gandhian universe itself.  Gandhi’s many fasts, his enemas, his weekly day of silence, and much more:  all this was a way of emptying himself, reducing himself to zero, silencing the noise within, rejuvenating his tired limbs and mind –– all the more so that he could lead life to the fullest.  How does one begin to comprehend the enormity of a life where one’s own body becomes the site of ecological homage to mother Earth?

First published in The Times of India, The Crest Edition (1 October 2011), p. 10.

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A celibate for the greater part of his life, Mohandas Gandhi continues to attract nearly unrivaled attention – often for the sex that did not take place. Even his friends and admirers, who revered him for bringing ethics to the political life, or for never demanding of others what he did not first demand of himself, were quite certain that Gandhi was unable to comprehend that a woman and a man might enjoy a perfectly healthy sexual relationship with each other. Nehru, seldom critical of the personal life of his political mentor, was convinced that Gandhi harboured an “unnatural” suspicion of the sexual life; and he deplored, as did many others, Gandhi’s strongly held view that sexual intercourse, other than for purposes of procreation, had no place in civilised life – not even among married couples.  The Marxists have long subscribed to the view that Gandhi was a “romantic”, a hopeless idealist and even hypocrite; to this a chorus of voices added the thought that Gandhi was an insufferable “puritan”.

Gandhi’s discomfort with the sexual life, according to one widely accepted strand of thought, commenced when his father passed away shortly after his marriage to Kasturba.  Though the young Gandhi liked to nurse his ailing father, one evening he was unable to contain his urge to share a night of ribaldry with his young wife. He had just withdrawn to the bedroom when a knock on the door announced that his father had passed away. Gandhi was, it has been argued, never able to forgive himself his transgression, and became determined to master his sexual drive. A more complex narrative links his renunciation of sex to his firm conviction, first developed during the heat of a campaign of nonviolent resistance to oppression in South Africa, that it compromised his ability to be a perfect satyagrahi.  Many commentators have pointed to his failure to consult with Kasturba before he took a vow of celibacy at the age of 37 as a sign of his cruelty and tendency to be self-serving.

One British reviewer of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of the Mahatma, however, had much more than this in mind when he characterised Gandhi as a “sexual weirdo”.  In his 70s, in the sunset of his life, Gandhi embarked on a new set of sexual experiments in which several women partook, among them Manu and Abha, his “two walking sticks”, and Sushila Nayar, his personal physician and sister of his secretary Pyarelal.  In the midst of raging communal violence, which Gandhi characteristically attributed to his own personal shortcomings, he decided to test his resolve – by going to bed naked with one or the other of the women. His detractors have ever since had a field day: though no one has ever suggested that Gandhi made improper advances, or that the encounter was in the remotest manner sexual, the mask is supposed to have come off the “dirty old man”.  Few of his critics are aware that after such experiments came to a halt, Manu penned a remarkable little book titled, Bapu, My Mother; or that Sushila Nayar, furnishing an account several years after Gandhi’s death of these experiments in brahmacharya, stated that, far from experiencing any sexual desire, she felt as though she was sharing the bed with her mother.

The celibate Gandhi is as much a conundrum as any other Gandhi we have known. Though the principal architect of the Indian Independence struggle, he had much less invested in the idea of the nation-state than any other nationalist. He was a radical democrat but one detects a streak of authoritarianism in his political conduct; and, similarly, while declaring himself a bhakta of Tulsidas, he never doubted that passages in the Ramacharitmanas that were repugnant to one’s moral conscience were to be rejected. The vow of brahmacharya did not preclude, as it has for reformers and saints in Indian religious traditions, the company of women; indeed, Gandhi adored their presence and reveled in their touch. He was constantly surrounded by women, and for decades Mirabehn, the daughter of an English admiral who was mesmerised by the Mahatma, was privy to his innermost thoughts to such an extent as to arouse jealousy within Kasturba. Their correspondence has a touch of the erotic; and, Mirabehn, in particular, would write of her longing for the Mahatma when he was away. She was by no means the only woman with whom Gandhi enjoyed a platonic relationship:  there was an intense exchange of “love letters” over many years between him and Esther Faering, a Danish missionary, and Saraladevi Chowdharani was cast as his “spiritual wife”.  Many of his male friendships are equally interesting:  for example, he may also have been attracted to Hermann Kallenbach, a wealthy Jewish architect who would become one of Gandhi’s earliest patrons and closest friends. Kallenbach, a body-builder and athlete, may have been the embodiment of masculinity, but Gandhi saw his soft side and his gift for nonviolence.

We are not likely to understand these friendships, which should also make us aware of Gandhi’s singular disinterest in the traditional concept of the family, if we fail to make a distinction between sex and sexuality and see through to the core of his thoughts on masculinity and femininity. Though Gandhi repudiated sex, which he saw as a finite game, finite in that its end seemed to be mere physical consummation, he was a consummate player of sexuality who delighted in the infinite pleasures of touch, companionship, and the eroticism of longing and withdrawal. More so than any other Indian political figure of his time, Gandhi made very little distinction between men and women. This will appear to be a brazen statement to those who have read his unequivocally clear pronouncements on the distinct duties of women and men and the spheres they ought ideally to occupy in life.  In practice, however, he fundamentally treated them as alike, endeavouring also to bring out something of the feminine in men and something of the masculine in women. It is wholly characteristic of the Mahatma, a relentless advocate of experiments with truth, that even if he appeared to work with a crude conception of what it means to be male or female, his entire life can be read as an attempt to bring us to a new threshold of understanding the notions of masculinity and femininity.

(originally published in “The Asian Age”, 1 May 2011)

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A meeting at Penang in autumn 2010 of like-minded intellectuals and activists from the Global South committed to a radical decolonization of knowledge commenced with a screening of the late Howard Zinn’s documentary, We the People.  A few years ago, the World Social Forum in Mumbai opened with a screening, before thousands of people, of the documentary, Manufacturing Consent, focused on the ideas and work of Noam Chomsky, the most well known American voice of dissent at home and abroad.  In either case, most people would be justified in thinking that the choice was sound.  Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — a work attentive to the voices of the marginalized, critical of mainstream narratives, sensitive to histories of labor and the working class, and so on — has sold over a million copies in various editions; moreover, Zinn’s life, marked by an ethical impulse to do, in common parlance, what is right and stand by what is just, is one that many might seek to emulate.  Chomsky, for his part, has been the most relentless and forthright critic of American foreign policy:  if there is one liberal voice which to the world represents the ability of the United States to tolerate its own critics, it is surely the voice of Chomsky.  Critical as Chomsky is of the United States, one suspects that he can also be trumpeted by his adversaries as the supreme instance of America’s adherence to notions of free speech.  Chomsky is simultaneously one of America’s principal intellectual liabilities and assets.


I am animated, however, by a different set of considerations in this discussion of Zinn and Chomsky.  Why, we should ask, did the organizers settle for Zinn and Chomsky, both American scholars – and that, too, at meetings, especially the Multiversity conference in Penang, committed at least partly to the idea of intellectual autonomy, self-reliance, greater equity between the global North and the global South, and so on.  An ethical case might reasonably be made for the gestures encountered at Penang and Mumbai.  No less a person than Gandhi sought alliances, throughout his life, with the ‘other West’.  Holding firmly to the principle that freedom is indivisible, and that it is not only India that needed to be free of colonial rule, but also England itself that had to be liberated from its own worst tendencies, Gandhi sought out those writers, intellectuals, and activists in the West who had themselves been reduced to the margins.  His tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, which is intensely critical of the modern West, lists ‘eminent authorities’ whose works Gandhi consulted, and the bulk of them are figures such as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Edward Carpenter, and Ruskin.  Those who rightly recall this critical aspect of Gandhi’s life conveniently forget that Gandhi, on more than one occasion, also described the West as “Satanic”.  If he accepted English, America, and European friends as allies in the struggle for Indian independence, he also never wavered from his firm belief that ultimately Indians had to fight their own battles.  Thus, following  him, some difficult questions that come to mind should not be brushed aside.  Is the Global South so colonized that it must borrow even its models of dissent from the West?  If the theorists of global import, from Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Heidegger and Althusser to Lacan, Habermas, Levinas, Judith Butler, and Agamben all hail from the West, are the ultimate dissenters also from the West?


What begins in people’s minds can only end in people’s minds.  All over the colonized world in the nineteenth century, Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville were held up as the torchbearers of freedom.  Almost no one recognized Tocqueville, even today a sacrosanct figure in the United States, as the holder of the most virulently racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims.  Mill’s ideas about representative government extended only to people he conceived of as free, mature, and possessed of rational faculties.  The habits of simulation in the global South are so deeply engrained that Americans become the ultimate and only genuine dissenters.  The rebellions of the dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized are generally dismissed as luxuries possible only in permissive democracies, as the last rants of people opposed to development and progress.  However, the problem of dissent is far from being confined to the global South:  it is, if anything, more acute in the United States, where the dissenters have all been neatly accommodated, whether in women’s studies, ethnic studies, or gay studies departments at universities, or in officially-sanctioned programs of multiculturalism, or in pious-sounding policies affirming the values of diversity and cultural pluralism.  The dictators of tomorrow will also, we can be certain, have had “diversity training”.  Is there any dissent beyond what now passes for dissent?   How will we recognize the dissent of those who do not speak in one of the prescribed languages of dissent?  The United Nations has officially recognized languages, but the world at large has something much more insidious, namely officially recognized and prescribed modes of dissent.  Those who do not dissent in the languages of dissent will never even receive the dignity of recognition, not even as much as a mass memorial to ‘the unknown soldier’.


See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Eight: Postcolonial Thought and Religion in the Public Sphere

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)



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