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Gandhi

1864 CE – 1948 CE

Gandhi as a law student in London, 1890s (Wikimedia Commons)Gandhi as a law student in London, 1890s (Wikimedia Commons) Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is one of the most recognizable symbols of anti-colonialism in the world.  Emulated by other exemplary leaders of the 20th Century, Gandhi set the tone for a form of politics that could combine effective resistance to oppression with a kind of non-violence that was imbued with love for, and trust in, "the Other." 

As a public figure, Gandhi strove to link his anti-colonialism with an alternative political framework for the democracy he wanted India to become once freed from British rule. Gandhi's plan for transforming India meant bringing a deeply diverse and religious people into a plural polity.  It meant questioning caste inequalities still prevalent in colonial India and building a moral economy that vanquished poverty.  Above all, Gandhi's plan had to revive self-knowledge and self-respect among a long-colonized people.  

It was by linking anti-colonialism with this new political vision for India that Gandhi developed the following series of concepts for political action: satyagraha, or acting for the truth; ahimsa, or oppositional non-violence; and sarvodaya, Gandhi’s economic theory of trusteeship.  These creative concepts constitute the foundations of Gandhi’s philosophy of swaraj – or self-rule, to be acquired through non-violent political techniques – and remain key to understanding his success as a leader and public philosopher.

Gandhi identified the source of colonial exploitation not only in capitalist expansion, as many other thinkers have, but in the functioning of modern civilization itself.  Modern society, he argued, had led to different areas of life becoming compartmentalized.  Nature was separated from human life only to be exploited for human satisfaction.  Politics was separated from religion, creating a political vocabulary that shunned religious knowledge as well as vital modes of belonging that emerged from religion.  Furthermore, countries that had embraced modern civilization, such as Britain, held themselves superior to others who had not.  Not surprisingly then, Gandhi argued, modernity had wreaked havoc on India.  British industry had exploited Indian resources and labor to benefit consumers in Britain.  And it had made Indians themselves dependent on a distant, centralized state for their own material and moral needs.  

If India were to decolonize herself, however, she could not do so using British methods of political organization.  Rather, Gandhi argued, she first needed to attain self-rule in such a way that her people might resist the colonial state and shape a new political domain for themselves. Achieving swaraj thus required an internal moral transformation through political techniques that Gandhi would hit upon as he reflected critically on the cultural foundations Indian democracy required. 

A British East India official, c. 1760. Britain’s presence in India began in 1812 when the company secured permission from the Mughal emperor to trade in Bengal. (Wikimedia Commons)A British East India official, c. 1760. Britain’s presence in India began in 1812 when the company secured permission from the Mughal emperor to trade in Bengal. (Wikimedia Commons) One of the biggest challenges Gandhi faced as a political leader was to forge a united nation out of adherents of two different ways of life – Hinduism and Islam. He also had to maneuver the nation out of other categories through which the colonial state had divided its population.  Gandhi recognized that, in India, such a move couldn’t proceed through secularization. That would deprive the public space of those meanings that mattered most to a deeply religious population.  Rather, he attempted to rework concepts from traditional religion to accomplish revolutionary ends.   

We can see this process at work in Gandhi's approach to the concept of "untouchability."  Under traditional Indian caste rules, some castes – designated as unclean – were subject to ostracism.  In challenging untouchability, Gandhi sought to invoke socially structured guilt rather than individual conscience.  Caste in itself, Gandhi argued, was not necessarily worse than the sort of class-based hierarchy that had emerged in Europe.  But if the premise of Hinduism itself was true – that all living beings partake in divine spirit, that harming any other being also harms one’s self – how could one defend ostracizing and heaping scorn on others?   Clearly, the practice of untouchability must be a corruption that had crept into the caste system over many years and must be eliminated.  But while, Gandhi attacked untouchability, his conservative defense of Varnashrama Dharma – or the pursuit of caste-specific occupations – also served his larger argument for social justice.  Ancestral callings, he argued, were in the spirit of Hinduism, which espoused the dignity of all forms of labor.   

Gandhi's advocacy for those at the bottom of Indian social hierarchy was of a piece with his anti-colonial strategy.  Gandhi argued that oppressors remain confident only so long as both they and the oppressed believe all power lies with the former.  Such an argument, according to Gandhi, “veiled the satya (truth) that the oppressor had no power save what his victims chose to give him." Removing the "illusion" of powerlessness, therefore, was one of the main goals of his political technique of satyagraha (acting for truth) against oppression.   This truth about power, in turn, also informed Gandhi's tactic of ahimsa.  When faced with state violence, he argued, the individual did not have to choose between returning violence and doing nothing. Through oppositional non-violence, one could avoid doing harm while also revealing the limits of the oppressor's power.  In the course of India's anti-colonial struggle, Gandhi's conception of ahimsa proved particularly effective in mass demonstrations.

Gandhi discusses the “Quit India” movement with Nehru in 1942.   (Wikimedia Commons)Gandhi discusses the “Quit India” movement with Nehru in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons) It was through these arguments, and later discussions with other major Indian public figures – such as Rabindranath Tagore, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah – that Gandhi developed his proposals for an alternative political domain for India.  At its center was the idea of swaraj, which relied on the ethical regeneration of Indians as the foundation for the political emancipation of India.  Such an ethical regeneration required a configuration of power different from that of the violent, modern state.  Therefore, Gandhi proposed the idea of village communities, rather than provinces or nations, as the basic unit for political organization.  Each village community would be governed by a small group of five, or Panchayat, who could interact with other Panchayats to discuss the governance of units besides the immediate village community.  It was through this political organization that Gandhi hoped to achieve a society of "Trusteeship," Gandhi’s plan for equitably distributing resources through a localized system of trust between the owners of goods and those who need them.

Gandhi thus thrived not only as a leader but also as a theorist exemplifying political and ethical thought emerging from within the context of colonial India and Indian culture.   And yet Gandhi's vision of plural society and his practice of non-violence influenced leaders around the globe – from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama –  through the late 20th Century. Indeed, Gandhi's thought continues to resound powerfully today, even amid the tumult of contemporary liberal-democracy in India and elsewhere. 

 

Written by Shaunna Rodrigues, Ph.D. candidate, Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS), Columbia University

 

Works Consulted & Further Reading: 

Mohandas Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (available online at https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org/the-collected-works-of-mahatma-gandhi)

Mohandas Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (available online at https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org/mahatma-gandhi-books/indian-home-rule#page/1/mode/2up)

Mohandas Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (available online at https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org/mahatma-gandhi-books/the-story-of-my-experiments-with-truth#page/1/mode/2up)

Bhim Rao Ambedkar, The Annihilation of Caste (available online at http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/ambedkar/web/readings/aoc_print_2004.pdf)

Seema Bawa, “Power and Politics of Portraits, Icons and Hagiographic Images of Gandhi,” Economic and Political Weekly, LIII, 5, February 3, 2018

Akeel Bilgrami, Gandhi, the Philosopher (available online at https://philosophy.columbia.edu/files/philosophy/content/BilgramiGandhi.pdf)

Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse?  (available on CLIO at https://quod-lib-umich-edu.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;idno=heb02425.0001.001)

Sudipta Kaviraj, The Imaginary Institution of India (available on CLIO at https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/columbia/detail.action?docID=908224)