The Impossible Indian offers a rare. Fresh view of Gandhi as a hard-hitting political thinker willing to countenance the greatest violence in pursuit of a global vision that went far beyond a nationalist agenda. Revising the conventional view of the Mahatma as an isolated Indian moralist detached from the mainstream of twentieth-century politics. Faisal Devji of fers a provocative new genealogy of Gandhian thought, one that is not rooted in a clichéd alternative history of spiritual Indian but arises from a tradition of conquest and violence in the battlefields of 1857.
Focusing on his unsentimental engagement with the hard facts of imperial domination, Fascism, and civil war, Devji recasts Gandhi as a man at the center of modern history. Rejecting Western nations of the rights of man, rights which can only be bestowed by a state. Gandhi turned instead to the idea of dharma, or ethical duty, as the true source of the self’s sovereignty, independent of the state. Devji demonstrates that Gandhi’s dealings with violence, guided by his idea of ethical duty, were more radical than those of contemporary revolutionists.
To make sense of this seemingly incongruous relationship with violence, Devji returns to Gandhi’s writings and explores his engagement with issues beyond India’s struggle for home role. Devji reintroduces Gandhi to a global audience in search of leadership at a time of extraordinary strife as a thinker who understood how life’s quotidian reality could be revolutionized to extraordinary effect.
Towards the end of his memoir describing the events leading up to India's independence in 1947, the labor activist Kanji Dwarkadas summed up the character of Gandhi, whom he had known for nearly thirty years, in the following irate paragraph:
Gandhiji appealed to the imagination of the world as a little, scrawny, half-starved, self-denying man in a breach-clout-a wizened little monkey defying the terrible British lion-a sort of incarnation of Hanuman, the monkey-god, as I heard one intellectual, non-Congress Indian describe him. This Gandhi has been apotheosized by the millions of the Indian masses today. His very irrationality, his mystical defiance of the principles of common sense, his persistence in spite of his "Himalayan blunders", the frequent success of his fantastic, almost crack-brained schemes, endeared him to both the masses and the extremist intellectuals.
Uncharitable though it may be, this description of the Mahatma from a book with a foreword written by Clement Attlee, who as Britain's prime minister had presided over the dissolution of her Indian empire, nicely represents the bafflement of Gandhi's friends as well as enemies when faced with his politics of nonviolence. Leaving aside figures who, like Churchill, were altogether opposed to India's independence, even those who desired and fought for her freedom were often frustrated by the Mahatma's politics, which accorded with the aims neither of his partisans on the left nor indeed on the right. And Dwarkadas is as scornful of these figures, like the Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, who he thought had gained power by latching onto Gandhi while mostly disagreeing with his politics, as he is of those Hindu or Muslim nationalists who opposed the Mahatma from outside the Indian National Congress, each by accusing him of betraying their community to the other.
Dwarkadas acknowledged Gandhi's moral sincerity as well as his tremendous popular appeal, but was appalled at the toll in life, suffering and internal conflict that he thought the politics of nonviolence had taken in India over three decades. And so the historical narrative he offers in this book and others that he wrote is one in which the Mahatma's practices of non-cooperation or civil disobedience are seen as interrupting and delaying a constitutional process leading to the country's independence, which was eventually achieved only at the cost of a partition between its Hindu and Muslim territories accompanied by immense massacres, migrations and a never-ending confrontation with Pakistan, the unwanted new partner in India's freedom.
As a liberal suspicious of Gandhi's politics, Dwarkadas emphasizes what he sees as its futility, and in doing so voices the one argument that unites all of the Mahatma's critics, who think his career a failure because it manifested either too much or too little of a virtue like nonviolence. Details apart, such arguments represent a basic judgment, namely that Gandhi was a politician unable to achieve his objective, a single independent country at peace with itself and its neighbors. Whether or not the counter- factual narrative Dwarkadas then presents of history without the Mahatma is persuasive, envisioning as it does an undivided India gaining the status of a self-governing dominion like Canada before the Second World War, and with Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah as her first prime minister, what is revealing is its dawning recognition that Gandhi's nonviolent politics might not simply have been about independence after all.
The Mahatma had always claimed that India's independence was pointless if all it meant was replacing white faces with brown ones, or merely gaining for Indians the political freedoms that Englishmen possessed. He was interested rather in an unprecedented moral transformation, seeing in nonviolence a practice that brooked no limits and had universal application, with the movement for India's freedom providing only a site in which it might be tried out as an experiment. He thought India's size and importance would guarantee the worldwide dissemination of nonviolence if its practice were to succeed there, and in doing so transform the nature of politics itself. India's mission, therefore, was not simply to liberate herself from imperialism, but set the precedent that would free the world as a whole from violence. In this sense Gandhi's politics goes well beyond nationalism, but it also has little to do with some ideal of a moral life that can be sequestered from the violent history of the twentieth century. Instead nonviolence belongs with the great revolutionary movements of its time, as Dwarkadas suggests when he notes that its gigantic mobilizations brought "extremist intellectuals" together with the "masses" in a politics that could only be seen as irrational from the viewpoint of one dedicated only to a country's independence.
It has become commonplace for historians to ascribe much of what Dwarkadas calls the Mahatma's "fantastic, almost crack- brained schemes", involving such moralistic and apparently self- destructive acts as the suspension of successful agitations against the British or the resignation of elected office, to attempts at reining in the radical drift of popular politics on the one hand and ill-advised brinkmanship to achieve more concessions from Britain on the other. Whatever the truth of these explanations, omitted from them is any consideration of the violence and suffering entailed in all of Gandhi's politics. Rather than seeing in these facts only the failure of nonviolence, however, Dwarkadas is concerned with how their occurrence never deterred the Mahatma from embarking upon actions that he knew would result in more death and destruction. For if Gandhi was horrified by the violence exercised from time to time by his followers, he longed to provoke it from those who had to be opposed by their nonviolence. It was this desire for violence that disturbed Dwarkadas, who saw it as being unnecessary in straightforward political terms, remarking that "Gandhi believes in suffering and he is not happy if he achieves his object through normal evolutionary methods. He wants to build character through suffering"." And indeed Gandhi was not averse to comparing the courage of revolutionary violence favorably with what he thought was the inadequate form that nonviolent suffering took in India. For he recognized the similarity between these apparently divergent courses of action, both of which resulted, after all, in the courting of arrest, punishment and even death. As he put it in 1946 to some companions in Bengal:
Bengal had tried the method of violence for a long while. The bravery of the revolutionaries was beyond question, but it had failed to instill courage in the mind of the common man. But although the non-violence of the past twenty-five years had been of an indifferent quality, yet nobody could deny that it had succeeded in elevating the character of the whole nation to a certain extent.
The Mahatma's movement of nonviolent resistance, with its mass following and universal claims, its toleration of violence and the explicit desire for suffering, must surely be placed along- side the great revolutionary movements of his time. For in many ways Gandhi belongs in the same group as his contemporaries, Lenin, Hitler and Mao, and should not be seen as a moralist detached from the mainstream of twentieth-century politics. Such an appreciation of his nonviolence allows us only to ignore Gandhi as a figure central to modern history. Yet unlike the last century's impresarios of mass politics, the Mahatma did not simply tolerate violence as a means towards some end but famously prized the suffering it produced in its own right. And this made Gandhi's dealings with violence far more radical than those of his revolutionary peers, responsible though they might have been for much more of it than the old man in a breach-clout. Nonviolence could only prove its claim to moral superiority by being tested against violence, without any reference to a political end being required for this, And conceived of in this fundamental way, as a potential inherent in every kind of interaction, personal as much as political, nonviolence brought to light the moral dimension in all action, something obscured by the "scientific" logic of communist and fascist ideologies. Indeed the only part of science that Gandhi claimed for himself was the experiment, which is to say nothing but its method and therefore its essence. And as a method, of course, nonviolence cut across the rival systems represented by the revolutionary ideologies of Gandhi's day, refusing to propose any alternative one but making itself at home in each precisely by a series of experiments.
Nonviolence, Gandhi thought, was not only appropriate in any historical context, but also capable of giving rise to a moral order that might take any political form. It was the experiment itself that had value, with nonviolence guaranteeing the virtue of any order in which it had been accepted as a norm. But if non- violence could make itself at home anywhere, then it could not be conceived of in historical terms. And so when the Mahatma claimed that human flourishing was due to nonviolence rather than to the force or fear of any law, he thought of this virtue as being so ubiquitous and fundamental to social relations as to possess no history of its own. Only violence, in other words, was historical, because it was sporadic and therefore transformative in the limited way that allowed historians to define it as either a cause or an effect. To bring about the reign of nonviolence in a place like India might therefore be unprecedented, but it only represented the formal recognition of a force that already sustained society. In this sense Gandhi's nonviolent revolution was a fundamentally conservative one, since he remained uninterested in beginnings or endings, and was happy for all manner of institutions and practices to exist as long as they abjured violence. Indeed he may well be described as the only mass leader of the twentieth century who not only disdained history, but also neglected the ideology that made of it an argument for the achievement of some utopia.
Unlike his revolutionary peers, for whom violence was an instrument to achieve a historical transformation that we might call utopian, Gandhi could tolerate violence and value suffering only because they offered opportunities for the display of non- violent resistance, which he thought constituted moral as well as political sovereignty in its own right. Indeed he frequently described such resistance as the "sovereign method" or "sovereign remedy" for every kind of political ill. And if we define as sovereign any authority that can ask people to kill and die in its name, then we must recognize that what Gandhi did was to split the concept of sovereignty down the middle. By separating dying from killing and prizing the former as a nobler deed, he was doing nothing more than retrieving sovereignty from the state and generalizing it as a quality vested in individuals. For while such individuals might be unequal in their ability to kill they were all equally capable of dying, demonstrating therefore the universality of suffering and sacrifice over violence of all kinds. And because he had fragmented sovereignty in this way, Gandhi held that the nonviolent hero's most intimate rival could only be another non-state actor, the revolutionary terrorist willing to kill and die for India's freedom. Sovereign about the terrorist's act, after all, was the fact that it already represented freedom and did not serve merely as an instrument for its realization in some undefined future. Indeed the Mahatma believed that the sovereignty of terrorism resided in its sacrificial immediacy, which was what gave it nobility in the eyes of other Indians, and not in the murderous element that merely obscured it with the rhetoric of instrumentality. So in a speech made in 1916, Gandhi blamed the militants of his time for degrading the truly sovereign act of dying by killing to achieve it:
I honor the anarchist for his love of the country. I honor him for his bravery in being willing to die for his country; but I ask him: Is killing honor- able? Is the dagger of an assassin a fit precursor of an honorable death?
Kanji Dwarkadas was therefore right to echo the opinion of many others and call the Mahatma a philosophical anarchist, since he not only disconnected sovereignty from the state, but also believed that the willingness to suffer and die lay in the grasp of anyone who wanted it. As early as Hind Swaraj or Indian Self Rule, his manifesto of 1909 that not coincidentally was structured as a dialogue with a revolutionary, Gandhi had contended that freedom and thus sovereignty were immediately available to anyone fearless enough to accept suffering and death by with- drawing cooperation from an unjust order. Indeed only that freedom was real which possessed this existential and therefore individual character, even if the rest of India remained in chains.' Eschewing the long-awaited collective utopias of revolutionary politics elsewhere, Gandhi linked his movement to the kind of immediate gratification that arguably inspires all mass action at some level. And it was because the irreducible sovereignty of this gratification seemed to be linked only accidentally to the achievement of freedom in an institutional sense that Dwarkadas suspects it. For his distrust is directed at the revolutionary aspect of nonviolence, which seemed to break with what he took to be the consequence-driven rationality of human behavior and transform it completely. But it is precisely this aspect of Gandhi's movement that interests me, one whose politics consisted of tempting violence in order to convert it by the force of suffering into some- thing quite unexpected. So I shall not again refer to Kanji Dwarkadas or say anything more about his views.
Gandhi himself had always been clear about the fact that his movement had nothing to do with avoiding violence, but was meant rather to invite and in so doing to convert it. For it was evident to him that unlike nonviolence, which possessed only a negative meaning, violence enjoyed a positive existence and was implied in all action, including the everyday processes of living that wore down the body and eventually destroyed it. Nonviolence, therefore, was meant not to provide some alternative to violence but instead to appropriate and, as the Mahatma him- self often said, to sublimate it. Hence this book focuses on Gandhi's efforts to sublimate violence by inviting and directing it through a series of political experiments, both theoretical and practical, that cannot be confined to nationalism in any conventional sense. These include a quixotic attempt to defend the British Empire against itself, laying claim to the leadership of a pan-Islamic agitation for the restoration of the Caliphate, advice to Germany's victims and especially the Jews on how to deal with Nazism in a nonviolent way, and his desire that Britain leave India to anarchy and civil war. In the following pages I shall examine the implications of these curious experiments with violence, which have received little if any attention from historians, and ask what they tell us about the limits and possibilities of nonviolence in our own time. Given his experimental approach to politics, Gandhi's various engagements with violence did not necessarily follow the same pattern, and at times even contradicted one another. They were, however, united by a set of principles whose political significance I mean to explore.
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