The Availability of Mahatma Gandhi: Towards a Neo-Gandhian Praxis

In order to formulate what I would call a Neo-Gandhian praxis I would like to use the broader issue of the availability of tradition, more specifically to the availability of Mahatma Gandhi himself. I would like to suggest that Indian traditions - I deliberately use the word in plural - are readily available, but their availability places a special burden or responsibility upon us. This is especially true of a figure like Gandhi. Almost no Indian can claim that Gandhi is unavailable to him or her. There is, to begin with, an iconic recognition, which one notices even in very young children. Thereafter, there is a gradual introduction to Gandhian ideas, which usually ends at a certain level of familiarity from which it becomes comfortable to deal with Gandhi. This paper is about going beyond this "comfort zone" into the more uncomfortable and messy business of taking Gandhi seriously and, farther, of trying to be a Gandhian, or in the special sense in which I use the term here, a "neo-Gandhian."1

      This paper, then, is a personal testimony of what it means to be a neo-Gandhian. Though, there are disadvantages in labeling oneself, sometimes such identifications are necessary because they indicate one's position without fear or embarrassment. So, while I am proud rather than ashamed of such a label, yet, I must confess in the same breath that I am not sure that I have done enough to deserve it. This uncertainty and doubt has direct bearing on the central argument of this paper which, as I shall go on to clarify, is that being a neo-Gandhian means being not a Gandhian as much as being Gandhi-like. There is an enormous difference, to my mind, between the two.

      Being a Gandhian, at least of the official kind, is to be a follower, an imitator.2 But Gandhi himself was never a follower or an imitator; he was original, innovative, and dynamic. Being a Gandhian is hard enough; it may or may not be possible to achieve it. But being Gandhi-like, whether difficult or easy, is more than a matter of choice for those who understand the present world crisis; it is urgent and imperative. Of course, one would have to define clearly what being Gandhi-like entails. This I shall attempt later, but right now I only wish to say that neo-Gandhianism is, for me, not merely a creed or an ideology; it is not merely a set of beliefs or practices; it is the assumption of personal and social responsibility; it is the commitment to individual and collective amelioration; it is a process of self-realization and community-making.

      In what follows, I shall first narrate how Gandhi became available to me; I shall then discuss the pitfalls of a certain kind of easy availability of Gandhi; thereafter, I shall attempt a description of what a more fruitful engagement in Gandhi might result in; finally, I shall try to spell out a minimum agenda for a neo-Gandhian approach to contemporary problems. 

      1

      I assume that I qualify to be called a neo-Gandhian by virtue of a book I wrote a few years back called Decolonization and Development: Hind Svaraj Revisioned (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993). The central thesis of the book was that at the end of the century, Gandhian ideas as outlined in Hind Swaraj (1909) are still vitally relevant. Though techno-modernity has made inroads into the very vitals of our civilization, it has by no means conquered or destroyed us. The contradictions of our times - ecological, economic, social, scientific, political, cultural, and personal - have proved again and again that the necessity and urgency of resistance has never waned. The fight against modern civilization is an on-going one, every inch of territory lost has been, and must be, bitterly contested.

      Moreover, because of a variety of factors, both internal and external, it looks more and more certain that the complete triumph of modernity is impossible, at least in India. The huge inflow of capital, whether in the form of World Bank loans or MNC investments, channeled through a rapacious bureaucracy in the Third World metropolis, gradually runs aground as it meanders into the country-side. Then, another few hundred kilometers into the hinterland, it finally vanishes into the sandy marshes and wastes of rural poverty and underdevelopment. The trickle-down theory, after all, doesn't work, as we know only too well. Thus, the whole project of development has been discredited, if not derailed.

      To escape from this dystopia of consumption and triage, it is essential to recognize the links between decolonization and development, between swaraj and sarvodaya. We have to reorder our minds and change our lifestyles to bring them into harmony with our civilizational genius. Such, in brief, is the argument of my book. My purpose in mentioning it was only to draw attention to the process by which I began to see myself and thus be seen as a neo-Gandhian. I would like to say a few other things about this process.

      As a student of English literature, I have been well acquainted with what might be called the other mind of Europe. However, it took me several years to realize the apparently self-evident fact that canonical texts of literature were usually at odds with the dominant trends of their age. The relationship between literature and society, portrayed by Western critics as continuous, was actually contradictory. Canonical texts did not reflect the major trends and values of the times but opposed them. Consequently, a curious paradox was engendered: while the values that these texts embodied were defeated, the texts were hailed as the seminal works of their age.

      I encountered this paradox again and again. Industrial capitalism which nearly every major British writer from Blake to Wordsworth, Dickens to Hardy criticized, was not defeated, but instead triumphed totally. Similarly, across the Atlantic, the ideals enunciated by Emerson and Thoreau, Lincoln and Whitman, were disregarded; America turned its back upon them. But these very writers were revered and exalted. Literature was permitted to occupy what used to be the sacred space of religion as the increasing secularization of society proceeded apace. No wonder, many of the writers now considered great were unknown or ignored by their contemporaries.

      There is a notion that literature can disempower modernity. I wish I were so optimistic as to believe this. True, literature can give us a safety valve, an escape, but perhaps that is because it is the officially sanctioned and approved Other of modern society. Modernity allows literature to take care of the personal while it controls the societal. Artists and writers are given a license to be creative; they are also permitted to ruin their lives, drink themselves to death, or commit suicide. What is worse, by considering the aesthetic space as purely apolitical, the whole sordid engagement of the arts with capitalism and colonialism was easily forgotten.3 This, then, was what was wrong with the way I was taught literature.

      The other path towards self-discovery that I took was not western, but indigenous. I became a student of modern Indian spirituality. This was one realm wherein I thought we were second to none. I began to regard the world as a self-created illusion, a projected fantasy in which we participated only too readily. The challenge, then, was to develop inner peace and harmony, an intelligence which could withstand the pressures of life. Perhaps, I wanted to develop a resilience, an insulation which would shield me from the harsh realities of the world.

      Starting with Sri Ramakrishna, I began to read the lives and works of the major mystics, sages, and saints of modern India. Reading backwards, I also began to perceive an unbroken tradition, rich and varied, beginning with Vedic literature or perhaps even earlier, continuing to the present day. Interestingly, Gandhi flowed into this tradition quite effortlessly, having all the wherewithal of a traditional practitioner of spirituality. In fact, he was a full-fledged holy man, a guru and law-giver to millions.

      But what made him special was that it was only Gandhi who helped me connect the personal with the political. My intense dissatisfaction with the colonized mind that I had inherited and my retreat into the solace of Indian spirituality seemed to force upon me two separate lives. In fact, I often wondered if my interest in spirituality was because of the failure of the official intellectual discourse to supply the answers. But it was my reading of Gandhi which showed me a way of producing a consonance between the two, between spiritual questing and social responsibility. Gandhi radicalized me; he gave me a politics. Without him, I would have been in a state of continuous retreat which, for someone living in a poor country, was somehow inadequate, if not dishonest. 

      2

      The official legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, not just that part of it which the state has appropriated and internalized, but the remaining portion distributed among several Gandhian organizations, old and new, now lies in a shambles. The Government's Gandhian posturing has long ceased to be credible; in fact it presents the ultimate defeat of Gandhism and its deterioration into hegemonized hypocrisy.

      Similarly, various Gandhian institutions, not only those started by the Mahatma himself but various others which his associates, disciples, and followers founded, are today in a disarray. A visit to the Gandhi Smriti, Gandhi Darshan, Gandhi Sanghralaya, Gandhi Peace Foundation, or to any other major Gandhian institution in the capital will prove my point. More often than not, these places have declined into a state of disutility. Not only are the premises badly maintained but what is more depressing is that the workers there are devoid of commitment or enthusiasm. The most ironic comment on the decline of such institutions is the shameful fact of their dirty toilets, evident even in Birla House, the site of the Mahatma's martyrdom. Gandhi, who used to scavenge himself to set an example of cleanliness and dignity of labor, would be horrified that today nobody bothers to keep these Gandhian toilets clean.

      Interestingly, despite the decline of this official Gandhi, there has been a spate of seminars and discussions on him during and after his 125th anniversary. I must confess that I have grown a bit impatient of such seminars and discussions, having attended my share of them. A major cause for this impatience is my feeling that they do not bring us closer to Gandhi. They reveal less of Gandhi and more of the mindset of those who are making the presentations. Many of those who frequent these seminars are also seen elsewhere, speaking with equal ease and authority on other topics and issues. As usual, the gulf between their lives and their ideas is glaring. I must not exclude myself from such criticism because I am, alas, one of these seminar-hopping Indian academics myself. In other words, let me hasten to clarify that my impatience with such seminars arises out of my impatience with myself.

      It was Prabodh Parikh who reminded me once that Gandhi cannot be appropriated by the intellectuals. There is something about exemplars like him which resists such appropriation. Creating new knowledge about Gandhi, in the conventional, academic sense in which such knowledge is routinely produced, is, thus, useless. The challenge that Gandhi poses is that we live our ideas, that we alter our lives and lifestyles in keeping with our beliefs, that we radicalize ourselves instead of merely mouthing radical slogans. The strength and force of the Gandhian praxis, therefore, derives not from discursive cogency or clarity, but from the integrity of the lives of its practitioners. In a word, Gandhi resists the schizophrenic division between fact and value or between thought, word, and deed. To be Gandhian is to seek and find a holistic praxis in which one's lifestyle, modes of living, patterns of consumption, and processes of thinking are integrated and congruent.4

      At the same time, we must beware of the opposite pitfall of the all too obvious pattern of imitation which has now come to characterize the last vestiges of the old Gandhism. Being a neo-Gandhian does not necessarily mean literally following the Gandhian dogma. As Rajiv Vora once told me, "Charkha kaatne vale sochte nahin hain." To be Gandhian in the older sense is, today, unfortunately not very effective or inspiring. The spirit of the times seems to rebel against the self-denying asceticism, the obsession with ritual purity, the emphasis on external conformity. While neo-Gandhians cannot ignore these aspects, they mustn't follow them blindly.5

      Certain obvious questions arise. Can a neo-Gandhian be a non-vegetarian? Consume alcohol? Or wear expensive synthetic clothes? Indulge in free-sex? And so on? I think the answers to such questions are getting harder, more challenging. Yet, what neo-Gandhism means to me is not so much a set of rigidly laid down beliefs or practices, but an approach to life which encompasses the personal and the social. If so, then yes, ultimately, the aim is to make one's lifestyle as non-violent as possible, consume as little as is feasible, control the senses not indulge them, refrain from intoxicants, and so on - but within reasonable limits and without an obsessive self-righteousness. Paradoxically, then, being a neo-Gandhian means parting company not only with the official versions of Gandhi but also with the official versions of modernity. It is the path for the independent and the self-reliant, not for those who seek conformity and security. Only an independent person can become an effective neo-Gandhian.

      Coming back to the all-too frequent seminars on Gandhi from such a perspective, it is obvious that these meetings are not merely for Gandhi or for the values that he stood for; they are for us. It is our role and function as postcolonial intellectuals that we must interrogate through such exercises, not only Gandhian ideas. If so, then we realize that such seminars are often self-serving. By making Gandhi the subject of our deliberations, we feel we are doing something more useful than the run-of-the mill topic.

      But the fact is that we suffer from a guilty conscience; we are afraid that we might be turning our backs on the Mahatma and his legacy; we are insecure that other nations and cultures may make better use of Gandhi than we have; we are worried that we might become irrelevant to our societies. And so on. So we all flock to Gandhi. It is not the other way round. Gandhi will never lose his relevance or be discredited; it is we who face the prospect of failure and dishonor. The seminars then are for us, though we pretend they are for Gandhi. They are meant as face-saving measures, as devices of legitimation. That is why I am impatient with myself when I attend them.

      Then, again, perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps, these meetings do serve an important purpose. Perhaps, they are meant to demonstrate their own futility, to remind us that Gandhi's cause will not be served merely through such and discussions. Like the negative results of scientific experiments, we shall have to admit our failures at the end of such exercises - it can be done, but not this way. If so, let me repeat: Gandhi cannot be appropriated by the intellectual community; he demands a heavier price from us. 

      3

      In effect, I have been trying to argue that one cannot follow Gandhi, one can't become a Gandhian, but one has to become Gandhi-like. It is only when one accepts this unlikely and unlikable piece of advice that one actually starts experiencing the actual difficulty or even impossibility of undertaking it. This is somewhat like saying that you must not merely be a Christian but be Christ-like. But that is almost impossible. Because, like Christ, Gandhi occupies an extreme position, not only in his views but in his life as well. And we are placed in the position of the rich man, who when asked by Christ to sell all his goods, donate the proceeds to charity and follow him, could not do so. At this inability, Christ is said to have remarked that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

      Like the rich man in the Biblical story, we neo-Gandhians are unable to do what we know is right. For those who wish to change themselves and thereby change the world, neither thought nor action pose a problem. The fact of the matter is that we want to continue as we are - greedy, selfish, and exploitative - and yet pretend that we are among the salt of the earth, the do-gooders who live for others and work for the revolution. Being a neo-Gandhian, then, is to confess our drawbacks and disabilities, to acknowledge them openly. By beginning with an auto-critique, we can set the terms for a meaningful critique of society. Thus, I must confess that truly, I have more than I need, yet I cannot give it away or share it fully with others. Property is theft, as Gandhi himself said, and I must acknowledge that I am a thief.

      What Gandhi did, then, cannot be replicated. It cannot be repeated. With our limited ability and determination, we must instead bear witness to our own rather restricted and impoverished truths. What is required is not so much an application as a rethinking of Gandhian ideas in the immediate contexts of our lives. In other words, being a neo-Gandhian means that I stop talking about Gandhi, stop analyzing his works, stop trying to quote him by chapter and verse, stop making a quasi-religious text out of him, stop debating over the merits and demerits of his positions on specific issues, stop, in a word, making academic and professional capital out of Gandhi. Because that is the easiest way of killing him, of making him irrelevant and obsolete, or fetishising him and his ideas.

      I realize, of course, that I have locked myself into a rather narrow corridor here, having closed most of the exits. I have not only undermined my own position as a professional intellectual, but I have also disallowed the possibility of a truly Gandhi-like alternative to it. What, then, is the way out? A way out, in my opinion, becomes available when we treat Gandhi in the manner in which Gandhi himself treated traditions. Gandhi never claimed to found a new philosophy, a new religion, or a new political ideology - though, willy-nilly, he did all this. He only claimed to reapply Truth, which was as old as the hills. He himself said "There is no such thing as `Gandhism,' and I do not want to leave any sect after me."6 He was against a personality cult, against turning his ideas into a creed. Similarly, when he looked back upon what he had inherited, he was more than critical. He refused to be cowed down by the weight or authority of tradition. He did not passively accept his legacy, but vigorously engaged with it. He, perhaps more than any other person in recent times, abandoned many beliefs, ideas, values, and customs. He totally reinterpreted Hinduism, giving new meanings not only to varnashrama but to dharma itself. He redefined the purusharthas, locating them in the context of his day. He gave us a svadharma and a yugadharma.

      Now that Gandhi has passed from our midst and become a part of our tradition, we must treat him in a similar fashion, engaging with his ideas vigorously, reinterpreting and refashioning from them a praxis for our times. That is the need of the hour, not any literal reading or imitation. Becoming Gandhi-like, then, is to assume responsibility for ourselves. In fact, not just for ourselves, but for those around us, for the whole world in which we live. We have to take ourselves seriously, not mortgage our lives to some bygone or new-fangled creed. We need to be far more confident, far more self-reliant.

      This is how, after changing our perspectives, we can get back all that we were prepared to renounce, including our flawed and corrupt academics. Change of consciousness is the beginning of social and institutional transformation. By rethinking ourselves and our roles we can reclaim for ourselves a meaningful vocation, irrespective of how modest the scale may be. Thus, it is not my intention entirely to deny the salience of the institutional space which we occupy, but to make it accountable to the people and culture of this country. Following such a reorientation, those very seminars and discussions which earlier seemed futile and self-seeking may be made productive and stimulating, provided their basic assumptions and intentions are sound.

      Jawaharlal Nehru said that "the greatest gift for any individual or nation ... is abhaya, fearlessness..." and it was for this that Gandhi raised his "quiet and determined voice" (30).7 Gandhi made everyone fearless. We have read Gandhi, but we are not fearless. Why? What is the source of our fear? Is it not our attachment to the privileges that we enjoy, all the security and benefits of the intellectual class, without really having earned and deserved them? This surplus elitism is, however, not free. We have had to pay a very heavy price for it. The postcolonial state, which is largely undemocratic, oppressive, and exploitative, patronizes us. We are also maintained by neo-imperialistic foreign agencies, which wish to maintain their hold on the cultural products of the erstwhile colonies. The fact is that we have been kept and coopted, contained and silenced. If we open our mouths to cry out, it is not to change the system but only because we wish to have them stuffed with more mouth-stopping handouts. It is, thus, against our class interests to discharge our true intellectual responsibilities.

      It is here that we need Gandhi most. Gandhi teaches us to rebel against these very class interests which gag and emasculate us. He makes us break the solidarity of the exploitative classes. What is more, he does this without accepting modernity as Marx had done. He does this without creating an imperialistic and oppressive master-narrative. He does this without recourse to the violence of pseudo-science. What is more, he does this without making the oppressor's position attractive. Gandhi enables us to fight not only against, but also on behalf of, the oppressor. Unlike Marx, he believes that what the oppressor has is not worth fighting for, that in fact, it is not good for the oppressor himself to have it. Though neo-Gandhian politics entails class-cooperation not class war, its aims are as radical and far-reaching. 

      4

      It remains for me to spell out a minimum agenda for being neo-Gandhian, or if you prefer Gandhi-like, today. First of all it requires a deep social and economic awareness and an accompanying commitment to change. This was what Gandhi's talisman was all about. It is Gandhi who forces us not to be merely spiritual, ignoring the material basis of society and culture. In other words, if what we are doing today, or indeed every day, is irrelevant to the lives, needs, and requirements of the poorest of the poor, then it is not just useless, but positively harmful and counterproductive. To be a neo-Gandhian means necessarily to be pro-poor in one's orientation.

      But this heartfelt concern for the poorest and least privileged of our compatriots mustn't remain merely a sentimental attitude, leading to occasional acts of charity or social service. It requires us to make ourselves, our lifestyles, our professional practices, our institutions, and our cultural choices continuously accountable. It is precisely this accountability that modern consumerism seeks to destroy. Consumerism is an ideology which liberates us from all responsibilities except consumption. We need only think of ourselves and the pleasures that can be multiplied through the acquisition of goods. Thus, it kills any sense of the community and social responsibility.

      The moment we undertake to make ourselves accountable, we have an in built yardstick to guide us in our conduct. We can now go into the very roots of poverty and inequality instead of tackling its offshoots. It is only by making such a linkage between the local and the universal that we realize that ecological conservation begins not in Tehri or in the Silent Valley but in the cities, in our very homes. I have to realize that I am directly supporting big dams by living in a city and using an air-conditioner at home. My city, with its excessive consumption of electricity, is destroying the lives of people who live hundreds of kilometres away in the hills. It is uprooting them, destroying an eco-system, and destabilizing the flora and fauna of an entire region. Thus, environmental degradation has a causal relationship with lifestyles. Being a neo-Gandhian therefore mean changing one's lifestyle.

      This accountability must extend to our professional lives. As an intellectual worker, I must strive to make my work as non-violent and socially beneficial as possible. This, of course, goes completely counter to the prevailing climate of academic professionalism, which is just another name for self-centered self-aggrandizement. The modern academy is a part of a larger ideological-political system in which money and power are the most important motivators. That is why the academy is an arena of ruthless competition and self-promotion. As such, it cannot be conducive to public good. It cannot be non-violent. It can only lead to a strengthening of the ego and the will to power. Such an academics is immoral, irresponsible, and destructive. Being a neo-Gandhian means to fight this prevailing trend, to devote one's energies not to personal power and glory, but to meaningful and fulfilling common causes. It is to reorder one's priorities, to resist blandishments, to cut a lonely furrow.

      Ultimately, of course, one has to oppose the prevailing trends of our times, the amoral and self-destructive consumerist capitalism. This consumerism weakens us, enslaves us, and corrupts us. But what is behind this consumerist ideology? Surely it is the enshrining of the body and the denial of the non-material - call it spiritual - basis of our being. If a human being is essentially a spirit and not merely a body, then no amount of material wealth can totally satisfy us. The happiness that we all seek, then, cannot come merely from a fulfillment of all our physical needs and desires.

      Once this is recognized, there is a fundamental change in our lives. We stop being acquisitive and greedy and learn to moderate our needs and desires. If this attitude is called spirituality, so be it. I don't like the word because of its negative connotations. It suggests a hazy impracticality, a retreat from the real world into some sort of mystical vaguology, a status-quoism. But actually, the word spiritual is connected with breath in Latin. Breath, which is akin to prana. Thus, in fact, we are spiritual beings; every breath that we take confirms it. Watching the breath, going to its source is, in many mystical traditions, a means of going to our very source, to that infinite energy and consciousness that motivates and animates each one of us. Being spiritual, thus, does not mean that we deny our bodily existence, our corporeality, but cease to believe that we are primarily or exclusively identified with our bodies. A spiritual civilization does not deny the body, but it does not give it primacy either.

      A spiritual civilization allows for, nay ensures, the minimum satisfaction of bodily needs and comforts, and then encourages the person to strive for that realization which is conducive to permanent happiness. From an exclusive and self-destructive obsession and identification with the body, one moves to a state where the body without being denied, negated, or tortured, is put in its proper place. All of a person's energies in such a civilization need not be consumed in tending to the body's requirements and comforts, but a major portion of such energies can be saved for self-development and self-perfection.

      Gandhi believed that, essentially, this is what Indian civilization offered. Its entire social, economic, and civil organization was meant to be conducive to the inner growth of the human being, not merely to his or her bodily comforts. Gandhi's notion of swaraj, too, I believe, was designed to create a community of such complete, robust, fearless, self-reliant individuals, living together in a relationship of mutual harmony and cooperation. That is why he emphasized that a belief in God would be one of the essential prerequisites of swaraj. This insistence may seem strange to modern man, who is used to living in a Godless universe. But to Gandhi, it was important that we recognized a force, a power, a cosmic order greater than ourselves, to which each of us must relate and submit.

      Personally, I don't consider a belief in God as essential to a neo-Gandhian praxis as long as God is substituted by Dharma. Dharma refers to a cosmic law, to a pattern, an order in accordance to which we must regulate our lives. Gandhi used the terminology of Bhakti; we may invoke the notion of the purusharthas - of the fourfold scheme of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Some have suggested that moksha be substituted by jnana, to allow for modern science to be included in our schema. So be it. Further modifications may also be possible or desirable, but the total denial of such a framework would not be admissible. That would lead to the kind of unbridled and atomized individualism which we find so prevalent in modern society. Modern civilization, at its worst, is hedonistic, individualistic, consumerist, and materialistic. We have therefore to practice self-restraint, moderation, communitarianism, and spirituality.

      Finally, we shall have to acknowledge that there many ways of practicing these values rather than one, tried and tested, officially-approved path. We must accept not the moral relativism of our times, nor the singularism of several dogmatic religious and Marxian ideologies, but a healthy and confident pluralism which is in tune with the best Indic traditions. This pluralism, at its most benign and compassionate, may extend even to the tolerance of intolerance, but in its defensive form must never go beyond an intolerance of intolerance. Pluralism disallows intolerance of tolerance; that, instead, is how singularism may be defined.

      In conclusion, let me just say that neo-Gandhians need not be preoccupied with speaking for or in place of Gandhi, of reading and rereading his works, of becoming experts and authorities on Gandhi, or interpreting and reinterpreting his words like some sacred text. We must not be afraid of speaking for ourselves, of finding our own truth, of bearing witness to it, however frail or flawed it is. The idea is not to make ourselves dependent and helpless, running back to Gandhi for cover, but to align ourselves with his broader civilizational agenda and to push on further from where we are. To sum up, to what avail is it if a person is an authority on the life and works of Gandhi, but if s/he doesn't live and die as a vaishnava jan?8 

Postscript

      Since this paper was first presented, both India and the world seemed to have changed, arguably for the worse.  Certainly, there has been an escalation of violence and coercion in the management of civil society and the affairs of the state.  Everyday, the media reports bomb blasts and killings attributed to “terrorists” and the use of retaliatory, often fatal force by armed forces.  9/11 and it aftermath in Afghanistan, the US invasion of Iraq, the internecine conflicts in Palestine and Kashmir, communal riots in India, and so on, have left their indelible imprints on the new century.  Besides these more obvious forms of violence, the perennial issues of structural and economic violence, stubbornly refuse to disappear.  AIDS in Africa, hunger and starvation across the so-called Third World, coupled with mindless consumption and conspicuous hedonism by a global middle class seem to characterize our self-contradictory lifestyles.  What is most disturbing is that the very idiom of change and transformation seem to be undergoing a tectonic shift.  In India, an outcome of these trends is the total marginalization, if not erasure, of what might be termed the “discourse of the poor.”  It is not that the poor themselves have disappeared; only that no one seems to be concerned about them any more.  For neo-Gandhians, it couldn’t be a worse time to live in.

      In India, more specifically, the rise of the ideology of Hindutva in the last ten years has, to all appearances, pushing Gandhism into the background.  I would argue that the dominant version of sanatani Hinduism used to be Gandhian until the very 1990s. So it was Gandhian sarva dharma samabhava or equal respect for all faiths and Nehruvian secularism that defined the two poles of the modern Hindu mind.  The last decade or so has spelt the death of Nehruvian secularism as the prevailing state ideology, substituting it with a more self-assertive, if not militant Hinduism commonly known as Hindutva.  But what has happened to the Gandhian legacy?  I believe it has gone into a state of hibernation or dormancy.  The excesses of Hindutva may, ultimately, lead to a correction and return to Gandhism.  But for this to happen, Gandhians and their like, will have to redefine a new kind of sanatanism for the Hindu middle and ruling classes.  Unfortunately, before this can happen, Hindu hegemony of a certain kind will have to be “acknowledged” in India.  This is still severely challenged and combated not so much by the “minorities”—Muslim, Christians, Sikhs, and so on—but by another section of Hindus themselves, who do not wish to be seen or identified as Hindus. 

      These latter form a large section of the present ruling elite, whose claim to power is precisely their avowal of a non-religious, and therefore secular identity.  Self-assertive Hindus, on the other hand claims, that this class is successor of the colonial powers and can therefore never act in the interests, not just economic or political, but also cultural, of the majority. So, India is in a state of civil war. Gandhians in India today are a divided lot too. Some find themselves on one side, others on the other.  But I suspect they are comfortable with neither.  India lost its opportunity to opt for a Gandhian model of development when Nehru and the Indian state turned their backs on village swaraj.  India, however, still seeks swaraj as a part of its larger civlizational enterprise, but more through information technology and export of what may be called “mindware.”  Nuclear deterrence, strong foreign exchange reserves, and a prosperous diaspora are the new bulwarks of Indian swaraj.  In these times, India and the world, await a new incarnation of Gandhi and what he stood for. 
 
 

      Notes 

      1. An earlier version of this paper was first presented at a national seminar on "Interpretations of Gandhi," organized by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in New Delhi on 21-23 March 1996, and then published in DES Journal of Social Sciences and Languages, Punjab University. 1.1 (January 2000): 3-16.

      To the best of my knowledge, the earliest use of the word "neo-Gandhian" is by Y. G. Krishnamurti in his book Neo-Gandhism (Bombay: Nalanda, 1954): "The neo-Gandhian is an experimenter in political thinking and action. In his literary baggage he carries no glib futilities and worn clichés" (8).

      2. Ashis Nandy makes a similar point in his op. ed. essay, "Gandhi after Gandhi: Disturbing People after Death," Times of India, January 30, 1996, p. 8. He talks of four Gandhis: the first belongs to "the Indian state and Indian nationalism"; the second is the "Gandhi of the Gandhians"; the third is "the Gandhi of the ragamuffins, eccentrics and the unpredictables"; and finally, "the mythic Gandhi." Nandy seems to approve of the third and the fourth Gandhis who still inspire intellectual and social change the world over. My idea of the "official Gandhi" corresponds with the first two categories. I am not sure, though, if "neo-Gandhians" resemble Nandy's third and fourth Gandhis. or if they fit into Nandy's schema fully despite the similarities in ideas. For instance, Nandy does not emphasize the difference between being a Gandhian and being Gandhi-like.

      3. The work of Edward Said has consistently addressed this contradiction. See, for instance, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978) and Culture and Imperialism (New York: Viking, 1993).

      4. See Raghavendra Rao's unpublished paper, "The Exemplar versus the Ideologue: The Issue of Friends and Foes," circulated first at the seminar on "Interpretations of Gandhi" op cit., and later presented at a seminar on "Social Criticism, Cultural Creativity and the Contemporary Dialectics of Transformation," at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Madras, 4-7 December 1996.  Rao argues that "the notion of someone being a Gandhian seems irrelevant, if not absurd." The exemplar, as opposed to the ideologue, is not concerned primarily with enunciating a coherent body of theoretical knowledge, but in embodying and practicing a certain way of life. Rao argues that the very category "Gandhian," thus, falls outside a Gandhian frame of reference, and must consequently be dissolved. Rao still allows for its use if and only if it is wedded to actualizing the kind of life that Gandhi himself lived, if one "has tried to live like Gandhiji and become some version or edition of Gandhiji. ... Gandhiji ... demands that he should be re-incarnated, not repeated and imitated. In short, you either live like Gandhiji or you do not. But you cannot become a Gandhian in the tradition of the ideologue."

      5. I do not imply that none of the older Gandhians were Gandhi-like. As Ramachandra Guha said in response to this paper, there is an unwritten history of Gandhi-like Gandhians such as Nirmal Kumar Bose, Verrier Elwin, Gora, J. C. Kumarappa, Sarla Behn, Mira Behn, Mridula Sarabhai, and so on.

      6. Paradoxically, he also said, "They might kill me but they cannot kill Gandhism. If truth can be killed, Gandhism can be killed." The contradiction can be resolved if we separate the message from the messenger: "I hold my message to be far superior to myself and far superior to the vehicle through which it is expressed." See S. R. Tikekar, compl. Epigrams from Gandhiji (1971; rpt. New Delhi: Publicatons Division, 1994) 48.

      7. See Mahatma Gandhi: Reflections on His Personality and Teachings by Jawaharlal Nehru (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1960; rpt. 1989): "The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth and action allied to these...." (30).

      8. Though this is necessarily a personal report, it does not rule out collective action of various kinds. To be Gandhi-like may be a way of planning one's own life, but it contains the wherewithal for powerful political action. I have not considered it the job of this paper to spell out the techniques of such action; that would require a separate treatment. But I can only end with the assertion that Gandhi-like individuals can never remain alone and isolated from the larger social and political issues that surround them. They will automatically become the nuclei of radical social transformation. 

 

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape