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Although Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was the most admired human being in India and arguably in the entire world during his lifetime, he was also among the most controversial. This continues to Gandhi 150 in 2019, as he remains among the most admired and at the same time the most controversial figures in the contemporary world.
Today, there remain influential Gandhi dissenters, many of whom are descendants of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and other dissenters and non-Gandhian and anti-Gandhian developments during Gandhi’s lifetime. The relations between these dissenters and Gandhi and their contemporary descendants remain sources of controversy today. For example, while Ambedkarites and Gandhians usually focus on their significant differences, it is often overlooked how in their fundamental concerns, values and commitments, what Ambedkar and Gandhi shared was often more unifying than what divided them. In addition, while selectively rejecting some of Gandhi’s idealised caste justifications and recognising that the dissenting Ambedkar was often more INSightful, one can at least make the case that in his personal life and in the last years of his life, Gandhi was more revolutionary and more anti-caste than “the annihilation of caste” Ambedkar.
Of dissenters, or at least those who consider Gandhi irrelevant today, hundreds of millions in India and others in the US and elsewhere express approaches, views, and priorities of “modern” human beings critiqued by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj as adopting modern civilisation. These influential Gandhi dissenters, the modern human beings during Gandhi’s 20th century India and those who dominate India and the world today, usually identify with neo-liberal corporate capitalism, globalisation, profit maximisation, ego-driven consumerism and materialism, worship of technology, nuclear weapons and militarism, multi-dimensional and structural violence, and the domination of nature. While Gandhi is sometimes an irrelevant annoyance, these dissenting modern humans are usually able to ignore him. Particularly striking and alarming is how many of these elite modern humans are now so easily able to appropriate (misappropriate) Gandhi-expressed ideological justifications for their anti-Gandhian purposes.
There is also a wide range of other non-Gandhian and anti-Gandhian dissenters who rejected Gandhi and his message during his lifetime and reject the exemplary philosophy and practice of Gandhi 150 today. Some of these dissenters identified with and continue to identify with narrow, violent, chauvinistic nationalisms. This often takes various forms of national, religious, cultural, ethnic and moral ‘exceptionalism’. In such formulations, Hinduism and India are exceptional in not simply being distinctive, but in also expressing the superior values, culture, civilisation, social and political relations, ethics, and spirituality. Not unrelated are formulations of United States exceptionalism, going back to the founding of the nation, and most virulent and transparent today daily in dissenting, anti-Gandhi, expressions of tweets and narcissistic and chauvinistic ideological claims by Donald Trump. “America first” is the greatest nation in human history, the greatest military and economic and political nation today and for the future, and, in short, the greatest in every way.
In these dissenting claims of Hindu/Indian, American, and other exceptionalisms throughout the world, “the Other” is normatively devalued as backward, immoral, irrational, violent, impure, evil, and a threat to Hindu/Indian, American, or other exceptional superior culture, tradition, religion, ethics, and nationalism. Some of these anti-Gandhi dissenting positions embrace forms of religious and ethnic communalism, racism, male supremacy and other forms of sexism, exploitative classism, and oppressive casteism. Once again, it is both revealing and alarming how many of these contemporary dissenters with power in India have been able to reinterpret and reappropriate Gandhi as one of the greatest Hindu/Indian heroes. They use (really misuse) Gandhi and his selectively redefined philosophy and practice for their own anti-Gandhi caste, class, gender, militaristic, nuclear, environmental, Hindutva-valued and other purposes.
As he did during his lifetime and as a most adequate Gandhi-informed approach would do today, Gandhi is a great dissenter in critiquing and resisting such dissenting perspectives, values, policies, and actions. In his philosophy and practice of non-violence, truth, harmonious relations, and justice, Gandhi embraces the exact opposite approach to “the Other”. Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, atheists, moderns, and other human beings in their own developmental process of self-realisation, Gandhi felt, should recognise that what unites us is more basic than what divides us, and this is a unity with a respect for legitimate contextualised differences. In developing our human potential, we must control our ego-defined desires and attachments that invariably lead to hierarchical inequalities, violence, fear and insecurity, immorality, and untruthful relations. Instead, we should engage in disciplined selfless service, with unifying love and compassion, privileging and serving the needs of the others (especially those most disempowered, have the least freedom, and experience the greatest suffering), and realising that the Other is socially and integrally related to my own developing self-realisation of my deeper moral and spiritual self.
Similarly, the Dissenter Gandhi does repeatedly affirm the exceptional nature of traditional India and Hindu culture in his resistance to British colonial and other orientations that devalue Hinduism and India as inferior, idol-worshipping, superstitious, and uncivilised. However, he rejected and would reject today dominant versions of Hindu/Indian, US American, and other forms of superior exceptionalism with the devaluing of others. While being proud of what is exceptional and of the highest value in our own cultures and traditions, we are not to be arrogant and exclusivist, intolerant chauvinists. In fact, we must critique, resist, and overcome what is hateful, violent, oppressive, unjust, immoral, and untruthful in our own texts, scriptures, cultures, religions, and traditions. Other cultures, religious, traditions, and nations are both exceptional and flawed in diverse ways, and we must respect that they have their own legitimate, contextualised paths toward personal, economic, social, political, cultural, local, national, and global development.
In Gandhi’s organic, holistic approach with the interconnectedness of all of existence, we can learn from the Other. The Other is a necessary precondition and catalyst, allowing us to rethink and develop our own individual, social and national paths of self-development and greater realisation of truth and reality.
Finally, we have not focused on a wide range of non-Gandhi and anti-Gandhi dissenters during Gandhi’s lifetime and continuing today, who express the very diverse values, principles, philosophies and practices of those who are most oppressed and exploited. They often look at Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence and truth, Swaraj (individual, national, and other forms of self-rule), Satyagraha (truth force, nonviolent resistance), sarvodaya (well-being of all), Swadeshi (self-sufficient economies), trusteeship, and the Constructive Programme. They do not see a great dissenter. What they see is a Gandhi who, at worst, is an oppositional reactionary and, at best, is complicit with oppressive dominant power relations. Some of these dissenters endorse anti-Gandhi separatist approaches, forms of identity politics, and/or the need for class struggle, caste struggle, and diverse forms of violent resistance.
Gandhi, as imagined by a contemporary artist; top left, John Lennon, pop seer and an admirer .
During his lifetime, Gandhi was well aware of such perspectives upheld by various Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Marxists, and even self-professed terrorists. While upholding his ideals and regulative principles of truth and nonviolence, Gandhi did not simply dismiss such anti-Gandhi dissenters. In very complex and nuanced contextualised ways, Gandhi repeatedly reached out to these dissenters and attempted to engage them in transformative dialogue. Even when they rejected his philosophy and practices of truth and nonviolence, he attempted to empathise with their lived worlds of imposed violence, oppression, and injustice, and he recognised that many of them had admirable courage and commitments, driven by moral outrage and willing to sacrifice and die for India’s freedom and independence.
While engaging such dissenters in so many diverse ways, one could write volumes on Gandhi’s remarkable transformative successes. However, as a remarkable but also flawed human being and as sometimes overwhelmed by contextual situations beyond his transformative power, Gandhi, as much as his dissenting critics, was well aware of his “Himalayan blunders”, miscalculations, and disastrous failures. In fact, in the last years of his life, the heroic Gandhi was often depressed and full of doubts as he witnessed the disastrous failures of his lifetime struggles against divisive and violent Hindu-Muslim communalism, the Partition, the suffering and rape and killing of so many, the perpetuation of untouchability and caste oppression, the perpetuation of traditional patriarchy and the oppression of women, and the emergence of a hierarchical and corrupt political state at odds with his approach to nationalism. In short, in all of these and others significant ways, Gandhi remained the great dissenter of what was happening, but he often felt that no one was listening.
In conclusion, where does this leave us today with regard to Gandhi the great dissenter, his admirers and his anti-Gandhi critics? I believe that a selectively reappropriated, reinterpreted, and reapplied Gandhi-informed philosophy and practice that are contextually significant for 2019 and for the future, challenge and provide valuable alternatives to the above non-Gandhian and anti-Gandhian approaches, as well as to reactionary Gandhian approaches that sometimes express forms of authoritarian fundamentalisms.
There remains a strong tendency among many Gandhi critics and admirers to essentialise and decontextualise Gandhi the human being and his theory, approach, practice, and relevance or irrelevance. For many Gandhi admirers, he is idealised as the Mahatma, larger than life, so far ahead of his time, the great dissenter who is too good for this world. Gandhi offers us the blueprint, the hope and solution for all of our conflicts and crises, the exemplary model of how to live, the perfect philosophy for us to experience peace, non-violence, love, truthful living, equality, harmony, happiness and self-realisation. If only we would listen and follow his Gandhi way, but instead we turn away in our non-Gandhi and anti-Gandhi dissenting ways, as did most during his lifetime.
Gandhi with former US President Herbert Hoover in Delhi in 1946.
For many critics, Gandhi is equally essentialised, but Gandhi and his philosophy are then oversimplified and decontextualised in stereotypical ways and typically dismissed as dogmatic, reactionary, and offering false absolute solutions for complex contemporary crises. At best, some critics argue that Gandhi and his philosophical approach, upholding truth and non-violence, whether well-intentioned or not, should be ignored as irrelevant. At worst, Gandhi as falsely idealised exemplary human being and his philosophy remain as obstacles to progress in the contemporary world.
As formulated in my most recent Gandhi-informed book, Gandhi after 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability (Oxford University Press, 2019) and as reformulated in this article, Gandhi offers a profound and influential orientation, theory, and engaged practice that challenges us to rethink our dominant contemporary approaches. When examining the dominant contemporary non-Gandhian and anti-Gandhian economic, political, social, cultural, militaristic, nationalistic, religious, moral, educational, and environmental values, priorities, and relations, Gandhi remains the great dissenter whom we ignore at our gravest peril. When selectively appropriated and reformulated, the dissenting Gandhi’s philosophy of truth and non-violence is not only contextually relevant, but it is also desperately needed when confronting our crises of so much conflict and violence, immorality, untruthful living, oppression, alienation, economic and environmental unsustainability.
Although he was such an admirable human being who offers us such insightful perspectives, theories, and practices, Gandhi was human and he does not offer us the perfect blueprint and all of the needed solutions for our contemporary crises. Some of Gandhi’s views were repressed, reactionary, backward, uninformed, immoral, and need to be rejected. In many more examples, the dissenting Gandhi’s life and message, consistent with the title of his Autobiography, consisted of dynamic, open-ended, contextualised “experiments with truth,” and he often rejected, revised, and reformulated his earlier inadequate views and practices. This is the approach we should take toward Gandhi and his philosophy.
As invaluable but not self-sufficient and not having all of the answers, the great dissenter Gandhi, selectively and contextually reformulated, must be integrated with complementary non-Gandhi and even some anti-Gandhi dissenters, also selectively and contextually reformulated, that challenge to move beyond Gandhi’s formulations. In my approach, at least some of these non-Gandhi Dissenters—including Marx, Ambedkar, various feminists, various environments, and many others—are often more insightful than Gandhi when addressing dimensions of crises involving economic and historical relations, gender and racial relations, class and caste relations, science and technology, the environment and other contemporary concerns.
When we bring dissenter Gandhi-informed perspectives and practices into dynamic integral relations with dissenter non-Gandhi-informed perspectives and practices, we develop the potential for new creative responses to our contemporary crises. We are invited, challenged, and empowered to appropriate Gandhi’s insights and contributions in new creative ways to participate in building cultures of peace, non-violence, moral and truthful living, harmonious relations and sustainability.
Douglas Allen Professor of philosophy at the University of Maine, US, and author of Gandhi After 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability.