One of the most distinguished names in postcolonial studies today, Leela Gandhi is John Hawkes professor of humanities and English at Brown University and the author, most recently, of ‘The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy’. On a brief visit to Delhi, she spoke to Ipsita Chakravarty about her new book, the inner life of democracy, irascible Greek philosophers, the power of the imperfect and the ordinary, and what it means to be postcolonial in 2015.
Could you talk a bit about the idea of moral imperfection, which you describe as the ethical form of democracy in The Common Cause?
I wanted to write a global history of democracy, not just as a form of government but also as a style of life or spiritual exercise or sadhana.
What is the ethical disposition of someone who lives or wants to live in a democracy? Such questions were also on the minds of many figures in the colonial context who were not yet citizen-subjects, and thus lacked clear access to the political sphere. Take the idea of swaraj in M.K. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. It implies freedom from colonial government (or home-rule) but also self-rule. Gandhi takes the idea a step further. He says self-rule is about conquering the very desire to rule or lord over others. In this way the heart of swaraj is ahimsa, or non-harmfulness to those allegedly weaker than us. You have to give up in yourself the desire for hierarchy and imperiousness. We can describe this as an ethics of making oneself imperfect: less rather than more. I believe this radical form of democratic ethics arose in the early 20th century as a historical rejoinder to the will to perfectionism at the core of the various pernicious totalitarianisms of the era: imperialism, fascism and the hideous coming together of race and caste supremacy in this country.
How did nationalism complicate democracy in countries that had freedom movements?
Many anti-colonial thinkers were anxious that anti-colonial nation states would simply indigenise the inherited structures of imperialism. That said, the best part of the great anti-colonial freedom movements of the 20th century is entirely on par with the French and American revolutions in the global history of democracy. An important marker is the Bandung Conference of 1955, where there was a lot of conversation about how, at the end of empire, it was necessary to make a new commitment to an ethical form of politics, committed to sacrifice, generosity and inclusiveness. Scholars argue that this project failed. But we have to salvage the idealism of the age of decolonisation and put it to good use for everybody in our own time and world. I am interested in aspirational histories whose best part is yet to be fulfilled.
You’ve described how Western ideas of democracy around the turn of the 20th century submitted to the tyranny of perfectionism, a universalising idea of excellence. But doesn’t nationalism, with its desire to project a unified entity, also have its burden of uniformity?
Of course. There is a certain domestic model of democracy that holds out the promise of sovereignty for everyone — everyone can be prince. But this ideal is accompanied by a loathing for those not up to the prescribed standard or model of the perfect citizen subject: male, robust, of certain religion, caste, class, sexuality and so on. During the foundation of welfarism in Britain, for instance, “pauperism” was described as a failure of the citizenly temperament. The idea bears resemblance to the “garibi hatao” project during the Emergency, which became a movement against the poor themselves. There’s much to learn from those excluded by nationalist democratic projects, and who responded by refusing normative models of sovereignty.
Where do you place a majoritarian democracy in this context?
Even the most majoritarian forms of democracy have recourse to the dissenting and counterpublic form of civil society. Civil society is like a Socratic gadfly to the state. It keeps democracy from closing itself off by asking impractical and irritating “what if” questions. What if we were more egalitarian? What if we did away with that egregious piece of new legislation? These questions re-potentialise politics by reopening it to a seemingly impossible but better future.
Do you think that in India there is a gap between the inner life of democracy that you talk about and the outer, institutional structures that embody it?
That is the burden of my argument. We tend to think only about institutional politics and not enough about the inner life of democracy. The historical figures I’m interested in, such as the English socialist Edward Carpenter, sensed this asymmetry. He argued that we must realise democracy in ourselves, in our very nature. In his words, true democracy consists in the spiritual realisation of “the Mass-man, or Demos, in each unit-man.” This sentiment is ubiquitous in the history of democracy. But let me also underscore the crucial importance in any democracy of decent institutions that guarantee equal legal protection. One of our greatest thinkers, B.R. Ambedkar, was after all a man of the law. There is great suffering when minorities of any type are not afforded protection of the law.
You’ve spoken about the postcolonial subject in your lectures. But are we the same postcolonials we were in 1947, or even 1960?
Probably not! Scholars of the field have always conceded that there are huge limits to postcolonialism simply as a mode of complaint or anti-Western polemic. I share these concerns, but two things about the field still seem valuable and worth nurturing. First, postcolonialism provides a crucial platform for the democratisation of knowledge, such that we can reclaim genuinely global and ecumenical traditions of democracy, ethics, love, rationality and enchantment, among others. Second, postcolonialism advances a rich philosophical genealogy of critical thinking about power, sovereignty, politics and ethics, and the relation between these.
There’s a story here that helps. Legend has it that the Greek cynic-philosopher Diogenes was sunbathing in the agora, or public gathering-place, when the emperor Alexander came up to him and said, “Ask of me any boon you like.” Diogenes replies, “Stand out of my light.” This is a key ethical attitude that the postcolonial inheritance clarifies, at least for me. How to know when sovereignty (yours or that of others) is blocking your own true light. And to learn how to defend this light, without fear.