The Great Indian Way

Was Gandhi an Anarchist?

A Raghu Kumar

On 15 August 1947, when the crowds were swarming into New Delhi from all sides, and Nehru was about to deliver one of the finest speeches on such a great dawn, reminding the people of India of the culmination of 'the tryst with destiny' long years ago the people of India had made, "The first uncertain sputtering of a candle had appeared in the windows of the house on Beliaghata Road just after 2 a.m., an hour ahead of Gandhi's usual rising time. The glorious day when his people would savor at last their freedom should have been an apotheosis for Gandhi, the culmination of a life of struggle, the final triumph of a movement which had stirred the admiration of the world. It was anything but that. There was no joy in the heart of the man in Hydari House. The victory for which Gandhi had sacrificed so much had the taste of ashes, and his triumph was indelibly tainted by the prospects of a coming tragedy.… 'I am groping,' he had written to a friend the evening before". 'Have I led the country astray?' How do we understand this person who refuses to rejoice in his own offspring? What binds him or refuses to bind him to any particular pleasure?"

"All interpretations of India are ultimately autobiographical", says Ashis Nandy. In understanding Gandhi, and his philosophy, his struggles within and without India, the trajectory of his life, and the culmination of his nonviolence in the assassin's bullet is not just autobiographical or biographical of Gandhi; it has, in fact, become an inalienable part of Indian history. There are several readings of Gandhi, at several layers, including a facet which explains him as unconventional, atypical and always relating himself with an authority disobligingly. From the first biography of Gandhi written by Joseph J Doke, a Christian missionary in South Africa in 1909, there are several incisive readings and roving inquiries into his life from various angles and philosophical standpoints.

Some such important readings include Romain Rolland's Mahatma Gandhi, Erikson's Gandhi's Truth, Pannalal Dasgupta's Revolutionary Gandhi, Manu Gandhi's memoir Bapu—My Mother, Louis Fischer's The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Payne's  The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi and Ashis Nandy's The Intimate Enemy. The list is not exhaustive, but indicative of exploring unknown depths of this presumably spiritual maverick. Any one, at the initial reading of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, would arrive at an idea of Gandhi as primarily a law-abiding citizen. His family legacies, his loyalties to the British rule time and again, and his ambivalences even till the early phases of the Second World War lead people to such derivatives. But Gandhi also makes a parallel contra-reading. All his life was a continuous and long struggle against 'authority'—authority of every kind! All his understanding of religious texts such as Bhagavad Gita, caste or class, swaraj, modernity, freedom, liberation of the individual or society, rights and duties, the concept of Truth and God, nonviolence, brahmacharya, health, food, community living etc., defied the reasoning of known epistemology. To cite one, he said once: 'Freedom is often to be found inside a prison's walls, even on gallows; never in council chambers, courts and class rooms'. Was Gandhi an anarchist or iconoclast internally, while externally offering a different posture?

In the list of anarchists at one finds the name of Gandhi as one standing with the insignia of "anarchist" along with Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, William Godwin, Emma Goldman, Tolstoy and Bhagat Singh etc. Gerald Runkle writes: "The essence of anarchism is individual liberty. …Anarchism thus opposes authority in all its forms; government rule, social constraint, religious domination and moral compulsion' …'The anarchist, as Proudhon proclaimed, accepts no master, recognizes no sovereign'. The idea that Gandhi was an anarchist has always been contested by most of his adherents. But his life provides for humongous evidence of his strained relationship with every 'authority' from childhood to his last breath, an inalienable ingredient in anarchist thought. Another problematic area in this description has always been the conceptual connotations of the very word—'anarchism'. The historical experience of the West with anarchism has been awfully brimming with the overtones of violence. However, even in anarchic tradition of the West there are certain subaltern layers of non-violence.

George Woodcock considered 'anarchism' as a doctrine which poses a criticism of the existing society and strives to change it. "All anarchists deny authority; many of them fight against it. But by no means, all who deny authority and fight against it can reasonably be called anarchists. Historically, anarchism is a doctrine which poses a criticism of existing society; a view of a desirable future society; and a means of passing from one to the other". But there are some basic features common to many, if not all, anarchists: refusal to establish systems, naturalism, deeply moralistic tendencies, anti-historicism, apolitical or anti-political approaches, direct and individualistic action, rejection of or suspicious outlook towards all forms of government or authority etc.

But the difficulty now revolves also around understanding 'authority'. The idea of 'authority' has undergone a great change. 'Authority' manifests in different incarnations in the course of a modern man's life, not just in 'the King' or 'the priest' as in the pastoral societies. One may locate him in a parent, a teacher, an employer, a policeman, a judge, a leader, a guru, a caste-head etc. Consequently, there are many counter-shades of antonyms also. Many a time, one may not challenge the authority; one may just escape its sovereignty. The escape, sometimes, may also be in the form of art, literature, spirituality or in an appeal to the something unknown higher.

Very early in Gandhi's career, Sir C Sankaran Nair [1857-1934] [who was the President of the Indian National Congress for 1897 and a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council for 1915] had accused Gandhi of being 'an anarchist' in an essay titled 'Gandhi and Anarchy'. Anthony J Parel rejects this claim as unfounded and presents Gandhi's harmoniously constructed philosophy of modern State in his work. At the end of Dandi March on 06.04.1930—Mrs Sarojini Naidu hailed him as "Law breaker". The Right Hon'ble V S Srinivasa Sastri also described Gandhi as a "philosophical anarch" who could not be swayed by rational arguments. Gandhi himself described his utopia as 'enlightened anarchy' contends Vinit Haksar.

In fact, Gandhi's life appears to be a series of such violations of the conventional authority or wisdom. From childhood, in many of his acts, one finds a typical discordant, while apparently being an obedient person. Erikson cites an anecdote from Gandhi's early childhood: "…for when his father was not there, he was inclined to usurp strange rights. He would remove the image of the ruling Prince from its customary stool and put himself in its place, a habit of pretending to be his father's master…" Raja Rao quotes another anecdote: '…and once it's said, he even took one of the idols from their sacred seats, and placed himself in the god's place'. Gandhi's decision to go to London to pursue law ended up in the caste elder-men passing a gag order against him: "In the opinion of the caste, your proposal to go to England is not proper". Hinduism had long held taboo against travelling beyond sea. Gandhi said to them that he would nevertheless go. He replied firmly: "I think the caste should not interfere in the matter". Consequently, the headmen ostracised Gandhi: "This boy shall be treated as an outcaste from today".

There were three Englands, by then, within England—England in England, England in India, and England in South Africa. England in England is a very sophisticated nation through the Enlightenment awakening of the eighteenth century. Most of the Indian renaissance is the result of Indian intellectual contact with this England. But England as a colonial power was always different. England in South Africa is no sophisticated State rather it was a State with all prejudices—colour, class etc. This is the specific additional element which enriched Gandhi's approach towards the England. His journey from Durban to Pretoria and the incident that occurred at Pietermaritzburg where he was removed from first class compartment on the insistence of a white man is well-known and was a turning point of his life. It is now in the deep memories of many Indians and even the Westerners, thanks to the great film of Richard Samuel Attenborough of 1982. This is not the last experience to Gandhi of a different England and a different Whiteman. Fischer raises the question: 'Why, of all people, did it occur to Gandhi to resist the evil?' and tries to answer it: '…Was it this inherent anti-authoritarianism that made him rebel against the government colour line? …Was it destiny, heritage, luck, the Gita or some other immeasurable quantity?'

The white man always relied on some kind of slavery. With the demise of European feudalism, conditions became increasingly unfavourable to the institution of slavery; maintaining slaves was expensive, and a growing population increased the availability of cheap labour, making slavery economically less favourable. When the slavery was found economically and morally indefensible, the England had adopted innovative methods. One such was the 'indentured labour' intelligently introduced in South Africa, in the guise of contractual freedom of the labourers. During 1890-1 some 150,000 Indian emigrants were settled in South Africa, most of them having taken up their residence in Natal. "Semi-barbarous Asiatics" was the description of Indians of South Africa in the statute books. Though by religion they were different formulations, the White racial arrogance put them in the parenthesis of a common nomenclature "coolies"; all Indians were known as "coolies" or "sammis" i.e., "coolie merchants", "coolie clerks", "coolie barristers" etc. It is in this process of understanding the different England in South Africa, unknown to the Indian students in England or USA or Germany, he underwent a transformation in his life and philosophy. Here he was also introduced to the writings of Tolstoy and John Ruskin.

Within a week of his arrival he visited the Durban court. The magistrate asked him to take off his turban which he refused to obey and left the court promptly. Some newspapers described him as an "unwelcome visitor". During the year 1894 the Natal Government sought to impose an annual tax of £25 on the ex-indentured Indians. Gandhi campaigned against the law, and the struggle which started in 1893 had gone up to the end of 1914. It is here Gandhi experimented with his method of struggle—'means', i.e., 'satyagraha' for the first time in 1907.

In Transvaal during January 1908 in the agitation against compulsory registration of Indians, Gandhi and his colleagues were once summoned to the court. The questions and answers in the trial between the Judge Mr Jordan and Gandhi make an interesting reading:

Jordan: The question is, have you registered or not? If you have not registered this is an end of the case. If you have any explanation to offer as regards the order I am going to make, that is another story. There is the law, which has been passed by the Transvaal legislature and sanctioned by the Imperial Government. All I have to do and all I can do is to administer that law as it stands.
Gandhi: I do not wish to give any evidence in extenuation and I know that legally I cannot give any evidence at all.
Jordan: All I have to deal with is legal evidence. What you want to say, I suppose, is that you do not approve of the law and you conscientiously resisted it.
Gandhi: That is perfectly true
Jordan : I will take the evidence, if you say you conscientiously object to the law.
Gandhi asked for the indulgence of the Court for five minutes but Mr Jordan refused to grant it. "You have defied the law" he bluntly said.
Gandhi: Very well, Sir, then I have nothing to say.
Jordan : Leave the colony within forty-eight hours. That is my order.

Gandhi refused to comply with orders. So, on January 10, 1908, Gandhi and others who attended the court for sentence 'pleaded guilty' to the charge of disobeying the order to leave the colony. The magistrate sentenced Gandhi to two months' simple imprisonment. "The role of a political prisoner is far more honorable than that of a lawyer," he declared. This was his first prison experience.

Gandhi returned to India in January, 1915. The first exhibition of the rebel in him on Indian soil occurred on 4 February, 1916 at Hindu University Central College (now Benares University). The ceremonies were attended by illustrious and glittering persons such as the Viceroy, bejeweled maharajas, maharanis and high officials apart from Mrs Besant and Malaviya. He spoke in such gathering about the poverty of India, comparing the richly bedecked nobleman with the millions of the Indian poor counterparts. 'There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewelry and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India'. He declared 'our salvation can only come through the farmer. Neither the lawyers, nor the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it'. There was a commotion. Mrs Besant repeatedly ordered Gandhi to close his talk. The Viceroy, the maharajas, the noble officers left the meeting one by one.

From then on, in all his interventions, whether it was Champaran movement in the cause of indigo farmers (1917), or the strike in the cause of Ahmedabad Textile workers (1918), or the subsequent movement of 'boycott of foreign goods or cloths', civil disobedience movements during 1921-22, or at Bardoli (1928) or the Salt March (1930) or the Quit India movement (1942), he was giving the British Authority, the concrete proof that their might, hitherto dreaded and unquestioned, could be challenged by Indians. Gandhi was arrested on 10 March, 1922 on the charges of sedition for his three articles written for Young India. The first one appeared in Young India dated 19 September 1921, titled 'Tampering with Loyalty'. 'I have no hesitation in saying that it is sinful for anyone, either soldier or civilian, to serve this government…. Sedition has become the creed of Congress…. Non-cooperation, though a religious and strictly moral movement, deliberately aims at the overthrow of the government, and is therefore legally seditious…" In the second article, 'A puzzle and its solution', dated 15 December, 1921, he wrote 'Lord Reading must understand that non-cooperators are at war with the government. They have declared rebellion against it…" The third one 'Shaking the Manes' dated 23 February, 1922, opens with the most challenging sentence: 'How can there be any compromise whilst the British lion continues to shake his gory claws in our faces?' He further added: 'No empire intoxicated with the red wine of power and plunder of weaker races has yet lived long in the world.' 'The fight that was commenced in 1920 is a fight to finish, whether it lasts one month or one year or many months or many years…'.

At the preliminary hearing of the case he was asked to state his profession and he declared it as 'farmer and weaver', and as usual pleaded guilty. 'The Great Trial' was held on 18 March, 1922 before Mr Justice C N Broomfield, District and Sessions judge. After the charge was read out by the Advocate General, the judge asked Gandhi whether he wished to make any statement. He had a ready written statement. The statement read: 'The Advocate General was entirely fair…. It is very true and I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me'. He concluded saying: 'I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge, is, as I am going to say in my statement, either to resign your post, or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you administer are good for the people. I do not expect that kind of conversion, but by the time I have finished my statement you will perhaps have a glimpse of what is raging within my breast to run this maddest risk that a man can run.'… 'I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically…. I have no doubt that both England and the town-dwellers of India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity which is perhaps unequalled in history'. 'But I hold it an honour to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system'. 'In my opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good'.

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Vol. 52, No. 33, Feb 16 - 22, 2020