Not in Gandhi’s Name -The Importance of Reading Gandhi as a Philosopher of Dissent


gandhi and crowd

The irony of the ruling party’s appropriation of Gandhi comes undone time and again by its antithetical practices. What else captures the irony better than the fact that the government which is celebrating Dandi March across its various cultural organs for his 150th birth centenary is also simultaneously, not only disallowing or overlooking democratic protests but unleashing brutal repression and violence on peaceful protestors incessantly and in ways unprecedented. It is a government that openly threatens- let them protest but we don’t care! Of course it’s a truism that the politics of contemporary times thrive on tokenism and empty acts of symbolism, but this is too alarming. Amongst most other political thinkers of decolonization, Gandhi despite being the easiest to appropriate for the ambiguity of his doctrines and their assumed simplicity and moderateness, is incommensurable, to say the very least, with the politics of the ruling regime.

On the eve of India’s independence when the entire country soared in euphoria of being freed Gandhi perhaps was one of the few leading political figures of the time who attended to the inadequacies of the freedom. It was then that he articulated most emphatically that freedom means nothing without justice, and that justice is not the same as retribution or revenge. I have always heard stories of Gandhi spending most of his time in his last days amidst refugee camps, or walking in places burning in communal tension, but I was struck by their extraordinariness only when I thought of them in the light of the recent turn of events. When we collectively celebrate a language of exterminating refugees, when we equate welfare to reducing one’s existence to the inviolability of its documentary evidence, and when our conscience has stooped so low that we willingly accept humiliation and robbing one off their dignity and self respect as governance. When I now read of Gandhi, preaching to gatherings, negotiating with them, about the need for the Hindu’s in Pakistan and Muslim’s In India to remain where they are and the need for their wellbeing, (instead of speaking of them as mere numerical figures that can be aligned or realigned through graphs), it seems like he recognized the pain, alienation and deep humiliation the comes when one suddenly is condemned to be a refugee. As a political leader he saw his duty to offer himself to the services to those whom processes of state making had vanquished. He refused to recognise the refugee either as collateral or as an enemy, or even as people with a one dimensional religious identity. It was then, in his last days that he couldn’t reconcile his vision of swaraj with the independence we gained. It was then that his political ideas were put to the severest of tests, and he practiced most pronouncedly his insistence on the force of love and a need for a civilization to be life affirming. And it was then that he was murdered for the same reasons. If he called his life a message then so was his death. He died exemplifying the touchstone of his philosophy -fearlessness on the face of death as the utmost form of freedom.

Never before until recently I realized the capacity for carnage and destruction the state machinery upholds and never before I realized the strength of fearlessness which unarmed people whose lives have been rendered precarious by the same state can show on the face of it. Where does such fearlessness arise from? Gandhi emphasized that the strength of fearlessness comes from the realization that the power of a regime of oppression rests in their ability to generate fear, and it only lasts till the fear lasts, the moment you stop fearing it, the moment it’s power losses it’s ground. This moment of realization is also the moment an awakening of morality.

Morality is the fulcrum of Swaraj as he imagined it and the source of the moral order and justice can’t lie in the sacrosanct of state institutions be it law or court or police, it lies in the realm of one’s experience, one’s consciousness and one’s own sense of morality and nothing else. Central to his ideas of swaraj is the abomination of submission and obedience that is externally enforced and commanded through fear as a form of rule. “I cannot recall a single occasion when I have obeyed a law of society or state because of the fear of punishment”, he writes. He emphasizes time and again the importance of disobeying a law and refusing to be ruled by a government that violates one’s sense of self respect, dignity and morality. In a long statement that he read out at the session court in Allahabad in 1922 after his arrest, Gandhi explains his transformed from being a loyalist of a state to a non cooperator. He lists the indiscernible humiliation incurred by the state to its people time and again, the ways protestors were treated in the country, the brutality, the heinous acts of massacres and carnage, the impoverishment of people to the point where they didn’t have the ability to deal with a famine, the way law had been put to the service of oppression, and the number of people had been unlawfully convicted. All of these compelled him to agitate against what was assumed by the rulers “as the best system of administration but is an effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force”. He felt compelled to agitate against the order of society where mere promotion of dissatisfaction is a crime”.  He spoke while he himself was convicted under section 12A of Indian Penal Code which he says is designed to suppress liberty.

In another instance he writes “we are sunk so low that we fancy that it is our duty and our religion to do what the law lays down…to obey laws that are unjust. No (hu)mans tyranny will enslave us and this is the key to self rule…so long as the superstitious (hu)man should obey unjust laws, so long will their slavery exist”, he writes in another occasion. He differentiated between a law breaker and a civil resister. A law breaker will disobey a law in secrecy for they harbor a fear of breaking the law, they will not have questioned the emancipatory promise of the law, on the contrary a civil resister “does not obey a law because of fear but because he believed it to be just and when one realizes that the law is unjust rendering obedience to it is a dishonour”. The justification of the morality of the vision and action of the civil resister lies in the  means they chose- of ahimsa- non violence, which is not a nonviolence of helplessness but an enlightened non violence of resourcefulness, and of tapas- self suffering. Suffering is an integral component of his philosophy- of freedom and of fearlessness. But one could ask how can suffering which is premised on relinquishment of sovereignty can also be a way to empower ourselves? How can relinquishment be the same as resistance? The idea of self-suffering is rooted in a deep self-realization. It is a realization of our own insignificance in the world, experiences as humility and realization of the finitude of our body and infinitude of our consciousness that is embodied. Any form of suffering is only a form of bodily suffering, but not of our embodied consciousness. “There is no bravery greater than a resolute refusal to bend the knee to an earthly power, no matter how great, and that without bitterness of spirit and in fullness of faith that the spirit alone lives, nothing else does.”Thereby this suffering which is also a pursuit of truth is not a state of misery but one of cheerfulness and joy. Moreover, the fortitude of suffering is not to be confused with the endurance of injustice, it is rather the opposite. This suffering is the strongest defiance of unjust rule. A will to suffer by oneself takes away from the authority the ability to make them suffer. The self that suffers by itself seizes from the government its jurisdiction over their bodies, its ability to inflict any punishment. This practices of self effacement transformers the self into basic unit of political experience and political action.

The locus of this fearlessness and upholding of a just order, the centre of Swaraj is this morally-conscious self- an embodied life and it’s techniques of resistance are not exercises of a disciplined body, but that of a heightened consciousness. The ability to offer Satyagraha does not lie with a handful but each and everyone, because the only qualification to become a political actor lies in a visceral abomination of injustice not just towards oneself but all, and a willingness to resist through non violence, because the moment of exercise of violence is also the moment of agreement of principal with the oppressor. The tools of resistance are moreover harnessed through a radicalization of one’s inwardness in the process in a scathing critique of an apathetic and alienating vocabulary of modern politics he restores faith in the most intimate expressions of one’s being as the most profound forms of political action.

The present government and its self-proclaimed historians’, who make Gandhi into a sanitized saint, expel from the backdoors of history the Gandhi who was a philosopher of dissent. Being appropriated by such illegitimate claimants isn’t just misreading, but a gross violation of his person, his ideas and of history and the times beckon that we mustn’t let memory succumb to forgetting. While, on one hand reading Gandhi in such times can offer us precedence and strength to fight an oppressive regime, it is the exemplary women of Shaheen bagh, Khureji, Turkman Gate, the students and all others who have been protesting for over a month in the face of apathy, brutality and optimal dishonor by the state, who have given a new context for critically engaging with Gandhi’s political philosophy. In times when the possibility to imagine a course of action within the existing structures seems exhaustive, the ongoing protests and their methods, despite every odd have nourished such philosophies of hope, love and justice with historical examples.

Paloma Bhattacharjee, Research Assistant, National Museum Institute, Graduate in History, Delhi University.




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