At the Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s Assassination

Excerpt reposted from Dilip’s blog After the Truth – Shower

I commented: The Mahatma is nodding his head in appreciation, I’m sure. An essay as sharp and correct as you always write and with a deeply moving end unveiling the predicament of the times we got ourselves stuck in…

…… Italy, Germany’s Third Reich, the Peoples Republic of China, or the Islamic regimes of Iran or Saudi Arabia (I remain focused on the question of law, and do not intend to conflate the peculiarities of these regimes). Tyranny stamps out human freedom. Ideological tyranny attempts to strangulate the human mind altogether. Human beings are the speaking animal, and the suppression of thought is an attack upon a quintessentially human quality. For this reason, ideocracies are the grave of life.

Conclusion: Our examination of modern justice points toward Machiavelli’s substitution of patriotism for moral virtue, a stance that abandoned older meanings of the good society; and discounted any divine or natural support for justice. For Machiavelli, legitimacy was rooted in illegitimacy, and all social orders were established by questionable means. Justice was possible only after the foundation, and its violent origins would inevitably be imitated in extreme cases. The Machiavellian-Hobbesian tradition, continued by Schmitt, takes its bearings by the extreme case, which it believes to be more ‘realistic’ than the normal case. This approach is characterized in political science as the “teleological suspension of the ethical” – another way of saying that civic peace can only be achieved by bloodletting. It is an assumption which has been replicated in revolutionary currents from the French revolution till the insurrectionary politics – whether of the Left or Right – of the twentieth century. The revolutionary tradition views the polity as a state of permanent emergency.

Gandhi believed that a good society could never arise from evil foundations. His view is therefore the opposite of Machiavellian pessimism. Contrary to the belief that violence is essential to the act of political foundation, Gandhi made the prescient observation that ‘what is granted under fear can be retained only so long as the fear lasts’ (M. K. Gandhi, 1909, p 60). A polity founded upon assassination, which makes the extreme case into a norm, would condemn itself to perpetual oscillation between extremes.

The modern tendency to reduce truth to the preserve of the mathematical sciences meshes well with the capitalist obsession with accumulation and the dissipation of the Good into utility. These tendencies push us toward replacing the soul by the intellect, and the mind by neurobiology. (We may note in passing the difference between psychiatry, which treats of the brain, and psychoanalysis, which engages the mind). The question of the soul is important because the conventionalist, or relativist understanding of justice; as well as the doctrine that grounds justice in fear, both treat justice as an importation from the outside. These doctrines prevailed for centuries, and reman current. In contrast, for Aristotle, friendship was a necessary condition for human existence, and the fundamental bond of a political community, whose continued existence could never be secured by mere compact (Lorraine Smith Pangle; 2003, p 17).

If justice is sought to be grounded in fear, and the bond of the community defined as hatred for the ‘common enemy’ as in Schmitt’s approach; fear and enmity will consume society and pervert the very experience of friendship. For Plato, we cannot even speak of justice without a friendly comportment toward the Good, awareness of which unifies life and the larger cosmos which is its home. He sought therefore to ground justice in human nature, as a habit of mind, an inward grace, and an excellence of the soul (Ernest Barker; 1979; p 182-186; and Christine Korsgaard; 1996; p 109). This idea of justice resonates with Gandhi’s demeanour towards it.

In light of the continuing practice of political assassination in South Asia, I would use Gandhi’s insight to make the following observation: the supposedly necessary violence of the origin has never been fully discharged, nor will it ever be. The elusive “stability” of the socio-political order will remain grounded upon periodic repetitions of originary violence for as long as the autonomy of the criminal justice system is not firmly and formally established; and as long as the state machinery remains vulnerable to ideological intimidation. This is what I mean by the nihilist core of Indian justice.

In rejecting revolutionary political theory (which is also a constitutional theory; and a theory of the state) from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks, Fascists and Nazis, Gandhi was challenging a centuries-old tradition. His rejection of the utilitarian aphorism about the end justifying the means points us toward the deeper ramifications of 1947; and throws light upon extremist politics in the successor regimes of colonial India. The challenge becomes even more grievous when viewed in the light of the ideological atmosphere of the first half of the twentieth century, when the question of truth was completely subordinated to the quest for absolute power.

I have focused on law and justice through the prism of two individual lives for a reason. The link between them becomes visible in the manner of Gandhi’s death, which placed the tragedy and heroism of blighted humanity into high relief. Mohandas Gandhi naturalised friendship; Carl Schmitt elevated animosity to a first principle of life and thought. Gandhi’s stance exemplified Aristotle’s belief that friendship makes justice unnecessary. As he wrote in 1909, ‘the force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step.’ For him, history is the story of rupture, not of human solidarity – if there were no love, we would have become extinct long ago (M.K. Gandhi, 1909, p 67).

There is something about formal law, moral law, the workings of conscience, and the advent of the ideological age, which connects the life and death of Mahatma Gandhi with our predicament. Conscience is the impulse toward the Good. Ideology is the thought process whereby conscience implodes and undermines itself. It feeds on hatred; it replaces speech by sneering. Carl Schmitt’s concept and prescription of politics as the friend-enemy relation has been the hallmark of twentieth century politics, not only for South Asia, but for the world at large.

January 30, 1948, marked the catastrophic victory of this nihilist outlook.

But has it succeeded? Are not its self-destructive ramifications visible in every corner of the globe? Is not humanity staggering about the continents like Ashwatthama, the tragic figure of the Mahabharata, deprived of mindfulness as well as the relief of death? Those who preen themselves on ruthlessness and cunning will come to learn that the destruction of justice is the prelude to social and political disintegration. Unfortunately, millions of ordinary people will pay a heavy price for this learning process.

Epilogue: Here are the last lines of a renowned play, set in the last day of the Mahabharata:

‘That day the world descended into the age of darkness which has no end, and repeats itself over and over again. Every moment the Lord dies somewhere or the other every moment the darkness grows deeper and deeper. The age of darkness has seeped into our very souls. There is darkness, and there is Ashwatthama, and there is Sanjaya and there are the two old guards with the mentality of slaves and there is blind doubt, and a shameful sense of defeat… And yet it is also true that like a small seed buried somewhere in the mind of man there is courage and a longing for freedom and the imagination to create something new. That seed is buried without exception in each of us and it grows from day to day in our lives as duty as an honor as freedom as virtuous conduct. It is this small seed that makes us fear half-truths and great wars and always saves the future of mankind from blind doubt slavery and defeat.’ (Dharamvir Bharati, Andha Yug, 1953, Translated by Alok Bhalla 2005)

Kuryad vidvams tatha saktas cikirsur lokasamgraham (Bhagwadgita III 25)

The disinterestedly wise ought to desire the holding together of all being

1 comment

  • How do you see Gandhi’s legacy and his ideas on justice, truth, and non-violence continuing to influence contemporary discussions and movements for social and political change?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ˆ Back To Top