*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.


*‘They Make War and Call it Peace’: The Shame of Obama’s Nobel Prize

Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant:  ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  So wrote the Roman historian Caius Tacitus almost 2,000 years ago.  The text from which this quote is drawn deserves a bit more scrutiny:  “Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominis imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”, says Tacitus (Life of Agricola 30), which has generally been rendered as follows:     ‘To robbery, slaughter and rapaciousness [rapere] they give the false name of empire; where they make a solitude they call it peace.’  Tacitus was describing the conduct of the Romans, to whom the “further limits of Britain” had been thrown open.  By solitude, Tacitus meant a ‘desert’; they laid waste to a place and so rendered it a place of solitude [solitudinem].  Somehow, reading Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, delivered today in Oslo, Tacitus’s text comes to mind.

When nearly two months ago the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the conferral of the peace prize upon Obama, one wondered what Obama had done to deserve the honor, or what qualifications the Committee’s members had to bestow the prize upon Obama – or indeed anyone else.  Both questions are easily answered.  The Norwegians know something about salmon and lingon berries, and they should content themselves with that knowledge, and leave judgments about international governance and peace-making to others.  (The results of their previous efforts to ‘broker peace’, to use the debased jargon of realpolitik, are there to be seen in Sri Lanka.)  As for Obama’s qualifications, many people are persuaded, and who knows Obama himself among them, that his (supposed) repudiation of the policies of his predecessor in the White House has alone made him an eminently worthwhile candidate for unusual and great honors.  Quite tickled pink with the idea of his rock star charm, Obama even made a flying visit to Denmark to help in Chicago’s bid to stage the Olympics, only to receive a rude shock when Chicago was thrown out of the final round of competition with the lowest number of votes.  Once Obama had been so slighted, it may be argued, something had to be done to assuage his wounds.  And the Nobel Peace Prize is certainly there for the taking.

Many of the left objected, as indeed they should have, to the conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize upon Barack Obama, who is a wartime President of the United States.  Obama had, in October, already ruled out immediate withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and was even contemplating an increased American military presence in Afghanistan, a step that has now become official policy.  His administration has retained the previous administration’s policy of extraordinary rendition and has, again in keeping with the trend established by his predecessor, blocked attempts to release photographs and other evidence of abuse from Abu Ghraib.  The objection that a wartime President should not be conferred the Nobel Peace Prize is an entirely legitimate one, but one that is futile.  Others may occasionally forget that the President of the United States is also, in title and in fact, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States, but Obama’s acceptance speech today does not shy from this fact.  As Commander-in-Chief, Nobel Laureate Barack Obama presides over a military establishment with a budget that dwarfs the military expenditures of every other country.  In 2008, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute has reported, the United States spent $607 billion on its armed forces, accounting for 41.5% of the world’s military expenditures.  By comparison, China spent $85 billion, France $66 billion, Britain $65 billion, Russia $59 billion, and India $30 billion.  Whatever else the US might be, it is, and has been for some time, a war-making machine.  That is the most fundamental and ineradicable part of its identity.  War is an American addiction, and Obama is no freer of that addiction than any other power-monger in American history. Unfortunately, Obama is not merely the victim of that addiction; he is today charged with peddling that addiction – arms sales of the most advanced weaponry also fall under his jurisdiction, for example — with palpable consequences for the rest of the world.

Thus, in accepting the Nobel Prize, Obama had to engage in some exercise of sophistry.  He perforce had to begin with reflection that, even as he receives the award, he has authorized the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Obama has mastered the art of appearing ‘noble’, in pursuit of higher truths – in his Nobel speech, this manifests partly as repeated invocations to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  (Thankfully, Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, a matter of much regret to many well intentioned but hopelessly confused Indians who puzzle over his omission.)  Obama might have ruminated over the fact that the same Martin Luther King, only a year before his death, unhesitatingly described the United States ‘as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world’.  Independent-minded as he is or claims to be, Obama can rightfully claim that he can pick and choose what he likes from his alleged mentors.  As for Gandhi, that man seems to have an inescapable presence in Obama’s life, popping out of the bottle like some genie every now and then.   A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about how Obama, when asked by a schoolgirl who he would like to have had as his dinner guest, had identified Gandhi.  And, now, in his Nobel speech, here is Gandhi again:  “The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.”  How Obama loves that man!

Augustine and the church fathers authored the doctrine of ‘the just war’, and Obama’s fond enunciation of this tenet — with which Jesus’s name should not be associated — of the Christian faith will be celebrated by some as a reflection of his ‘principled’ stand on the question of war.  One thought that the distinction between the ‘bad war’ (Iraq) and the ‘good war’ (Afghanistan) had been buried by intelligent minds, but Obama has just breathed new life into this sterile, not to mention stupid, distinction.  The usual platitudes about the presence of evil in this world, and the pain he feels at sending young men and women into the killing fields aside, I could not but notice the sleight of hand with which he dispatched the idea of nonviolent resistance, which Obama otherwise claims to champion, into oblivion.  “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies”, said Obama; “Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”  I’m not aware that an international nonviolent movement was even remotely contemplated, much less brought into existence, but it has become an article of unquestioned faith to argue that Gandhian-style nonviolent resistance would not have survived a minute against Nazi Germany.  Still, supposing that Obama is right in rehearsing this cliché, what is striking is that he should have used the most extreme example of the exercise of violence, namely totalitarian Nazi Germany, to support his call for war in Afghanistan.  So is Afghanistan an instance of the unmitigated evil that men can do?  And if al-Qaeda and Afghanistan – notice, too, the easy and implicit pairing of the two – are reminiscent of the days of Hitler, surely this is a ‘just war’?

The avid lovers of Foucault, and the myriad other postmodernists and poststructuralists, should all be on notice, if they were not previously, that in Obama we have the latest instantiation of the view that, in our progressive times, we shall be killed by kindness.