Morality & its limits: Gandhi in the 21st Century

Morality & its limits: Gandhi in the 21st Century

By RAGINI BHUYAN | | 19 January, 2013
Mahatma Gandhi
Historian and biographer Professor Judith M. Brown talks to Ragini Bhuyan about Gandhi’s brand of politics and economics, and the elements of his thought that still hold relevance.

Q. How do you understand Gandhi's politics? Why would you call it moral politics?

A. I called Gandhi's politics "moral politics" because a) he entered politics for what he saw as moral reasons on moral issues – see the end of his Autobiography which I quoted in the lecture; and b) because he insisted on moral means. He believed that ends never justified means – so bad/violent/immoral methods would always produce evil ends, and vice versa.

Q. What are the limits of moral politics like Gandhi's in today's world?

A. I think that in my lecture I demonstrated how once Gandhi tried to extend his vision of moral politics beyond a very small and well disciplined circle, who shared his vision, then that politics became diluted or corrupted. The same would be true today. Further his particular style of political protest centred on satygraha only produces clear political results when it probes the vulnerability of the opponent. Clearly there are political opponents whose position is not vulnerable to this sort of withdrawal of cooperation or non-violent resistance. Look at Syria today.

Q. What are the kinds of organisations and movements who have co-opted and re- interpreted Gandhian politics?

A. One should look at the excellent academic study by David Hardiman or the recent collection of essays edited by A. Roberts and T Garton Ash. Huge range – from the US civil rights movements to localised ecological movements in India. Many of those who struggle to use non-violence know of Gandhi even if they do not "follow" him.

Evidence suggests that a very wide range of people were interested in Gandhi and responded to his ‘charisma’ but that this did not often translate into committed following. In the study of one UP district by Shahid Amin, we can see how rural groups co-opted Gandhi and reinterpreted him within their own frameworks of thought.

Q. What kind of a relationship did Gandhi share with the masses? Did people understand his instructions in a straight forward manner, or did different people interpret it differently? For example, in Chauri Chaura, people committed violence in his name.

A. Historians are rather reluctant to talk about "the masses" because society is made up of so many different groups with their own identities and agendas. A peasant farmer in UP might have very different hopes and capacities from a Bombay millworker in Gandhi's time for example, though later commentators might consider them part of the mass or of the people. Evidence suggests that a very wide range of people were interested in Gandhi and responded to his 'charisma' but that this did not often translate into committed following. In the study of one UP district by Shahid Amin which I cited, we can see how rural groups co-opted Gandhi and reinterpreted him within their own frameworks of thought. Hence there developed "many Gandhis" as it was which might bear little resemblance to Gandhi in person and his teaching. This might indeed lead to violence – as also did the fact that people jumped on the bandwagon of his satyagraha campaigns without any commitment to non-violence.

Q. How relevant is Gandhian economics today?

A. I think it would be very difficult to adopt Gandhi's economic vision if you wanted to participate in the modern world which is so interconnected. Nehru and his governments clearly saw that solutions to India's social and economic problems required an economy based on more than subsistence agriculture. However, there are insights which are still relevant – e.g. can we go on wanting more and more without destroying the planet and creating even grosser inequalities?

Q. At what point did Nehru, who was Gandhi's protégé and who Gandhi favoured over Bose and Patel, start differing with him and develop his own independent thinking on issues like that of the economy?

A. Right from the beginning of their relationship in c. 1919/1920; and the differences became sharper as independence was clearly near and Congress faced being the party of government.

Q. Did Gandhi's amalgamation of morality, politics, and spirituality contribute to communalisation of politics? For example, his repeated references to ram rajya, etc.

A. I think this is a very difficult question because it raises the great issue of what were the real roots of communalisation of Indian politics. I believe they were far deeper than Gandhi's language and appearance as a 'Hindu Mahatma'. However, there is no doubt that his Hinduness and association with Congress increasingly frightened many Muslims already concerned about their future in an independent India; and also his tolerance perturbed some Hindus who believed in Hindutva as the foundation of national identity.

Q. What elements of Gandhian thought are of most relevance in today's world?

A. His ideas about religious tolerance within a national community; his hopes for a more equal society; his belief that we need "enough" and not always "more"; his commitment to the improvement of the lives of women in India – e.g. wanting an end to child marriage, widow remarriage, greater educational opportunities for women and so forth. He also believed that men should see all "strange" women outside the family circle as sisters/ mothers – and this is particularly relevant given the terrible violence against women which the recent rape case has pointed to. There is also his belief that he had gone into politics for moral reasons rather than gain and power!

Q. What are you working on currently?

A. I have recently retired from my academic post and am catching up with a lot of things I have not had time for! I am delivering a considerable number of public lectures, and am also in February going to be a guest lecturer on a cruise from Sri Lanka to Oman by way of the west coast of India. This gives me an opportunity to talk about India to an educated audience who want to know more about India but have probably not been to India before or had the chance to study its history and society.

(With inputs from Tanushree Bhasin)

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