Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), as an unconventional political leader and thinker, is not easy to interpret and categorize. Yet admittedly, first and foremost, Gandhi was a democratic humanist whose influence surged in the firmament of the inter- and post-War periods of the 20th century in the context of anti-colonial national liberation movements in the Asian and African world. His extraordinary contribution continues to be relevant for the various transformations of nationalism in the subsequent phases (during the Cold War and post-Cold War) of supranational regional integration and capitalist globalisation, and the more recent de-globalisation or 'slowbalisation' caused by the rise of right-wing nationalism all over the world.
Gandhi entered on to the Indian political stage at a time when the prevailing descriptive and explanatory categories of political understanding and action had run out of steam. On the one hand, Congress Moderates had been proved to be irrelevant and ineffective; on the other, Congress Extremists had been reduced to the margins of law and politics by the powerful repressive colonial state apparatus on charges of preaching violence and sedition. Gandhi appeared as a flickering flame of political thought and action, lightening the seemingly dark and hopeless scenario with his courageous and innovative political strategy of nonviolence, satyagraha, and his goals of swaraj and swadeshi. No wonder that Gandhi has been differently, or indeed simultaneously, interpreted as a traditionalist (in view of his defence of varnashrama dharma minus the caste system, or his trenchant critique of modernity), as a modernist (viz. his anti-colonial nationalism and 'constructive politics'), and as a postmodernist (given his belief in cultural relativism and contextual truth). His 1909 political manifesto, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, is open to a hermeneutic interpretation that is conservative, liberal, and radical – all rolled into one.
How Gandhi combines his unique individualism and communitarianism is exemplified in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Straddling diverse epistemological discourses, he underscored, on the one hand, the normative philosophical imperative regarding the purity of both ends and means, philosophical anti-statism and the privileging of civil society and conscientious individualism; on the other, he emphasized the experimental and pragmatic discovery of contextually valid truths, and the need to make contingent compromises on myriad issues. Committed to his 'constructive programme', which represented grassroots politics per se, he endeavoured to bring about the emancipation of Harijans, communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims, the widespread use of the charkha and khadi, the introduction of basic education, natural health care and hygiene, and the propagation of a rashtrabhasha, just to name some of his major initiatives.
Eric H. Erikson (Gandhi’s Truth: The Origins of Militant Nonviolence, 1969) in his psycho-history of Gandhi (exemplifying a Neo-Freudian approach to history and politics) postulates that the phenomenon of a mass movement and charismatic political leadership is predicated on the juxtaposition of the Man and the Moment. In short, in the persona of Gandhi, biography embedded in history succeeds in producing a mass movement of heroic historical signification that intrigues us even today.
Contrastively, in his last major speech before the Constituent Assembly of India, its chairman, B. R. Ambedkar, in defending the draft constitution, urged the Assembly to put the past behind and to abide by the spirit of the Constitution. Hence forward, Ambedkar advocated that civil disobedience, satyagraha and the breaking of laws, which represented ‘the Grammar of Anarchy’, should be forgotten. Whilst showing due respect to this legal luminary, and fully acknowledging Ambedkar’s constitutionalism, nevertheless, we also need to bear in mind that our national ideational heritage of Gandhian civil disobedience has continued to assert itself in numerous popular mass movements led by Vinoba Bhave, Jayaprakash Narayan and Sundarlal Bahuguna, to name the most prominent satyagrahis of post-Independence India. Arguably, both these streams of constitutionalism and satyagraha have contributed to the success, and indeed the survival, of democracy in India.
All things considered, Gandhi certainly matters today not only for India, but for the world at large. Yet his contemporary global importance requires more explicit articulation: As the world faces an uncertain future, to what extent can Gandhian alternatives be availed of, for instance, to tackle the enormous increase in class and regional inequalities, or to confront the challenges to democracy due to capitalist globalisation? Do his ecumenical endeavours in establishing communal harmony offer solutions towards mitigating religious fundamentalism and terrorism, aggravated by the global rise of extreme-right parties and movements? Does the legacy of this prophet of nonviolence provide us with crucial clues towards deflecting a nuclear holocaust, or towards abating global warming? To find answers to the existential problems of our times, we are called upon to examine more rigorously Gandhi’s ardent faith in truth and nonviolence. We need to understand the implications and consequences of his deep respect for religious pluralism (sarvadharmasambhava), coupled with his exemplification of ethical politics, as well as his emphasis on ‘need rather than greed’-based consumption and proprietorship (in the form of aparigraha and trusteeship), defined by simple living and health-care, in harmony with nature. Our aim would then be to evaluate the way in which Gandhian precepts and practices, in private and public spheres, can instantiate a cosmopolitan global citizenship for planetary survival, practised by swadeshi nationalists in the global village.
The Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, and the Gandhi Research Foundation (GRF), Jalgaon, are jointly convening a two-day international seminar to assess and reinvent Gandhian solutions to contemporary problems confronting India and the world. It is hoped that, with discursive inputs from a select group of eminent scholars and public intellectuals, this event, commemorating Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary, will set the stage for highlighting how Gandhi matters today.
Indian Institute of Advanced Study
Phone (0177) 2831376, 2832195
Like us on Facebook
Copyright © 2019, Indian Institute of Advanced Study
Drupalized by Rupinder Singh