Guest Editors’ Letter: Itineraries of Self-Rule
In the 2006 Bollywood hit Lage raho Munna Bhai (Carry on Munna Bhai), a petty gangster named Munna is visited by the specter of Gandhi, who advises him on winning the affections of a radio announcer by deploying the tactics of love and nonviolence. In the process Munna comes to realize the virtues of satyagraha, or truth-force, and abandons his thuggish ways. Provoking a revival of interest in the Mahatma among a younger generation of Indians, the film also signaled their unwillingness to identify Gandhi as a historical figure. For despite the comedy’s many references to India’s independence movement, the Mahatma who appeared to Munna Bhai explicitly rejected his memorialization by the state, which has made his image ubiquitous in the form of statuary, portraits, and even the rupee. Fleeing from official desires to embalm him, Gandhi, like all specters, refuses to remain in his own time.
Lage raho Munna Bhai represents only one example of a revival of interest in Gandhi among scholars, artists, and activists of all kinds, for whom his thinking seems to offer new entry points for contemporary dilemmas, whether about popular revolution, war, the environment, or global capitalism. Indeed, Gandhi even offers intellectual sustenance to those who would alter the nature of politics itself in our time. And this might be so because the Mahatma’s practices of nonviolence were never bonded to traditional forms of organization such as political parties or states, which in many respects seem inadequate to the problems posed by contemporary politics. Indeed, for Gandhi, the term swaraj, which was often translated as “political independence” or “home rule,” became meaningful and fertile in its strictest translation as “self-rule” or “self-mastery.” The swaraj that Gandhi struggled to attain challenged the distinction between individual and collective and thus was available to anyone at any time without any recourse to some historical or ideological telos.
In this way, Gandhian politics were fully portable and replicable in the form of bodily practices tied to patience, stubbornness, and sacrifice. The project of nonviolence, far from being the avoidance of violence, was for the Mahatma a call to engage with the problem of violence in ways that included toleration, ingestion, and finally sublimation. A movable practice, nonviolence could arrive in India from South Africa and then be exported to any other part of the world. The techniques of self-rule didn’t require the existence of any particular mode of production or class formation to go where they did, thus circulating like a universally convertible currency, deeply situated in bodies, intimacies, and localities, and at the same time ever movable. The call to swaraj was a call to the performative power of iteration, to the power of citation to make new contexts. It was this ghostly inclination to temporal and spatial travel that marked Gandhi’s disavowal of the authority of history as a stage for politics, even as his political improvisations affirmed his keen attention to context.
Perhaps because of this robust itinerancy, the Gandhi who is enjoying a revival in public life today does not appear to be a historical character. For the Mahatma seems to be appropriated today not in his official guise as the leader of a freedom movement whose glory we should seek to revive but rather as someone whose work interrupts the authority of history as a legitimizing narrative for political action. Gandhi haunts the present, we want to suggest, as the mark of ever- unfinished business, rather than as the origin of any program of business and chronological mapping. The Mahatma’s practices can be detached so easily from collective agencies like the party, the state, or even “the people,” because he dissociated them from any narrative of historical progress or achievement. Indeed, Gandhi is famous for scorning historical knowledge, which he knew informed colonial rule and its legitimizing teleology: a parliamentary democracy would gradually emerge in India as a pedagogical result of imperial institution-building. History, claimed the Mahatma, was a record of violence, and a false one at that, since it was incapable of accounting for human flourishing. It was not states, laws, and wars that created or preserved societies; it was nonviolence, which neither had nor indeed should possess a history. Parting with the great thinkers, leaders, and religious figures of the past two hundred years by this rejection, Gandhi travels at the fertile limits of modern politics.
While Gandhi never spoke the prose of history, he has been the subject of many histories and hagiographies. But the essays in this special issue are disengaged from the attention to contextualization for its own sake that marks the radical empiricist, as well as the totemic fixation on biography that characterizes the life of the saint. Instead, they engage Gandhi in circulation and shuttling, informed by and attentive to the spirit of his influential text Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule or Self-Rule). Written neither here nor there, on the high seas between England and South Africa in 1909, Hind Swaraj is Gandhi’s first public manifesto, a condemnation of modern “civilization” in all its violent technological proliferation, material, political, and professional. As many of the essays emphasize, the text marks a moment of transcontinental politicization for Gandhi. Published shortly after the formal consolidation of the Union of South Africa as an independent British dominion, it articulated a many-sited politics, conveying the conviction of nonviolent resistance deployed in the Transvaal against “Asiatic” registration, as well as debates about the efficacy of revolutionary violence among anticolonial activists with whom Gandhi lived in London. Hind Swaraj appeared in December 1909 in two installments of the Gujarati section of Indian Opinion, a Durban journal founded by Gandhi and leaders of the Indian Natal Congress. In January 1910 Gandhi’s International Printing Press in Phoenix, Natal, published the text in Gujarati in book form; this was followed by an English translation by Gandhi himself, published two months later.
Presented as a dialogue between an “editor” and a “reader,” the text illustrates Gandhi’s deployment of public media; his attention to a shifting, worldwide audience; and his keen reading of the possibilities of politics outside its conventional institutions. As such, we want to emphasize, Hind Swaraj offers a channel — like a ghostly energy meter — for reading sitings and citations of Gandhi today. These map a new world disorder inside and outside the state and the formal institutions of international civil society, speaking as much to neoliberal market discourses of self-regulation, to populist mass politics, and to the role of media in the making of the event. In this spirit, the essays in this collection describe Gandhian politics in their dislocation from the nation-state, their potently present afterlife, and their inward-looking ethical terrain. They engage with Gandhian thought as an uninhibited grappling with the transnational movement of ideas in his time, from nineteenth-century transcendentalism, to the utopianism of John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy, to British common law, to criminology, to philosophies of revolutionary violence. As such, they elaborate on the plasticity of Gandhi’s thought, his movements across historical contexts, and the meanings of his symbolic presence and absence. In the process, finally, they encounter Gandhi’s own practices of reading the global, its spatialities and temporalities.
The recently completed centenary of the publication of Hind Swaraj has contributed to a resurgence of interest in the Mahatma. Written across history, anthropology, literary studies, and political theory, the essays collected here consist of a number of papers from two meetings held during the centenary year, the first in Johannesburg, at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) of the University of the Witwatersrand, and the second in Mumbai, at an event sponsored by Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR) and Jnanapravaha Mumbai. Funded by all these bodies as well as Public Culture, the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, and the Bajaj Foundation, this project was conceived and guided by the late Carol Breckenridge, this journal’s founding editor and the head of its Sister Cities Project, under which the meetings in Johannesburg and Mumbai were organized. Though Carol did not live to see this project completed, we dedicate this special issue to her memory in gratitude for her unfailing energy and imagination, without which this collection would have been impossible. We also thank Isabel Hofmeyr, Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nutall, and Jonathan Hyslop for their generosity in organizing our meeting in Johannesburg, and, for the wonderful hospitality we received in Mumbai, Anita Patil-Deshmukh and Rashmi Poddar. Linking New York to Johannesburg and Mumbai was a task accomplished with great verve by Deborah Matzner, for all of whose help we are very grateful. And finally, our heartfelt thanks to Arjun Appadurai, whose advice we often sought at different stages of this project and for whose foreword to this special issue we are greatly indebted.