When a newspaper in 1784 asked “What is enlightenment?” the answer, by philosopher Immanuel Kant was: “sapere aude” — to have the courage to reason. This motto came to define modernity soon after. The modern temerity — the confidence before the openness of the future and the belief that the present can sufficiently be the origin of new worlds— is opposed to the inconfidence with which ageing societies refer to their past for authority and security. But today, in India, we are reaching further into the past in panic. And when we speak of the past, especially on MK Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, it is important to consider: can Gandhi be separated from the attempts to deploy him for the purposes of lending authority to the Hindu nationalist project?
This courageous question concerns much more besides the posthumous life of Gandhi. More explicitly, it asks: is it not time that we finally became modern? The answer is yes, but its implication is that it will no longer give us a Gandhi who would deliver any political objectives in the Indian union — he will lead a different posthumous life.
When two or more distinct laws entered into a conflict in a polis, it implied a “stasis” or stagnation for the ancient Greeks. There has been a ‘hidden’ stasis in the subcontinent for millenia: the conflict between the reign of an “upper” caste minority over a “lower” caste majority through social norms and anti-miscegenation rules, and the freedom struggle of the oppressed lower caste majority. Releasing India’s political constellations from the paternal gravity of Gandhi will also release into politics the crisis or stasis that can no longer be “managed”.
We cannot arrive at Gandhi’s posthumous life without taking into account the implicit conditions under which this patronym is repeatedly invoked. The independence movement under the Congress party was a chimera, made up of distinct parts of disparate creatures. Those parts of the Congress that could not endure together disintegrated, of necessity, into several oppositional parties — the communist parties, socialist parties, Muslim parties and the Hindu parties. Gandhi shared his legacy and responsibilities with this Congress chimera.
Nevertheless, the Congress of the British colonial era is not a mere conglomerate of incompatible micro-interests. Under its organisational mega-structure, those conflicting interests — Hindu, Hindi, Dravidian, Southern, Northern, Bengali, Capitalist, Socialist — could convene as a sufficiently large force to negotiate the “transfer of power”. We are dreadfully aware of the “shared interest” over which most members of the Congress-chimera found agreement: namely, that the social order, or the caste system, which reproduces itself faithfully as the only invariant of the subcontinent, must be conserved. That is, the strict observation of caste rules as a means reproduces the caste order as the end generation after generation. (Elsewhere we have called the general principle of this reproduction Calypsology). Today we hide the realities of the social order under the neologism “Hindu”.
“Hindu” is derived from the Arabic “Al Hind” which began its life as the name of a religion in the colonial writings of the 19th century. The census officers of the “Raj” found that people filled the columns for declaring their caste and religion with the same term — their caste. This implied that there were far too many religions but administrative convenience required much less. Further, the E. A. Gait census of 1911 also showed that the upper castes were a minority in the subcontinent.
In that precarious moment in which all political destinies, including the “annihilation of caste”, were still open for the subcontinent, this revelation of the census could have had deleterious effects on the Congress project. In order to mask this fact, a new religion had to be created with the consent of the colonial administration. Its goal was to bring under its umbrella all the caste groups without disturbing their hierarchy, and then distinguish the new and demographically largest religion from the other religions of the subcontinent, including Islam and Christianity. The baptism of this religion was both in the statistical needs of the British colonial administration and in the upper-caste minority’s need to pose as the spokesman of a seeming majority .
Gandhi had an important role in the invention of “Hindu” religion. He understood that if the majority of the population, the lower castes, were not let into the upper-caste temples, a common religion called Hindu would not be legally recognised. Although many upper caste leaders found the foreign term “Hindu” objectionable. Gandhi also contributed to the later invention and promotion of Hindi with Madan Mohan Malaviya and others. Hindi was explicitly conceived as the language of the “Hindus”. This is evident in the directive principles of the constitution which dictates that this new language shall draw its vocabulary primarily from Sanskrit.
The stasis has been accelerating since modern law arrived with colonial rule. The 1850s “Caste Disabilities Removal Act” legally recognised caste discrimination for the first time. Since then, there have been, at a minimum, two laws contending over the political character of the Indian subcontinent. the law of equality on which the modern constitution is premised, and the law of social hierarchy which tenaciously mobilises even the modern state apparatus. These two laws are in outright conflict, which is the modern manifestation of the ancient stasis. It is accelerating today as the oppressed majority is organising with relative indifference to electoral politics. As Suraj Yengde said “the musical whispers of those people who are warned not to cross the lines and remain in one’s place like a permanently fixed graveyard” are in motion. The mega-organisational structure that belonged to the Congress can today serve a new end if it lets itself be seized by the oppressed majority of millennia.
It would amuse another generation that the prominent academic schools to emerge from India—post-colonialism and subaltern theory—are continuous with the Hindu-Hindi politics and that they refer to Gandhi for paternal authority. Postcolonial theory is a revisionist project that seeks to criticise the colonial element in contemporary India and at the same time recover the lost “native” elements of the past of the upper castes. In this sense it is continuous with the politics of Hinduness. Subaltern theory, which is a component of postcolonial theory, studied (on its prominent instances) the ‘failure’ of the modern legal system to accommodate the caste obligations of the upper caste housewife—for example the criminalisation of “sati”. This explains the conflicting perspectives that upper castes and lower castes have on English, modern constitution, the sciences, and even on the colonial era. That is, the lower castes perceive these terms as having overcome the items of old values—Sanskrit, dharma shastras, rituals—on which the hierarchy was dependent, while post-colonial theorists today teach with nostalgia the devotional writings of the pre-colonial era.
Gandhi’s path marks have been following us, be it in electoral issues (Hindu, Hindi, Cow), academic praxis (post-colonialism and subaltern theory), or our “tolerance” towards the invariant of the subcontinent. The present crisis in politics is nothing but the realisation that the Hindu-Hindi model cannot mask the inhumanity of an arrangement wherein the upper caste minority controls all socio-political spheres and through them the lower caste majority. But another epoch in politics has already begun. Horace said of crossing dangerous waters, “Those who have dared to begin are already half done”.
Gandhi, the thinker, will still lead another posthumous life. We failed to attend to the other dimensions of his works all these years due to the services and hospices that his name could provide for the stasis. Gandhi was one of the most acute thinkers of nihilism and the first to bring it in contiguity with politics. His critique of “civilisation” took the form of perpetual negation; of the city, technology, and mobility to a minimal living quieter than the night. Gandhi expressed the tremors of thought before man’s great creations — industries, transportation and communication systems, “newspapers at the touch of a button”. Today, these tremors articulate each warning about climate catastrophes and the generalised guilt we feel at every pleasure, desire and invention.