The Gandhian Moment


Karuna Mantena reviews Ramin Jahanbegloo’s “The Gandhian Moment” in the LA Review of Books:

Jahanbegloo’s wager is that Gandhian politics offer a path to overcoming authoritarian rule while avoiding the pitfalls of revolution. Whether Gandhian politics did stabilize India’s postcolonial transition is itself a controversial question; one need only think of the brutal partition that accompanied Indian independence. Nevertheless, Jahanbegloo is right to reconsider Gandhi from this angle — he was extremely sensitive to the dilemmas of transition. Indeed, one could argue that this was at the center of his continual meditations on the nature of swaraj (true independence or self-rule).

Directing Gandhi’s thinking toward contemporary concerns in this manner is a fruitful line of inquiry, and Jahanbegloo’s considerations are insightful. The strength of his insights, however, is sometimes diluted when they are applied too broadly. In what is essentially a pamphlet-length work, Jahanbegloo moves too quickly from recovering concepts such as shared sovereignty and citizen agency to extolling Gandhian goals of spiritualizing politics, promoting dialogic and intercultural criticism, reconciling individualism and mutuality, and promoting the more general Gandhian values of responsibility, tolerance, civility, and humility. True, many of these notions may be attributed to Gandhi himself, but it is hard to see their interconnection. In the end, their importance can only be declared rather than persuasively demonstrated.

Jahanbegloo’s attempt to recover the “ethical” thrust of Gandhian politics, however, merits careful consideration. As he observes, Gandhian politics has become a genuinely global phenomenon — a diffusion at once unexpected and inevitable. From the struggles against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, to the Arab Spring more recently, nonviolence has grown in popularity as an effective tool in antiauthoritarian campaigns. Moreover, in the literature on nonviolence, this revival has spawned theoretical analyses that view nonviolent collective action as essentially democratic. (See especially Jonathan Schell’s seminal work, The Unconquerable World.) Jahanbegloo’s worry is that nonviolence’s global reach, though significant, may be only partial, or fragile because partial — hence the need to integrate the politics of dissent within something more holistic.

Gandhi himself may have come up with this line of thought when, on the eve of independence, he complained that the Indian National Congress seemed only to have embraced nonviolence in a tactical way. Countless Gandhians have since lamented the adoption of nonviolence as a strategy separated from a deeper, more philosophical commitment to nonviolence.

More here.