Conceptualizing Gandhi’s Thinking

mahatma gandhi

Writing an essay on Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Philosopher Akeel Bilgrami noted that “Its generally foolhardy to write about Gandhi, not only because you are never certain you’ve got him right, but because you are almost sure to have him wrong”. This is a pessimistic proposition in the light of the huge corpus of literature that is been brought out by notable thinkers from all walks of intellectual endeavors exploring his politics, ethics, socio-political philosophy, and psychology, and still, did none of them got him right?

But at the same, it is a realist proposition because Gandhi was unsure about himself. He repeatedly experimented with his ideas in actions, and there was a constant conflict of various thoughts in his mind. Gandhi reserved the rights for jettisoning his ideas and present new once from time to time. In 1934, he said, “I make no hobgoblin of consistency. If I am true to myself from moment to moment, I do not mind all the inconsistencies that may be flung in my face”. He also said that “when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the latter of the two on the same subject”. It is a troubling idea for champions of Gandhi and Gandhism that Gandhi isn’t a perfect Gandhian himself. Yet as Ashis Nandy pointed out, it would be a tribute to the memory of Mahatma to call him ‘imperfect’.

Does all this suggest that it is not possible to agree on one set of ideas as his final thoughts? Bearing in mind the huge collection of writings Gandhi left behind (published in 100 volumes in English by Publications Division of Government of India and many unpublished writings), and the variety of hermeneutics that is surrounding Gandhi’s ideas, it seems tough to settle on some ideas as ultimate. Despite all this, there is something to cheer about. Though it may not be feasible to agree on some of his ideas as ultimate, it is possible to conceptualize a framework to understand the way of Gandhi’s thinking. If this framework is developed, then it is possible to evolve a lens through which the world can be looked at the way Gandhi looks at it and find solutions for the alarming crises of our times in his way.

There is a common strand in Gandhi’s thinking that is found in how he acted in the face of any crisis or for transforming the conditions of an existing order of things-Gandhi sought for ‘alternatives’. Here ‘alternatives’ connotes two things. Firstly, it is searching for newer means to lead a way out of crisis and to bring about changes in the status quo. Secondly, it is fixing alternative ends that are to be achieved through alternative means. For Gandhi, these two connotations of seeking for ‘alternatives’ are not separate. Instead of trying to make changes in the existing status quo or to reform it, Gandhi sought newer alternative means and ends. To understand this proposition, take the case of Gandhi’s role in the national movement and his Constructive Programme.

Before the entry of Gandhi into the Indian national movement, there are moderates and extremists in their own ways trying to get independence for India. But there is no popular national wide struggle under their leadership. The methods employed by both moderates and extremists are different, and there is also widespread unsureness about the effectiveness of their methods within both sections. The end they are seeking, which is achieving ‘Independent India’ is vaguely defined. Their period was characterized by a lack of collective consciousness and certainty about means and ends, and these factors atypical of that time prevents the chances for creating a national-wide movement.

Gandhi brought with him a new force and new message into the national movement with an ‘alternative’ politics. His method of alternative politics, from its outset, quoting Ashis Nandy, is to “de-intellectualize Indian Politics”. Here de-intellectualization should not be understood as being something against intellectuals. But Gandhi was against “giving importance to intellectual activities and ideologies in a culture which believed intellection to be ritually purer and more Brahmanic, and where the primacy of idea aver action had a sacred sanction behind it”. He is actually hitting at the brahminical hegemony in the national movement and through the process of de-intellectualization, he tried to de-Brahminize Indian politics. Gandhi brought in elements of culture that are associated with the underprivileged classes in India into the mainstream struggle against the British rule. This appealed to the masses. In the initial period after he came to India in 1915, Gandhi tried to understand the conditions and struggles of the masses in India and he developed an ‘alternative’ political technique which aims at permeating the consciousness of the masses with the spirit of struggle for India’s freedom. He spoke to the masses in their language and prepared them, gradually and consistently, to sacrifice for achieving the nation’s independence.

The method employed by Gandhi to prepare Indians to struggle for their freedom needs elaboration. His method can be broadly seen under the term ‘Constructive Programme’ which he calls as ‘the truthful and non-violent way of winning Poorna Swaraj’. According to Gandhi, just like the people participating in armed revolts are taught how to use arms, it is necessary to train masses in their struggle for Independence. This programme also imbibes in it Gandhi’s vision of self-reliant India. He wrote this idea in a book titled ‘Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place’ in 1941 in which he listed 18 programmes like communal unity, removal of untouchability, Promoting Khadi and other village industries, Farmer, Labour, Adivasis, and Women empowerment- only through empowering every individual in the country irrespective of their socio, economic, ritual, and political statuses in all these elements can India attain Independence. It is clear that his ‘alternative’ politics is complex and multi-layered, where he sought to create an Indian society composed of constructive workers. Along with actively taking part in the higher political affairs of the country, Gandhi has constantly engaged in his constructive work. For him, the freedom struggle is synonymous with constructive work. The culmination of the efforts of this preparation is felt during the Quit India movement when Gandhi finally gave the call for ‘Do or Die’.

A closer look into Gandhi’s ‘alternative’ politics will make it clear that Gandhi placed these elements of the Constructive Programme integral not only in his scheme for Independence but also his vision for Independent India, the form of the ‘alternative’ end which he sought to achieve. Unlike the phase of freedom struggle before his, Gandhi clearly thought about the form of Independence that is best suitable for India.

His vision for free India is to create a nation of constructive workers. It is important to observe here how Gandhi’s politics merge means and ends together. This is a practical, vale-centric, and normative ‘alternative’ to the vision of Western modernity. Gandhi cautioned India against adopting the manners of the West. He said, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts”.

After Independence, Gandhi decided to attend a conference of constructive workers at Sevagra, in the first week of February 1948. He was very anxious to attend that conference. Before that happened, Gandhi was stopped by three bullets. But without Gandhi, the conference was held six weeks after his death in May of 1948 which was attended by ‘Gandhi Family’- Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, J.C. Kumarappa, Vinoba Bhave, Kamalnayan Bajaj, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, and many others who are all apostles of Mahatma. In the conference, all its attendants discussed various ways of taking forward Gandhi’s Constructive Programme. This shows how Gandhi prophetically set the tone for ‘alternative’ means and ends of Independent India.

From above, it can be claimed that Gandhi’s way of thinking is premised on seeking ‘alternatives’, that is alternative means and ends (sometimes both merging). His method is not altering an existing ‘status quo’, but creating a completely new order of things, a new arrangement where masses, not any particular sections of them, but all, could be better off. This way of thinking makes Gandhi, arguably, the most radical and relevant individual of his times and ours.

In settling on a conceptual framework, it could be said that Gandhi tries to do two things at a time in his thinking about finding solutions for problems. Firstly, framing ‘alternative’ means and ends and secondly, including the masses in striving for that ‘alternatives’, i.e., of the masses, by the masses and for the masses. This framework could be applied for the times we are living in and to address the menacing crises that the world is grappling with. In this way, it is hoped that we may avoid being ‘almost sure to have him wrong’.

Mucheli Rishvanth Reddy is currently pursuing final year in BA Economics, Political Science and Sociology at Christ University, Bangalore.




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