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Mohandas Gandhi, icon of Indian liberation, remains an inspiration for anti-capitalists and peace activists globally. His campaigns for national liberation based on non-violence and mass civil disobedience were critical to defeating the power of the British Empire. 

In this new blog, Talat Ahmed, author of the biography Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience, unpicks the contradictions of Gandhi’s politics and analyses the social forces at play in the mass movement around him. 

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2019 marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), one of the most iconic and important figures of the twentieth century and seen as the father of modern India.  The year will see many commemorative events in India and globally to celebrate the legacy of this ‘world historical individual’ who is hailed as the leader of India’s national liberation struggle with his ideas of non-violent resistance.  Indeed, here in Britain, he has already featured in the BBC2 series to choose the greatest ‘icon’ of twentieth century, coming second to Martin Luther King in the ‘activist’ category.  King himself of course was greatly inspired by Gandhi, paying tribute on many occasions, and suggesting in 1959 that

‘[Gandhi] was able to mobilize and galvanize more people than, in his lifetime, than any other person in the history of this world. And just with a little love in his heart and understanding goodwill and a refusal to cooperate with an evil law, he was able to break the backbone of the British Empire. And this, I think, is one of the most significant things that has ever happened in the history of the world, and more than three hundred and ninety million people achieved their freedom.’[i]

With respect to the Indian national liberation struggle, it is worth recalling that 2019 also marks the centenary of the Amritsar massacre where a British brigadier ordered indiscriminate firing on a peaceful gathering that resulted in 379 dead and 1,200 injured. This event came to epitomise colonial brutality and transformed Gandhi himself from an Empire loyalist to an implacable opponent of British rule.

On one level, it is difficult to underestimate the inspiration of Gandhi’s tactics around non-violent direct action for all manner of liberation struggles subsequently, from other anti-colonial struggles (for example in Ghana), the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, peace and anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, aspects of the historic struggle against apartheid South Africa and the more recent struggles in Palestine, to the contemporary Extinction Rebellion activism against climate change.  Echoes of Gandhi’s wider international cultural impact might even be detected in some sense in the Star Wars films.  George Lucas never explicitly referenced Gandhi but his message is implicit in the character of Yoda, who in The Empire Strikes Back beseeches the young Luke Skywalker to ‘release your anger, fear and aggression’ as these represent the ‘Dark’ side of the ‘Force’. In Return of the Jedi, the emperor entices Luke to surrender to his anger, hatred and aggressive impulses whilst he is fighting Darth Vader. But goodness triumphs over violence as Darth Vader remembers he is the father of Luke, Anakin Skywalker and chooses self-sacrifice as a means of saving his son and heir.  The ‘Light’ side is rooted in calmness and used for knowledge and defence, never aggression. The ‘Force’ is spiritual, just as for Gandhi, the power of non-violence – the ‘truth-force’ of Satyagraha – was spiritual.

Yet in the twenty-first century, Gandhi’s legacy is more contested than anyone might have thought when, for example, the British director Richard Attenborough made his famous film back in 1982.  Within India, Gandhi is subject to debate as Narendra Modi and the BJP grapple with appropriating his mantle for Hindutva. More widely, aspects of the personal life of the Mahatma (Great Soul) have attracted recent controversy. In the light of the #MeToo movement, Gandhi’s ‘sexual experiments’ in later life have come under the spotlight with calls for a reappraisal of his attitude to women. In the context of ‘decolonial’ struggles, accusations around Gandhi’s initial racist attitude to Africans mean there have been suggestions that just like the British imperialist Rhodes, it is also the case that ‘Gandhi must fall’ and indeed in Ghana it has been decided that a statue of Gandhi should be removed. Obadele Kambon, head of language, literature and drama at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana, hailed the move. ‘His utterances when he was alive show he did not want to be with us black folks,’ he told CNN. ‘Why would we want to be with him after his death by having his statue on our campus?’

Clearly, these contested aspects of Gandhi’s life and legacy need to be sensitively debated and discussed, and the reasons why there may be objections to marking the 150th anniversary of his birth understood.  Yet it is important not to rely on sensationalist soundbites, but understand Gandhi historically. In many respects he was ahead of his times, but in a fundamental sense his political outlook was in many ways traditionalist and elitist, often reflecting (for example around race) the dominant ideology of the British Empire, and always rooted in moral precepts based on his religious convictions.

Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi India Indian liberation struggle partition politicians activist activism indian independence movement nonviolent protest nonviolence british imperialism colonialism

With respect to women, Gandhi was not a misogynist.  He saw the necessity of addressing the condition of womankind in India and was sincere and deeply concerned over men who routinely took advantage of women, abusing and treating them as second-class citizens. This is why Gandhi opposed practices such as child marriage, polygamy, and the ban of widow re-marriage. He was concerned about the sexual exploitation by men of women, and how men had impunity to beat and abandon their wives – while women had no choice but to turn to prostitution for financial reasons.

Yet Gandhi saw women in spiritual terms to be valorised as pious exemplars devoted to meditation, good works and upholding national values. This is why his heroines were religious figures of Draupadi, Sita – and not fighting women like the Rani of Jhansi, icon of 1857 Rebellion or Lakshmi Swaminathan, leader of the women’s regiment of the Indian National Army in 1943. He was trapped by the limitations of his own outlook and thinking and had no real knowledge of women’s struggles. The weaknesses of his prescriptive attitude towards women’s ‘roles’ manifests itself in his ‘experiments with truth’ in relation to women. He was not a sex maniac, but still used women as an instrument, lying in bed with them to test his own strength for physical and spiritual abstinence. This was based on the notion that women, like any other object, could be used. He did not hate women, quite the opposite, he loved them, likewise women were drawn to him too. But his experiments were physically and psychologically abusive. And his attitude here is symptomatic of the prevailing elitism of a caste ridden and class society.

For the Left, the more critical debate around Gandhi’s legacy should arguably remain around what it always has been about: a critical consideration of the contradictions of Gandhian tactics, in order to advance contemporary social movements – such as those challenging climate change and militarism – utilise his methods of civil disobedience.  On one level, Gandhi himself clearly understood the futility of leaving it up to high politics and instead was able to ignite a mass movement for change from below, turning the Indian National Congress into a more popular based party.  However, due to his top-down approach, for Gandhi even this extra-parliamentary mobilisation had to be controlled and disciplined from above, by him as the great enlightened leader. Following bouts of mass activity, he would then channel the movement into a constitutional approach as in South Africa with his negotiations with Jan Smuts and in 1930 with his participation in the Round Table Conference.

My book attempts to historically contextualise Gandhi’s ‘experiments in civil disobedience’ in order to explore the contradictions inherent in the approach of this non-violent ‘revolutionary life’, and the disconnect between his intentions and the outcome – which in the case of India’s national liberation struggle ultimately resulted in the bloody nightmare of partition.

That the book appears in 2019, with not just such significant anniversaries for South Asia around Gandhi and Amritsar, but also a year when Pluto Press as the publisher celebrates its 50th anniversary, is especially fitting.  Under capitalism, left-wing publishing is a precious enough commodity, and so for Pluto to have survived and thrived as a radical left publisher ever since its origins, when it was associated with the revolutionary Marxist politics of the International Socialist tradition, is an important milestone to be marked – and celebrated.  It would be good to see the ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series continue and in terms of South Asia, figures such as the great Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Swaminathan, Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose and M.N. Roy would make fitting biographies. If the world is to survive the next fifty years, amid growing inter-imperialist tensions between nuclear-armed military-industrial complexes, resurgence of far right and fascist parties and the threat of catastrophic climate change, then we will need both mass movements to emerge and confront state and corporate power – but also a new generation of activists armed with socialist ideas that can win.

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Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience is available from Pluto Press.

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Talat Ahmed is Lecturer in South Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. She is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the author of Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932-56 (Routledge, 2009).

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[i] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/palm-sunday-sermon-mohandas-k-gandhi-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church