It is perhaps impossible to consider what India would be like today without Mohandas K. Gandhi. His ideas and the mass demonstrations he led defined the Indian Nationalist Movement in its fight against the British colonial administration. The Gandhian practice of Satyagraha, literally ‘truth force’ but commonly translated as non-violent political resistance, has enacted an enormous influence in subsequent struggles for the rights of the oppressed - the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Revolutions as well as a countless number of other social movements and community organizers across the globe have adapted protest techniques first put into practice on a mass scale by Gandhi. To me, Gandhi epitomizes the very ethos of grassroots democracy.
Yet, in a lecture at the Watson Institute last week, Uday Singh outlined “Gandhi’s Ambivalence to Democracy.” Needless to say, I was thoroughly confused by the title. How could Gandhi not care about democracy when he is most commonly touted as the founder of modern India, currently the world’s largest democracy? Mehta, who is professor political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, provided several nuances to his assertion that Gandhi was apathetic to democratic structures. His definition of democracy, rather than signaling egalitarian spirit or inclusionary practice, refers to the modern, centralized democratic nation-state predicated on the monopolistic control of violence. And Gandhi would most certainly have had a distaste for this mode of coercive democracy. Indeed, despite placing Gandhi’s face on its currency, India has taken a drastically different political direction from Gandhi’s vision of a loosely affiliated collection of village republics reliant on a handicrafts economy.
Moreover, a major strand of Mehta’s argument was that Gandhi’s view of politics wasn’t rooted in the abstract, as we tend of think of it, but rather embodied a politics that could not be separated from the mundane and ordinary actions of everyday life. In fact, if there is anything my experiences in India have taught me it’s that Gandhi’s ideologies, for better or worse, are felt at once everywhere and nowhere.
The several Gandhians whom I’ve encountered have always been over the age of 50. I once witnessed a group of retirees practicing Satyagraha in order to prevent the bulldozing several trees planted behind an apartment complex in Pune, a large city several hours south of Mumbai. Land issues in India’s cities and villages are known for being particularly tenacious, especially when prime real estate is at issue. Nevertheless, the group was able to preserve their community garden. Despite the inordinate amount of time their struggle had taken, the organizers were surprisingly optimistic throughout and never seemed to doubt their mission’s eventual success. This is just one example of of the kind of non-violent collective action that is used quite often to solve problems and disputes on a very pragmatic level.
On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the rampant authoritarianism that is equally commonplace in India. As Mehta tragically commented, “India doesn’t need despotism because every policeman [armed with a ubiquitous wooden baton] is a despot in his own right.” Indeed, while I’ve witnessed instances of immense hope and inspiration in India, I’ve also unfortunately observed beatings, bribery and brutality as part of a completely unexceptional state of public existence. On the streets of most major cities, particularly in North India, regular acts of violence are not unusual. A friend of mine caught a pickpocket trying to filch his cellphone while riding on Delhi’s expansive Metro. Once identified, his fellow passengers began to viciously wail on the culprit until the Metro police arrived to beat him further.
What I found to be most interesting about Mehta’s talk, however, was the label he cautiously attached to Gandhi, calling him “the true heir to Marx” during the Q & A that followed his talk. Mehta’s comparison between Marx and Gandhi is drawn from their concern with alienation in the face of industrial-capitalist modernity.
The importance Gandhi placed on craft, specifically the spinning wheel - at one point he suggested that everyone should spend several hours spinning cotton each day - can be understood as an attempt to simultaneously experience the transcendental and, at the same time, distance oneself from massive, abstract mechanized economies of scale. Although it might seem quite ridiculous today to dedicate a large chunk of your time to something like spinning cotton, I feel that the type of alienation Gandhi was trying to combat is perhaps more relevant for our generation than any other. The more abstract theory I learn in my classes, the less connected I feel with the people I’m studying. Take, for example, a course I’m currently taking on post-colonial theory. Each week, we uncover, among other injustices, how capitalism has created a global proletariat class. But, because I spend the majority of my time drawing abstract connections while living in an Ivy Tower, I am severely removed from any sort of experiential understanding of what it’s actually like to be a factory worker or farmer in India. In other words, surrounding myself in the esoteric rather than the concrete is, in many regards, the exact opposite of what Mehta describes as the essence of Gandhi’s incredibly apolitical political thought.