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A small man with a big vision

Gandhi in his time and ours By David Hardiman, Permanent Black, Rs 650

In an era of unprecedented global violence, the importance of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, his life and ideas, has increased enormously. David Hardiman’s new book is thus very timely. He is also very well qualified to write a book on Gandhi and his legacy. He has worked intensively on the Gandhian phase of the Indian national movement and he is one of the few historians of modern India who has taken enormous pains to immerse himself in the history, folklore and culture of a region, Gujarat. This is a book that cannot be ignored by anybody who is interested in modern India and in one of the central ethical questions of our time.

That question is, of course, the one about violence and the role it plays in human affairs. Gandhi’s response to this question, as Hardiman emphasizes, was a radical one. Gandhi rejected violence and the kind of politics that emanates from it “with his whole being.”

Hardiman argues the point that Gandhi’s life and work represented “a dialogue between the many complex strands of thought of his day.” Gandhi derived his ideas from various sources, Indian and European. This point is well-known. In his dealings with colleagues and rivals, he believed in discussion. But one wonders if these represented a “dialogic’’. Gandhi, in his own mild way, could be dogmatic and unrelenting. He could also indulge in a fair bit of machination. Some of the most important decisions of his life were taken according to the dictates of what he called “my inner voice’’. Gandhi conducted his life as a series of experiments with truth but at most times he could be unnerving with his certainty. He wrote the Hind Swaraj in the form of a dialogue between reader and editor. But in the tract, the reader who is the interlocutor only asks those questions which enable the editor to clarify his own well-defined views.

Non-violence or the complete rejection of violence in any form was central to Gandhi’s work and ideas. But his rejection of violence was embedded in a moral vision. This moral vision, in turn, rested on a rejection of modern/industrial civilization. Gandhi denied the entire apparatus of modernity, intellectual and institutional. Thus both modern science and democracy were unacceptable to him. Hardiman is thus simplifying, perhaps to make Gandhi more acceptable to products of modern civilization, when he says that “Gandhi did not reject rational and scientific approaches to problems, so long as they accorded with his moral principles.” From Gandhi’s moral standpoint, science could not have an accord with morality.

Modern civilization was satanic because it engendered selfishness, greed and violence. It was essentially alienating. Gandhi was emphatically not seeking an alternative modernity but an alternative to modernity. Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence was the manifestation of the opposite of what he considered to be at the core of modern civilization, that is, violence. Non-violence thus cannot be separated from the moral vision of which it was a part.

Hardiman is aware of this but he does not use it when he writes about post-Gandhian non-violent mass movements. Very few of these movements were driven by Gandhi’s moral vision. Most of them have struggled to ensure equality and justice within the framework of modernity. Gandhi would have applauded their non-violence but would have reacted sharply to their overall goals. Gandhi has no legatees.

Hardiman has written an important book but it is difficult to accept many of its assumptions and conclusions.

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