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The Impossible Indian – Gandhi and the temptation of violence

Jugneeta Sudan

Faisal Devji, the author of two acclaimed books, ‘Landscapes of the Jihad’ and ‘The Terrorist In Search of Humanity’ presents a polemical scholarly study of Gandhi (not the Mahatma) in his latest ‘The Impossible Indian.’ Digressing from a hagiographic text, the clichéd arguments of a spiritual man in a breech–clout or aspects of his personal life, Devji dwells on ‘missed paths and hidden possibilities’ of the lethal political thinker of the twentieth century.

He begins the text with the provocative words of Kanji Dwarkadas: “Gandhiji appealed to the imagination of the world as a little, scrawny, half-starved, self-denying man – a wizened monkey defying the terrible British lion, a reincarnation of Hanuman, the monkey-god.” But Devji fleshes him out as a radical force, completely enmeshed with world politics of his times. He examines the thought behind his potent legacy ‘nonviolence’ that he bequeathed to the world of men and politics. He directs the attention of the reader to Gandhi’s psychoanalytic theory of transmuting or redirecting violence through the use of non-violence. “Gandhi the active proponent of non-violence or the ‘sovereign method’ wanted not to escape violence but to tempt and convert violence by engaging with it. He thought violence and non-violence were so intimately linked that one could be transformed into the other, since evil too requires goodness to sustain itself.”

Gandhi’s “fantastic, almost crack-brained schemes” were a series of political experiments carried out in the strife-torn soil of South Africa and colonial India. An arena seeped in conflict, injustice and violence where a moral compass could transform human energies and liberate them not only from imperialism, but render to the world, a model of freedom from violence. Therefore, his agenda was not merely nationalistic, argues Devji, he wanted to set a precedent for human force at large in face of the political ills of his times. His principle of non violence was a moral agency and would lead to the spiritualisation of politics. “Real suffering bravely borne melts even a heart of stone. Such is the potency of suffering or tapa. And there lies the key to Satyagraha.”

Quoting from Gandhi’s writings, Devji clearly indicates that ‘Bhagawad Gita’ was a way of life for Gandhi – a treatise on ethics. He steadfastly emulated the teachings in his own life and then fed it to the masses through various political non-violent protests spearheaded during the freedom struggle of India. ‘He was as hard-hearted as Hitler’ and would not think much about the sufferings and lives of people sacrificed in the face of non-violent fights as long as the moral remained untainted and won liberation for the larger good of man and posterity. Gandhi often said, “Have not our saints and sages taught us that one who is a worshipper of ahimsa should be softer than a flower and harder than a stone?” Non-violent sacrificial offerings and moral acts went hand in hand against violence.

“History of suffering was preferable to one of victimization,” says Devji of Gandhi’s thought and politics. If non-violent struggle was impossible then the evil of violence was better than the glorification of victimization, which Gandhi identified with cowardice. Between violence and cowardly flight, he proffered violence, for as long as he himself was a coward he harboured violence and could not practice non-violence, which comes with deliberate conscious effort and thought. He also believed that a human being was a fragile animal but when doors were opened and a path stared you in the face, then strength of word and action came from God who directs you in such times. “Never have I attributed my independent strength to myself”, said Gandhi.

Devji explores the smorgasbord of Gandhi’s political experiments beginning with his belief in the British Empire against itself, the Pan-Islamic call for upholding the Caliphate, letters to Hitler and then advice to the Jews and lastly imploring the British to leave India to anarchy and a civil war. The chapter titled ‘Bastard History’ situates his political experience and grooming more as a product of western influences from Europe, South Africa and Russia. So much so that the ‘Gita’ that was to be his guiding light came to him in England through an English translation. His concept of nationality was based on the needs of the minority, for he felt that truth gets corrupted in the hands of the majority (the basic premise because of which he was assassinated). Gandhi’s policy of non-cooperation, Swadeshi goods and working of a moral relationship between Hindus and Muslims, is positioned in the narrative of the warfare and the Mutiny of 1857.

Devji outlines how the Mutiny provided a basis where Hindus and Muslims understood each other’s faith and beliefs of purity and pollution (adhering to caste lines and rituals) and yet stood unified as one opposing the British hegemony of maligning their caste and religious sentiments. This brotherhood was appropriated by Gandhi when he established ashrams where each Indian followed his own religion and marriage alliances, yet they lived together and waged the non-violent movement under his aegis. It further led him to support the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, a Pan-Islamic call of Muslims worldwide and in India.

Gandhi called the Jews “The Untouchables of Christianity” and through his letters sent them a clarion call for sovereign movement of non-violence in the face of every atrocity by Hitler and the Nazis. If they had died as protestors rather than victims, maybe the holocaust may not have become such a dark inerasable line in the history of mankind. He also implored them not to take on Palestine under the protection of British bayonets, but to seek a settlement with the Arabs. Finally, the last political undoing that Devji highlights is Gandhi’s call in 1946 to the British to leave India to anarchy and civil war. That partition was imperative was clear but Gandhi argued that if the Indians were left to sort out their own differences, there was still hope of brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims. “If the British were not here, we would still go through the fire, no doubt, but the fire would purify us.” After independence, he was aghast when the army was called out in the Kashmir agitation – he wanted the non-violent cult to continue unabated whenever violent strife raised its ugly head.

The reader must be prepared to devote time and energy to an intensive read of the book a couple of times, to be able to follow Devji’s cogent argument of Gandhi’s impossible feat as a human being in the quagmire of the warring forces of violence and non-violence, as they are unleashed and comprehended in the arena of human politics. The juxtaposition of Gandhi’s own writings and thoughts continuously alternate with his own expositions on it, compulsively engaging the reader all through the text.

We have to give it to Devji he has very successfully rendered to us the Mahatma as a ‘philosophical anarchist’, who not only cut the cord between state and sovereignty, but showed that freedom and sovereignty was every citizen’s natural possession, if he was fearless to suffer by withdrawing his cooperation from an unjust order.

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