Gandhi, History and the Liberal State

Faisal Devji on Gandhi and the omnipresence of violence in everyday life.

The empire against which Gandhi fought was legitimized in historical terms, for at their most generous its supporters claimed to be holding India for the benefit of her people, who had not yet attained the political maturity to rule themselves. British imperialism, then, was conceived as a vast pedagogical project, one in which a backward country was tutored by a more advanced one in order that it might achieve the kind of freedom that only history could give it. Informed as it was by the language of progress, evolution and development through time, imperialism was a thoroughly modern enterprise, and for good or ill its logic thrives today in the practice of development as well as regime change and humanitarian intervention. Unlike some among his compatriots, however, who accepted the argument upon which imperial legitimacy rested while questioning Britain’s good faith in upholding it, the Mahatma saw historical knowledge itself as a form of violence and wanted as little to do with it as possible. Perhaps the first of his many statements on the violence of history is to be found in Hind Swaraj, the manifesto on Indian Home Rule published in 1909. Gandhi is the only political figure to disdain history in a modernity defined by utopias and revolutions that sought its fulfilment.

Gandhi pointed out that history as commonly conceived was nothing but a narrative of conflict to whose violence alone did historians attribute any real change, regardless of whether this was to be praised or condemned. Yet societies could only sustain and reproduce themselves, he argued, in nonviolent ways, by quotidian and unexceptionable practices that didn’t deserve the name of history. For it was not the violence either exercised or prevented by law and the state that provided the parameters for nonviolence but rather the reverse. Instead of trying to expand the reach of historical knowledge by including everyday life within its ambit, in other words, the Mahatma insisted upon describing the historical record as providing both an account of violence and its justification. After all, since narratives of persecution and revenge, peace and war, stood on the same historical footing and indeed overlapped one with the other, none was innocent of violence. And by this token nonviolence was not merely unable to provide a subject for history, it was incapable almost by definition of possessing a history.

Now by suggesting that nonviolence had no history, Gandhi did not mean that it was entirely removed from the world of violence. On the contrary he held that violence was present in every aspect of life, from eating to giving birth, so that even reflexive processes like blinking or digestion, which preserved life, also ended up wearing down the body and finally destroying it. Nonviolence therefore could not possibly imply the more or less successful avoidance of violence, something that the Mahatma would in any case have considered cowardly, but rather entailed an engagement with it. Violence had to be seduced from itself and converted into its opposite by acts of love and practices of sacrifice. And this had to be done not by posing one historical narrative against another but instead by disregarding such narratives altogether. Only by refusing to situate present-day moral and political action within an historical account that could only constrain it, thought Gandhi, might new possibilities for the future emerge. Nonviolence, in other words, worked by breaking up narrative histories and thus freeing human action, though it did so not by opening up some dazzling new future for it, but rather by focussing exclusively on the present as a site for moral action.

More than altering our perspective on history, Gandhi asks us to distrust it as a form of knowledge, even going so far as to recommend that we forget the past. By this, of course, he doesn’t mean that we tolerate violence and injustice, or banish all that has happened from our memory, but rather that we refuse to identify either with the victims or the perpetrators of historical violence. The Mahatma was well aware of the fact that nations, races, religions and other collective categories of belonging were in his time being forged by such vicarious identifications, which, whether true or false, all worked in some way like contemporary accounts of ‘repressed memory syndrome,’ that is to say as practices by which identity was recovered for therapeutic as much as political reasons. Repelled by the alternating forms of resentment and fear that he saw emerging from these practices of historical recovery, Gandhi determined that he would have nothing to do with them.

Given the intimate relations subsisting between history and the state, it should come as no surprise that Gandhi was as critical of one as he was of the other. And though he was concerned chiefly by the oppressiveness of the colonial state, the Mahatma had few kind words for its liberal incarnation either. Indeed what he objected to about the colonial order in India was the very thing he disliked in Britain’s liberal society, and this had little to do with claiming that one made the other possible. For in some ways the colonial state was even more liberal than its metropolitan cousin, since it could with far greater certitude assert its impartiality with regard to the varying interests of a subject population. And so it was not simply its lack of representative government to which Gandhi objected, but more importantly, the colonial state’s role as a third party. His target, in other words, was law and order itself, ostensibly the most attractive part of British rule in India. The peace brought about within such an order, argued the Mahatma, was illusory because it also produced the violence against which order had to be maintained. More than this, he thought that liberal forms of order inevitably broke down due to their internal contradictions, thus making for the most fearsome violence.

Gandhi explained all this with reference to the stereotyped if sometimes violent rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, seen as the two great political interests in British India. Now Indian nationalists had often claimed that conflict between these communities was fostered by a colonial policy of divide and rule, and while the Mahatma agreed with this theory in principle, he did not view religious violence among Hindus and Muslims as the consequence of any deliberate planning by the British. Instead he argued that the colonial state’s very neutrality made religious conflict possible, its autonomy permitting Hindus and Muslims to define themselves as equally autonomous interests, all in a manner that seemed to lend substance to liberalism’s otherwise theoretical categories. And it was because the state stood as a third party between these interests that it was able to mediate between them, thus actively preventing any direct dealing among Hindus and Muslims. In other words it was precisely the lack of popular government in British India that brought a curiously purified version of liberalism into being there. And in this way the colonial state served not as a perversion of its liberal alternative, but rather as its secret truth and even as its future.

Because they didn’t have to deal directly with one another, Hindus and Muslims could press their claims by enlisting the state’s support against each other, giving rise to a manipulative politics of solicitation in which loyalty was offered in exchange for rewards designed to discomfit the rival community. And since they had no responsibility for governance, maintained Gandhi in Hind Swaraj, these interests could afford to look upon the outbreak of violence with equanimity, for it was after all the role of the colonial state to impose order. Riots were therefore a sign of political luxury as much as anything else, which is to say risks that might be run because the state would always be there to limit their effects and at most return to the status qua ante. In our days such reasoning is familiar enough in economic matters, of which the ongoing credit crisis is a particularly egregious example, but in the Mahatma’s time its violence was far more visceral. Of course the liberal centre could not hold, and eventually the colonial state, buffeted by opposing interests, was forced to relinquish its impartiality. The British had lost legitimacy simply by holding so firmly to it.

Gandhi therefore distrusted liberal forms of mediation, which he thought sustained violence rather than diminishing it, and preferred direct dealings even if they sometimes involved the use of force. Such dealings, he suggested, by forcing the contending parties to rely upon their own strength rather than the support or forbearance of the state, were at least honest and so open to relations of honour and trust. And in this sense their violence, too, could be purifying, while that pursued by indirect means was bound to be degrading. For the politics of mediation not only prolonged conflict by allowing rivals to depend upon the strength of third parties, it also rendered their violence irresponsible. The Mahatma was adamant that such forms of violence were inherent to liberal society, which was why he linked them to the legal order in its most common manifestation, arguing that lawyers worked not to resolve conflicts but rather sustain them at a manageable level. As deteriorating conditions in colonized societies demonstrated, however, this was a dangerous game to play, one that would end up destroying the liberal order altogether.

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