Gandhi’s Progressive Disillusionment: Thumbs, Fingers, and the Rejection of Scientific Modernism in Hind Swaraj
Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj — the anticolonial manifesto that defined him as one of the key political actors of the twentieth century — after six years of struggle over the fingerprint registration of Indians in the Transvaal. His little book is an angry disavowal of the political benefits of late-nineteenth- century progressivism — the widely held view that advances in industry and science were leading to better societies and better individuals. Where progressives extolled the benefits of modern medicine, Gandhi saw new opportunities for evil; where they celebrated the efficiencies and time-saving of long-distance rail transport and the telegraph, he found sources of conflict and disease; where they applauded the social benefits of modern education, Gandhi worried that sympathetic morality was being overturned by a “clear, cold, logic engine” of self- interest.1This rejection of the apparent benefits of progress became the distinctive element of Gandhi’s politics after May 1908, but it has few precedents in his political arguments in the previous decades.2
Many scholars have commented on the extraordinary change in his politics in this period, and some have pointed to the special role that the struggle with the Transvaal state played in the development of his political philosophy.3 But all of these studies rest upon a simplification of Gandhi’s role in these events that effectively clouds our understanding of the origins of Hind Swaraj and his antiprogressive politics. In this article I want to show that Gandhi’s entanglement with the design of the systems of identity in South Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century was the source of the ideas in Hind Swaraj and of his repudiation of progressivism.
Gandhi’s struggle with the Transvaal state may be one of the most widely known episodes of twentieth-century history. In this story, Gandhi organized popular resistance to a law that subjected Indian and Chinese immigrants to a stigmatizing system of fingerprint identity registration. The key moment in the struggle came in September 1906, when the protesters collectively resolved to accept imprisonment “rather than submit to the galling, tyrannous and un-British requirements” of the new law.4 In the new official history of South Africa this act of defiance was the first in a long history of passive resistance to racist law.5 Aside from ushering into existence the new political philosophy of satyagraha, the pact led to a stunningly successful campaign of noncooperation. The resistance dissolved during the first weeks of 1908 as Gandhi came to an agreement with the politician Jan Smuts to submit to voluntary registration in exchange for the withdrawal of the stigmatizing law. Two crises then confronted Gandhi: the first was the bewilderment and anger of his constituents at the betrayal of the promise of resistance, epitomized in a vicious assault on the streets of Johannesburg by a group of Pathan veterans, and the second was Smuts’s refusal to withdraw the original act. By the end of 1908, Gandhi’s campaign of mass resistance had collapsed and he sought, instead, to mobilize small groups of dedicated satyagrahis who were prepared to sacrifice everything in defiance of the law. It was only in 1912, with his discovery of the grievances of the indentured Indians in Natal, that satyagraha again took on the qualities of a successful mass movement.
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- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj” and Other Writings, ed. Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 101.
- The most influential study of Gandhi’s anti-progressive views is Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse (London: Zed Books, 1986), 85–126, which creates the misleading impression that the views Gandhi presented in Hind Swaraj were held consistently throughout his life.
- Surendra Bhana and Goolam Vahed, The Making of a Political Reformer: Gandhi in South Africa, 1893 – 1914 (New Delhi: Monahar, 2005), 19; Paul F. Power, “Gandhi in South Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies 7 (1969): 450; Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991), 55, 87; Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Gandhi’s Prisoner? The Life of Gandhi’s Son Manilal (Cape Town, South Africa: Kwela Books, 2007), 76 – 77; Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 109; Judith M. Brown and Martin Prozesky, eds., Gandhi and South Africa: Principles and Politics (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1996); Maureen Swan, Gandhi: The South African Experience (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985), 163.
- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “The Mass Meeting.” Indian Opinion, September 15, 1906, in Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1999), 5:337.
- This narrative is most clearly presented in the museum at the new Constitutional Court, a building fashioned out of the Old Fort Prison complex in Johannesburg. See, as a summary account, “The Satyagraha Campaign 1906,” South African History Online, n.d., www.sahistory.org.za/pages/ governence-projects/ passive-resistance/ 1906.htm (accessed September 2, 2010).