Gandhi before Mahatma: The Foundations of Political Truth
I am not God.
—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
In the early 1930s, a critical biography on Gandhi was written. The critique of Gandhi in the 1930s was striking for two reasons, at least.1 For one, thanks to Romain Rolland in the West and Gandhi’s acceptance in the Indian heartlands on the other, by the 1930s Gandhi decidedly had lost his name to that of the Mahatma. It was more striking that this critical biography was written not by one of his enemies in the cadres and family of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva but by one of his ardent admirers, Indulal Yajnik. Yajnik, like Gandhi, was from Gujarat, and he had spent more than a decade in Gandhi’s service — in ashrams and in public life. Yajnik had been instrumental in the early experiments by Gandhi to organize mill workers in Ahmadabad, as a sequel to the satyagraha in South Africa. The later enmity that Gandhi faced and that was engendered by Hindutva related to the departures between the two on the question of Hindus- Muslims and territorial nationalism. As a reminder here, although Hindutva was potent during the early decades of the twentieth century, it was nevertheless a concept that had belied a public life. Ashis Nandy tells us that in shooting Gandhi, his assassin named the enemy that had hitherto remained if not a nameless enemy then certainly a secret enemy.2 Yajnik was no enemy, in this sense. His grudging critique of Gandhi points to an incoherent and inarticulate frustration that Gandhi engenders among his admirers, particularly in Marxist accounts. This frustration has to do with Gandhi’s usurpation of revolution. In such renderings, if Gandhi is considered a revolutionary, then his was a revolution that was like none other, so much so that it had to be prefixed with its main plank of nonviolence. In other words, nonviolence became the byword or the revolution itself rather than merely its style.
My concern with Gandhi lies neither in adding to the vast and extant library of biography nor in deciphering the instrumentality of nationalist negotiations. Instead, I am concerned with the formation of the political in twentieth-century India. The question of violence, as I have argued in the context of the resurgence of the Gita in the age of nationalism, has been formative to the question of political transformation in India. In that instance I have argued that an ideological innovator such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856 – 1920), the key nationalist figure before the arrival of Gandhi, was a thinker of the revolution who created a new and normative vocabulary of politics that made the question of violence possible and plausible. Tilak did so by directly confronting the possibility of the “event” of war and the ethics of killing. Tilak’s commentary on the Gita was written at the same time as Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. While becoming foundational of the twentieth-century political in India, these texts also mark out critical ideological distinctions. For Tilak, the political was staked on the question of the enemy and the ability to suspend ethical norms for the eruption of a new historical sequence. Violence in this instance was transformative of the political. Significantly, violence was not directed toward the “outsider” but was meaningful only when directed toward the familiar kin or the intimate. Thus enmity was understood as fraternal in nature. The powerful idea of “detached action” (nishkaam karma) equipped Tilak’s conceptual repertoire of the political subject whose existence was entirely dependent on the event of violence. Consequently, the political emerged as the exception to the everyday, the former marked by violence and the latter by ethical norms, including nonviolence.3 As such, it is striking that it was violence toward one’s own that laid the conditions, and fratricide marked the moment of freedom and decolonization in the Indian subcontinent.
Yet while Tilak has been hidden from our perspectives, Gandhi, by contrast, is excessive and everywhere. Gandhi’s figure and ideals are not forgotten but commemorated in postcolonial India. As the nonviolent father of the nation, Gandhi is particularly invoked after the event of bloody riots or a pogrom. As an anti- capitalist thinker, it is his face that adorns the Indian rupee. Gandhi serves as an ethical reminder of, and a necessary corrective to, the violence of the political. In other words, Gandhi has emerged as a supplement to the political lying above it all, as it were. It comes as no surprise, then, that within scholarly writings Gandhi is positioned at two extreme poles. At one end, he is seen as a saint of an almost Christian pedigree, and, on the other, a wily negotiator who was, if not the Machiavelli, at least the Mephistopheles of Indian freedom. More recent renderings of Gandhi by Akeel Bilgrami have made a compelling call that Gandhi ought to be understood first and foremost as a philosopher who laid the foundations for the “politics of integrity.”4 In addressing that call, more recent interpretations of Gandhi despite new insights have resignified Gandhi and his radicalism primarily in the domain of the ethical.5
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- Indulal Yajnik, Gandhi as I Know Him (Delhi: Danish Mahal, 1943).
- Ashis Nandy, “Final Encounter: The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi,” in At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991), 70 – 98.
- Shruti Kapila, “A History of Violence,” Modern Intellectual History 7 (2010): 437 – 57.
- Akeel Bilgrami, “Gandhi the Philosopher,” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 39 (2003): 4159 – 65.
- Needless to say, it is not the separation of the political and the ethical but the specific relationship between these precepts that is significant for the argument.