The Disobedient Indian

By Ramin Jahanbegloo

Click here to buy The Disobedient Indian

Many decades ago, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, described Mahatma Gandhi as a person who ‘seems to be the vehicle and embodiment of some greater force of which even he is perhaps only dimly conscious.’ Nehru’s affirmation was immediately followed by an interrogation: ‘Is that the spirit of India, the accumulated spirit of the millennia that lie behind our race, the memory of a thousand tortured lives? … Has he drunk somewhere from the sacred spring of life that has given strength to India through the ages?’ Undoubtedly, Gandhi’s response to Nehru’s flattering words would have been simple and modest, though there is something true about him in this homage. As history shows us, Gandhi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not a man of conformity and complacency. Quite the contrary, both as a thinker and a practitioner, he was a disobedient mind. However, Gandhi appears to many around the world today as a spiritual man who tried to find a harmonious balance between a contemplative life and a life of action, but he tried to do this by submitting ‘his views to relentless criticism, sometimes his own, but more often [to] that of the other people.’

Gandhi was a great reader of the classics, however, it is not because of his readings of Socrates and Thoreau that he is an integral representative of a disobedient mind. It was in 1907, in South Africa, which Gandhi read for the first time Henry David Thoreau’s famous pamphlet, The Duty of Civil Disobedience. He was so impressed by Thoreau’s pamphlet that he published it in paraphrase and later invited his friends and followers to read Thoreau and to become ‘Thoreaus in miniature’. Not surprisingly, Gandhi considered his own incarceration in South Africa as a thoreauvian adventure, since he believed that jail is the only place for a man who struggles for justice in a tyrannical state. As a result, Gandhi found Thoreau’s mindset very relevant to his own cause. Disobedience, as Gandhi saw it, ‘was the deliberate breach of immoral statutory enactments where one invokes the sanctions of the law and invites penalties and imprisonment. This can only be practiced as a last resort and by a select few, who have the moral stature to challenge the law and to accept the consequences.’ Moreover, what interested Gandhi in Thoreau was his reference to the role of moral conscience in resistance against injustice. For Gandhi, the voice of conscience transcended that of the State. ‘Those who obey their sense of justice while holding the reins of government are always found to be in conflict with the state.’

The focus of Gandhi’s resistance against authority and injustice, then, was his conscience, or what he named as his ‘inner voice’. For Gandhi, the inner voice was the voice of truth which could be heard only by experimenting and trained individuals. Hence, says Gandhi, ‘according to my definition, a murderer cannot cite inner voice in defense of his act.’ Here again, we see the role of ethics in Gandhian politics. This is how we can evaluate the broader contribution of Gandhi to disobedient and protest movements around the world.

This is why, for seven decades, Gandhi has been an inspiration to several generations of nonviolent freedom fighters in the West and in the East. His philosophy of nonviolence and his quest for peace and harmony among individuals and nations is shared by civic actors and public intellectuals around the world. From Martin Luther King Jr. and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the young activists of the Tahrir Square, and for all those fighting against all forms of injustice, Gandhi has been the most celebrated and cited political thinker of the twentieth century…

Politics for Gandhi means the art of organizing the society and a form of resistance against evil. As a form of resistance, Gandhi developed the political into a weapon of mass protest and civil disobedience.

All Excerpts

Coming soon   /   View all

Connect with us

Join the Speaking Tiger Books mailing list: