Thinking with Gandhi: The wager of future generations
Gandhi is bigger than India. Gandhi stands in the history of the 20th century as a detractor of all forms of universalistic attitude which are in search of uniformity and homogenisation
The first time I came to India was in 1989. At the time I lived in Paris and was working on my PhD in political philosophy at Sorbonne University. As we all know, 1989 was also the year that changed the world. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the events of the Tiananmen Square, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the meeting between de Klerk and Mandela, the whole world seemed to be shifting on its pivot. And yet, despite my activist years for democracy in Eastern Europe and Mandela’s liberation in South Africa, I was all excited to visit India, the country of Mahatma Gandhi.
I remember when I started planning my trip to Delhi and later to Ahmedabad, the most exciting point for me was to visit Gandhi’s Ashram and Gandhi Smriti, formerly known as Birla House. There was nothing more exciting than to meet with those, like Usha Mehta and Sadiq Ali, who were still alive and had met Gandhi during the Indian Independence Movement. However, the sad thing for me was that the spirit of Gandhi was totally absent from the India I was discovering. The tragic point was that Gandhi was venerated by many, including many Gandhians whom I met, as a dead icon and a lovable saint, rather than a heretic mind and a dissenting figure. In the year of all dangers and changes, I was discovering a Gandhi who was no more a radical emancipative leader, but only a poster figure for the ideological means of Indian political parties. Unfortunately, my personal impressions on the heritage of Gandhi in India and his mutilated image as a dormant historical figure turned out to become a tragic truth over the past three decides.
It is therefore time to ask what is left of Mahatma Gandhi in India today? Is Gandhi only a name in the Indian history textbooks? Or is he just an inoffensive statue that we find on the library shelves of Indian and non-Indian politicians and academics? Are only streets named after him in France, Germany, Jamaica and Tehran or has he still a revolutionary significance for those who read him outside the Indian borders? And last but not least, is Gandhi only an ashramic figure for the Khadi wearing tourists who visit the Sabarmati Ashram and Gujrat Vidyapith in the same way as they come to see the Niagara Falls? So, what happened from 1948 onwards? Did we fail Gandhi because of our unlimited political and economic ambitions or he just disappeared from our critical education because he belongs no more to a world which has lost its common sense? These are all difficult questions which remain unanswered and the fact that we cannot respond to them enlarges the ontological gap between us and Gandhi.
India is visibly no more conscious about the spicy, acidic and critical Gandhi. However, despite all the distance that separates today’s India from Gandhi, every Indian knows or pretends to know him without truly knowing him. As a result, I am no more surprised to see Indian civil servants at India International Centre or students at universities around India who proclaim that Gandhi is no more relevant without having read a page of his Hind Swaraj.
What is left of Mahatma Gandhi in India today? Is Gandhi only a name in the Indian history textbooks? Or is he just an inoffensive statue that we find on the library shelves of Indian and non-Indian politicians and academics? Are only streets named after him in France, Germany, Jamaica and Tehran or has he still a revolutionary significance for those who read him outside the Indian borders?
But if that is the case, how are we supposed to judge Gandhi’s relevance and his philosophical and political significance for our violent and conformist societies? Looking over the last 70 years after the death of Gandhi, there have been failures but also great successes regarding his relevance to our world. Assuredly, the successes tie to the extent to which India and the world have followed the principles that Gandhi laid out in his nonviolent struggle for democracy, and the failures tie to departures from those principles.
There are two points here. First, Gandhi is bigger than India, so he doesn’t belong to Indians alone. Though a founding father of modern India, Gandhi stands in the history of 20th century as a detractor of all forms of universalistic attitude which are in search of uniformity and homogenisation. The challenge here for Gandhi is to focus on the process of democratic consciousness-building which can provide continuity to the political structures of democracy by way of contrast with all forms of authoritarian tradition.
Second, there can certainly be no “democratisation” of our democracies or escape from authoritarian and populist regimes in our world, without a strong strategy of nonviolent disobedience and creative dissent. Gandhi knew well that one cannot be a friend of truth without keeping himself alert in order to be able to distinguish between a false sense of belonging and respect for a common space where the plurality of voices can be realised. In a Socratic manner, Gandhi had an acute sense of listening to the world, while listening to his inner voice. He referred to his inner voice as a Truth force or Soul force that would lead him to peaceful solution to conflicts in life.
Consequently, Gandhi referred to Socrates as an exemplification of a “great satyagrahi” who had the courage of dying for his thoughts. As a matter of fact, Gandhi’s commitment to courage of speaking truth to power parallels in many respects Socrates’ reliance on outspokenness (parrhesia).
Indians and others cannot read, understand and practise Gandhi without taking risks in their lives. Thinking with Gandhi is to think dangerously. So today, at last, when we have to face real dangers of our social and political life, there is a chance that Gandhi may again stand up and be respected by future generations
If alive among us, Gandhi would have certainly suggested that we learn to develop our capacity for disobedience and dissent. In many ways, Gandhi would not have approved the mediocre and corrupted level of party politics in today’s liberal democracies. For him, insistence on ethical renewal of democracy went hand in hand with character building (people leadership) and enlightened citizenship (democratic passion).
Let us not forget that nearly 110 years ago, Gandhi developed in his seminal work, Hind Swaraj, his conception of an inclusive and participative democracy, by referring to the principles of solidaristic citizenship. Gandhi was very aware of the fact that the democratic spirit cannot be shaped and preserved in the shadow of a complacent and conformist citizenship. He also knew well that democracy is not only a set of institutions, but a vital living ideal that involves constant nonviolent intervention in the public sphere. He, therefore, refused to conform his democratic ideal of questioning and dissenting to the general taste of the people.
Gandhi was a man who risked his political leadership in order to preserve his moral leadership. He knew that the day he would lie to his conscience was the day that he was no longer fit to lead. As such, he remained the master of his destiny and the captain of his spirit. For men like Gandhi, less numerous than we think, it was really unbearable to think about politics only in terms of power and corruption. And if politics is regressing today throughout such a large part of the world, this is probably because her real defenders, like Gandhi, are no more read, valued or practised. For it should be said that the world we live in, where second class bureaucrats, media tycoons, unmindful industrialists and uncredulous elites control the pulse of our freedom, there is no place anymore for Gandhis or people of his moral race. Great ideas, it has been said, slide down the sky of history like a falling star. But, though they are too burning and too quick to hold, they will have a longlasting effect.
Unfortunately, our era is one of those whose unbearable mediocrity will doubtless reduce the nobility of spirit of disobedient and subversive thinkers and practitioners like Gandhi into oblivion. To tell the truth, Gandhian thought has never declined so much as when it involves no risks and no dangers. Indians and others cannot read, understand and practise Gandhi without taking risks in their lives. Thinking with Gandhi is to think dangerously. So today, at last, when we have to face real dangers of our social and political life, there is a chance that Gandhi may again stand up and be respected by future generations.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is a political philosopher. He is Executive Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Non-violence and Peace Studies at Jindal Global University-Delhi, India
This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday