Friday, August 03, 2007

In Pragati

My review of Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi appears today in the August issue of Pragati, alongside pieces by Nitin Pai on India's vacillations over a free-market economy, Atanu Dey first on Indian villages and then on the state of education in India, and Ravikiran Rao on Arun Shourie's analysis of our flawed electoral system.

You can download the entire issue here.


Rohit Chopra said...

Hi Chandrahas

I very much enjoyed reading your fine and incisive review and article of Gandhi's biography. This sounds like a book worth owning. It appears to address fundamental characteristics of Gandhi's thought and being-- for Gandhi, of course, the two were organically related-- that hagiographic accounts miss completely. First, that Gandhi reinvented himself and his thought through his life. The essence of Gandhi was that there no simple essence to his thought. And, relatedly, that he embodied a radical universalism, as you point out. Ashis Nandy is right in stating (I don't remember where) that Gandhi has been tamed, domesticated, and fossilized in Indian nationalist discourse. As your essay notes, Gandhi's work deserves to be seen as a radically living force. Incidentally, there are two very interesting works on Gandhi that should be published sometime soon. Ajay Skaria-- a brilliant historian who wrote a pathbreaking work on environmental history called Hybrid Histories-- has published a wonderful essay on Gandhi's ethics of the ashram, and I think is working on an entire book on Gandhi. Also, Akeel Bilgrami is working on a book on Gandhi's political philosophy, which promises to be very engaging.

On another note: I enjoyed reading the articles in Pragati. But, if I may register a minor quibble, 'free-market mahatma' is an oxymoron. I don't make this point on the grounds of an ersatz Gandhian Luddite position nor on the basis of the anachronistic socialist logic that marks much Indian political discourse. I make this point on the basis of Gandhi's own understanding of freedom. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi argues that human freedom lies in precisely what does not translate into capital, i.e., what refuses to be translated into a market commodity. Economic freedom for Gandhi is inseparable from social, spiritual and political freedom. So
the free market Mahatma is an illusion. If the Indian left and cultural right have coopted Gandhi, perhaps we are seeing the economic center-right, free-market advocates, neoliberals, and libertarians coopt Gandhi in their own specific ways too. However, Gandhi's thought, I would submit, exceeds any number of appropriations in its complexity. An example: for those who argue that he romanticized the village, Gandhi-- as scholar Gyan Prakash notes -- had a profoundly modern idea of the Indian village, one that would be free from disease and equipped with modern facilities like running water.
I am digressing now, so will stop.
Great article though.

Rohit Chopra

Chandrahas said...

Rohit - Thanks for your very perceptive comments. You're right, I give this book the highest recommendation. It's a very acute blend of history, biography and political philosophy, and I enjoyed reading it more than any other book this year. Because of the liberal use of quotations, on every page it seemed to me as if I had access to two highly sophisticated minds, that of the biographer and his subject. There's a great deal to be gained, I find, by trying to understand not just Gandhi's thought as explicated in books of political philosophy, but also as he worked out those ideas in time, which is what biography provides us with. I thought that both the historical Gandhi and Gandhi as a radically living force emerged very clearly in Rajmohan Gandhi's narration.

And you're quite right - in myriad ways we have managed to tame Gandhi, and of course his thought was so capacious that we all find ways to use him for our own ends. To me that is a legitimate enough goal, but in the process we often narrow or even neuter Gandhi's thought, and sometimes we just slander him in unhelpful and peculiarly cynical ways. Gandhi is long gone and this cannot affect him in any way; rather it is we ourselves who lose from this.

Thanks very much for leading me to Skaria and Bilgrami. I shall look out for their work.

As for your observation on Gandhi and his attitude towards capital, I think that attitude makes a great deal of sense, only that it is hard for most people, including you and me, to observe it in any committed way because capital is at the heart of material and family life, in which most of our hopes and dreams are invested. For that reason economic freedom in my view will always remain something of a moral paradox, binding even as it frees.

The phrase "the free-market mahatma" is, I think, an attempt by Nitin to suggest that we need a similar revolution in the sphere of economics and Gandhi introduced in the field of politics and social relations. That mahatma (who might even dispute the truth of something like an atma)and Gandhi would disagree on a lot of things!