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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

Gandhi and our Troubled Times - Some Reflections on the Context, Challenges and Relevance | Karli Srinivasulu

Friday 26 March 2021, by Karli Srinivasulu


The Dickensian statement ‘It was the best of the times, it was the worst of the times’, with which his classic The Tale of Two Cities begins, captures the dominant predicament of our times. It is the worst of the times because we are at a historical stage where humans have apparently attained the power to inflict collective self-destruction through the instrumentalities of science and technology, state power and corporate greed. And this power has assumed such gigantic proportions that no part of the earth can escape its impact — expansive in its spread and intensive in its depth.

This power which threatens to be dystopic has several dimensions — intellectual, political, economic and ecological. It is characterized by the diminution of reason, decline of democracy as a value with the pretext of security and unity, the greedy and unsustainable corporate plunder of natural resources, the destruction of nature as evident in the disastrous global warming and the resultant climate change.

There is a hope of this being the best of the times for there is an increasing popular awareness of the disaster in store and we see people’s awakening, though small in scale, local in focus, grassroot in location and gradual in impact. This small beginning hopefully would result in desirable transformation.

One of the prominent thinkers who could foresee the tragic and disastrous propensities of such a historical course was of course Gandhiji. There is an almost consistent vision and progressive reflection on the disastrous possibilities of the scientific-industrial age which is unfortunately and wrongly often encapsulated as anti-West, anti-reason, anti-science and anti-technology and romantic regression to medievalism of sorts. Gandhiji’s appreciation of alternative ethical visions in the West (a la the likes of Thoreau and Tolstoy), his belief in intrinsic rationality as against instrumental rationality and conviction in the importance of dialogue for civilizational progress heralded ‘spring of hope’ in the midst of ‘winter of despair’. If Hind Swaraj is a key text in Gandhi’s intellectual oeuvre then his critical reflections on this predicament seamlessly flow through his life and work. Gandhiji holds up light in the midst of darkness.

I Gandhian Scholarship

The Gandhian scholarship in a significant sense is seen wanting in bringing forth the relevance of the wisdom of Gandhian thought and practice to the contemporary times. It is either frozen in time or reduced to certain moral precepts. Broadly four trends can be identified in the contemporary interest in Gandhi’s persona and promise.

First, the stream which continues to celebrate Gandhi as perennially interesting and relevant is represented by the Gandhian institutions and journals like Gandhi Marg. There is a certain degree of ‘atemporalisation’ if not fossilization of Gandhi, of course done out of admiration and respect.

Second is the tendency to depoliticize Gandhi as a symbol of seva and voluntarism in spite of the fact that Gandhiji’s life and activity was deeply and intensely political. Gandhi ashrams across the country work in tune with this spirit of seva. To this we can add the present neo-liberal ruling regime’s use of Gandhi as a symbol or brand of Swatch Bharat campaign with the message of cleanliness sanitized of politics.

Third is the scholarly work which has flourished in the last couple of decades that is either celebratory or critical of Gandhi. The work of scholars like Bikhu Parekh earlier and biographers like Ramchandra Guha recently goes to highlight the persona and thought of Gandhi. The work of Subaltern Studies historians like Partha Chatterjee and Shahid Amin try to demythify him to appreciate the historical role of nationalist Gandhi vis-à-vis the subaltern class movements.

Fourth is the activist appropriation of Gandhi. The post-Emergency period has seen a phenomenal enchantment with Gandhi’s thought and practice. The ecological and anti-big dam movements (Bahuguna’s Chipko and anti-Tehri movements) drawing on the Gandhian critique of mega development have highlighted the small, local, indigenous and grassroots as alternative and appropriate perspective on development. The farmers’ movements in different parts of the country invoked Gandhiji’s ideas of Gram Swaraj and importance of the rural in India as captured partly in Sharad Joshi’s Bharat vs. India slogan. Add to this the women’s movements (Madhu Kishwar edited Manushi journal [was] an important platform) and peace movements globally signify the resurgence of interest in Gandhian thought and spirit. Gandhi in these movements becomes an icon of and inspiration for activism that symbolized the spirit of the critique of state, its mega development and for empowerment of the poor, women and rural agrarian/ artisanal economy and society.

Gandhiji is seen as a symbol of hope and optimism and a great source of enlightening constructive action. But here we must observe a caution: there is a tendency, which happens with every historical personality to ascribe immortality by underplaying historicity to him/her by the followers. Gandhiji is no exception to this uncritical appreciation or rejection as old-fashioned and outlived. I think this is against the Gandhian spirit which defied any doctrinaire approach. To place him above time and space is to be unfair and unjust to his free thinking spirit. Thus viewed, Gandhian thought and practice can be a very valuable resource available to us to face the challenges that confront us not only internally but also globally.

II Truth and Post-truth

The central aspect of Gandhi’s thought and action is the concept of satya. This could be conceptualized and seen operative on two planes. Firstly, that the authenticity of human actions is premised on the truth value and truth claim. Any deviation would disqualify it from being valid and trustworthy. Secondly, it raises an important issue regarding the intrinsic relationship between the means and end and organic unity of ‘is’ and ‘ought’. In the dominant political thinking and discourse, post-Machiavelli, there has been forged a disassociation or de-linking of them and also the justification of the means is made on the desirability of the end.

Gandhi is a foremost thinker and activist to emphasise the organic relation between means and end — the centrality of truthful means for a noble end. This is the idea implicit in his notion of satyagraha as acceptance of and adherence to satya or truth and the bearer of this value being a satyagrahi. In his view, the political activist has to be the bearer, practitioner and upholder of satya and therefore has to be a satyagrahi (embodiment of truth). Thus Gandhi rejects the ‘end justifies means’ tradition and argues for a moral bind between them.

What we are witnessing in today’s world is the reversal of all these values. To be precise, what we are living through is an instrumentalist contra-Gandhian moral universe. In this power occupies the centrality and power is reduced to electoral victory - the political in its entirety is condensed to elections. The rich complexity of politics with its interrelations with civil society, cultural sphere, informal networks and significance of dialogic engagement is reduced to the pre-eminence of electoral ‘winnability’.

It is appropriate to remember that Gandhi raised serious epistemic questions on the parliamentary framework of governance — the quality of its representativeness and the scope of participatory possibilities in it. He was highly skeptical of the former and entertained no doubts about the latter. What has passed in the name of parliamentary democracy has proved his pessimism to be not far from true. Seven decades of our experience with this system has clearly demonstrated how representation has been reduced to a form without substance by the party system that is largely Supremo-centric and dynastic and political culture celebrating money and muscle power. The centrality of party and executive has made participation, let alone of the popular classes, even of the elected legislators a mere procedural requirement in the legislative process. Thus politics has been obsessively reduced to electoral domain and participation and representation to empty formalities.

The natural corollary of this singularity of the electoral is the casualty of truth. There is this talk of the age of ‘post-truth’. The political class, media and even the intellectual elite are well under the spell of post-truth. To put it simply, in this view, truth is not something that has an objective basis but is discursively formed. By denying it of any real basis and objectivity, truth is viewed as something subjectively construed. Thus truth is no longer viewed as a cause to be upheld for its intrinsic value. Post-truth does not merely connote ‘defactualisation’ but in practice has become a justification of deception, falsity and lying.

In this context, determined by a fairly long sojourn from the philosophical skepticism in Nietzsche and post-modern critiques to grotesque pragmatic disregard for truth, to Trump-like celebration of untruth, non-truth and simple lying has acquired some sort of fashion perhaps even heroic posture. The impact of this on national to global politics is well-known and its damage to democratic politics is well-documented and analysed.

In this context of decline of democracy and devaluation of truth that Gandhi assumes importance as someone who upheld the foundational centrality of truth in politics as means of progress and for a decent and sustainable lifeworld. The anti-colonial struggle in India is fought not merely for India’s independence but in the Gandhian vision it was a moral struggle between truth and non-truth. In this matrix colonialism is viewed as a system based on untruth and false claims and independence struggle as one standing for and upholding truth and freedom fighter as an upholder of truth. This position accorded moral supremacy to the nationalist struggle over the colonial rule.

The depreciation of politics visible in its reduction to elections after Independence is a result of the devaluation of truth. To win election by whatever means found instrumental for a victory the politicians and parties resort to all kinds of claims, compromises and promises. Truth and democracy are intrinsically related thus are inseparable. The democratic deficit we witness globally is a result of the downgrading of truth as a value.

The move away from this basic tenet of democratic politics being witnessed increasingly is the cause of all-round degradation in engaging with politics of democracy and development.

Another important consequence of this is what can be called Political Advaita — celebration of oneness in politics, economy and culture. In complex plural societies like India, the diversity instead of being seen as a strength and desirable is sought to be systematically undermined and replaced by singularity of nation as a political identity. In multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-cultural societies like India the attempt to deny the truth of plural and heterogeneous social reality and intolerance to difference could lead to disastrous and undesirable political outcomes. Gandhi was one of the early people to recognize this fact and shape and influence the national movement, mobilisational efforts and even the Congress organization in tune with this multitudinous and plural reality.

The healthy truthful and democratic spirit in Gandhian vision and practice is a clear antidote to the politics of untruth, denial and intolerance in the India today.

III Gandhi’s critique of development — technology as Civilizational Crisis

The entry of Gandhi in the Indian national movement happening in the post-First world marked a decisive shift. As the American scholar on Gandhiji, Judith Brown observes in her Gandhi Rises to Power, what marked the post-First World War scenario was a shift in the balance in the international politics and rapid increase in colonial exploitation causing untold misery to the people in the Indian countryside — the peasantry, artisans and the tribal population.

Gandhiji saw popular distress, discontent and crisis waiting to be understood and addressed. His perspective on the British state was shaped by a deep reflection on colonialism. Colonialism is not merely seen as an economic relationship of domination and exploitation but also as a case of spiritual degradation of colonial masters and crisis of European civilization.

In Europe, philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl and litterateurs like Franz Kafka and DH Lawrence were critiquing the Enlightenment project and its cultural arrogance.

Gandhiji is a major critic of Enlightenment project and his critique of development is to be seen as a part of it. Gandhiji’s classic Hind Swaraj (1909) offers a formidable critique of modernity and industrial civilization.

The dominant paradigm of development that was elaborated in Europe informed by the science of political economy advanced by Adam Smith’s Wealth of the Nations, technological advances in productive forces assigned centrality to capital accumulation, and associated emphasis on productivity, efficiency through technological advancement, Gandhiji’s view was that this perspective subordinated people to capital, technology and profit. For him in a society like India the principal resource is labour. Any perspective on development appropriate to India must prioritize the working people and their gainful employment. Any deviation from this would lead to social crisis and disaster.

Gandhiji was acutely sensitive to the consequences of the dominant capital centric model of development not only in the context of labour surplus third world even to the West. If the objective of capital accumulation to the exclusion of human well-being is one concern then the over-exploitation of natural resources with a scant attention to their renewability and concern for the future generations is another.

Gandhiji was acutely aware of the limits and disastrous effect of technology driven industrialization and the promotion of consumerism as a capitalist social objective and symbol of advancement and progress. He alerted and in fact forewarned us of the ecological consequences of this model of development and it’s unsustainability in the long run when it assumes global acceptance. Gandhiji was one of the few thinkers along with somebody like the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger who had a critical philosophical take on the subject of technology. This does not mean he was against science and logic but only against its disastrous application through technology.

Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s major text offers an insightful critique of western industrial consumerist civilization and its unsustainability. The romantic visions of Thoreau, Ruskin, and Tolstoy are imparted with political insight.

In the case of a historical society like India with its deep rooted caste system and hierarchically structured exclusions and denials and gross inequality in economic, social and cultural domains any imposition/ adoption of modernist model of development would only deepen the social schisms and fault-lines in the society. Gandhiji was one of the few during the nationalist struggle who had eye and ear to the grassroot rural reality and displayed vigilance to the disastrous and violent possibilities of development.
Thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Dr BR Ambedkar showed serious and sensitive attention of course from a different perspective and view of politics.

Gandhiji’s perspective on development has to be seen in the context of discontent against colonial policies and the shaping of the anti-colonial movement into a popular mass movement. Gandhiji transformed the politics and poetics of nationalist movement.

The charkha, for instance, had both substance and symbolism. As is well-known spinning was an effective tool of popular mobilization as cloth is next to food in terms of priority. Artisanal systems of production in rural India even today continue to be important in terms of employment potential next only to agriculture. Though there is a visible and significant depletion in employment in these sectors due to the expansion of mill and powerloom sectors. Flooding of Indian rural markets with relatively cheap Manchester products could arouse nationalist emotions to be transformed into a constructive economic and political programme.

What informed this emphasis on employment-oriented production systems in fact can help us to decipher and stitch together his perceptive on development and its continual relevance to contemporary India.

Firstly, India is a predominantly rural and agrarian society. Any vision of development in India must prioritise rural economy and society.

Secondly, the resource abundantly available is human labour with fairly decent and long evolved skills and tested indigenous technologies. Thus the emphasis is on technology appropriate to the Indian specific context;

Thirdly, Indian society as a self-sufficient entity in terms of resources, technology, man power, skills, etc. This notion of self-sufficiency is based on interdependence of various communities and crafts that is the basis of cooperation in Indian society. Basically the needs of the village must be met in the village itself with little dependence on the outside world. This does not mean insularity and disconnect. It only means avoidance of dependency.

Colonialism and modernist development orthodoxy have sown the seeds of destruction of the self-reliance, cooperation and paved the way for rural unrest and violence. In the place of self-sufficiency we see the external dependency and the rise of market and commodification of production for market. Market demand assumes predominance over social needs.

Fourthly, development must be participatory leading to collective decision-making so that everybody will have a sense of ownership. Participation would enhance cooperation, interdependence and understanding. This enhances the sense of trust among members, communities and contributes to the sense of security. Only through participatory development it would be possible to create conditions for a non-violent, non-exploitative and non-greedy social order and build the basis for peaceful coexistence.

IV Contemporary Relevance 

The world has changed drastically and rapidly since Gandhiji’s time. Two major challenges facing the world today are: the unprecedented primacy of religion and the global undermining of the local and self-reliance. If the former has unleashed conflicts at different levels — local, regional and global the latter has reinforced the structures of dependence at different levels. Gandhi could be seen as an important intellectual resource presenting interesting and useful insights into these two challenges.

As is well known, Gandhiji was deeply a religious person. But interestingly he confines it to personal sphere. For him there is and has to be a well-marked distinction and separation between the personal and public. Yet both have to be subjected to and stand up to the scrutiny of satya. Personal life and behavior has to be as truthful as public life.

The state being a public institution and relation must be placed in total autonomy from religion. The state must not interfere with the pretext or in interest of any religion —majority or minority. This requires that the state should treat all the religions with equal respect and importance — the idea of sarva dharma sama bhavana.

Instead of being seen as opium that blinds the vision and blurs the truth, for Gandhi like for Marx, religion is an expression of real suffering a deeply felt need by people who are poor, distressed and it works as a balm to their misery, suffering and pain. (For Marx it is, “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”).

Religion though is seen to be deeply personal is not exempt from the scrutiny of standards of truth. This is an important idea to reflect on at the present time when religion is placed above reason, truth and scrutiny and made to elicit an unquestioned faith, trust and loyalty. Gandhi was against web of lies parading as religious beliefs.

To be precise: despite being deeply religious, for Gandhi, the state and religion have to be kept separate and autonomous of each other; the state should neither render support nor interfere into the religious; the religious must be confined to the personal domain and should not be allowed to do anything with the state, political and public sphere.

Second is the reality of globalization. Today we can no longer see village as a self-sufficient and self-sustaining system. The process of change which was initiated by colonial state is pursued rather vigorously after Independence. Village in India is now integrated well in to the regional and national and global production and consumer networks. There is a new relation of dependence of village on town. Global MNC products — soaps, shampoos, cool drinks, biscuits, garments — could be seen penetrating into the rural markets in easy and affordable forms.

Commercialization of agriculture, production for market and which has expanded over time crossing local boundaries to the larger ones and in the context of liberalization the thrust on global market played havoc with the rural self-sufficiency, resource utilization and livelihoods. This is led by technology centrism.

In the context of neo-liberal reforms during the last three decades the Indian countryside has seen an unprecedented crisis as witnessed in the deteriorating position of the farming and rural artisanal (importantly in the handloom industry) sectors.

Liberalization process driven by neo-liberal emphasis on technological upgradation, productivity, efficiency and global market demand has inflicted untold violence on rural society. And for Gandhi this is technocide. In the present context, Gandhiji’s idea of Gram Swaraj might sound utopian. But his vision and thought provides a critical counter-point to reflect upon.

Gandhiji in thought and practice was anti-doctrinaire. Doctrines play on faith and underplay doubt! Gandhi combines both faith and doubt in a dynamic interplay. His thought was vibrant and evolved continuously. This is possible only when truth instead of being treated as a matter of belief gets to be validated through questioning and being subjected to reason. It is a sign of intellectual lethargy to expect readymade answers to our problems and challenges. But Gandhi’s insights into Indian civilization, the need for development to be historically rooted and socially embedded instead of being an external transplant is very instructive today in India and for a better world.
Gandhiji’s influence and impact on independent India’s policy making is quite remarkable till there was policy shift in the context of liberalization. It was evident in the protection to the rural industries in the form of reservation of products (for example, to handlooms), encouragement to cooperatives and financial support through rural banks.

In the present context of rural crisis, Gandhiji’s ideas on rural economy and society for gram swaraj, employment oriented policy priority, the goal of self-sufficiency, balanced and sustainable development which means responsible utilization of natural resources, appropriate technologies that aim at the reduction of capital use and avoid energy intensity and substitute it by human capital are relevant and deserve urgent attention.

With global warming emerging as the most visible potent threat to humanity and lifeworld, the relevance of Gandhiji’s thinking on nature-human relation has acquired not only theoretical but also practical significance.

This means Gandhiji cannot be confined to ‘remembering’ him on October 2nd and January 30th but must be ‘membered’ into our everyday social, cultural and of course political life. This is the challenge of our times!

* (Author: by Prof. Karli Srinivasulu, Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR, New Delhi); Retd Professor, Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad)

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