Thursday, September 20, 2012

Faisal Devji's "The Impossible Indian"

Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow at St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence, and reported the following:
This book is about an immensely successful political thinker who recognized that the quotidian reality of modern life could be radicalized by its engagement with violence to produce the most extraordinary effects. Indeed Gandhi belongs with Lenin, Hitler and Mao as one of the great revolutionary figures of our times, though his politics was of course directed along paths other than state building.

Focussing on his unsentimental engagement with the hard facts of imperial domination, fascism and civil war, this study places Gandhi at the centre of modern history, exploring the new political reality he claimed to have discovered. This was a politics the Mahatma mobilized in practices that required as much sacrifice and even death as those propagated by his revolutionary peers, if for very different reasons.

Gandhi held that violence was present in every aspect of life, from eating to giving birth, so that even reflexive processes like blinking or digestion, which preserved life, also ended up wearing down the body and finally destroying it. Nonviolence therefore could not possibly imply the more or less successful avoidance of violence, something that the Mahatma would in any case have considered cowardly, but rather entailed an engagement with it.

Gandhi wanted not to escape, but to tempt and convert violence by engaging with it. He thought violence and nonviolence were so intimately linked that one could be transformed into the other, since evil too requires goodness to sustain itself, with both armies on a battlefield, for example, holding together by relying upon identical virtues like loyalty, friendship and self-sacrifice among their men, however good or evil their cause. All that was needed for evil’s defeat, then, was to withdraw goodness from it, a practice that the Mahatma called non-cooperation.

Page 99 of the book deals with Gandhi’s description of two such armies from an ancient text called the Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord):

This becomes clear in an example of violence that Gandhi gives from the Gita, that of Karna, Bhishma and Drona, all good men who yet sided with the evil prince Duryodhana in his battle against his cousins the Pandavas:
Whether out of compassion for Duryodhana, or because he was generous-hearted, Karna joined the former’s side. Besides Karna, Duryodhana had good men like Bhishma and Drona also on his side. This suggests that evil cannot by itself flourish in this world. It can do so only if it is allied with some good. This was the principle underlying non-co-operation, that the evil system which the Government represents, and which has endured only because of the support it receives from good people, cannot survive if that support is withdrawn. Just as the Government needs the support of good men in order to exist, so Duryodhana required men like Bhishma and Drona in order to show that there was justice on his side.
Gandhi’s use of this example to illustrate non-co-operation as a form of nonviolence is curious, since the good men supporting Duryodhana did not after all withdraw their support of him, so that the evil of the Kauravas could only be defeated in a war of extreme violence, which the Mahatma elsewhere calls a righteous one. The problem was not simply that good men refused to withdraw from evil, but that evil itself, or rather the violence it gave rise to, was also a product of goodness and inextricable from it.
Read more about The Impossible Indian at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue