More Than a Man of Action

a review by Vinay Lal

Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 279 pp. $29.50, cloth.

[Originally published in Gandhi Marg 16, no. 4 (Jan.-Feb. 1995):491-96.]

As India prepares to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, fatally christened the ‘Mahatma’, the ideas of the ‘Father of the Nation’ appear entirely to be in abeyance. A Sunderlal Bahuguna or a Medha Patkar may continue to derive inspiration from Gandhi’s teachings and his practice of satyagraha, but for the most part the laying of floral wreaths at Gandhi’s samadhi in Rajghat (and elsewhere), and the mantric and mindless invocation of his name on select occasions, appears to be the extent to which Gandhi is a presence in the minds of India’s leaders and modernizing elites. With characteristic insight and premonition, and not without a touch of sadness, Gandhi was the first to pronounce upon his irrelevance in the India that was coming into shape before his eyes, and in October 1946 he went so far as to say, “I know that mine is today a voice in the wilderness” (CWMG 75:366). Intent upon doing blasphemous homage to the Mahatma, India’s rulers have bid multinationals, some of them with incomes larger than the Gross Domestic Product of even some industrialized countries, to make this country once again a fair playground for profiteering and naked aggrandizement. Coca-Cola, once summarily ejected from the country’s otherwise sacrosanct borders for its anti-national activities in the 1970s, accepted with alacrity an invitation to make its presence felt anew in thirsty India. When queried, India’s rulers are bound to say that the Mahatma was a known advocate of prohibition, a sworn enemy of liquor, and would not have begrudged people a cool and refreshing drink, though if we may be permitted a hermeneutics of reading, it is just as certain that today Gandhi would have been more opposed to Coca-Cola and Pepsi than to alcohol.

Whatever the future of Gandhi’s ideas, the scholarship on Gandhi has shown no like signs of diminishing. Dozens of books on Gandhi continue to appear every year, and hundreds if not thousands of mediocre university professors in India (and some abroad) continue to make their living as ‘Gandhi specialists’, peddling the teachers of a man they barely understand. The fundamental words in Gandhi’s vocabulary, such as swaraj, satya, ahimsa, sarvodaya, swadeshi, satyagraha, and tapasya, have been analyzed in minute detail, and the conditions under which satyagraha can be applied if not imitated have been examined in innumerable works. Gopinath Dhavan, in a relatively early work entitled The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (1951), set out boldly the grammar of satyagraha, and over the years a number of fairly authoritative studies, such as those by Raghavan Iyer, Joan Bondurant, and Gene Sharpe, have explored the moral and political contours of Gandhi’s thought. The relationship of ends to means; the Gandhian distinction between satyagraha on the one hand, and duragraha and passive resistance on the other; Gandhi’s formulations of satya and ahimsa, and their complex relation to each other — questions like these have been the staple of scores of studies, and it is exceedingly doubtful that any fresh insights are to be gained in pursuance of these questions.

Regrettably the recent study by Dennis Dalton, who teaches political science at Barnard College, the sister institution of Columbia University, is unable to emancipate itself from the tedious burden of Gandhian scholarship. The book comes highly recommended by certain pillars of the American Indological establishment, but one has become accustomed to witnessing American scholars of Indian history and politics, members of a minuscule club, congratulating each other with avid fervor. Here and there Dalton does bring to light some hitherto ignored details of Gandhi’s life, or otherwise provide a fresh interpretation of some Gandhian ‘text’, and the entire study suggests an extensive familiarity with the large corpus of Gandhi’s writings. A case in point is Dalton’s comments on Gandhi’s prayer-meetings. Although others have commented on the syncretistic nature of these prayer-meetings, where texts representing a variety of religious sentiments were read, Gandhi’s mode of dealing with dissenters, and his endeavors to draw them into the circle of reason and faith, have been overlooked. As Dalton notes, verses from the Koran and the Bible would be read alongside Hindu texts, unless there was some objection from a member of the audience; in that event, Gandhi would omit the prayers, and instead take as his text for the post-prayer message the subject of intolerance itself. This had the effect of inducing the audience to insist upon having the prayers read after all (p. 163). Dalton writes, then, with evident sympathy for his subject, and insofar as he remains confined to elaborating the nature of satyagraha, the relationship of swaraj to swadeshi, or any of those questions that have engaged two generations of scholars working on Gandhi, he writes with clarity and considerable discernment.

The difficulties with Dalton’s book lie elsewhere, and are to be encountered from the outset, from the supposition, as the title of the book conveys, that preeminently Gandhi represents, or is about, “nonviolent power in action”. The license to think so appears to have come from Gandhi himself: “I am not built for academic writings. Action is my domain” (p. 1). Undoubtedly Gandhi was not a systematic philosopher, but that is a common enough observation; just as significantly, and perhaps more pointedly, he rarely told stories, a matter that has escaped the attention of scholars. Satyagraha is the name that Gandhi after much soul-searching gave to his movement and to the observance of non-violence in political life; and as it is his practice of non-violent resistance that seemingly provided the inspiration to Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Daniel Dolci, and others who have valiantly struggled for political reform and social justice, it has perforce become easy to think of Gandhi as belonging within the realm of action. It is Gandhi’s translation of ideas into action that, to follow Dalton’s own mode of reasoning, made him into a more revolutionary, lasting, and ‘relevant’ figure than Malcolm X, whose promises remained largely unfulfilled.

While recognizing that Gandhi authored the theory of satyagraha, and then launched a movement, even a mass movement, that he hoped to ground in the principles of satyagraha, Dalton allows the distinction between ‘ideas’ and ‘action’ to obtrude upon his understanding of Gandhi, and as a consequence the most enduring aspects of Gandhi’s thought escape him. It is in his little tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, that Gandhi first set out his critique of modern civilization and its pathologies, and to the end he remained dedicated to the ideas he had propounded in Hind Swaraj. In 1938, for example, Gandhi said of his little tract that “after the stormy thirty years through which I have since passed I have seen nothing to make me alter the view expounded in it” (p. 18). Dalton admits all this, but is nonetheless keen on paring away its excesses: “It is a brief polemical tract”, he says of Hind Swaraj, “more than a logical development of a serious and measured argument: written hastily . . . it suffers from occasional disjointedness and egregious overstatement..” Since the brunt of Dalton’s argument in his study of Gandhi is to suggest that Gandhi’s achievement lay in embracing an ‘inclusivist’ vision, a philosophy devoid of a distinction between the ‘Self and the ‘Other’ (see, for example, p. 6, 90, 162), he finds himself rejecting Hind Swaraj as a manifesto, at least partially, of the “exclusivist’ variety, a work marked and bedeviled by a polarization of “us” and “them”, Western materialism against Indian spirituality, and so forth.

Had Dalton inquired into Gandhi’s conception of the ‘Other’, his argument might well have been tenable and persuasive. If Gandhi chose not to reject Hind Swaraj even in his declining years, when infirmity and the illnesses of old age would have been expected to make him less prone to a “sweeping denunciation of doctors and hospitals” that Dalton so deplores, even characterizing Gandhi’s arguments as “lapses into pure fantasy”, it is precisely because his manifesto heralded a critique of modernity. The ‘Other’, unlike what Dalton imagines, is scarcely the Englishman, or even Western civilization; and if it is the West, it is that predominant part of the West which had allied itself with the ambitions and project of modernity. As Ashis Nandy has so brilliantly argued in a number of works, with which Dalton appears to have no familiarity, and which have made Gandhi once more a figure to be reckoned with among many Indian intellectuals for whom the Mahatma was all but dead, Gandhi was engaged in a critique of modernity, and in offering that critique he wished to ally himself with the repressed, feminine side of the West, and with those elements in Western civilization which colonialism and conquest had rendered recessive. The very form in which Hind Swaraj is cast, as a dialogue between the “Reader” and the “Editor”, is meant to reflect its dialogic and dialectic enterprise. Offering an essentially realist reading of Hind Swaraj, in which the tract is rendered as a “high-water mark of his [Gandhi’s] exclusivist ideology”, Dalton cannot account either for the special place that Hind Swaraj would continue to occupy in Gandhi’s mind, or for its status as a foundational work of anti-Enlightenment ideology, or for its principled critique of historicism and instrumental rationality. If it is at all true, as Dalton maintains, that Gandhi in Hind Swaraj is guilty of “the depiction of social and political realities in antagonistic terms of unbridgeable dichotomies” (p. 20), he should have asked what the “us” and “them” signify. How could “them” have been Britons, or Western civilization, when Gandhi was certain that the mere substitution of Indians for the British without a fundamental alteration in the modes of governance was scarcely to be preferred to English rule? Gandhi was not without his sense of the ‘Other’, and while he had too much respect for persons and civilizations to render them into the ‘Other’, he was wholly prepared to render history and realpolitik into the ‘Other’.

Similar confusions prevail in Dalton’s discussion of Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable. The wretched life of Bakha, the hero of the novel who is condemned to removing garbage and human faeces for his likelihood, is certainly an apt and moving illustration of the manner in which an entire class of people in India have been systematically deprived of their rights and rendered into outcastes. The Christian missionary whom Bakha encounters speaks to him of the universal brotherhood of man and strikes a chord within him; and Gandhi, whose darshan Bakha seeks just as eagerly as any other villager, awakens him to a consciousness of his worth as a human being, and the inherent dignity of all human labor. Bakha is brought to the awareness that the brahman is no superior to the shudra, and that it is only by the contrivance of the upper castes that the shudras and untouchables have been systematically oppressed. But though Bakha may be consoled by Gandhi’s attempts to make Indian society more inclusive, and though the nobility of the Mahatma’s teachings on the equal worth of all human labor may leave its impress upon his mind, he is scarcely released from the necessity of having to undertake the removal of others’ night soil. Thus, when by chance he happens to hear of the flush toilet, which holds out the promise of rendering obsolete the task of the scavenger, at long last hope swells within him. This is the irony of Anand’s humanist reading of Gandhi: noble as are the teachings of the Mahatma, the immediacy and efficiency of the technological solution might well be more appealing. Dalton, however, appears to miss this irony; thus, according to him, “Anand saw in Gandhi’s action a striking truth: that the practice of untouchability had divided Indian society with a persuasive sense of exclusiveness and against this Gandhi’s inclusive spirit had spread unity and uplifted members of the harijan community” (p. 57). In this naive reading, the tension between the moral and the technological, which is assuredly one of the central problems in our engagement with modernity, disappears and Bakha is almost rendered into a convert to Gandhi’s cause. There was, as Anand suggested through the figure of Bakha, almost an element of the archaic in Gandhi, but Dalton fails to interrogate this reading, instead satisfying himself here (and elsewhere) with some exceedingly long quotations. This is disappointing, for what is indeed most problematic about the Dalit movement today is its largely uncritical support of modernization and the regime of development, which owes a great deal, not unjustifiably, to the deep distrust with which Ambedkar viewed the structures of village India.

If Dalton’s reading of Anand’s Untouchable is unsatisfactory, he altogether ignores Ambedkar, which is all the more surprising in view of the fact that a chapter is given over to critiques of Gandhi emanating from Tagore and M. N. Roy. From almost no one else (apart from some Marxists) did Gandhi face such overt hostility as he did from Ambedkar, and Gandhi’s endeavors to improve the conditions of untouchables, and draw them into the fold of Hindu society, continue to be matters of acute controversy, as some recent disparaging remarks by Mayavati and members of the Bahujan Samajvad Party suggest. Gandhi’s complex relationship with Ambedkar is one that Dalton should not have overlooked, for it is only through a nuanced reading, such as that offered by D. R. Nagaraj in a recent study, that we can begin to appreciate how far, over a period of ten years and more, Gandhi and Ambedkar “had internalized each other.”. If Ambedkar was brought around to the realization that Gandhi’s dialectical method for the reform of Hinduism was not without merit, Gandhi came to appreciate Ambedkar’s insistence on the material reform of social institutions. But this is not Dalton’s insight: he sees, quite predictably, only enmity and contempt for Gandhi on Ambedkar’s part (p. 64).

Dalton furnishes a similarly conventional reading of the complex relationship between Tagore and Gandhi. A great deal has been written on this, though a remark that Ashis Nandy attributes to the anthropologist Surajit Sinha is more suggestive than anything that Dalton or most other writers have to say on the subject: While “Tagore wanted to turn all Indians into Brahmans, Gandhi sought to turn them into Shudras.” Tagore spoke from a lofty pedestal, while Gandhi worked in the slum of politics, but both shared a profound respect for Indian civilization. The brunt of Dalton’s argument is that though Gandhi offered a critique of the Western nation-state system, he remained a staunch supporter of nationalism, and it is in this respect that Tagore and he had to part ways (pp. 67-78). “Nationalism is a great menace”, wrote Tagore, adding for good measure: “It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.” Dalton concedes that Gandhi, like Tagore, recognized that India’s problems were preeminently social rather than political, but in his view Gandhi remained an unremitting nationalist. As Gandhi himself was to write, “Indian nationalism is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive. It is health-giving, religious and therefore humanitarian.” In Dalton’s view, Gandhi not merely endorsed nationalism, he also “dismissed all attacks” on it (p. 75).

Without even explaining what Gandhi might have construed by nationalism, Dalton is unable to sustain his argument. His understanding of Tagore is less problematic, though a close reading of not only Tagore’s political essays but also his novels on the subject of nationalism — Gora, Ghare-Baire [The Home and the World], Char Adhyay [Four Chapters] — suggests that Tagore, while critical of the cult of nationalism and the unthinking sacrifices it demanded of the youth of India, was quite sympathetic to nationalism insofar as it was congruent with both ‘internationalism’ and the ethos of Indian civilization. Failing to make a distinction between nationalism and patriotism, between nationalism of the western variety and a nationalism that sought to predicate itself on all that colonialism sought to suppress, Dalton is unable to get a grip on Gandhi, and thus it escapes him that for Gandhi “nationalism began to include a critique of nationalism.” The “fear of nationalism” was common to both Tagore and Gandhi, and as Ashis Nandy has put it in his inimitable way, “They did not want their society to be caught in a situation where the idea of the Indian nation would supersede that of the Indian civilization, and where the actual ways of life of Indians would be assessed solely in terms of the needs of an imaginary nation-state called India.”

While Dalton’s book makes for easy reading, and is in some respects a good introduction to Gandhi’s thought, besides being sympathetic to its subject, it does not offer a very imaginative reading of the Mahatma’s life. In the chapter on Gandhi’s march to the sea at Dandi, where he made salt in defiance of the laws of the land, Dalton is able to bring out the ambiguity in the official British response to him. As Dalton argues, it is the strength of satyagraha that it can evoke such ambiguity and draw the ‘Other’ into the circle of inclusivity, but this argument is scarcely novel. Indeed, as students of Gandhi’s life are only too well aware, Gandhi was able to work on the feelings of General Smuts in South Africa in much the same way as he was able to bring the British to the negotiating table many years later in India. What Dalton might have paused to reflect on is that Gandhi chose to initiate his revolt by way of walking to the sea. For Gandhi, walking stood as a metaphor for an entire way of life, a mode of being in which one stayed within limits. As Gandhi had written in Hind Swaraj, one should only travel as far as one’s hands and feet can carry one, and if modernity was construed by him as a plague, it was precisely because modernity had the fatal arrogance to transcend limits.

In the concluding part of his book, Dalton draws on some comparisons between Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and even Plato. On the subject of Plato, it appears to me that the comparison is too far-fetched to merit comment, and even faintly ludicrous. Dalton’s rationale for viewing Gandhi from the Platonic ‘angle’ is that both were idealists and exponents of ‘freedom’, but so were a hundred other principal figures over the last two millennia, and any characterization of Plato as a philosopher of freedom is only possible if one altogether ignores the fundamentally totalitarian basis of his thought. In certain respects both were utopian thinkers, but what does Plato’s ideal Republic share with Gandhi’s Ramrajya? There has never really been a tradition of utopian thinking in India until recently, not if by utopia we mean technocracy and a blue-print for social engineering. As for the American associations with Gandhi, the ‘influence’ of Thoreau on Gandhi, and of Gandhi on King, is now a commonplace of works on nonviolent theory and action. Undoubtedly Martin Luther King did draw on the teachings of Gandhi, and nonviolence was the mainstay of the civil rights movement in the United States. But this is as far as the comparison can be carried, for almost nowhere in King is there a critique of modernity, or of the nation-state. Of course King was aware of the abuses of which a nation-state was capable, and it was his genius that made him link America’s involvement in the unholy war in Vietnam to the repression unleashed upon African-Americans in the United States, but he was prepared to accept the modern world-system. Gandhi’s views on masculinity and femininity, his eating habits, his recourse to spinning and abandonment of western dress, his advocacy of swadeshi: all this has as much to do with non-violence as his practices in the domain of political action. The same cannot be said for King, whose understanding of non-violence was less far-reaching, and who could not offer the kind of critique of the modern world-system that was so central a plank of Gandhi’s thought. King might, in fact, be more accurately characterized as that singular ‘man of action’ that Gandhi appears to be in Dalton’s interpretation.