About the Book
In March of 1948, a group of Gandhi’s closest associates led by Pandit Nehru-Vinoba Bhave, J. B. Kripalani, Maulana Azad and Jayaprakash Narayan, among others-met at Sevagram to reflect and deliberate on Gandhi’s assassination.
Sixty years later, in a contemporary and evocative response to that moving introspection, a group of scholars, thinkers and writers gathered at the Sabarmati Ashram to once again reflect on Gandhi’s death as absence and memory.
This book brings together these reflections, in all their hesitation, tentativeness, openness and counter-factual argument. Spontaneous and engaging, it raises some important questions-what is it to speak of Gandhi’s death? How do we understand the meaning of his assassination? How did the new nation comprehend the nature of his absence? Did his death burden us forever? Or did it in fact allow the nation and the state to explore new directions?
The sublime photographs of Henri Cartier Bresson that accompany the text, cover the story of the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination and his funeral-photographs that capture, as Sadanand Menon puts it, ‘not the portrait of any man, but the portrait of a nation in the deepest moment of its sorrow.’ Be it the brilliantly composed image of Jawaharlal Nehru on the gate of Birla Ghar, delivering his moving ‘The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere’ speech, or the spontaneous rhythm of the crowds gathering around Gandhi’s funeral cortege moving through New Delhi’s Raj Path and Tilak Marg to the cremation site-the images provide visual testimony to the silence and intensity of the event.
Speaking of Gandhi’s Death is a contemplation, an unusual book of reflections-reminiscent of the person and persona of the Mahatma.
About the Author
Tridip Suhrud is a political scientist and a cultural historian, working on the Gandhian intellectual tradition and the social history of Gujarat of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has translated the works of Ashis Nandy and Ganesh Devy into Gujarati and novelist Suresh Joshi into English. He translated and edited C. B. Dalal’s Harilal Gandhi: A Life (2007) and Narayan Desai’s My Life is My Message, volumes 1-4 (2010). His other books include Writing Life: Three Gujarati Thinkers (2008), Hind Swaraj Vishe (2008) and An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: A Table of Concordance (2010). He has worked (with Suresh Sharma) on a bilingual critical edition of Hind Swaraj (2010). At present he is working on the English translation of Govardhanram Tripathi’s four-part novel Saraswati Chandra. He is a Professor at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar.
Peter Ronald deSouza is presently Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The seminar Thinking of Gandhi's Death, organised at the Sabarmati Ashram, was deliberately planned as his first academic activity after assuming charge as the Director of the Institute, almost to make a symbolic statement of the urgency today of the moral and the political. He works on themes related to the experience and working of democracy in South Asia and has edited Contemporary India: Transitions (2000), India's Political Parties (2006) with E. Sridharan, State of Democracy in South Asia (2006) with Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav and Indian Youth in a Transforming World (2009) with Sandeep Shastri and Sanjay Kumar.
This little book carries a great deal of expectation. In fact, it should be seen as an invitation by us to the larger intellectual community, both in India and the world, to draw from Gandhiji’s life and works, the many ways in which he remains relevant today. The meeting that we held on 30 January 2008 at Sabarmati Ashram to commemorate Gandhi’s sixtieth death anniversary, of which this book is the outcome, was an attempt to explore questions that we felt had been insufficiently explored. It was reassuring for us to see the ways in which many of the participants responded to the two questions posed: what was the significance of his assassination? And, what did his absence mean, for a newly independent India? In their presentations, when speaking of Gandhi’s death, they have taken us in exciting new directions, thereby confirming, once again, his contemporaneousness. We have decided to publish the deliberations in the hope that this slim volume will motivate others to begin their own conversations with Gandhi.
Which brings us to the question: when does a political leader lose his or her significance i.e., when does such a leader move from the stage of the contemporary and into the pages of history? It seems too early to ask this of Gandhi since only 62 years have passed since his assassination. Yet, many other political leaders of more recent provenance such as Lal Bahadur Shastri or Margaret Thatcher or Mikhail Gorbachev or Gamal Abdel Nasser or Golda Meir have passed into history. Gandhi, by contrast, remains current, very current. He is read just as a political philosopher such as Hannah Arendt, and yet he was a man of action. What is it about him that makes him such a contemporary thinker, one who has in sights for the problems of the world today, and one who is invoked by both political leaders and film celebrities, environmental activists and the last man? Does a political leader remain significant if his or her life and works have a thick moral seam running through it, a seam that connects with the large questions that philosophy and literature have always asked?
The Indian Institute of Advanced Study in collaboration with the Sabarmati Ashram organised a meeting to commemorate sixty years of Gandhi’s death. We held the meeting at Sabarmati Ashram, intentionally, to capture the symbolic space. It began with a prayer in which religious leaders from different faiths prayed and read from the holy books. Agnostics and atheists were not uncomfortable with such a beginning. The prayer was followed by a public address. The address was followed by a day of discussion. We have transcribed what was said and have reproduced it here. Some of the ideas were briefly expressed. They need to be amplified. Some are expressed more fully. They need to be engaged with. Through this small book we are bringing these big ideas in the public domain.
This prologue is being written more than 24 months after the meeting, after listening to the recordings of the discussion, and after reading the transcript. The images of the prayer meeting, the sounds of voices half in earnest, half in doubt, the measured intonation of the intellectual unwilling to submit to the power of the man, the contrasting tone of the persuaded, different voices exploring the many meanings of Gandhi’s death-all seemed to suggest that there still remains something more that is left unsaid. I wondered if this was because the discussion was incomplete, because the themes were limiting and had thereby imposed a certain constraint on the free flow of ideas. Or was it because all readings of Gandhi’s life will always be incomplete? One says this not to make the obvious point that any reading is always only a one-sided interpretation, but to suggest that the elements so combined in him that we would constantly find something valuable in his life. It does not matter from which direction we approach him, whether political or historical, civilisational or philosophical, we will find something contemporary in him even 62 years after his death.
Gandhi speaks to our times: not as a philosopher, not as a seer, not as a freedom fighter. Gandhi’s life seems to have acquired that extra something that will, it appears, always entice the seeker to look to him for answers. His life and death, keeps providing us with clues to contemporary concerns, some of which are satisfactory, some incomplete. One leaves such meetings with the feeling that if only we knew more about him, if only we had spent more time in the library, if only we had shed our spectacles and used his instead, we would be less uncertain. But would we? Is it our ignorance of the corpus of his work that leaves us so uncertain or is it the fact that he touched so many domains, that the penumbra of his life, unlike that of most lives, is very large and thus has something of interest for any inquiry. Gandhi’s penumbra has an extensive spread. If we try and map its extent we find it difficult since we cannot be certain where its borders end.
This contemporaneity can be seen from stories picked at random from the popular media. Take for example a recent panel discussion on the environment on NDTY. The Minister of State for Environment invoked Gandhi when he called for a movement to change our attitude to consumption, to be ‘the change you want to be’. In the newspaper the next day, the divorced wife of the Beatle Paul McCartney compared herself to Gandhi ‘because she believes both of them were persecuted for telling the truth’. On the same day the great Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledged as one of the great living Gandhians, who has celebrated 14 of her birthdays under house arrest, was sentenced on some vague charge of violating the terms of her arrest. Her struggle for democracy, against the military junta in Myanmar, reflects an unflinching commitment to ahimsa.
From the path of ‘non-violence’ as the only workable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; to ‘the world has enough for each one’s need but not enough for each one’s greed’ , as a way of reading the financial meltdown that has caused havoc to national economies and that challenges economists and moral philosophers, to define ‘need’, ‘enough’ and ‘greed’, and develop an economic theory and a policy regime to that would be consistent with this new economic philosophy; to ‘restricting wants’ as a practical response to the very real fear of climate change, Gandhi’s critique of the modern system seems to ring truer with each passing day. While scholars will argue about the practicality of his recommendations, as they have done, and philosophers will challenge the practicality of that which is deemed practical, and in the process shifting and expanding the area of what is possible, Gandhi’s penumbra will thus continue to entice. In this prologue, however, it is not these issues that I wish to place on the discussion table since much has been written about them and more will be written. They belong to the penumbra of Gandhi’s life. It is this penumbra that makes Gandhi contemporary and allows us to dialogue with him on a range of issues.
There are two issues that I want to add to the list of issues I have mentioned in the preface and in my welcome address. The first of these is Gandhi’s belief in the ‘power of innocent suffering’, voluntarily undergone, to change the ways of the adversary. This belief intrigues me. The idea that voluntarily accepting the pain and suffering that follows when one is committed to the truth, is an action that necessarily results in the ‘scales falling from the other’s eyes’ , in the adversary or opponent changing their position, puzzles me. Why should this happen? Is it because innocent suffering, voluntarily undergone, persuades the opponent to see the truth from the sufferer’s perspective? Is the demonstration of suffering a form of resistance to the untruth that the opponent’s position represents? Why should such innocent suffering voluntarily undertaken be able to bridge fundamental differences, especially ones which arise from different world-views? Why should innocent suffering voluntarily undertaken have such power as to be able to bring about a change in perception and attitude, a change that often reasoned argument is unable to achieve?
Several philosophers in the Western tradition have talked about the ‘incommensurability’ of comprehensive doctrines, about the possibility of a communicative rationality existing between persons but only under certain conditions of an ideal speech situation, about the impossibility of bridging the gulf between gods and demons, etc., all of which suggest that a plurality of truths is the inescapable order of things. Gandhi, in contrast, seems not only to believe in a Unity-one truth-but that ‘innocent suffering voluntarily undergone’ will help the adversary discover it. What is puzzling is the change. Is it the result of a new conviction that comes over an opponent who sees the innocent suffer unnecessarily, an epiphanic moment, or is it the result of an unwillingness on the part of the opponent to push the moment to its crises? Is the change a concession to superior reasoning or is it a fear of the more complicated situation that will inevitably follow if positions are not compromised? In other words, does the innocent suffering cause the crossing of a threshold of reason or a threshold of prudence? Is it thus more a generous adjustment rather than a new conviction? A trawl through Gandhi’s life shows that his path of innocent suffering voluntarily undergone’, revealing the truth to the adversary, seems to have worked. Well, almost always.
The most dramatic episode, immortalised III Attenborough’s film Gandhi, captures this transformation. To stop the rioting and carnage engulfing Calcutta, Gandhi goes on an indefinite fast-an act of atonement. Suddenly the hate in the eyes of the rioters are replaced by shame. The carnage stops. The rioters melt away. They see the depravity of their actions. They see the Mahatma’s truth. The question we need to ask is will it also work for those who are not Mahatmas? Is it possible for ordinary persons to achieve, however temporarily, the ‘Mahatma moment’? When ordinary people voluntarily adopt the path of innocent suffering will they be dismissed by their contemporaries as people merely seeking attention, engaging in a stunt that is driven by self-interest, or will they be seen as espousing a higher cause? Will they be seen as simple minded rather than, as, many suggest, saintly? Will it work in all situations, both personal and public, or is it an action that will have an effect only in the public domain where things are less morally fluid, more settled, and not as morally fuzzy as they are in the private domain? Is the necessary condition for this to work the prior public recognition that the person is not motivated by self- interest but driven instead by the larger interest, in other words a person who has already acquired the status of a saintly person?’
These are the questions that I continue to struggle with. I am caught between two positions here. On the one hand there seems to be considerable truth to the observation that a person would feel less certain, if not uncertain, about being unyielding when faced with ‘innocent suffering voluntarily undergone’. One would feel impelled to introspect and ask, ‘Am I being bloody minded’? If I am confident of the core principles that govern my life, my ethical code, should I not be willing to re-examine them especially in the face of ‘innocent suffering voluntarily undergone’? On the other hand I cannot tell whether this acceptance of the other’s position constitutes a change of heart, one where’ compassion’ emerges as a salient attribute of Truth and in the process displaces ‘reason’ from the centrality that it enjoyed in the earlier adversarial situation. Truth here acquires a new personality in which ‘compassion’ not ‘reason’ is the defining quality. In the earlier frame, the two arguments confronted each other each challenging the other to provide reasons and evidence in support of their claim. Reason was the jury. Reason gave the judgment. In a situation where these opposing positions belonged to different comprehensive doctrines there seemed little possibility of a common conclusion, jointly arrived at, being achieved. And yet Gandhi’s life has many instances of his fasts producing such a common conclusion. How did it happen? Was it the power of ‘innocent suffering voluntarily undergone’?
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