Ideasroom

The forgotten ideas of Mahatma Gandhi

A tendency to sanctify Gandhi in the simplest terms don't do justice to the man and his thinking. On the 150th anniversary of his birth, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay explores Gandhi's forgotten political philosophy.

Born 150 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi is possibly the most well-known of all Indians. The nationalist leader and espouser of non-violent civil disobedience, assassinated in 1948, continues to be admired across the world, with his statue adorning many capital cities, our own included.

Gandhi also has many critics, who have pinpointed his social conservatism and raised such questions as whether he was a racist, a casteist, against gender equality, and an appeaser of Muslims at the expense of India’s Hindu majority. These allegations are often over-stated and selectively argued, but cannot be wished away as false.

However, neither Gandhi’s critics nor his admirers, and their tendency to sanctify him in the simplest terms, do justice to the man and his thinking. His political actions have been remembered but the political philosophy underpinning them forgotten. Those ideas were innovative and radical – in his time and ours.

In Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi offered his concept of Indian nationhood. Indians constituted a nation, or praja, he asserted, since pre-Islamic days. The ancient Indian civilisation – “unquestionably the best” – was the fountainhead of nationality. In response to “Who is the nation?” he answered: “It is only those Indians … who conscientiously believe that Indian civilisation is the best…” 

Gandhi’s nation had the immense assimilative power of absorbing even foreigners of a different creed who made the country their own. He wrote: “The introduction of foreigners does not necessarily destroy the nation, they merge in it. A country is one nation only when such a condition obtains in it.” Today, when the world is moving from post-war globalism to an aggressive and exclusive patriotism based on the narrow self-interests of territorial nation states and closed concepts of citizenship, this ideal is worth looking at.

Where Gandhian philosophy differed significantly from those of previous nationalist leaders in India was that he began with a trenchant critique of ‘modern’ civilisation – a critique that has evoked mixed responses from commentators. 

But it is not correct to say Gandhi rejected modernity as a package or overlooked its strengths. Possibly he was not against modernity and science but against that attitude of extreme rationalism that would not allow space for the non-rational or the spiritual – in Gandhi’s terminology, the space of God and inner voice. By offering an ideological critique of Western civilisation in its modern phase, he was effectively contesting the moral legitimacy of the British Empire that rested on a stated assumption of the West’s superiority. 

Ancient Indian civilisation, argued Gandhi, was “sound at the foundation”, always tended “to elevate the moral being” and therefore had nothing to learn from a “godless” modern civilisation that “propagate[d] immorality”. Industrial capitalism, the essence of this modern civilisation, was held responsible for all conflicts of the world, for it divorced economic activities from moral concerns and thus provided imperatives for imperial aggression. Indians themselves were responsible for their enslavement, as they embraced capitalism and its associated legal and political structures. “The English have not taken India,” wrote Gandhi, “we have given it to them.” 

His remedy for this national infliction was moral and utopian. Indians must eschew greed and the lust for consumption and revert to the village-based self-sufficient economy of ancient times. For he also believed limitless consumption encouraged by capitalism would make the world bare. In an age of climate crisis, although we might not want to go to Gandhi’s utopian extreme, we might perhaps look back critically at our own consumption cultures and their environmental, economic and security implications. 

Gandhi was also critical of parliamentary democracy – the foundational principle of the Western liberal political system. In his view it did not reflect the general will of the people but of the political parties, which represented specific interests and restricted the moral autonomy of parliamentarians in the name of party discipline. So, parallel to the institutionalised electoral democracy, he preferred to have a space for civil disobedience or performative democracy. For him, above the law of the state, there was a higher moral law – the law of God. So citizens had a legitimate right to protest against immoral acts of the state. But this protest must also follow strict moral codes.

For Gandhi it was not enough for India to achieve independence and then perpetuate “English rule without the Englishmen”; it was essential to evolve an Indian alternative to Western liberal political structures. His alternative was swaraj, often translated as self-rule or home rule. But for Gandhi there was a subtle distinction between self-rule and mere home rule: his was a concept of popular sovereignty where each individual controlled or restrained their own self. If this was difficult to attain, he refused to consider it just a dream. “To believe that what has not occurred in history will not occur at all is to argue disbelief in the dignity of man.”

Gandhi is one of the rare breed of political leaders who recognised the disjuncture between morality and politics. Noble goals could only be achieved through noble means, he argued. His technique to achieve swaraj was satyagraha, the pursuit of truth. In practical terms, it meant non-violent civil disobedience – but something more than that. It was based on the premise of the superior spiritual power of protesters capable of changing the heart of the oppressor through a display of moral strength. He redefined masculinity for the unarmed masses of India. Instead of muscular power and the power of weaponry, it was to be defined by spiritual and moral power and the power of love, which could be attained through self-discipline. 

Non-violence, or ahimsa, was the concept that could bridge the gap between morality and politics. Gandhi’s theory of non-violence based on superior moral strength opened up the possibility of small people opposing powerful adversaries. In a 21st-century world where authoritarianism is being instituted and perpetuated through conventional democratic means, it is time we consider such ideas seriously.

This article is an edited and abridged version of Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s Victoria University of Wellington Provost Lecture on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

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