POLITICS, ETHICS AND THE SELF: RE-READING GANDHI’S HIND SWARAJ
Rs.1,595 Pages 370
The views of several pundits and distinguished scholars are included in this compendium which revisits Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj
Hind Swaraj is one of those key texts published in the 20th century, which on the one hand, was denounced by many critics, and at the same time, attracted numerous scholars and activists, who have been exploring an alternative model of modernism.
In this book, Gandhi critically evaluates modern civilisation and technologies related to it and questions modern conceptions of religion, nationalism, and prevalent violence to counter the unjust and exploitative system. Indeed, this is a serious attempt to counter the dominance of western epistemology of knowledge through an alternative model, which aims to decolonise the minds of Indians and of other erstwhile colonised societies.
Due to this reason, various scholars have continuously discussed the ideas of Hind Swaraj and emphatically underscored its continuous relevance.
The book under review is based on the proceedings of a conference organised by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi) in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of Hind Swaraj.
Essentially, different chapters in the volume attempt to explore the enthralling, subtle, and deeply interesting dialogue set up by Gandhi between reader and editor on the strength and limitations of modern western civilisation — its power, seduction, and deep immorality.
It is pertinent to ask what was the fundamental purpose Gandhi had behind writing Hind Swaraj. Though there is no perfect answer to this question, several pundits have tried to analyse various facets and present answers.
All the essays in this volume share the understanding that Gandhi is at once throwing a profound and fundamental challenge to complex and deep-rooted aspects of modernity, while also offering an alternative model.
For Gandhi, civilisation is a mode of conduct that points to man his path of duty, but modern civilisation lacks this basic key feature.
Several chapters of this volume have tried to evaluate the meaning of modernity and the reasons behind Gandhi being its principal opponent.
The Rudolphs underline how Gandhi found that modern civilisation puts too much emphasis on world mastery, which makes it deeply negative and harmful.
However, Akeel Bilgrami argues that rather than being a reactionary opponent of modernity, Gandhi presented a progressive critique, and he focused on folk religiosity as a way of overcoming alienation created by modern civilisation.
Indeed, Gandhi repeatedly draws attention to the insatiable thirst for resources and consumption created by modernism, which was responsible for conquest of countries like India.
Ajay Skaria proposes that Gandhi’s critique of modern civilisation should be understood as a fierce critique of secular humanism, which posits that human beings have freedom and the capacity of infinitisation.
Gandhi believed that contemporary civilization based on such ideas is pitiable and threatens the very foundation of civilisation and has degraded and ruined the nations of Europe.
Hind Swaraj also emphasises that modern civilisation has instrumentalised human relations and reduced them to contractual, commercial transactions. Gandhi severely critiques the modern idea of religion and nationalism.
He asserts that defining religion by pitting people against each other makes religion worthless. He viewed himself as sanatani, defined as continuously pluralist.
So, he opposed religious rivalry and mutual demonisation. However, he was not a proponent of religious conversion because he saw it as changing compartments without any moral enhancement.
It is also noteworthy that Gandhi clearly rejected the European idea of nation states and religious nationalism.
Anthony Parel underlines that Gandhi rejected the idea that religion can be the basis of nationalism, and describes his nationalism as ‘civic’, based on Gandhi’s idea of ek praja. Parel asserts that for Gandhi, a nation is people neutral toward religion and ethnicity, and can accommodate diversities.
Weber argues that ‘civic’ obscures the key feature of Gandhi’s idea of nationalism, i.e, accommodation of diversities. So, Weber prefers to use the term ‘pluralist nationalism’ to describe Gandhi’s nationalism.
Though this book is comprehensive and touches upon most of the important aspects of Hind Swaraj, it lacks a full chapter that discusses critiques of this book more systematically, particularly in the context of Gandhi’s opposition to science and technology, and no serious deliberation of the caste system.
The chapters present a higher level of academic discussion and analysis about the different facets of Hind Swaraj, and they demand deep academic training to grasp the arguments presented by them.
However, they also establish the relevance of Hind Swaraj for the contemporary world. It presents a complete framework to understand the complexity of modern civilisation and emphasises overhaul change to create a better society.
Kamal Nayan Choubey is associate professor, department of political science, Dayal Singh College, Delhi (The Book Review)