Gujarat and Gandhi

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GUJARAT continues to be in the news in abundance with the eruption of rage and grief expressed at the carnage. The news motivated some to go to those places affected by the carnage; there were others who could not convert their wishes into will – in their case the weakness of will looms large. Of those, some compensated by publishing their feelings to reach those sites of the original news through the same messenger, fastening from the underside the reply mode of letter writing.

One often comes across the parallel drawn between Gujarat and Gandhi in such writings. For instance, eminent human rights lawyer and activist, K.G. Kannabiran, while analyzing the Gujarat developments bemoans and says, ‘Gandhiji comes from Gujarat. What happened in Gujarat of 28 February 2002, is not just a negation of what he stood and died for, but was equally a negation of all the values we fought for in the course of our long struggle for independence.’ (The Little Magazine, Vol. III:2) Many others too have drawn this parallel. While whole-heartedly joining with these voices of protest that justifiably chose the present tense to impart an effect, I want to point out a serious gap in the assumptions behind this parallel and scrutinize the presuppositions about the past on which the present outcry is based. I would fix exactly opposite aspects in their place while retaining the parallel.

The recent incidents in Gujarat indubitably negate what Gandhi stood for, but what cannot be maintained is the assumption about the historical Gandhi. Though Gandhi stood for non-violence, he was not non-violent by nature. Rather he was a man with strong emotions and feeling – a rajasik and not satvic by nature. This is evident both in his actions as well as in his writings. His attitude towards his wife while in South Africa, as also his adamant postures on many other occasions bears testimony to his violent nature.

Moreover, I was particularly struck by a recurrent expression while reading An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, namely, ‘I pocketed this insult, but also profited by it (p. 72). Similar expressions abound at other places in the book. Unpacking the semantic content of this expression divulges that he did feel the insult, an example of deferred emotions; however, he decided to defer expressing anger rather than emit it immediately. This facilitates the anger to be put to long-term purpose. In my reading this luminously reveals the basic violent nature of Gandhi. Further, in his axiology between violent action and inaction, he preferred the former to the latter, though he ultimately advocated non-violent action.

Like Gandhi, Gujarat too, given its many cities and the high degree of urbanization, has the propensity to become violent. Central to this social process is a peculiar combination of large-scale migration, insecurity of the displaced people, and their newly acquired prosperity. All these cumulatively and contributively reinforce each other clandestinely, brewing the spirit of violence. It is the violence that was brewed in the cauldron of this new social phenomenon. It is this growing urbanization and the many displaced people outside the organized sector who have been tamed and manipulated, though not created, by the BJP, Shiv Sena and other right wing organizations. In other words, the right wing parties and organizations have not created these social realities but have hungrily wangled at the unattended vulnerable social realities of the new social processes of urbanization. It is thus necessary to distinguish the creation of new social realities from manipulating them. While assigning the latter to the right wing parties I would deny them the authorship of the former.

It is this similarity about the violent nature of both Gandhi and Gujarat, and not the assumption of the non-violence, that should sustain the parallel. While both epitomise violence, Gandhi relentlessly sought to overcome it through constant practice using his body as a laboratory; through constant therapy he tried to become non-violent. This therapy of controlling the emotive and violent gestures also underlies his attempt at revoking the satyagraha call given by him when it turned violent. However, unlike Gandhi, Gujarat, which should include us too, failed in a similar exercise.

The failure was in not recognizing the violent nature of urban Gujarat. We failed to recognize and anticipate the nature of the aberrations and discontents of urbanization. This failure was not personal but a theoretical one. It lies in our reading of modernity and its implications. While in the West various studies analyzed the implications, particularly the aberrations of modernity both at individual and social level, we received the process of modernity more or less passively, notwithstanding the warnings by contemporary thinkers. Further, we did not work out different mechanisms to overcome this violent nature so that we, like Gandhi, could reach the state of non-violence and thereby possibly circumvent this carnage.

The parallel in Kannabiran fastens on continuity with the past, which I contest, not because there is no similarity between Gandhi and Gujarat but because the similarity lies not in both being non-violent but, on the other hand, in both being violent. (One could perhaps have seen the current turbulence of Gujarat in the autobiography of Gandhi.) In other words, the problem lies in conflating an axiom with the conclusion, in freezing the heterogeneous past and the present. This freezing, moreover, at least indirectly, promotes political complacency and escapism.

I interrogate this parallel not merely to make an academic point but to contest this political complacency. What frightens me more is the fact that communal hatred, which was largely an urban phenomenon, has travelled in the opposite direction, opposite to migration, into the villages. This calls for an urgent study of communities in transition in the urban population, to find mechanisms similar to Gandhi or otherwise to overcome this feeling of hatred.

Rather than admit to our failure as intellectuals and social theorists in recognizing the vulnerable nature of new social realities, we have expressed surprise about the happenings in Gujarat. We need to carefully scrutinize the tense in the grammar of individuals and social realities in Gujarat and take processes from the premise to conclusion into serious consideration.

I remember my teacher Professor Ramachandra Gandhi in late Professor S.N. Mahajan’s house at IIT, Kanpur, on a freezing winter evening, looking at the picture of Ramakrishna Paramahansa with the rising hand and remarking, ‘Does not he look like Ravi Shastri about to spin bowl the ball.’ This subtly indicates the need to inject processes into the frozen stillframe. That is, rather than present static stills of conclusion, there is an urgency to bring the Raphaelian emphasis on ‘qualities of energetic movements’ in social theory.

Hence, our gestures of being politically correct, or assuming the political correctness of Gandhi, should be informed by the (auto)biographies of individuals. It is in this sense biographies of individuals like Gandhi and others can provide invaluable resources to design our political packages rather than indulge in mere political correctness which can, echoing T.S. Eliot, despite our well meaning efforts and intentions, lapse into ‘women come and go talking of Michelangelo.’

A. Raghuramaraju