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Fodder of the nation?

There was a clear streak of philosophical anarchism in Gandhi. He did not love states setting the pace for society and was positively suspicious of modern Nation-States, writes Ashis Nandy.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2011 00:03 IST
Ashis Nandy

Gandhi’s legacy has become both a constitutional anomaly and an internal contradiction in the culture of the Indian State. When some political activists angrily complain of attacks on Gandhian social workers by the Chhattisgarh police and the police, in turn, accuse the Gandhians of playing footsie with the Maoist insurrection, both sense this contradiction, but cannot identify its nature. I do so here in a form both sides might accept.

First, Gandhi’s direct contribution to the Indian Constitution was close to zero. Though he unwittingly exercised some indirect influence through his followers in the Constituent Assembly, it did not alter the overall tenor of the Constitution. Indeed, one is not even sure if these Gandhian touches came from ideological convictions or were attempts to legitimise the Constitution among the millions of participants in the freedom struggle or were palliatives for Gandhians now in power under a standard liberal Constitution.

Second, there was a clear streak of philosophical anarchism in Gandhi. He did not love States setting the pace for society and was positively suspicious of modern Nation-States. The republic, for Gandhi, was primarily a self-governing organism — a participatory, democratic venture of partly autonomous communities. Such a State had to vest trust in ordinary citizens and their political judgements and wisdom. The young Indian State, however, had other ideas of its historical and pedagogical role and looked at the Indian people mainly as targets of social engineering — waiting to be moulded into proper citizens of a modern State.

Third, the relationship between the citizen and the State, for Gandhi, was not fully covered by the covenant called the Constitution. The relationship was mediated by communities, extra-constitutional authorities such as personal and shared ethics, the colonial experience and the legacy of the freedom struggle. The mediation could even be through the sense of desperation brought about by bad governance and gratuitous or unjust use of force by the State.

Fourth, for Gandhi the moral authority of any regime was neither tenure-bound nor solely defined by the legal-constitutional life of the regime. That authority came primarily from the moral authority acquired by the citizens through their struggles and, then, voluntarily ceded to the regime. The Gandhian freedom struggle had crossed the perimeters of urban, modernising India, and the peasantry and many large and small ethnic communities, such as the Pathans and Sikhs, were central to it. After Independence, when power shifted to exactly those sectors of society that were running the Empire, that transfer of power was an act of faith. The new power-holders sought sanction in a theory of a modern vanguard guiding the unruly masses towards a better future. But in society, other ideas of the duties and obligations of political leaders survived. Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship had not been relegated to textbooks of political history.

Fifth, Gandhi’s ideal State was not a Nation-State. Indeed, the ideas of nation and nationality played a marginal role in his politics. He probably knew that many States had survived without clear-cut nations and nationality for millennia; that some of the great empires were multinational and multicultural affairs, not dependent on specific nationalities; and that nationalism had become the binding agent of States only after the monarchies began to crumble in Europe. Earlier, simple, old-fashioned love for one’s own country was good enough.

All five were serious contradictions and they have continued to dog the steps of the republic. We have not resolved them by pushing them under the carpet. Now, after six decades, given the preferences of the present regime and the main opposition to it, one suspects that it will be wise and more honest to inter Gandhi and pursue the logic of a modern Nation-State unconditionally.

Today, four days after Republic Day, we face another anniversary. Sixty-three years ago, a young man, claiming to be a true-blooded nationalist, had also sought to relieve the Indian State of its false, counter-modernist prophet, hostile to conventional statecraft and realpolitik.

A gun has always been a reasonably good way of settling an argument but, unfortunately for his assassins, the posthumous Gandhi turned out to be as dangerous as the living one. In the new century, we should not be in the same situation again. Here are the three principles of his which gave his ideas unwanted longevity and each of them has enjoyed substantial support among the backward, ill-educated, unthinking Indian masses. We shall have to guard against them.

First, Gandhi wanted the impossible: a humane State, not an orderly, ruthlessly efficient Nation-State, obsessed with development and national security. States, he believed, had to be the instruments of civilisations and cultures, not the other way round. Even under colonial rule, many found such attitudes puerile. The likes of Vinayak Savarkar thought Gandhi to be unscientific, irrational and ignorant of modern political theory. Many associates of Gandhi and most serious political analysts, too, were then dreaming of turning India into a conventional Nation-State and were tired of Gandhi’s defiance of global commonsense. Social evolutionism, modernisation and the State were then central to all theories of progress. Today, these theories may look tattered and moth-eaten. At the time they looked trendy and destined to rule the world.

Second, the vision of a good society, Gandhi believed, had to be utopian and, thus, unattainable. Whether it was Ram Rajya or the Marxist vision of full-blown communism, the job of utopias was to supply diverse normative standards, not to shackle coming generations and freeze the future by insisting that a utopia had been actualised and the citizens must gulp it. A realised utopia is a monstrosity and a prescription for terror.

Finally, civilisations are more resilient than States. A civilisation may use a State to renew itself. But, if the State becomes arrogant and challenges the very basis of a civilisation, the latter may ensure the State’s demise. We are already seeing the way the Indian State is being hollowed out. It could be part of a long-term process.

Ashis Nandy is a senior honorary fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal