by Keith Preston
I. Gandhi as Spiritual Godfather of the Indian Independence Movement
II. Critics of Gandhi and the Conservative Hindu Backlash
Early Life and the Beginnings of Gandhi’s Radicalism
Mohandas K. Gandhi originated from India’s business caste and grew up amidst Vaishnovite and Jain influences. From youth onward, he was a devout vegetarian and even belonged to an association for vegetarians during his time studying law in London. Gandhi began his adult life as an Anglophile, once referring to Great Britain as “the land of poets and philosophers”. His radicalization began when he went to practice law in South Africa and experienced the discrimination against the Indian community to be found there. He became active in the struggle for Indian civil rights, initially arguing that because Indians were British subjects, they were entitled to the “full rights of Englishmen” recognized by British law. After beginning his struggle in South Africa, he moved his efforts to India itself and began organizing poor farmers and workers against oppressive taxation and discrimination. Following the massacre at Punjab, Gandhi came to believe that Indians would require full independence from Great Britain in order to be assured of their human rights. Over time he would completely abandon his initially favorable view of the West, eventually remarking that Western civilization “would be a good idea”, implying that he regarded Westerners as barbarians.
Satyagraha and the Philosophy of Non-Violence
Gandhi’s views on non-violence are widely misunderstood, particularly among Westerners. The evidence refutes the ideas that Gandhi was a conventional pacifist, as pacifism is commonly understood. Indeed, Gandhi was highly critical of efforts by the British to deprive Indians of “the right to bear arms”. His support for the British war effort in World War One was justified in part by his desire to see the right of Indians to possess arms restored. As he stated in his autobiography:
“Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the arms act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to the government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.” (Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Beacon Press, Boston, 1957, pp. 446-447)
Gandhi supported both the Boer War and the First World War and urged other Indians to do so arguing that support for British war efforts would demonstrate their loyalty as British subjects and motivate the British to recognize the civil rights of Indians. By the time of the Second World War, Gandhi had altered his position, arguing that Indians had no obligation to support a British regime that denied them their freedom and independence. Gandhi’s views on non-violence were a matter of strategy as much as principle or morality. He regarded violent resistance to oppression as preferable to doing nothing at all although he also regarded non-violent resistance as superior to violence. Gandhi also expressed concern that non-violence might be used by some as a mask for cowardice. He once noted:
‘I do believe,’ he wrote, ‘that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.'” (Joan Valerie Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 28)
“At every meeting I repeated the warning that unless they felt that in non-violence they had come into possession of a force infinitely superior to the one they had and in the use of which they were adept, they should have nothing to do with non-violence and resume the arms they possessed before. It must never be said of the Khudai Khidmatgars that once so brave, they had become or been made cowards under Badshah Khan‘s influence. Their bravery consisted not in being good marksmen but in defying death and being ever ready to bear their breasts to the bullets.” (Bondurant, p.139)
Much of Gandhi’s reasoning behind his adoption of non-violence is likely traceably to two core ideas. First, the British Empire was in its twilight years and in a state of decline. Gandhi may well have recognized that eventually the British would no longer be able to afford to maintain India as a dependent colony and would have to grant her independence. Meanwhile, violence by the Indians would have only a provocative effect, strengthening the resolve of Britain to keep her rebellious colony in line. Secondly, the use of non-violence carried much weight in the court of world opinion. The sight of peaceful, non-violent Indian protestors being attacked by British soldiers and policemen could only serve to increase sympathy for the Indian cause on the international level. Violence might well alienate world opinion and the Indians might be condemned as terrorists whom the British were justified in repressing. A contemporary military historian, Martin Van Creveld, explains the immense propaganda value of creating the popular perception of operating from a position of weakness against an overwhelming and brutal enemy:
“In private life, an adult who keeps beating down on a five year old – even
such a one as originally attacked him with a knife – will be perceived as committing a crime; therefore he will lose the support of bystanders and end up by being arrested, tried and convicted. In international life, an armed force that keeps beating down on a weaker opponent will be seen as committing a series of crimes; therefore it will end up by losing the support of its allies, its own people, and its own troops. Depending on the quality of the forces – whether they are draftees or professionals, the effectiveness of the propaganda machine, the nature of the political process, and so on – things may happen quickly or take a long time to mature. However, the outcome is always the same. He (or she) who does not understand this does not understand anything about war; or, indeed, human nature.”
“In other words, he who fights against the weak – and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed – and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force however rich, however powerful, however, advanced, and however well motivated is immune to this dilemma. The end result is always disintegration and defeat; if U.S troops in Iraq have not yet started fragging their officers, the suicide rate among them is already exceptionally high. That is why the present adventure will almost certainly end as the previous one did. Namely, with the last US troops fleeing the country while hanging on to their helicopters’ skids.” (Martin Van Creveld, “Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did”, http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig5/crevald1.html)
An important criticism sometimes leveled at Gandhi involves the matter of his passive approach to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Gandhi stated that it would have been preferable for the Jews to commit mass suicide rather than to allow the Germans to exterminate them en masse.
“The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They
should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” (“The Gandhi
Nobody Knows”, Richard Grenier[From the magazine, “Commentary,”
March 1983, published monthly by the American Jewish Committee, New
To Westerners, particularly Jews, such a statement no doubt seems inordinately extreme, an example of pacifism reductio ad absurdum. However, such a sentiment might be best understood within the context of Asian rather than Western culture. In some Asian traditions, the notion of suicide being preferable to defeat is commonly accepted. A prime example of this, of course, is the classical Japanese tradition of hari-kari. Even Japanese civilians would sometimes take their own lives rather than allow themselves to fall into the hands of their American enemies during WW2. In other words, these Japanese actually practiced what Gandhi suggested European Jews should do in the face of relentless persecution and eventual extermination by the Nazis. Indeed, it was the Tamil Tigers of India who first popularized the notion of the suicide bomber in the contemporary world. So perhaps Gandhi’s views on this question are better understood within the context of the “honor before life” value systems to be found within some other Asian traditions (Bushido, for example). Perhaps Islamic concepts of martyrdom also influenced Gandhi’s thinking in this area.
Defending the Oppressed
Gandhi’s efforts on behalf of the downtrodden sectors of Indian society are well-known. Throughout his lengthy career as a public figure, Gandhi undertook numerous campaigns to improve the position of workers, farmers, the untouchables and the lower castes, women, racial and religious minorities and others under attack by the status quo. One of his earliest efforts of this type was to organize serfs, landless peasants and small landowners in Champaran (in the Indian state of Bahir) against the landlords and British military forces that required them grow indigo (a profitable export crop for the British) rather than crops more suitable for their own immediate sustenance and survival. A constant theme of Gandhi’s ongoing crusades was his persistent emphasis on the importance of hygiene, sanitation and cleanliness. Some of his statements on this matter now seem quaint or archaic to the modern mind, but it was an issue of vital importance in pre-independence India, as poor hygiene and sanitation practices were a major public health problem.
When considering Gandhi’s work on behalf of the oppressed, it is important to remember that he would not have qualified as a “liberal”, either by contemporary standards or even by the Western standards of his time. For instance, Gandhi was always resolutely opposed to contraception, viewing it as an attack on the sanctity of life and he once debated the matter with the American feminist and pioneer advocate of birth control, Margaret Sanger.(“Mrs. Sanger’s Version”, by Margaret Sanger, in The Gandhi Reader, edited by Homer A. Jack, AMS Press, New York, 1956, p.306) In this respect, Gandhi was no different from later religious humanitarians like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, but his thinking certainly went against progressive orthodoxy.
One of the areas of Indian life where Gandhi achieved his greatest success was in his efforts to curb some of the more extreme excesses concerning the treatment of the “untouchables” whom he renamed the “Harijan”, meaning “Children of God”. While his work in this area was obviously quite radical for its time, it is far from clear that Gandhi ever fully renounced the caste system itself. In many ways, he remained throughout his life a conservative-traditionalist Hindu, opposing the severities of caste discrimination but remaining committed to the varna system. His views on the role of the untouchables, or “Dalits” put him in conflict with the outspoken advocate of Dalits’ rights, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Gandhi was much more traditional in his social outlook than Ambedkar, who supported birth control and criticized and attacked Hinduism as a religion of oppression, responsible for the inflicting the caste system on his people. He urged the Dalits to reject Hinduism and convert to Buddhism instead. Ambedkar also called for separate electorates for the Dalitsm which Gandhi opposed as divisive to the Indian people. Indeed, when the British granted separate electorates in the Communal Award of 1932, Gandhi went on a fast to expression opposition to the provision. Gandhi and Ambedkar eventually compromised with Ambedkar agreeing to drop the separate electorates in exchange for greater representation in the Congress Party for the Dalits and greater efforts by Hindu religious leaders to oppose caste discrimination.
Another area where Gandhi has come under criticism involves his views on racism and blacks. Following his return from South Africa, Gandhi said in a public speech:
Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness (from a speech delivered September 26, 1896, Collected Works Volume 2, p. 74)
This passage is widely cited as indication that Gandhi held racist attitudes towards the black peoples of Africa, Asia and North America. If this were indeed the case, he would not have been particularly usual in this regard. Even the most progressive European thinkers of that time held similar views of blacks. For example, Bertrand Russell, widely regarded as the most liberal intellectual of his era, stopped short of advocating the sterilization of blacks only because, he argued, they possessed greater capabilities for manual labor. Also, the passage cited above was from a speech delivered by Gandhi very early in his career as an activist. Over the next fifty years, his views seemed to evolve considerably. He remarked in a 1947 radio interview:
“Those who agree that racial inequality must be removed and yet do nothing to fight the evil are impotent. I cannot have anything to say to such people…If you think of the vast size of Africa, the distance and natural obstacles separating its various parts, the scattered condition of its people and the terrible divisions among them, the task might well appear to be hopeless. But there is a charm which can overcome all these handicaps.” (Interview on All-India Radio, October 23, 1947. Government of India Information Service, Washington, D.C., Bulletin No. 3531)
Later in his career, Gandhi also corresponded with black activists in the United States, offering advice on how to apply his tactics towards the black struggle in North America. (Harijan, March 14, 1936). He also frequently expressed disapproval of the treatment of American blacks to his American visitors. (Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Part II, p. 425)
Political and Economic Views of Gandhi
The central idea behind Gandhi’s political outlook was his insistence on the complete independence of India, not only political but economically, culturally, spiritually and morally. He was highly critical not only of British rule over India but also of efforts by the British to impose Western concepts of law, economics, philosophy and the relationship between humanity and nature on the Indians. Gandhi is well-known for his advocacy of boycotting imported foreign goods, particularly British textiles, by the Indians and his urging of the Indian people to begin spinning their own cloth. Some of his motivation for taking this position was clearly strategic in nature. He wanted to hit the British where it would hurt the most: in the pocketbook. However, Gandhi had several other important reasons for this position as well. One was to build unity among the Indian people in their struggle for independence. He insisted that persons from all layers of Indian society, from Brahmins to Dalits, should engage in the spinning of cloth. Another purpose to be served by this activity was the uplifiting of women. However, central to Gandhi’s emphasis on economic self-sufficiency was his critique and rejection of Western economic and cultural notions with their emphasis on materialism, consumerism, technology, and industrialization. Gandhi even remarked on occasion, only half in jest, that “he actually wouldn’t mind if the British remained in India, to police it, conduct foreign policy, and such trivia, if it would only take away its factories and railways.”(“The Gandhi Nobody Knows”, Richard Grenier[From the magazine, “Commentary,” March 1983, published monthly by the American Jewish Committee, New York, NY.])
Gandhi said of the British: “Money is their god”. He believed that the British has been able to achieve and maintain imperial domination over India partially because the Indians had internalized and adopted much of the materialistic ethos of the British. Gandhi regarded Western capitalism as having a corrupting effect on the human spirit and Indian society as it elevated the satisfaction of never-ending material wants to the highest value. Therefore, the transformation of India would have to first be a moral transformation before there could be an economic or political transformation. Gandhi observed that the British justified their colonial rule over India by claiming to have achieved a superior civilization whose virtues they were bringing to the Indians. The Indians had allowed their own enslavement and its continuation by adopting the values of the British. Gandhi’s criticism’s of British imperialism in India rested on three central points:
1) The British were an economic drain on India through domination of its industries and control over its trade.
2) India had as much right to sovereignty and self-rule as did the British.
3) The cultural integrity of India and its traditions must be preserved against the cultural imperialism of the British.
Gandhi regarded the conflict with Britain to be rooted not in a battle between East and West but between the ancient world and traditional society against modern industrial civilization. Traditional society was, in his view, oriented towards religion and spirituality while modern civilization was oriented toward materialism and technology. The resulting technocratic age brought with it the dehumanization of man as its result. He considered modern democratic regimes to be organized on the basis of voting blocks pursuing their own narrow, material self-interest and cultivating a population that, in spite of its higher literacy rates, was immensely susceptible to false propaganda generated by the establishment press. Gandhi did praise modern civilization for its spirit of scientific inquiry, its improvements in the areas of health and medicine and it organizational abilities, but felt the achievements of modernity had been put to a perverted usage. (Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, by Bhikhu Parekh, University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, pp. 11-35).
Gandhi was also highly critical of modern conceptions of the state. He regarded the modern state as impersonal, amoral, demanding uniformity and hostile to differences among communities, castes and sects. The state, in Gandhi’s view, functioned as a type of abstraction that had grown so large that it took on a life of its own. Individual citizens and state functionaries alike were simply cogs in a machine or flies in a wheel over which they had no personal control. One highly detrimental result of this arrangement of politics was the complete loss of any sense of personal or moral responsibility. A bureaucrat or official involved in the administration of the inhuman bureaucracy of the state could absolve himself of responsibility for the human or moral consequences of his actions by deferring to a higher authority, the abstract personage of the state itself, towards whom his relationship was that of an obedient and dutiful servant and nothing. Therefore, tyranny in its modern form was not traceable to the singular actions of individual kings or autocrats, but to the collection of action of individuals acting as automatons, responding to pressure imposed upon them by their place in an amoral, impersonal state machine.
Gandhi himself created a model for the political organization of an independent India that he called “ordered anarchy”, system of self-governing and self-sufficient local communities managed by “panchayats” of five persons elected annually by all literate persons in the community from ages of 18 to 50. These self-managed villages would then be organized into “expanding circles” of “takulas”, districts, and provinces. Each of these would at each level be a federation of the lower units and function with great autonomy from the central government, whose only purpose would be to hold the local communities together. Gandhi was also highly critical of the penal institutions maintained by the state, and argued against forms of criminal justice whose sole purpose was the retributive punishment of offenders. Instead, he favored more humane forms of rehabilitation. On economic matters, Gandhi was a staunch opponent of both capitalism and communism. He regarded both systems as motivated by a materialist ethos that was foreign to the traditional spiritual life of India. In contrast to these, he proposed a system of “trusteeship” based on fostering a spirit of cooperation and responsibility between social classes. Gandhi wished to “socialize the means of production without nationalizing it” by encouraging employers to regard employees as family members whose welfare they were responsible for and by regulating the use of private property for the common good. Gandhi’s economic views at times put him in conflict with the Marxists who favored a class war between the capitalists and the proletariat. Gandhi rejected these views as fostering divisiveness and disunity among the Indian people and ultimately playing a subversive role in the struggle for national independence and national regeneration. (Parekh, pp.110-141).
Critics of Gandhi and the Conservative Hindu Backlash
Gandhi was a staunch proponent of the view that all Indians were part of a national brotherhood and community regardless of religion, ethnicity or caste. He was a tireless champion of religious toleration and deplored religious persecution of any kind. Indeed, Gandhi described himself as a practitioner of each of the major religious traditions:
“Thus if I could not accept Christianity either as a perfect, or the greatest, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could but be a rotten part or an excrescence. I could not understand the raison d’etre of a multitude of sects and castes. What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran? As Christian friends were endeavouring to convert me, so were Muslim friends. Abdullah Sheth had kept on inducing me to study Islam and of course he had always something to say regarding its beauty”. (Autobiography, p.137)
Gandhi regarded himself not only as a Hindu but “also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew”. He vigorously opposed those who either desired to partition India into separate nations for different religions or to create a national regime ordered on the basis of Hindu supremacy. His own vision was one of a unified but internally decentralized India that granted equal rights of citizenship to all persons irrespective of their religious identity. For this reason, Gandhi made many enemies of conservative Hindus and Muslims alike. Many traditional Hindus were appalled by Gandhi’s desire to ease caste restrictions or raise the status of women, and were equally appalled by his insistence upon equal toleration for all religions. Both Muslims and Hindus frequently accused Gandhi of not doing enough for their respective causes.
The greatest controversy of this type involved the partition of the Indian subcontinent following the achievement of independence. The Muslim League, led primarily by M.A. Jinnah, had long insisted that the predominately Muslim regions of northwestern and eastern India be separated into an independent nation, while Gandhi and his Indian National Congress thought such an idea to be absurd, observing that Indian Muslims and Hindus alike both spoke the same languages, shared similar styles of dress, engaged in commercial life with one another and maintained similar diets and entertainment interests. Gandhi regarded differences of religious observance as a private matter that the secular, democratic state that he preferred for India would play no role in. However, Muslim leaders insisted that as a minority, the Islamic community in India would achieve only the status of permanently disadvantaged minority following independence. The Muslim League had previously demanded a guarantee of a set minimum number of seats in the electoral system, just as the Dalits had demanded a similar arrangement for their own community.
The idea of a separate Islamic state caught on among Indian Muslims who feared discrimination at the hands of the Hindu majority. Also, the idea appealed to those Muslim who were fondly reminiscent of the earlier times when Muslims ruled India. Islamic feudal landlords opposed to the Indian National Congress’ call for land reform saw in the idea of partition a means of protecting their economic interests as did Islamic businessmen, civil servants and traders who viewed separatism as method of eliminating Hindu competitors. Gandhi and his allies like Jawaharlal Nehru accused the Muslim League of demagoguery and inciting religious bigotry. Nehru even compared the rhetoric of Islamic separatist leaders like Jinnah with the racist and anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis, a powerful accusation in the midst of the Second World War. Gandhi countered the arguments of the separatists by pointing to the examples of the United States, Canada and the USSR as unified nations with diverse peoples who managed to co-exist under a common political bond. As independence for India drew nearer and partition seemed inevitable, Gandhi resigned himself to the idea but still spoke against. As violence between Hindus and Muslims began to break out in 1946, the general consensus among Indian and British leaders alike was that partition was necessary to prevent a full-on civil war. (Gandhi and His Critics, by B. R. Nanda, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985, pp.77-97)
At the time of the partition in 1947, the disastrous decision was made to attempt to divide the police and military forces, along with the civilian civil administration, along religious lines. The result of this was the complete paralysis of government and of “law and order” as the partitioning process was taking place. Minority groups in various regions across India began to fear for their safety under a new regime led by a hostile majority and impassioned majorities began to engage in acts of violence against local minorities. Millions, perhaps tens of millions, of refugees fled towards regions where members of their religion were a majority. Large-scale massacres occurred during this time. Gandhi managed to curb the violence in Calcutta when he visited the city and went on a “fast until death” in protest of the upheaval. So powerful was Gandhi’s presence and reputation that the citizens of Calcutta apparently ended their pogroms rather be make themselves responsible for the death of Gandhi. Gandhi then went to Delhi, another scene of much bloodshed, and applied the same tactic. Gandhi’s fast had a great impact and the Indian government agreed to pay funds owed to Pakistan there were being held in the dispute over the province of Kashmir. Gandhi also won the sympathy of many Muslims who had been made suspicious of him by Islamic separatist propaganda that portrayed Gandhi as hostile to Muslim interests. Violence between Hindus and Muslims began to decline. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu militant who accused Gandhi of making too many concessions to the Muslims. (Nanda, pp. 98-110)
Gandhi’s assassin was Nathuram Godse, a follower of the militant Hindu nationalist Vinayak Savarkar. In the controversy concerning the division of India’s assets between India and Pakistan, Gandhi had taken a concessionary approach to the Muslims of Pakistan, though he personally was strongly opposed to the partition. Savarkar was one of Gandhi’s harshest critics, believing him to be far too accommodating to minorities and strongly disapproving of Gandhi’s pacifism and non-violent methods. Savarkar favored a strong nationalist regime for India, Hindu-dominated and militarily powerful. Godse had been a member of Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha and apparently the two men had known one another. Savarkar was suspected of involvement in Gandhi’s murder and was arrested and indicted but acquitted at trial. Much controversy remains concerning the degree of Savarkar’s involvement with the assassination of Gandhi. (AG Noorani, Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection, LeftWord, New Delhi, 2002)
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