• Mahatma Gandhi •
By Faisal Devji
WHILE JAWAHARLAL NEHRU thought there were two Englands — one, the home of liberty and the other, an oppressive imperial power — what Mahatma Gandhi objected to about the colonial order in India was the very thing he disliked in Britain’s liberal society. For, in some ways, the colonial state was even more liberal than its metropolitan cousin, since it could, with far greater certitude, assert its impartiality with regard to the varying interests of a subject population. And so, it was not simply its lack of representative government to which Gandhi objected, but more importantly, the colonial state’s role as a third party. His targets were law and order, ostensibly the most attractive part of British rule in India. The peace brought about within such an order, argued the Mahatma, was illusory because it also produced the violence against which order had to be maintained.
Gandhi explained all this with reference to the stereotyped, if sometimes violent, rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, seen as the two great political interests in British India. Nationalists had often claimed that conflict between these communities was fostered by a colonial policy of divide and rule, and while the Mahatma agreed with this theory in principle, he did not view religious violence among Hindus and Muslims as the consequence of any deliberate planning by the British. Instead, he argued that the colonial state’s neutrality made religious conflict possible, its autonomy permitting Hindus and Muslims to define themselves as equally autonomous interests. And it was because the State stood as a third party between these interests that it was able to mediate between them, thus actively preventing any direct dealing among the Hindus and Muslims. In this way, the colonial state served not as a perversion of its liberal alternative, but rather as its secret truth.
‘The colonial state prevented direct dealings between Hindus and Muslims’
Because they didn’t have to deal directly with one another, Hindus and Muslims could press their claims by enlisting the State’s support against each other, giving rise to a manipulative politics of solicitation in which loyalty was offered in exchange for rewards designed to discomfit the rival community. And since they had no responsibility for governance, these interests could afford to look upon the outbreak of violence with equanimity, for it was after all the role of the colonial state to impose order. Riots were, therefore, a sign of political luxury as much as anything else, which is to say risks that might be run because the state would always be there to limit their effects and at most return to the status qua ante. Of course, the liberal centre could not hold, and eventually the colonial state, buffeted by opposing interests, was forced to relinquish its impartiality. The British had lost legitimacy simply by holding so firmly to it.
Gandhi, therefore, distrusted liberal forms of mediation, which he thought sustained violence rather than diminishing it, and preferred direct dealings even if they sometimes involved the use of force. Such dealings, he suggested, by forcing the contending parties to rely upon their own strength rather than the support or forbearance of the State, were at least honest and so open to relations of honour and trust. And in this sense their violence, too, could be purifying, while that pursued by indirect means was bound to be degrading. For the politics of mediation not only prolonged conflict by allowing rivals to depend upon the strength of third parties, it also rendered their violence irresponsible. The Mahatma was adamant that such forms of violence were inherent to liberal society, which was why he linked them to the legal order in its most common manifestation, arguing that lawyers worked not to resolve conflicts but rather sustain them at a manageable level.
When India and Pakistan embarked upon their first war in the aftermath of Independence, Gandhi was against taking their dispute over Kashmir to the United Nations. This was because he thought that international mediation would not only prolong the conflict by preventing any direct dealing between the two countries, but also attract bigger powers to their shared homeland, which would in the end become the site of proxy wars. He recognised that the UN operated much like the colonial state, its mediation serving to sustain and expand conflict by permitting the contending parties to bolster their forces artificially by turning to outside powers for sustenance. Given the subcontinent’s fate as a site for some of the most destructive proxy wars of modern times, from the anti-Soviet jihad to the War on Terror, who is to say if the Mahatma was not correct in his estimation?
Gandhi preferred direct dealings even of a violent kind to the protracted, if sometimes intermittent and low-grade, conflicts that were the special gift of mediation. So he would have liked to see a real war between India and Pakistan, because it might make possible an equally real resolution of their dispute by honourable means. And let us remember that the wars India and Pakistan have conducted represent perhaps their most honourable dealings with one another. For unlike Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism in India, to say nothing of the excessive and unregulated violence that marks internecine conflict in both countries, their wars have always been engagements of the most civilised kind, textbook exercises conducted outside civilian areas for the most part and replete with instances of camaraderie and honour among the opposing armies. And in this perverse way they might well represent the greatest step towards non-violence that either nation has ever taken.
An eminent historian, Faisal Devji specialises in studies of Islam, globalisation, ethics and the history of South Asia. He is currently a reader in Modern South Asian History, Oxford University and the author of Landscapes of the Jihad, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity and The Impossible Indian