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A Re-examination of Gandhi

Colonial Modernization and Gandhi by Saila Kumar Ghosh

BOOK REVIEWjanuary 31, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32A Re-examination of GandhiSumanta BanerjeeThe appeal of Gandhian philosophy (as distinct from his politics) had remained confined for long among a few visionaries and idealistic followers of his. Of late, however, there has been a renewed interest in Gandhi which em-braces a wider spectrum – ranging from social activists fighting against the disas-trous effects of unbridled industrialisation on our people and our economy at large, to conscientious political scientists ques-tioning the present Euro-centric model of development that destroys our natural environment and distorts our sociocultural living pattern by encouraging an abrasive consumerist lifestyle. Disillusioned by the sorry history of Soviet and Chinese communism, they search for an alter-native in Gandhi, discovering echoes of theirpresent concerns in his impassioned critique of the western model, and deriving hopes for an egalitarian society from his vision of a rural utopia. But their hopes beg the question whether a pristine Gandhism can solve their problems. Can Gandhi’s deeply emotive moral reaction and atavistic return to an imagined past (which propelled his campaign against the western industrial model and his strategy for replacing it) be a substitute for a rigorous and critical analysis of modern capitalism, and a struggle to retrieve science and technology from its militarist hands? Whether his blueprint for rural reconstruction, basic education, and other structural changesthatheenvis-aged, is viable (in its original form) – or even desirable (in some of its aspects) – in the present circumstances, is a moot point. A re-examination of these questions is prompted by a reading of the present book, written by a veteran political scientist who locates the evolution of Gandhi’s alternative ideology of development in the context of the national movement, and examines the reactions of his critics in the Marxist circles in particular. What is interesting is that the book was written some 30 years ago as a doctoral thesis (and was never intended to be published inthepresentformat).Its author Saila Kumar Ghosh, who spent many yearsdesigningand teaching a variety of courses at the IndianInstituteofManage-ment in Kolkata, and suddenly passed away in 2007, never had the chance to revise it. Yet the issues raised by him not only remain relevant, but have assumed new importance today. Ghosh examines the uneasy rela-tionship between a controlled process of modernisation under a colonial regime on the one hand, and the development of In-dian nationalism which gave shape to the struggle against that regime on the other. Written a few years before the appear-ance of Benedict Anderson and Edward Said on the scene, the book offers an exhaustive critique of the prevailing theories of modernisationandnationalism in the first threechapters. Particularly interesting are the next two chapters on the Marxist theoreticalperspective on these two themes, and the differing assessments of Gandhi made by Marxists both in India and abroad through the ages. Ghosh recalls the original Marxist concept of endogenous modernisation through the development of capitalism from within (in European countries), and describes the challenges faced by the later communist theoreticians in reconciling it with the contrasting model of capitalist modernisation in colonial India that was set in motion by the exogenous thrust of an imperial power. Thetwistsandturns in the anti-colonial movementinIndia further compelled the international communist leadership to re-define their concept of nationalism, par-ticularly from the perspective of the colo-nisedpeople(asdistinct from the old na-tionalist and nation-buildingmovements in the west). But communist ideologues and their followers bothinIndiaand abroad failed to agree on acommon under-standing of the political developments in India in general, and Gandhi’srolein particular. From the famous Lenin-M N Roy debate in the 1920s, and through thecon-flicting (and often disparaging) comments of R P Dutt, E M S Namboodiripad and Hiren Mukerjee in the late 1950s, Ghosh traces the trajectory of the Marxist polemic on Gandhi down to 1969 (the year of his birth centenary which was marked by the publi-cation of a volume of essays entitled “The Mahatma: A Marxist Symposium”). By then, Ghosh feels, the attitude of many former critics of Gandhi had softened. They had discovered his humanist aspect and recog-nised “the unfailing courage, sincerity and selflessness of his devotion to the cause of popular liberation in India as part of human liberation throughout the world”. Gandhi’s HumanismThis humanist aspect of Gandhi’s is further explored by Ghosh in his last chapter which deals with the Gandhian theory of education. Noting that this theory was very much integral to the aims of his politics, he reminds us of the well-known four broad principles of his “basic education” – compulsory education for all children of schoolgoing age; craft learning; economic self-sustenance through such learning; and tuition in the mother tongue. Through such methods, Ghosh observes, “Gandhi wanted most enlarge the circumference of consciousness of the masses so that they could comprehend reality and activate themselves”. In a revealing historical reca-pitulation, Ghosh narrates how Gandhi’s model of teaching was rejected by almost all the political parties ranging from the liberals and the communal to the left, in-cluding his own Congress Party – because “it was not only the basic negation of their relevance and leadership, it was also a threat to their social and political power”. His isolation in the field of educational reform was in a sense a symptom of his grow-ing alienation from the political main-stream – a tragic denouement that Ghosh describes in the conclusion. Although Gandhi built the Congress, the party’s develop-ment and his own did not always converge. Ghosh hits the nail when he says: “Gandhi was the historical force which helped the forging of an alliance between the Indian bourgeoisie and rich landed peasantry. After this historical alliance was formed, Gandhi was no longer necessary.” Pointing out at the contradictions at various levels Colonial Modernization and Gandhi by Saila Kumar Ghosh (Calcutta: Papyrus), 2008; pp 296, Rs 300.
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW january 31, 200933(for example, between his professed ideology and political practice, as well as between his personal moral views and his party’s political positions), Ghosh concludes: “The man, his ideals and his organisation did not form a unity”. Gandhi thus ended up as a loner.IntrospectionIn the presentation of this complex and controversial theme, Ghosh adopts a gen-tle style of explaining diverse points of view and allowing the readers to form their own conclusions. His former col-league Dipesh Chakrabarty, in a touching foreword to the book, recommends it as “a model for conducting critical conversa-tions with colleagues, alive and dead, con-versations that can combine disagreement with genuine respect”. Taking up the cue, as an old friend of Saila Ghosh’s, let me end this review with a few observations. Like Ghosh, who did not have the time to revise his thesis, Gandhi (the object of his research) also did not have the chance for a fuller introspection before his death. In the political scene, he had to watch the burning out of his dream of achieving independence through non-violence, which collapsed in the orgy of massacres that preceded and accompanied the Partition. He did make known his sense of political disillusionment (recorded in several inter-views and statements on the eve of his death). But he was yet to come to terms with the fundamental dichotomy that was embedded in his lifelong approach to the concept of modernisation, which he always identified with the west. While opposing it in his philosophical discourse, curiously enough, for his political mission, Gandhi followed all the modernistic terms laid down by the dominant western establish-ment – adopting the habit of closeting with the colonial administrators to sign pacts, going to London to negotiate with them at the Round Table conference. Although rejecting the western Enlighten-ment’s philosophy of scientific inquiry, he appeared at the same time to have adopted fully its politics of civil rights and repre-sentative government (concepts which he could not discover in his imagined past of “ramrajya”). But being a relentless self-critic, at the end of his life Gandhi would have also surely probed into this dichotomy in his life, and recognised some of the flaws in his scheme of “basic education” – the authoritarian role of the teacher/guru; the determined exclusion of modern sci-entific knowledge – which tended to sub-vert his very purpose of empowering the poor with the spirit of questioning and expanding their sphere of knowledge.As assassination cut short Gandhi’s exercise in self-interrogation and recon-struction of his programme, the present generation of his adherents should continue the task by taking up the questions relat-ing to development and modernisation, as formulated by Gandhi. Do they go the whole hog with him in the rejection of all forms of industrialisation and modernisation? How, for instance, do they rationalise their acceptance of modern technology, which helps them in their various social move-ments to build their own network to fight Gandhi’s modern enemies? Should they throw away the baby with the bath-water? The present book can encourage them to come up with a re-evaluation of Gandhi and a reconceptualisation of his theories. Email:

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