Enlightenment and Violence: How the Indian National Movement and Mahatma Gandhi Reshaped the Human Heritage of the Democratic Enlightenment

by Tadd Graham Fernée

Cover art courtesy sagepub.in

The sea changes in 20th century experience provide the ground for dismantling the often tacit colonial paradigm which erased non-Western viewpoints, and for incorporating the wider human experiences of modernity, development, progress, scientific achievement, secularism, the nation, justice, ethics and aesthetics. A case is made in my book, Enlightenment and Violence: Modernity and Nation-Making, for an Enlightenment ideal grounded in identifiable values committed to nonviolent conflict resolution, rather than a single cognitive worldview claiming a ‘new’ monopoly on ‘truth’. Modern science, in itself, yields no fixed picture of things, nor provides the comfort of a single fixed worldview. It follows that the Enlightenment heritage should shift from totalizing epistemic claims to the ethical core of Enlightenment in nonviolence. Where claims to total truth or moral certitude justify mass murder – even on grounds of modern secular ideologies – the Enlightenment has been fundamentally betrayed. From this perspective, the book is an auto-critique of the many-sided universal Enlightenment heritage. It comparatively studies nation-making patterns, experiments and revolutions in terms of the criterion of non-violence as an ideal normative value.

At the centre is Mahatma Gandhi, who died a martyr for a social democratic, secular and multi-cultural India, his assassin driven by the nation-making politics of religious hatred and fanaticism. It argues for a more sociologically nuanced and historically grounded view of Gandhi in the comparative perspective of modern independence struggles, civil society formation and nation-making. Gandhi, far from merely an heir to the Enlightenment tradition, also radically challenged, expanded and transformed it. This broader re-evaluation of Enlightenment, in terms of growth over final ends, compares notably to the philosophy of John Dewey.

India’s transformation between 1920 and 1964 counts among the 20th century’s great revolutions in terms of popular mass mobilization, the visionary quality of the nationalist/anti-colonial leadership, and the struggle for a modern and democratic society. Yet while these revolutions followed and developed the distinctive Marxist stream within the Enlightenment/French Revolutionary tradition, the Indian experience challenged – while adopting and transforming – core elements of existing nation-making conventions. Above all, a crucial role was envisioned for the multi-centred forces of civil society – bound by the limits of democratic secularism – in a uniquely open-ended nation-making process based on the principle of nonviolence and an ethic of reconciliation. Because of its nonviolent character, it involved more women in the struggle than both the Russian and Chinese revolutions combined. Today, reflecting upon the 20th century, the Indian national movement appears confirmed in light of the democratic shortcomings of the Russian and Chinese experiences, and the growing presence of nonviolent mass movements the world over. Simultaneously, state-based campaigns of organized political violence, such as the U.S. war in Iraq (ostensibly driven by Enlightenment convictions), or non-state networks driven by violent counter-Enlightenment ideologies, such as al-Qaeda, have produced unforgettably tragic results while stifling the human aspirations of those modern men and women caught in their deadly wave.

The thesis of Enlightenment and Violence contends that the Gandhi-Nehru experience achieved Enlightenment objectives and advanced the nation-making process through a notion of immanent truth as opposed to transcendental Truth. This necessarily entailed a nation-making course of nonviolence based upon an ethic of reconciliation. In the revolutionary aftermath, the Indian people did not become the victims of the means they had used to obtain emancipation. This nonviolent historical precedent successfully paved the way for the later American Civil Rights Movement, the Polish Solidarity Movement, important stages of the anti-Apartheid struggle, and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.

What does it mean to embrace universalism in a manner that does not entail killing, immobilising, or marginalising anyone who does not agree with your definition of the term? Gandhi’s difference from the Enlightenment tradition as an ethical project was in his rejection of violence as a means to emancipation. This problem concerns the means/ends relation: on this level, Gandhi mounted a radical and unprecedented critique of the dominant tradition of Enlightenment and modern political revolution upon a level not previously considered. Nonviolence had remained at the margin of articulated European Enlightenment thought (i.e. the Diggers in the English Civil War). Gandhi praised Enlightenment traditions in ‘English and French histories’ for their ‘pursuit of right irrespective of the amount of suffering’, yet lamented their violence and implored that India ‘avoid, if we can, violence from our side’ (D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, 8 volumes, New Delhi: Publications Division of the Government of India, 1992; vol. 1, p. 293). The violence of the European Enlightenment was often based upon a violence-sacred linkage (secularized in the French Revolution), or a claim to higher civilizational justification (colonial ideology evident from Locke to Hegel). What Gandhi clarified was nonviolent conflict resolution and pluralism as having been tacitly at the historical essence of the democratic political tradition from the very outset, prior to the homogeneous national ideal to emerge with the French Revolution, in the 17th century European natural rights discourses or in the 16th century Indian Court of Akbar (i.e. the Sulh-i Kul multi-religious experiment in “Universal Peace”).

Gandhi’s constant commitment to open public debate and nonviolence as the dialogic means to public truth explains, in considerable part, India’s long-term success as a secular democracy where other newly independent states experienced varying forms of ideologically charged violent authoritarianism during the nation-making process. Gandhi’s view was articulated clearly on a number of occasions in terms of secular Enlightenment political principles. He insisted that non-cooperation requires ‘respect for the opposite views’ and urged that the Congress ‘provide a platform for all shades of opinions’ where a ‘minority may […] translate itself into a majority, in the course of time, if its opinion commended itself’ (Tendulkar 1992, vol. 2, p. 12). Gandhi described this in terms of ‘reason appealing to reason’, a process without final closure or fear of conflicting opinion because ‘no two men agree exactly on all points’ (Tendulkar 1992, vol. 2, pp. 214, 169).

Gandhi’s concepts of secularism derived from Indian sources such as the Jain thinker, Rajchandra Ravjibhai Mehta, who wrote him an influential letter in 1894 arguing for the ‘many-sidedness’ of religious truth and against the ‘presumption’ of any ‘human group’ claiming ‘to have possession of absolute truth’, condemning rote learning of sacred texts, and insisting upon a common human truth in all world traditions (Anthony J. Parel (ed.) Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and other Writings. Centenary Edition, London: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. xviii). Gandhi’s worldview was an evolving compound of multiple sources from various world traditions. In this spirit he claimed to prefer to retain his ancestral religion ‘so long as it does not cramp my growth and does not debar me from assimilating all that is good anywhere else’ (Tendulkar 1992, vol. 2, p. 230). His was a highly cosmopolitan view in the tradition of Enlightenment, while also affirming the value of local tradition. Gandhi, for example, drew ideas from the American Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau and the experience of labour politics in the 1819 English Peterloo Massacre. He was an adherent of the Hindu principle of non-attachment in the Bhagavad-Gita, and a thoughtful reader of the Qur’an, while uncompromisingly upholding the tradition of the rights of man.

Secularism displays two distinctive and potentially opposed practical possibilities linked to violence and nonviolence: a substantive ‘modern’ ideology claiming to supersede older truths (a French revolutionary feature of authoritarian moments in the Turkish and Iranian experiences), and an open conceptual space permitting multiple worldviews based on tolerance (critical to the Gandhi-Nehru periods in India). The first variant on secularism can ultimately negate the democratic principle on the road to a professed “ideal unity” or “highest good”, a dilemma with visible roots in the French Revolutionary experience and its Comtean intellectual afterlife. The second, rather than seeking to supersede the everyday, endeavours its transformation while embedded within its own resources of power and meaning. At stake are degrees of autonomy for civil society vis à vis the state, or the pluralism and self-reliance tacit in the ethic of reconciliation versus a totalizing programme (“ideal unity”). At stake is the political construction of violence and unique ontological claims to truth, requiring a deep historical analysis of political constructions of violence as either ‘sacred’, ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

The comparison contrasts an ethic of reconciliation and totalizing projects as the means in modern nation-making, suggesting a new paradigm in nonviolent conflict resolution for the modern context with important theoretical and practical precedents. These histories oblige a pluralistic rethinking of the Enlightenment heritage, based upon major 20th century understandings. We stand globally today within a discursive-practical paradigm crisis impacting our everyday world, and cannot afford to imagine the Enlightenment heritage as an event that is behind us. There is no way out beyond the immanent horizon of our everyday struggles to live in difference and mutual respect and dignity. Other alternatives – hierarchic and violent – certainly exist. We have seen them. The meaning of the Enlightenment heritage – among other things – is to self-consciously reject their systemic violence. The Enlightenment heritage has grown because of the Gandhi-Nehru paradigm. By understanding this, we can foster further ethical and human growth in the project of building pluralistic and just societies, based upon nonviolent social democracy, and adapted to the living realities of our global environment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tadd Graham Fernée is guest lecturer at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he leads seminars on Comparative History and the History of Ideas. He completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2009–2010, and has published the following books and articles: (co-authored with Ali Mirsepassi) At Home and in the World: Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism (April 2014); “The Common Theoretical Terrain of the Gandhi and Nehru Periods: The Ethic of Reconciliation over Revenge in Nation-making” in Studies in History (2012); “Gandhi and the Heritage of Enlightenment: Nonviolence, Secularism and Conflict Resolution” in International Review of Sociology. His most recent book is, Enlightenment and Violence: Modernity and Nation-Making, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2014. In 2015, Tadd Fernée has been awarded a Fellowship to reside at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in order to research and write a forthcoming comparative history book entitled Beyond the Faustian Bargain: Ethics as Material Development.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi