Gandhi in Western Academy

Posted by sepoy on October 23, 2008 · 8 mins read

Via Rohit, I read Vinay Lal's excellent, "The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate", Economic & Political Weekly, Oct 4, 2008 [pdf]. I wanted highlight this footnote which discusses Gandhi's historiography in the Western academy (with a nod towards his memory in Delhi) and his discussion of why the subaltern studies (or postcolonial studies, in general) failed to raise Gandhi as an anti-imperial figure.

Even more importantly, Lal highlights the contributions of Gandhi's thoughts to the Civil Rights movement and some key recent studies.

I would like to allude, if only briefly, to the two sets of disjunctions which in part, and only in part, led to this paper. In the staunchly middle class circles of west Delhi in which I grew up and from which my family drew the greater bulk of its acquaintances, the respect for Gandhi was commingled with deep suspicion, foreboding, and even hatred of the “Father of the Nation”. Many of the people who lived through the Partition held Gandhi responsible for their own misfortunes, and among the family elders and some of our guests the sentiment that Gandhi had often blundered in politics ran deep. Owing to my sustained interest in Gandhi over nearly three decades, his name came up in conversations often, and there was frequent mention of his appeasement of Muslims and his inability to understand the modern world. If he was nonetheless referred to as Gandhiji, it was not only out of habit, but also from the recognition that Gandhi had been a patriot, if a misguided one, and from an acknowledgment that the state-sanctioned version of Gandhi could not be entirely rubbished. As young teenagers, my friends and I wondered why a national holiday had been set aside in the memory of a rather backward-looking old man who wandered about scantily dressed, but the received textbook versions spoke of him in such unambiguously hagiographic language that the instinct to laugh at the old man was somewhat contained. In recent years, it appears to me, the reaction against him has hardened, and one cousin who is a doctor casually referred to Gandhi as a scoundrel (Gandhi to kamina tha). I suspect that the disjunction between the authorised version of Gandhi and that encountered in middle class homes is one which is familiar to many.

As a graduate student in the United States in the 1980s, I became aware of another kind of disjunction. In those heady days of post-colonial theory and cultural studies, when anti-racism, antiimperialism, and nationalism spawned immense number of studies and it was argued that finally “the empire was writing back”, there was barely a mention of Gandhi among internationally known thinkers except in the writings of a few Indian scholars, notably Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, and Shahid Amin. None of the post-colonial critics or cultural studies advocates had any use for Gandhi, not even Henry Louis Gates, Homi Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, or, most significantly, Edward Said. In the voluminous writings of Said, Gandhi appears as a rare footnote; on the other hand, a cultish attachment to Fanon is everywhere evident. One would have thought that Bhabha, over whom the shadow of Lacan looms large, might have sensed something of an affinity between psychoanalysis and satyagraha, or that the post-colonial critics with their stated intention of defying master narratives and signifying their solidarity with the downtrodden might have found Gandhi an intellectually and ethically engaging figure. The silence which surrounded Gandhi at a time when colonialism was the principal subject of a supposedly dissenting body of work might itself be construed as a critique of Gandhi, one that did not even do him the service of taking him seriously.

At the conclusion of my talk at Emory in 2005, Gyanendra Pandey made two interesting arguments to suggest why Gandhi has drawn, so to speak, a near blank among major figures in the academies in the US and the United Kingdom, though I remain unconvinced by either argument. Pandey suggested that the insularity of the Indian intellectual tradition, while not recognised by Indians, is deeply experienced among scholars of India in the US, Japan, and elsewhere. For insularity of intellectual traditions, I would think that one could turn more profitably to the US itself, where most debates appear to be conducted without any reference to anyone except godblessed Americans. As someone with a fair share of experience of the American academy, stretching back to my first undergraduate days at a US university in 1978, I find it all but implausible that the US academy should be viewed as an example of intellectual ecumenism or cosmopolitanism. Moreover, in the case of Gandhi, his alleged indigenism or nativism, his repudiation of the modernist aesthetic, the unsexiness of non-violence, the moralist tone of much of his work, among other phenomena, appear to me to furnish better grounds for understanding why he has been marginalised by the progressive or radical elements of the academy.

Secondly, Pandey argued that Africa and the Atlantic world, far more so than India, have registered an intellectual and political presence in American life. There is no gainsaying this fact, and the story stretches from the early presence of the slave trade through the Civil War to the traditions of jazz, blues, rap, and hip-hop. Indian studies, in comparison to studies of the Atlantic world or African-American Studies, occupy a minuscule if rapidly growing place in the American academy. However, by an irony of history, in no community did Gandhi have a more magisterial role than among African-Americans. Everyone is aware of Martin Luther King's full-throated embrace of Gandhian ideas of non-violent resistance, but many other important if not supreme figures of African-American history, such as Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, A Philip Randolph and James A Lawson, had a deep engagement with Gandhi's ideas. Sudarshan Kapur's study, Raising Up a Prophet: The African American Encounter with Gandhi, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992, amply documents Gandhi's presence in the African American political imagination, as does John D'Emilio's superb biography, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, The Free Press, New York, 2003.

This paper also provides, I believe, some cues that might help us to understand the relatively marginal note Gandhi has played even in supposedly progressive, liberal, radical, or dissenting elements of the academy in the US, Britain, and elsewhere where recent theoretical trajectories have informed much of the work on nationalism, colonialism, racism, and the like. Gandhi has a considerable presence in peace studies or conflict resolution programmes, though a “theorist” of non-violent resistance such as Gene Sharp takes precedence in most such programmes; moreover, the institutionalisation of Gandhi has robbed his thinking of its most radical and potentially emancipatory elements. See also Vinay Lal, 'Gandhi, the Civilisational Crucible, and the Future of Dissent', Futures 31 (1999), pp 205-19, and idem, 'Gandhi and the Social Scientists: Some Thoughts on the Categories of Dissent and Possible Futures' in Arif Dirlik (ed), Pedagogies of the Global: Knowledge in the Human Interest, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder and London, 2006, pp 275-97.

Needless to say, you should read the whole essay.


Jack DuVall | October 23, 2008

Vinay Lal's essay, as excerpted here, has obviously much to commend it. As co-author of "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict," I know that it is impossible to provide any accurate account of the successful nonviolent resistance movements that followed Gandhi (including Poland's Solidarity movement, the "people power" movement in the Philippines, the nonviolent people's movement against Pinochet in Chile, the Czechs' "Velvet Revolution," the nonviolent dimension of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the Serbian popular resistance to Slobodan Milosevic) without crediting the enormous influence on each of these nonviolent revolutions of Gandhi's ideas and political strategies. What has inhibited the worldwide visibility of Gandhi's strategic achievements as a civic leader in India, particularly in movement mobilization and tactical ingenuity, is (a) the ideological infatuation of much of the left with violent revolutionary fantasies even though armed insurrections have never produced sustainable civil democracies in the past half-century, and (b) the dominance of structuralist thinking in the academy, which worships institutional, economic and other material factors and thereby manages not to notice the impact that self-organized agency can have in political conflicts between state oppression and resisting civilians. Promoters of nonviolence have also not done any favors to appreciation of what Gandhi accomplished as a conflict strategist, by focusing mainly on his desire to change people's moral behavior. He may have, but he also wanted to kick the British out of India, and it is doubtful that Indians would ultimately have felt themselves capable of "swaraj" had they not been instructed by Gandhi and Nehru for over twenty years before independence on the basis of confidence in their ability to organize and govern themselves.

Red | October 24, 2008

Perhaps we need to question the collapsing of "postcolonial scholars" and members of the subaltern studies collective. Despite their political positioning and their influence upon each other there remains a distinction between literary theorists and historians. Ajay Skaria, Chatterjee, Nandy and Shahid Amin are a significant section of the collective.

Evan | October 24, 2008

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I took two classes with Prof. Lal as an undergraduate, one of them on Gandhi. He was a truly great professor.

David Fahey | October 25, 2008

Worth reading is Dennis Dalton, Gandhi's Power, ch. 6, Mohandas, Malcolm and Martin."