The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This PagePrint This Page
- There cannot be a relativist position on violence

“I thought it better that in times like


A poet’s mouth be silent,for in truth

We have no gift to set a statesman right.’’

— W.B.Yeats, “On Being Asked for aWar Poem.’’

Since the time the British communist leader and the mentor of Indian communists, R.P. Dutt, described Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as a lackey of the Indian bourgeoisie, to the time when followers of Charu Mazumdar abused Gandhi in ugly graffiti on Calcutta walls, the Mahatma has had many critics from the advocates of the ism. Outside the domain of the hammer and the sickle but not quite beyond it, Jawaharlal Nehru, even when he was known as Gandhi’s cup-bearer, in his autobiography described the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s most important text, as an “utterly wrong and harmful doctrine’’. Outside the realms of politics in the groves of academia, serious analysis of Gandhi’s life and ideas, coming from scholars influenced by Marxian ideas, have always been laced with a degree of criticism and rejection.

Partha Chatterjee, in a remarkable and thought-provoking exegesis of Gandhi as a critique of civil society, described Gandhi’s intervention in the Indian national movement as a “moment of manoeuvre”. Gandhi, according to this view, created the historical possibility of appropriating the peasantry into the national movement without granting to the peasantry any agency. In Chatterjee’s words, peasants would be “willing participants in a struggle wholly conceived and directed by others”. This, and the emphasis on non-violence on which Gandhi insisted, produced conditions that allowed the dominant classes to proceed to consolidate themselves within the institutional structures of the new and modern state. These consequences may not have been Gandhi’s intention, but the form he gave to the struggle acted as an enabling condition, and his message provided a moral justification for the process.

On similar lines, Ranajit Guha has underlined the disciplinary aspects of Gandhian mobilization. Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence always reined in the energies and initiatives of the people themselves. Guha sees in the need for such discipline an instrument in the nationalist project to “systematically destroy the immediacy of popular mobilization and invest the energies of mass political movements in its [the elite’s] bid for hegemonic dominance.’’

Chatterjee’s and Guha’s analyses should, of course, be differentiated from the mindless debunking of a previous era. But the note of criticism, if not disapproval, is clear. What is more important is that it sees Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence as an instrument or an enabling condition to further the interests of the elite and of the state which they made and controlled. Further, in keeping with the trend of the radical historiography which dominated history-writing in the Eighties and the Nineties, it privileges mass action and even the violence that invariably ensues from it.

Gandhi saw non-violence as an absolute. It was non-negotiable. It is important not to lose sight of this. He called non-violence “the first article of my faith and the last article of my creed”. His entire critique of civil society, which Chatterjee so lucidly explicates, was premised on his belief that modern civilization was essentially based on violence and promoted violence. Indian civilization, since large parts of it were still untouched by modernity and its institutions, was different and had the potential to be different. The critique and the vision were both based on non-violence.

The absolute insistence on non-violence has contemporary reverberations that no longer make possible the setting aside of non-violence as the idée fixe of a cranky old man or the machinations of a wily bania or a brake to stall the momentum of popular movements. It may or may not have been all these things. That non-violence was integral to Gandhi’s life, and therefore of central significance for understanding his actions and his legacy should not be underestimated in a world torn asunder by violence and hatred.

The world suddenly woke up to the threat of violence after 11/9/01 and its aftermath. The globe now faces a confrontation between Islamic fundamentalism and the aggressiveness of the United States of America; west Asia is under the cloud of an imminent overt war between Israel and Palestine while the covert war continues; in India, violence stalks the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and Gujarat witnessed a pogrom. These are only the events that grabbed the headlines. There are innumerable other incidents which are manifestations of the violence that seems to have become inextricably linked to modern life.

The trend of analysis that has valorized popular violence should inevitably find itself a trifle uncomfortable with the scale of violence now being experienced in India and elsewhere. It is difficult to ignore the fact that Islamic fundamentalism has a popular base of support and participation among sections of Muslims; similarly, in parts of India, most definitely in Gujarat, the militant wings of the sangh parivar have strong popular bases, and the violence in Gujarat had a considerable degree of popular participation across class and caste lines; the aggressiveness of the US against Islamic fundamentalism has widespread popular acclaim and support not only within the US but also elsewhere.

It cannot be argued, whatever be the compulsions of a radical historiography, that subaltern rebel violence against colonial rule was valid and justified while the violence in Gujarat with subaltern participation is invalid, barbaric and unjust. It is a well-known cliché that one man’s terrorism is another man’s fight for freedom. The violence that Osama bin Laden thinks is pure and just, the US and many others find reprehensible. What Hindu fanatics see as a fight to eliminate foreigners, secularists see as a pogrom. There cannot be a relativist position on violence. Such a position is not only logically inconsistent but also provides intellectual justification for perpetuating the vicious cycle of violence.

This is exactly where Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence as an absolute value has a contemporary relevance. Gandhi was not willing to put any cause above non-violence, not even the freedom of India. One has only to recall his response to the violence in Chauri Chaura in 1922 which led to the death of 22 policemen. He recoiled in horror and withdrew the Non-Cooperation Movement. Non-violence was not something over which he was willing to compromise. It was not open to manoeuvre. Non-violence, for Gandhi, was not an instrument or a condition to bring about or enable something else. For him non-violence was an end in itself, for morality lay in non-violence. Non-violence, for the Mahatma, was dharma.

Such a position, however utopian it sounds, is the only one that can disrupt the cycle of violence. In it lies the agenda for mankind’s survival.

Scholars like Chatterjee have enriched our understanding of modernity by pointing to its imbrication with power and by tracing the centrality of coercion in modern regimes. But this has not led yet to a critique of volence on whose reverse side might lie an analysis of the importance of the idea of non-violence and the significance of its greatest apostle in the 20th century.

Email This PagePrint This Page