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Gandhi’s new assassins

The BJP is touting ‘Hind Swaraj’ as a Swadeshi manifesto. It is anything but

Written by Tridip Suhrud |
February 14, 2009 2:21:52 am

Texts,like individuals,have biographies. One of the most curious biographies of texts in recent times has been that of MK Gandhi’s 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. It was proscribed in India by the British soon after its publication in South Africa. The Gujarati interpreter who read the text and filed the report was baffled by the strangeness of the text. The book he said did not advocate revolt or use of physical force against the British and it was for this reason the book was dangerous and had to be banned. Since that first official reader the Hind Swaraj has continued to invite misreading. Many continue to hold the mistaken and exaggerated belief that it was written as a direct response to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar,a man who would eventually be charged for the conspiracy to kill Gandhi. Savarkar dismissed the text as archaic. Nehru confessed to having only a “vague picture” of it. Not surprisingly it was only the Theosophists who took the text seriously and brought out a special issue of the Aryan Path. It lay as a forgotten text for almost five decades till it was re-discovered as an anti-colonial manifesto,as a curious challenge to modernity,as a harbinger of the environmental movements. This year we celebrate the centenary of Hind Swaraj amidst the gloom of global economic crises.

In a curious transposition the recently concluded BJP meet in Nagpur celebrated the message of Hind Swaraj,as a Swadeshi manifesto. This attempt by the BJP to claim Hind Swaraj and through that Gandhi for itself is a result of at least two kinds of misreadings of the man and the text. First,it arises from a belief that a man that was killed 61 years ago by the men and ideologies that BJP continues to revere is available for selective appropriation. The fundamental reason for Gandhi’s assassination was the challenge that he posed to the “Sanatan Hinduism”,while claiming to be a “Sanatani” himself. The other reason was that Gandhi seemed to be an obstacle in creation of India as a hard,modern,nation-state. The BJP recognises that Gandhi and Ambedkar (not Gandhi vs. Ambedkar) continue to be the most powerful challenge to their social and cultural vision. Gandhi for his attempts to make space for spirituality in the realm of the political and Ambedkar through his conversion to Buddhism and his rejection Hindu social order are the only two counter-points to BJP’s religious politics from within the realm of religiosity.

The second misreading arises when they seek to reduce Hind Swaraj to a Swadeshi manifesto. Hind Swaraj is a civilisational text. It argues that modernity seeks to make machines as measure of men. It is for this reason modernity is characterised as ‘black age’ or ‘Satanic civilisation.’ The purpose of civilisation for Gandhi is that it should allow each person to know oneself,and so doing we learn to rule ourselves. It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. To rule one self is to be moral,to be just and have a sense of equability towards all religions. Hind Swaraj provides one of the most articulate critiques of the modern tendency to use religious identity as a ground for political mobilisation and violence that it inevitably breeds. Hind Swaraj also provides a fundamental meditation on the question of means and ends. It argues against the modern belief that ends justify the means. For Gandhi means and ends share an inviolable relationship. And therefore both means and ends have to be good,pure and virtuous. Finally,Hind Swaraj is an immensely hopeful text. It seeks not the destruction of England but wishes to rescue Europe from its modernity. It sees this as India’s unique possibility and challenge.

If the BJP wishes to appropriate Hind Swaraj for itself,it will have to eschew use of religious identity as grounds for political mobilisation. It cannot seek the annihilation and destruction of its ideological and political opponents but aspire to rescue them. The BJP and the Congress remain committed to use of violence as a means of legitimate political action,albeit through a theory of ‘legitimate violence’ or ‘counter-violence.’ Hind Swaraj does not distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence and it is for this reason that it remains an arresting text. If the BJP wishes to contend with Gandhi it would need to contend with its own unconscious,its own past. It has another option. It can,like Narendra Modi,seek to turn Mohandas into a Mohanlal,a petty shop-keeper who has no future in our cities of malls.

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The writer is an Ahmedabad based academic

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