Saturday, June 2, 2018

Ravana mode of development – X

'The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook', said William James. Gandhi's views on modernity seem odd at first glance but when examined carefully in the light of subsequent developments, he seems to have noticed the crucial issues that others had ignored. The factors that made him wary of modernity - the split between cognition and feeling, the tendency to divorce means from ends, concentration of power in the hands of a few, the coercive nature of the state, the naivety of thinking that institutions can always check unethical individuals, internalizing the word-view of the colonizer leading to internal colonization, violence feeding on itself - can be seen all the time. Among long-term predictions, it is Gandhi's warnings that seem to have come closest to reality.

Gandhi was right: colonialism continues in the minds of the colonized long after the foreign ruler has left. It replaces, as he had observed in Hind Swaraj, 'English rule without Englishmen'. He had expressed a fear that Indians wanted the tiger’s nature without the tiger’s skin i.e. they wanted to retain the language, concepts and world-view of the colonial power after getting rid of them. He had warned against thinking that the mere substitution of Indians for the English, without any substantive alterations in the structures of British rule, would be a mistaken idea of independence. Unlike most Indian nationalists, he knew very well that ‘self-government’ did not mean ’good government’. Gandhi had the mental sharpness to escape colonization of mind under British rule but most Indian leaders and elites fell into its trap.

Even Britain has repealed the law on sedition but India still retains in its statute books the colonial law that was used to charge Tilak and Gandhi. When protesting civilians are fired upon by security forces, the excuse often given is that they were just doing their duty to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. This is the same excuse that was given by General Dyer for his action in Jallianwallah Bagh. This is what nationalism does to you – a crime that is committed by others is condemned but if the same crime is committed by ‘our’ side, it is justified. After reading Gandhi, it is apparent that India never got rid of colonialism. Only the color of the rulers had changed. As Joseph Brodsky writes in Less Than One about post-independence India:
From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.
Gandhi knew whereof he was speaking. It would be fallacious to think that he was not well-read. He had read Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, William James, Goethe, Adam Smith, Marx, Bentham, Carlyle, Huxley, Bacon, Gibbon, Shaw, Kipling, Wells among others including books on Common Law, Roman Law and religion. He even learned enough Latin to read Justinian in the original. Often when he says, 'I am ignorant about...', it is better to treat it as Socratic ignorance. Importantly, he was a critical reader and did not accept unquestioningly what others wrote. As Ashis Nandy writes about Gandhi in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias, 'He was one of the few non-Westerners who had carefully read and digested the relevant Western experience and he was one of the very few among the third world's nationalist leaders to see the full implications of the West's Faustian compact with modernity.'

In an interview  in 1936, Gandhi was asked what he most despaired of. He replied, ‘The hardheartedness of the educated’. What was true then is also true now. It is a symptom of the pathology of rationality. The super-rich are living on their own planet and seem oblivious of how funny they sometimes sound. I once heard an interview with Nita Ambani where she spoke of the time when she was in Rio to watch the football World Cup and found herself in the midst of many people who were cheering for their respective national sides. She said that she had tears in her eyes thinking of how nice it would have been if India also had a football team that she could cheer. Poor thing, my heart went out to her. Life can be unbelievably cruel!

In this talk, I heard that in his book Rebooting India (a title  like this makes me cautious), Nandan Nilekani says that it only takes 100 people to solve all of India's problems! You can live in a techno-utopia and come up with such arrogant and astonishingly dim-witted statements only if you are highly educated. Too much education makes you think that the world is more orderly and predictable than it really is and you think that real world situations resemble the simplified problems in textbooks. Planning and development become like scientific formulae. Your head is buried in your chosen silo of knowledge and you are unaware of anything that lies outside it. If you give a man a hammer, every problem will look like a nail to him.

In this talk, Ashis Nandy says that IITs produce brilliant students but they are like primary schoolchildren when it comes to knowledge about society. That statement by Nilekani is a very good illustration of this observation. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, ‘People who are ‘cognitively busy’ are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.’ What Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj seems ever relevant, 'Those in whose name we speak we do not know, nor do they know us.' The white man’s burden has become the brown man’s burden.

During demonetization there was a debate about the people who died. It is not about the exact number of people who died or about how and where they died or about whether the cause of their death can be determined with certainty… A society where discourse about a person’s death is reduced to an accounting language is a society not worth having. As Orwell says in his essay The Prevention of Literature, ‘When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness…. They appear to think that the destruction of liberty is of no importance so long as their own line of work is for the moment unaffected. ‘

Gandhi’s vision of the ideal society was one in which there is a just balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. His practise at times had to necessarily fall short of his ideal as it met real-world constraints in the pursuit of an egalitarian, just society. (About his compromises see Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony Parel.) There are, however, some basic principles that do not alter as, for instance, truth and non-violence or his exposition of the value of means in any struggle for ends. Abert Camus once said that “through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.” Despite the pretense in global diplomacy, it is non-violence not violence that has to be justified. As Rajni Kothari says in her essay, Civilizational Gandhi (pdf):
Above all, the future may depend on addressing a fundamental question – how do we decide what is priceless? Gandhi’s ideal of a civilized society offers markers which help us to process this question. This vision acknowledges that greed and the will to grab power are part of the human condition. But these are not necessarily our most dominant traits. Human behaviour, like water, fills the spaces created by the rules we frame. So why not frame the rules on the basis of a more holistic view of the human condition?
If thinking that human behaviour is like water that takes the shape of its container sounds utopian, consider the case of the Pathans. They are known to settle disputes violently and have a weakness for religion-based terror. It is the culture that has produced the Taliban and sheltered Osama bin Laden. Now go back to almost a century ago. The Pathans were a symbol of militant non-violence under the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. According to Gandhi, they were the best examples of militant non-violence directed against the colonial regime in the 1930s. The non-violence of the Pathans proved ineffective in the new nation-state of Pakistan with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan spending more time in Pakistani jails than in British jails. Gandhi was also killed by an educated, rational, upper-caste Hindu in independent India not in British India.

This raises an obvious question: is the modern jungle of nation-states inherently inhospitable to non-violence? When told that his thought is utopian, Gandhi said, 'It is almost like Euclid's line which exists only in imagination, never capable of being physically drawn. It is nevertheless an important definition in geometry yielding great result.' (In fact, the world is ruled by fictions having their own utopias and die-hard subscribers - religions, histories, myths, nations, corporations, politics, capitalism, communism, economics...) As Einstein said, 'The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.'  Gandhi had stressed that his general ideas are far more important than his specific solutions which are contextual.

Gandhi's far-sighted ideas were interred with his bones. In Bapu Kuti, a late professor at IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur, C.V. Seshadri is quoted as saying, 'In 1945 I wondered how and why the German intelligentsia kept quiet about the concentration camps but now I ask the same question about our intelligentsia here, which quietly and easily allowed Gandhi to be rejected.’ He is now reduced to the role of a sanitation inspector. The cluelessness of those people (and myself) is dawning on me only now. In his essay The Final Encounter: The politics of the Assassination of Gandhi (included in the essay collection Debating Gandhi), Ashis Nandy writes that many elites were intellectually complicit in the assassination because they sensed that Gandhian politics was pushing them from the centre to the periphery of the social structure. Many of them thought that he was a back number and were secretly glad to see him go even though they shed tears in public.

Another reason why Gandhi is not taken seriously is because he did not leave any easy solutions. All Gandhian attempts at reform began at the level of the individual. Without individual reform, institutional reform is futile. But reforming oneself is hard. It is easier to point out faults in others or to shoot the messenger. (As a verse by Kabir says, Dos paraye dekhi kari, chala hasanth hasanth / apne yaad na aavai, jinka aadi na anth.- People laugh at others’ faults but fail to remember their own endless list of faults.) Another reason for confusion was Gandhi's Janus nature - he was a devout Hindu who was called more Christian than Christians, a nationalist who had reservations about the idea of a nation-state, a Congress head who wanted to disband the Congress, a traditionalist who chose the modernist Nehru as his successors...

If you thought Gandhi was just a shrewd bania with weird ideas, you are far off the mark. Many criticisms of Gandhi seem as if the person is bravely grappling with the ant while studiously ignoring the elephant in the room. He was an original practitioner-thinker whose ideas should be carefully examined rather than being deified or dismissed.  He was the one who dared to question long-held certainties. Others appear like parrots. (An important book explaining Gandhi's ideas is The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi by Raghavan Iyer). India has paid a big and probably irreversible price for ignoring Gandhi. As A.K. Saran says in this article, the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work and ultimate failure is this: 'Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?'

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