Bhikhu Parekh on rel­e­vance of Gandhi and satya­graha

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At 82, Baron Bhikhu Parekh re­mains as sprightly as ever. He is no longer teach­ing in class­rooms but con­tin­ues his aca­demic pur­suits. Af­ter ‘De­bat­ing In­dia: Es­says on In­dian Po­lit­i­cal Dis­course’ (Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 2015), he is at work on his next book. He is an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in se­lect con­fer­ences and work­shops, which keep bring­ing him back from Bri­tain to In­dia reg­u­larly. As a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, his in­ter­ests range from con­tem­po­rary con­cerns to philo­soph­i­cal mat­ters. But Ma­hatma Gandhi has re­mained a topic of special in­ter­est. Dur­ing Prof Parekh’s re­cent In­dia visit, Ashish Me­hta sat down with him for a chat on Gandhi. Here is what they talked:

Can you tell us a lit­tle about your jour­ney from Amal­sad town in south Gu­jarat to the UK? And how you came to dis­cover Gandhi along the way?

in a way, Gandhi’s dis­cov­ery came for me right in the child­hood. i was born in 1935, when the af­ter­ef­fects of the Salt march were still felt: my town, amal­sad, is close to dandi and dha­rasana. el­ders at home of­ten dis­cussed Gandhi. He was a pres­ence as a po­lit­i­cal and moral per­son. How­ever, i had no wish to take up any in­tel­lec­tual study on this sub­ject.

later, my Phd the­sis was on the topic of equal­ity, and there was no ref­er­ence to Gandhi in it. i re­turned to in­dia in 1981, as vice chan­cel­lor of the ma­haraja Saya­ji­rao univer­sity, Vado­dara, and my term ended in 1984. it was then that i thought i should work on a new sub­ject. my work on marx had just come out [‘marx’s The­ory of ide­ol­ogy’, 1982]. i ob­vi­ously thought of work­ing on an in­dia-re­lated sub­ject, and started study­ing Gandhi. once Gandhi grips you, he won’t leave you soon. i thought it would be over in a year or so, but the project got ex­tended. in 1989, two books were pub­lished: ‘colo­nial­ism, Tra­di­tion and Re­form: an anal­y­sis of Gandhi’s Po­lit­i­cal dis­course’ [Sage]

and ‘Gandhi’s Po­lit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: a crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion’ [macmil­lan]. later when ox­ford univer­sity Press ap­proached me to write an in­tro­duc­tion to Gandhi, i com­pleted it in three months [First pub­lished in the Past Mas­ters se­ries in 1997, and then in the Very Short In­tro­duc­tion se­ries in 2001].

There is a peren­nial de­bate about two Gand­his: the po­lit­i­cal and the spir­i­tual, deal­ing with the ex­ter­nal world and in the in­ter­nal world. The two are of course in­ter­linked, but each Gandhi scholar fore­grounds one. What would you say to that?

The two as­pects are of course re­lated, in two ways: in his think­ing, spir­i­tu­al­ity un­der­lies and il­lu­mi­nates his po­lit­i­cal views. like­wise, in his life too, his spir­i­tu­al­ity leads to his po­lit­i­cal val­ues. Both as­pects are crit­i­cal: one won’t do.

There are sev­eral stud­ies de­lin­eat­ing evo­lu­tion of Gandhi’s re­li­gion, with clear mile­stones in his read­ings and prac­tices. What about the evo­lu­tion of his po­lit­i­cal views?

on Gandhi’s po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion, the key sources are ob­vi­ously leo Tol­stoy, John Ruskin and Hd Thoreau. in spir­i­tu­al­ity, his key sources are the Gita and chris­tian­ity. Gandhi says he learned true non-vi­o­lence from Tol­stoy. ‘non­vi­o­lence’ for him is ‘love’. in Hindu tra­di­tion, non-vi­o­lence is a pas­sive, in­ac­tive no­tion. in its ac­tive form, it is love. Ruskin’s ‘unto This last’ is im­por­tant for Gandhi. From Thoreau, he learned civil dis­obe­di­ence; that what­ever the gov­ern­ment does, we are re­spon­si­ble for it. [Through that and also from Tol­stoy,] Gandhi de­vel­oped his cri­tique of the state: that it is not an ab­stract en­tity; it is made of peo­ple. in­dia is its peo­ple. The in­ter­est of a state means in­ter­est of its peo­ple. What­ever the state does is done on be­half of and in the in­ter­est of its peo­ple.

From the Gita, he learned nishkam karma [self­less ac­tion]. From Chris­tian­ity, via Tol­stoy, he de­vel­oped mis­sion­ary spirit, un­der­stood the im­por­tance of suf­fer­ing. Through suf­fer­ing you can touch the hearts of other peo­ple.

In today’s post-trump, post-brexit world, Gandhi’s rel­e­vance should be ob­vi­ous, but how can one put the val­ues he preached into prac­tice... In terms of method­ol­ogy, the way Gandhi in­vented and in­no­vated upon the in­stru­ments and tech­niques of po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance and so­cial jus­tice?

Some of the things as­so­ci­ated with Gandhi are no longer in cur­rency, which is good. For ex­am­ple, brah­macharya and op­po­si­tion to fam­ily plan­ning. or pro­hi­bi­tion. Peo­ple did not agree with his views on these mat­ters.

Then there are other val­ues, eter­nal val­ues: truth, non-vi­o­lence, and the no­tion that prop­erty does not be­long to me, i am merely a trustee of it. These are very im­por­tant val­ues and they will re­main eter­nal. Gandhi forged the in­stru­ment of satya­graha out of them. When dif­fer­ences crop up, when one needs to fight against in­jus­tice, how should one give the fight? The fight has to be a just one. Ra­tio­nal dis­cus­sion is not suf­fi­cient; vi­o­lence is not ac­cept­able. Then what shall one do? Gandhi’s an­swer is satya­graha.

un­for­tu­nately, in in­de­pen­dent in­dia, the tra­di­tion of satya­graha seems to have died down. it is not the or­gan­ised re­lent­less move­ment it used to be. Satya­graha is not out-of-date, it can be ef­fec­tive today too. it can take new forms by adopt­ing, for ex­am­ple, so­cial me­dia.

af­ter Gandhi, satya­graha has taken two forms: Vi­noba’s and JP’S [Jayaprakash narayan’s]. Vi­noba him­self was not clear about the role of satya­graha af­ter in­de­pen­dence. He’d say, ‘can we go on satya­graha against our own gov­ern­ment?’ JP’S an­swer would be, yes, it should be done even against our own gov­ern­ment when needed. Vi­noba’s views did not lead to much; whereas in JP’S case, a satya­graha was started out of the stu­dent move­ments of 1974-75. How­ever, its lead­er­ship went out of his hand and it took the form of or­gan­ised mil­i­tancy.

The cru­cial el­e­ment in satya­graha is love: you don’t hate the other side. Would it have worked against Hitler? no, not af­ter he came to power. But it would have been ef­fec­tive when he was ris­ing to power. it mat­ters when it is de­ployed, and whether peo­ple are made aware. Satya­graha is ef­fec­tive when it gen­er­ates pop­u­lar pres­sure.

in con­tem­po­rary in­dia, medha Patkar has been en­gaged in a praise­wor­thy work, but you can’t re­sort to satya­graha too fre­quently. That is not the way. also, hunger strike is not satya­graha. Hunger strike is merely to pres­surise the other side. It is dif­fer­ent from fast­ing, which is to pu­rify one­self.

What books you’d rec­om­mend for fur­ther study of Gandhi – apart from your own work in the ‘Very Short In­tro­duc­tion’ se­ries?

one must read the pri­mary sources – Gandhi in his own words. among other works, ‘The im­pos­si­ble in­dian’ by Faisal de­vji, ‘The moral and Po­lit­i­cal Thought of ma­hatma Gandhi’ by Ragha­van n iyer, and ‘Gandhi: Strug­gling for au­ton­omy’ by Ron­ald Terchek. also stud­ies by Ju­dith Brown for his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, and Ra­machan­dra Guha’s bi­og­ra­phy [‘Gandhi Be­fore in­dia’].

“Gandhi de­vel­oped his cri­tique of the state: that it is not an ab­stract en­tity; it is made of peo­ple. In­dia is its peo­ple. The in­ter­est of a state means in­ter­est of its peo­ple. What­ever the state does is done on be­half of and in the in­ter­est of its peo­ple.”

You are bet­ter known abroad for your work on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Dur­ing 1998-2000, you headed the Com­mis­sion on the Fu­ture of Mul­ti­eth­nic Bri­tain. The con­ser­va­tive press once called you “the most dan­ger­ous, sub­ver­sive aca­demic in Bri­tain”. Now, in the post-brexit days, how do you look at Bri­tish so­ci­ety?

i see the bound­aries of tol­er­ance are shift­ing.

Ashish me­hta

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