The Ellipsis of Touch: Gandhi’s Unequals
We are slowly approaching the figure of touch.
—Jacques Derrida, On Touching — Jean- Luc Nancy
“Please keep at a distance, do not touch me.”
—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Hindu Dharma
At the moment of writing Hind Swaraj in 1909, Gandhi was still more than two decades away from perhaps the most powerful gesture of consecration in the history of anticolonial thought: the Gandhian gesture of naming the Hindu untouchable harijan, translatable as “god’s child” and, in the Mahatma’s own words, “a man of god.”1 Anticolonial thought was never entirely given to secularist enchantments, so that this gesture of consecrating, and, by some angry accounts, of distancing, the untouchable hardly symbolized a profound religious deviance on Gandhi’s part. Gandhi’s thought and practices were themselves underpinned by deep moral convictions whose grounds were necessarily religious, anchored resolutely in his contingent interpretations of what was demanded by dharma, the classical rules of moral conduct. At the same time, his political commitments and actions, he often vowed, operated within the limits of reason alone, by which he frequently meant the bounds of secular humanist imperatives.
The gesture of consecrating the untouchable as harijan can therefore be apprehended neither as a purely theistic act nor as an act of humanist idealism in which the act of imbuing divinity to the untouchable merely happened to conceal a patronizing, secularist sleight of hand. Nor was the gesture of consecration yet another sign of Gandhi’s infinite capacity and frequent tendency, as liberal reformers and radical nationalists often alleged he possessed, to procrastinate the urgency of the political by weaving an enchanting web of moral predicates around what was an oppressively juridical and scripturally sanctioned practice of inequality. Instead, the naming of the untouchable as harijan finally revealed, after more than a decade and a half of his experiments in truth and mass politics, Gandhi’s radical turning of, and his dramatic turn away from, both modern European and Indic conceptions of equality. The remarkable and complex conceptual register on which this turning of equality, this momentous touching of the untouchable, was accomplished is the subject of this article.
One must begin, then, by noting the peculiar absence of the untouchable in Hind Swaraj.2 Of its nineteen chapters staged as dialogue between the “impatient” nationalist Reader and the morally possessed and incorruptible Editor, the latter being Gandhi’s ventriloquist, there are none that deal, directly or indirectly, with the question of untouchability and caste oppression. This absence is particularly striking, given that the annihilation of untouchability, if not of caste, would subsequently become indispensable for Gandhi’s preoccupations with freedom and equality.
There is some legitimate ground to think, then, that the Mahatma came rather late to the untouchable. Even if Hind Swaraj makes no explicit reference to the problem of the unequal and is fundamentally concerned with the problem of the fraternal, however, the same allegation of belatedness cannot be leveled against Gandhi’s coming to equality and, I argue, to touchability. For Gandhi’s elaboration of equality and his apprehending of the unequal were integral to the very possibilities and limits of satyagraha. The Mahatma’s unequals were neither political antagonists nor imperial sovereigns who might simply be apprehended as hostile combatants of moral warfare. They were his moral unequals, the constitutive ellipses of satyagraha, without whom nonviolence itself might lose its precarious ethical equilibrium.
One could argue along with Bhimrao Ambedkar, the formidable anticaste radical and Gandhi’s relentlessly probing political opponent during the most crucial decades of the nationalist struggle, that Gandhi was indifferent to the imperative of justice for some 40 million untouchables who had been for ages slaving under the burden of the most inhuman scriptural sanctions ever known to mankind. Much of that claim is neither untrue nor shocking. Gandhi was indeed against the very idea that a wrong could be reduced to the generality of principles and remedied by foregrounding the counterprinciple of infinite victimhood, either of a human being or of an animal. For to privilege victimhood, even in the interest of justice, entailed entering into an immoral cycle of more revenge and even profounder indifference. No abstract ideal of justice could legitimately sustain such cynical violence that underpins liberalism’s interest in restitution.
Instead, Gandhi argued, the problem of inequality was a moral question; the unequal was a moral other rather than a politico-juridical one. Inequality as such had to be apprehended on the terrain of religious sentiments and moral convictions before it was translated into a juridical commitment or a historical problem.“Untouchability will not be removed,” he claimed,
by the force even of law. It can only be removed when the majority of Hindus realize that is a crime against God and man and are ashamed of it. In other words, it is a process of conversion, i.e. purification, of the Hindu heart. The aid of law has to be invoked when it hinders or interferes with the progress of reform as when, in spite of the willingness of the trustees and the temple-going public, the law prohibits the opening of a particular temple.3
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Thanks to Ritu Birla and Faisal Devji for insightful readings of previous iterations of this essay. Shahzad Bashir, Chris Bayly, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Faisal Devji, Uday S. Mehta, Rajeswari Sundar Rajan, Simona Sawhney, and Ajay Skaria have made my thinking of equality possible. Parna Sengupta has been the spirit behind. I thank them all for their friendship, criticism, and generosity.
- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Harijan (February 11, 1933), in The Essential Writings, ed. Judith Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 228 (hereafter cited as EWMG).
- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (1938; repr., Ahmadabad, India: Navajivan Trust, 2009).
- Gandhi, Harijan (September 23, 1939), EWMG, 227.