Finding Gandhi in cyberspace

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Sudheendra Kulkarni’s new book is a virtual conversation with the Mahatma, an assertion of his value not as a memory but in the world as it is now, says Tridip Suhrud

The medium and the message Sudheendra Kulkarni
The medium and the message Sudheendra Kulkarni
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IN 1972, philosopher Hubert Dreyfus published a manifesto at a time when researchers were proposing a theory for general problem solving and automatic machine translations. This manifesto brought into question the inherent inability of disembodied machines to mimic higher mental functions because it was based on what the philosopher called a naïve and philosophically untrained conception of mental functions. The nature of research in Artificial Intelligence has undergone paradigmatic changes in the past four decades, and still it is prudent to remember Dreyfus’ warning in What Computers Still Can’t Do.

Sudheendra Kulkarni’s tome on Gandhi’s manifesto for the Internet Age is not informed by either the anxieties of Dreyfus or the teachings of the great historian and sociologist of the age of information, Manuel Castells. But, maybe that is not his burden. Kulkarni’s quest is not to recast the Internet in the presumed image of Gandhi. His attempt, mercifully, is also not to force-fit Gandhi as an advocate of the new commons of the Internet. Neither is he asking the simplistic question: “Is Gandhi relevant in the age of Internet?” Although, it is possible to read this doorstop of a book in all the three ways; indeed, many of those whose testimonials have been printed in the book have read it in one of these ways. But such a reading is unfair to the book.

I propose that one could read it more profitably as a set of conversations, conversations about the author’s own journey — intellectual, political and personal; as also his attempt to engage Gandhi in a set of wide-ranging, often rambling dialogues about the fact of modern civilisation. In some ways, these reflections seek to capture something of the epiphany of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.

Music Of The Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto For The Internet Age Sudheendra Kulkarni  Amaryllis  725 pp; Rs 595
Music Of The Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto For The Internet Age
Sudheendra Kulkarni
Amaryllis
725 pp; Rs 595

This book — spread over five parts, an epilogue and a set of annexures — is part biographical, part political and part oriented to the future. But as we know, three parts do not always add up to a whole. Kulkarni is not a biographer of the range of DG Tendulkar or the depth of a Narayan Desai. But this is an unfair comparison. His is not a biographer’s impulse. One can quarrel with his reading of the Hind Swaraj, but he is not the first modern Indian to be both fascinated and beguiled by that ‘seed text’ of Gandhi’s. He is also not a great teller of modern fables of science and technology. If he is neither this, neither that, why engage with his work?

One bad answer could be because it is written by Sudheendra Kulkarni of the BJP. However tempting it might be to read the work as an attempt at the appropriation of Gandhi, or as a belated acknowledgement of the worth of Gandhi by the ideologues of the BJP, this would be a dishonest answer and one that is intellectually untenable. This would amount to a position that would eventually lead to a petrified Gandhi. Both the right and the left in the Indian political and intellectual world have engaged with Gandhi and his quest. This has enriched our understanding of Gandhi and probably theirs also.

The second and equally facetious reason could be that we should celebrate all attempts at contemporising Gandhi, all attempts that seek to answer the oft-repeated and somewhat illiterate question: “Is Gandhi still relevant?”

Kulkarni is doing neither of these. His attempt is intellectually far more serious. His question is: is it possible to distinguish the essence of Gandhi’s thought and his practices from those elements which, though crucial, were contingent, specific to his time, his context and the rubric from which he thought and lived his life? And this is a serious challenge, as Gandhi was given to saying, “My Life is My Message.” If we were to take this literally, we could argue that the only way to understand Gandhi is to accept the entire set of practices, institutional arrangements, and ideas as forming an irreducible structure. This, it is hoped and argued, would give us an authentic Gandhi. Such a search for authenticity would not allow us to ask our question to Gandhi. It would not allow us to go to him with our questions and patiently wait for his answers. It would not be possible to converse with him.

Sudheendra Kulkarni’s book argues that Gandhi is part of our present and would be part of our possible futures

One could add to the conundrum by suggesting that only those who can hear the music of the spinning wheel (a term given to us by Pandit Narayan Moreshawar Khare, a man who filled the ashram at Sabarmati with his devotion to sound) can understand Gandhi. Kulkarni’s argument is that it is both possible and necessary to understand the historical Gandhi and also Gandhi as memory, image, metaphor and possible futures.

KULKARNI’S UNDERSTANDING of the historical Gandhi is at best derivative. He relies upon standard narratives to construct his own narrative, which he does with facility. It is neither irksome nor illuminating. But his test as an interlocutor lies in grappling with Gandhi as metaphor and possible futures, as this is the leitmotif of the book. And here we encounter a mixed bag. Some suggestions are catchy, almost glib and hence persuasive. Take, for example, the idea of the Internet Satyagrahi. One need not remind Kulkarni that Satyagraha is primarily a mode of self-recognition. How is this mode of self-recognition to be grasped in and through the Internet? Or is the possibility of knowing oneself and in doing so ruling over oneself constituted by a ground that is philosophically different from the constitutive elements of the World Wide Web? This is not to suggest that he is unaware of this, but he makes a conscious choice to not burden the narrative with these tedious questions. These could be construed as petty quarrels, of the kind which a purist is prone to. But they could also be seen as pointers to the possibilities that the book opens up but does not pursue.

The fundamental question is: is Gandhi part of our future(s) or is he a memory, however fond? This work argues that Gandhi is part of our present and would be part of our possible futures. But if he is to be part of our future we need to ask whether the civilisational questions change with the advent of the Internet or the ecological crises. Civilisation, for Gandhi, is that mode of conduct which points to the path of duty, where performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms and in the process we get to know ourselves. Is the nature of Gandhi’s quest with all its emphasis on inwardness, on brahmacharya as that mode of conduct that leads one to truth, on non-stealing (also not stealing what truly belongs to the future) of central value to the modern artefact called the information society that we have created? The book suggests that it is indeed so.

This is an optimistic book. It’s optimistic about Gandhi and the Internet, more crucially about human nature.

Suhrud is a social scientist based in Ahmedabad

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