Gandhi and the West
Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj [Indian Independence] in November 1909 on a voyage from Britain to South Africa. His arrival in India and leading the Indian Independence movement were still a few years away. This small booklet of 70-odd pages is a scathing attack on western civilization as also on Indian freedom fighters who wanted to resort to violence against the British or those who wanted to create a nation on the lines of the developed West. He was asked in 1936 if he still stood by what he had written in 1909 and he maintained that he did, to a word.
First, a general observation about how Gandhi is perceived in India and how he is perceived in the West. I find a paradoxical similarity between the two understandings. In India quite a few ideological strands find an objectionable aspect of Gandhian thought and they reject him in toto citing that irreconcilable difference in their positions. In the West a particular aspect of the Gandhian thought is picked up and a movement launched to further that cause. Neither in India nor in the West is the Gandhian vision accepted in its entirety. Nor is it possible. Gandhi admitted in 1939 that he himself would not be able to achieve the goal he spells out in the book. In his own words the goal is to seek beauty in voluntary simple living, poverty and a slow pace of life.
Indian criticism of Gandhi
The difference between the western approach to Gandhi and the Indian approach to Gandhi may be clear by examination of three vocal ideologies against Gandhi in India.
The first ideology is that of Dr B R Ambedkar and his followers who come almost exclusively from Scheduled Castes in India. About 16% of the Indian population, i.e. some 160 million people belong to Scheduled Castes. Together with scheduled Tribes [8%] they have been the lowest stratum of the Indian society. Ambedkars followers maintain that the real ill of the Indian society was the hierarchical caste-system. Still, Gandhi kept on promoting Hinduism - the fountainhead of this exploitative system. Not surprisingly the freedom movement was controlled by the upper castes and the post-independence era saw the marginalised still on the margins of the society, if not pushed out more. In short, Gandhis approach further strengthened the brahminical forces. Gandhis insistence on going back to village, his criticism of urbanisation are also criticised as retrogressive.
The second ideology to oppose Gandhi is communism and the left, in general. Besides ridiculing his insistence on religion in public [and private] spheres, they claim that his non-violence came handy to the British and Indian capital, and Indian feudalism as it did not threaten their power. Accordingly, with independence, means of production never changed hands. And the proletariat never got a share of power.
Third anti-Gandhi current of thought is the now resurgent Hindu fundamentalism. Their concept of masculinity could never reconcile with Gandhian non-violence. They also single out Gandhi for alleged appeasement of Muslims all along. [Eventually it was a Hindu fundamentalist who assassinated Gandhi due to this perception].
[It is noteworthy that while the first group sees Gandhi as being overtly Hindu in his outlook, the last sees him of being pro-Muslim at the cost of Hindu interests].
Irrelevance of Indian criticism for the west
None of the three are of the least interest to the contemporary West.
The West may be vaguely aware about existence of caste-system in India but knowing more about it is not going to give them any pointers about how to change their own society. That makes Gandhi-Ambedkar debate quite irrelevant too.
Next, the West sees communism as State repression and denial of individual rights. [Enemies of Open Society as Karl Popper put it]. I do not think that the West took communism as a serious ideology anytime. It was more a military threat next door until the disintegration of Russia and disappearance of the Cold War. Since then it has even lost the stature of an enemy. The scramble of the former east european communist states and other ex-russian states to join western european organisations has brought the frontier states within the western orbit as well. Now islamic fundamentalism, rising China and rogue nuclear states have taken communisms place as forces to be contained.
Therefore, whether Gandhis position helped Indian capitalists can at best be an academic issue for some obscure social science research in a university.
As to the criticism of Gandhi on religious grounds, as espoused by the Hindu fundamentalists, institutionalised religion per se has lost its appeal at least in most of the western europe though it remains quite strong in the USA. Anyway, the West has Christianity, Judaism and Islam as the main religions in their imagery. They know that Hinduism is a major religion in the world but they have no interest in it. Therefore, Gandhis Hindu outlook and his alleged pandering of the Muslims do not merit even an academic investigation. Also the concept of masculinity is quite different in the west and it has been evolving over years. It is anything but macho though, as projected by Hindu fundamentalists.
Then how does the West look at Gandhi as?
The first impression is that he led millions of poor and illiterate through non-violent means, an unprecedented feat in human history, and achieved the goal - Indian independence from the British. Not only the British empire went on a decline after 1947, other major european colonial powers like France, The Netherlands and Portugal also began their retreat from the colonies. Along with the Second World War, Gandhi is credited to have accelerated this process.
The second and contemporary relevance of Gandhi is as a visionary providing a credible alternative to the western civilization. The building blocks of this civilization are examined ad nauseam. Pursuit of materialism, consumerism arising out of this pursuit, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and daily struggle of survival of the majority, wars, destruction of environment and distantiation from nature, mushrooming of experts in every field of life and their dictatorship, state being subservient to capital and at the same time arrogant to the citizens these ills attract the common person and thinkers in the West to Gandhi.
This article examines mainly the influence of Gandhian thought on contemporary western movements and summarises the western philosophical approach to it. At the end of the article a brief mention is made of western political leadership and Gandhi.
The aim of the article is not to give a comprehensive list of all the Gandhian movements in the West. Once the logic behind types of movements is clear, they can be imagined. For a typology of this logic it is better to go back to the methodology of Hind Swaraj.
As per my reading the narrative of Hind Swaraj is based on three dualisms. The book is a dialogue between Editor and Reader. On one side is the Editor - Gandhi, his understanding of the Indian civilization and the characteristics of this civilization as per that understanding. On the other side is the Reader an Indian besotted by the western civilization. This is the obvious dualism.
There is an internal dualism [or tension] too. That Indian civilization is superior and therefore preferable to the western civilization is the assumption of the book as well as what the book aims to convince the reader. This type of circular argument is hardly logical, conventionally speaking. But Gandhi challenges the very knowledge system of the West, hence this point.
Core dualism is of course between power in any form political, economic, knowledge-based and those opposed to it.
To put this along two axes
Editor - Gandhi - Indian civilization - anarchism
Reader - Indian apologists of western civilization western civilization power-in-any-form
Looked at Gandhi this way, his influence on western movements is also found at different locations.
Going in the order above, those who are convinced that wars and globalisation and the processes they unleash are colonialism in a new garb and want to oppose it all derive inspiration from Gandhi.
Next restless class is those who hold spiritual or transcendental life to be inherently superior to material life. They challenge the premises and implementation of mainstream development in Gandhian light.
Finally anarchists, in the sense of those opposing power in any form, try to get Gandhis approval.
Before going to movements, a note on violence. In this context too lay-out of Hind Swaraj seems worth looking into. Editor-Reader duo is reminiscent of Krishna-Arjuna duo in the mythical epic Indian war in Mahabharata. Bhagavad-Gita was the outcome of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield. Arjun was concerned if the war is worth it if so much violence against own kith and kin is to ensue. Krishna explains that this is an illusion, an ignorance that Arjuna has to overcome giving more weightage to duty over sentiments.
Gandhi is with the Gita in prioritising duty over ignorance [of aping the west] but if duty means violence, either he rejects the Gita or re-interprets it. Given the influence of the Gita on the Gandhian thought this point is worth remembering. It resurfaces in deep ecological movement cited below. On a side-note, I do not think separation of Gandhi from religion is tenable. [Religion, of course not in the conventional institutional sense of religion, much less Hindu religion but as systemic sacred.] Keeping religion out gives rise to tension in Gandhian secular movements both in India and in the West.
Gandhian Movements in the West
Now to movements. Main discontent in the West today is on account of globalisation. The Guardian of 2nd April had the following as a front-page headline story about G20 protests in London.
There was a pause, and an eerie silence, just before he did it. A green scarf masking his face, the man held a large piece of scaffolding above his head and, surrounded by photographers, eyeballed the unprotected window of the Royal Bank of Scotland's branch on Threadneedle Street.
In that split second, one voice amid thousands in the crowd broke the silence. "Don't do it," she screamed. He did.
A bespectacled man in a beige jacket then began remonstrating with black-clad and hooded protesters. "Gandhi taught us not to use violence," said John Rowley, from the Gandhi Foundation. "This isn't violence," retorted another voice in the crowd. "We paid for this building.
In the same vein, Bon Jovi, the French farmer protesting against american commercialism a few years back is said to have declared his position to be more Gandhi than Marx.
In the twentieth century a number of protest movements arose all over the world resorting to peaceful means like civil disobedience or fasts. They claim proximity to Gandhi. His thought has been making inroads in the West since the thirties. It is interesting to note that it was the anarchists who were first attracted to him. Later American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandelas movement until the Sharpeville massacre, anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines in the 60s and overthrow of Polish and Czechoslovakian regimes in the 80s acknowledge their debt to Gandhi. At the moment a rolling fast is going on in the USA against the environmental policies of the government [fasting-for-our-future]. They derive legitimacy from Gandhi.
Continuing on environment, this movement in the West is classified in two broad categories. The shallow movement is regarded as human-centric as the mainstream development paradigm. It opposes industrialisation or big dams or deforestation because these projects affect livelihood of humans, displace communities and are an encroachment on their culture. The deeper movement holds that humans are just as much a part of the universe as any other element. It does not advocate environmental protection just for the survival of humankind but for the entire planet, as part of the larger universe. In the shallow movement a potentially disastrous policy about to be implemented or a real project created by a group of humans is countered by another movement created by humans. The deeper movement advocates closeness to nature. Shallow ecology movement is fight against pollution and resource depletion, the central objective of which is the health and affluence of people in the developed countries. The deep ecology movement, in contrast, endorses biospheric egalitarianism, the view that all living things are alike in having value in their own right, independent of their usefulness to others.
This thought goes in spiritual realm incorporating sacred and as such may be beyond given secular tools of analysis of social sciences. However Arne Ness codified this position of deeper ecological movement in western philosophical idiom. The above quotes are his. Ness was a philosopher and a mountaineer. His life-long attachment to mountains, including the Himalayas gave his philosophy a personal grounding. He acknowledges influence of Gandhi, the Hindu reformer Vivekananda and the concept of karma-yoga in the Gita along with Spinoza. He took to non-violent protests too. Ness was the first chairman of Green Peace Norway in 1988.
Other movements in the West owing allegiance to Gandhi are various peace movements, movements for vegetarianism, for rights of animals, against animal-testing, etc. Piecemeal application of Gandhian thought in the West has been mentioned at the beginning. Movement against animal-testing is an example. Here only a part of the Gandhian thought is picked up. In the context of pharmaceutical manufacture Gandhi says clearly in Hind-Swaraj that none of the religions Hindu, Islam, Christianity or Zorastrianism would permit killing of so many animals to save one human body. His vegetarianism was closely linked not only to utilitarianism [which has been picked up] but also to his ideal of abstinence. Neither common person to whom own body is of utmost importance and a site of indulgence, nor health policy-makers, nor animal-rights advocates are likely to go that far. The strategy seems to be selective in Gandhian thought and claim his moral approval. [Actually Nesss position goes closer to the Gandhian position in that humans tend to exaggerate their own importance in the world at the expense of other elements.]
Gandhian Thought in the West
Western philosophy has studied many strands of the Gandhian thought. In that too national characteristics are apparent. Ness has been referred to above. Claude Markovits, a French philosopher argues against any transplantation of Gandhian thought in the West. According to him Gandhi has to be understood only in the then Indian context. Borrowing from him projects a distorted image. There may be some point in this argument as seen above in the animal-rights movement. Another example is of Lanza Del Vasto, a French poet. In 1948 Vasto established a commune in France on the lines of the Gandhian thought. Vasto allowed only Christians in the commune. This could have been religious fundamentalism in Gandhis view who held everybody to have her own religion. [If self-actualisation was the ultimate goal, it has necessarily to be an individual religion that would lead there.] Added to this misrepresentation was the decline of organised religion in the then France. Such instances brought forth a narrow and partial image of Gandhi.
German philosophers Dieter Conrad and Dietmar Rothermund have studied Gandhi in the context of the concept of the nation-state. As per them, states monopoly over violence, a marker of western capitalist democracies, was challenged by Gandhi. They think that Gandhi treats nation-state not as a definite entity but as a relative term. If, for example, market does not respect national boundaries, a citizen is not bound to abide by a specific national constitution or laws. An appeal to individual conscience and an anarchist revolt arising out of this inner voice is Gandhis contribution.
Erik Erikson an american psychologist studied Gandhis Truth and Militant Non-violence in 1968. His decoupling of Gandhian abstinence from non-violence [again a selective reading] gave an impetus to the student movements there and in europe. Erikson holds that desire for peace and non-violence is as instinctive to humans as aggressiveness. But he has a rider. There are two types of non-violence. One is internal i.e. within the person another external i.e. person vis-à-vis society. For non-violence to be manifest, a certain minimum social morality is a precondition. In the absence of this morality, state repression may invite violent outbreaks like riots.
This precondition becomes a criticism levelled against John Rawls justification of civil disobedience. Rawls maintained that if the state is repressive then the protest against the state is moral and justifiable. His critics point out that this can happen only in states where minimum social morality obtains [a nearly just society]. Indian examples of the West Bengal communist governments violent repression of non-violent protesters a year ago or Sharmila Iroms indefinite fast against Indian military repression or Aung San Su Kyis imprisonment substantiate this criticism.
Western philosophy holds Gandhis idea of peace as absolute. It is not subject to conditions like if
At last a word on post-modernism and Gandhi. Lloyd and Susanne Rudolf, an american philosopher couple, regard Hind Swaraj to be the first document of post-modernism. Not only traditions, it challenges the very concept of modernisation. According to them the Gandhian way of non-violent protests is the ultimate expression of relative truth in post-modernist thought. They cite Gandhis transition from a theist position of God is Truth to a relative position of Truth is God in this context.
After this brief survey of movements and philosophy a word about western political leaders and Gandhi, more to keep the record straight than any intrinsic merit of the point.
When Bill Clinton was the american president, a story was circulating about Hillary Clintons fascination about occult. During one of the seances she was asked who she would like to talk with. First she said Jesus Christ. This possibility was ruled out on some technical grounds. Then she wanted to talk to Gandhi, and reportedly did so!
In September 2009 during a school-speech, when asked which dead or alive figure he would like to have dinner with, Barack Obama mentioned Gandhi. Had Martin Luther King not gone the Gandhian way, I would not be here, he explained.
Not only the american leadership but such anecdotes abound about many statesmen from all over the world. None of these utterances mean that the state is going to change its arms trades or be environmentally literate or tackle the market in a Gandhian way. All that it means is Gandhi may be a momentary prick of conscience or a good sound-bite.
This then is the relationship between Gandhi and the West. The very civilization that he found objectionable is finding bits of him worth emulating.
A few caveats may be kept in mind though.
One possibility is that his thought might be giving rise to opposite interpretations at times. For example, Obama talks in reverential tones about Gandhi and the opponents of the american governments environmental policy go on a rolling fast in the name of Gandhi.
Second point is that opposition to the mainstream seems to be so weak as to be negligible. Besides the activists dubious moral satisfaction of having protested non-violently or even sought martyrdom at times, the basic power equations do not seem to be changing. London saw huge marches against the Iraq war. War took place alright. Iranian election protests are another recent example.
Third point is that not every atrocity in the world is attributable to the West or to modernisation. Caste conflicts in India, ethnic massacres in Africa, Pakistan-Afghanistan, Palestine-Israel
there are a number of flash-points in the world. To claim that the Gandhian thought has an answer to every problem is reductionism and putting him on a prophetic pedestal, same mistake that adherents of scriptures from Bible, Quoran, Gita to Das Kapital to Human Rights Declaration have been making.
Last point is that West itself is on a declining power trajectory in the world. Just to cite two examples China, as a new super-power can suppress its minorities like Tibetans and Uighur-Turks with impunity. They have been protesting non-violently almost for two generations now. Publicising their protest only increases their repression by the state. West can do nothing about it. Myanmar has already been mentioned.
Second example is of the rogue nuclear states like Pakistan or North Korea or Israel. Former two are unstable as well and the West has no leeway with any of them, nor with respect to an ambitious Iran.
It is therefore debatable if the Gandhian message - of anarchism as a protest against power-in-any-form - as I read it, is restraining or outpacing the mainstream and is ever attainable.