University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
[Published as “Experiments with Truth: Gambling with Gandhi”, Times of India (2 October 2006). Also published as “Gambling on Gandhi”, Daily Star (Dhaka), 8 October 2006), and under the same title in Asia Media on 10 October 2006
It is that time of the year when, in a ritual invocation, many people find it necessary to proclaim that Mohandas Gandhi, in India also the ‘Father of the Nation’, is still ‘relevant’. There are those who, witnessing the continuing violence in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan, or the recently ‘concluded’ blitzkrieg launched by Israel on Lebanon, or indeed the myriad other instances of acts of violence, terror, and aggression that comprise the daily news bulletins, aver that Gandhi has never been more necessary. Since the human addiction to violence scarcely seems to have diminished, the Gandhians view the Mahatma’s staying power as a self-evident truth; however, another class of his admirers read the same evidence rather differently, as an unfortunate sign of the fact that Gandhi’s teachings have been repudiated if not rubbished. The small voice of nonviolence, many agree, is seldom heard in the din of violence.
In 1907, the Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce, published a book entitled What Is Living and What Is Dead in Hegel Today? Croce knew better than to ask if Hegel was ‘relevant’, which is, to put it bluntly, a word strictly for the unintelligent, certainly for those who are apolitical. Nevertheless, if the more familiar variation of this question inescapably presents itself to anyone confronting the figure of Gandhi, we must surely ask what kind of Gandhi, and whose Gandhi, we seek to invoke when we wish to stress his relevance. One of the most enduring aspects of Gandhi’s life, one only infrequently understood by most of his disciples and admirers, is that he seldom allowed himself the comfort of platitudes, just he was quite mindless of established conventions, the protocols of social science discourse, and the known parameters of dissent. Around the same time that Croce had finished writing his book on Hegel, the young Gandhi, providentially ensconced in South Africa, was embarked on a novel political and moral experiment. Quite oblivious to history, he declared, in his seminal tract, Hind Swaraj, that ‘Nonviolence is as old as the hills’. At the same time, he was the first to recognize that where others had embraced nonviolence strictly from expediency, ahimsa was for him an inextricable part of his being. He was always the first to recognize that he was his own master and disciple and was unlikely to carry anyone alongside him.
Even many who openly admire Gandhi doubt the efficaciousness of satyagraha. In his own lifetime, many claimed that it could only have succeeded against an allegedly mild-mannered opponent such as the British. If Gandhi could not forestall his own violent death, if indeed his teachings appeared to have left little impression upon his own countrymen, should we at all expect the primacy of nonviolence to be recognized by actors in the modern nation-state system which was born of violence and, as contemporary politics more than adequately demonstrates, feeds on it at every turn? In his defense, Gandhi argued that nonviolence is not merely a weapon to be adopted or abandoned at random will, and that practitioners of nonviolence are ethically bound to understand that shortcomings in the application of nonviolence do not reflect upon any limitations inherent to nonviolence itself. Moreover, though it is commonplace to view Gandhi’s adherence to nonviolence as a measure of his alleged romanticism and failure to recognize the inescapably coercive nature of modern politics, it is telling that Gandhi did not construe himself as an uncritical proselytizer on its behalf. When asked by the American journalist Louis Fischer why he did not preach nonviolence to the West, Gandhi replied: ‘How can I preach nonviolence to the West, when I have not even convinced India? I am a spent bullet.’ However enthusiastic a missionary Gandhi may have been in the cause of ahimsa, he abided by the injunction that it is morally indefensible to propagate teachings that one is unable to observe in one’s own life or within the ambit of one’s own community.
On a recent visit to South Africa, I attended a special screening, cosponsored by the Indian Consulate-General, of Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ at a cinema complex in Durban on September 11th. Such is, of course, the American monopoly on world events that by far the greater majority of people will have to be reminded that September 11th marks not merely the fifth anniversary of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but also the anniversary of the coup that overthrew Allende’s government in Chile and, even more significantly, the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of satyagraha by Gandhi in Johannesburg. This cinema stands in the midst of the Suncoast Casino complex, and by way of refreshments invitees were offered free Coca-Cola and popcorn. Gandhians will doubtless take umbrage at this heady combination of junk food, sugared drinks, and the ultimate vice of gambling being put together at an ostensible homage to the Mahatma. It is certainly true that the well-intentioned admirers of Gandhi remain utterly clueless about Gandhi, and do not understand that Gandhi, engaged in the relentless pursuit of truth, would have been at least as vociferous an opponent of sugar, modernity’s preeminent mass killer, as he was of alcohol.
In truth, however, the casino may be the most apposite place to reflect on Gandhi. His followers might be reminded that Gandhi took a great gamble when he endeavored, as his assassin charged, to foist nonviolence upon India. Like that other troubled gambler and paragon of truth in Indian civilization, Yudhisthira, Gandhi gambled away everything and put his life on the spot. No more interesting gamble has perhaps ever been waged in contemporary history, and Gandhi’s critique of modern knowledge systems, his interrogation of received notions of politics, development, and dissent, and his suturing of nonviolence to mass resistance all stand forth as vivid testimony of his political genius and ethical probity. We should be immensely grateful that he took the gamble that he did.
The question for us, therefore, is just this: will we content ourselves with mindless discussions of his ‘relevance’, or are we willing to gamble ourselves on Gandhi?