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8-min read

Calling Gandhi 'Mahatma' is Not Useful, it's Anti-Gandhian: Prof Douglas Allen

The author says that when Gandhi is selectively appropriated and creatively reformulated and applied, it can lead to solutions that are nonviolent and more sustainable.

Adrija Bose | News18.com

Updated:May 14, 2019, 12:25 PM IST
Calling Gandhi 'Mahatma' is Not Useful, it's Anti-Gandhian: Prof Douglas Allen
File photo

What would Gandhi say if he were to witness this Lok Sabha elections? Or, the India-Pakistan crisis? Or simply the violence on social media? In his book, Gandhi After 9/11, Douglas Allen argues that Gandhi offers to us the most profound and influential theory, philosophy, and engaged practices of ahimsa or nonviolence.

The author says that when Gandhi is selectively appropriated and creatively reformulated and applied, it can lead to solutions that are nonviolent and more sustainable. However, Allen also believes that 'Mahatma' is not the right title. He calls it 'Anti-Gandhian'. "It deflects our Gandhi-focus on how we can understand and become active agents in transforming our own selves and our world," he said in an interview to News18.com.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:


Gandhi is being appropriated by all political parties, no matter what their ideologies are. How do you feel about this especially at a time when the country is very polarised?

Yes, all kinds of politicians and political parties are now trying to appropriate Gandhi, usually for their non-Gandhian and anti-Gandhian purposes. My responses vary, depending on who is doing the appropriating. There are some who appropriate what is most backward and reactionary in Gandhi, sometimes practice a kind of authoritarian Gandhi fundamentalism, and endorse a Gandhi who is largely irrelevant for India and for the world today. Most troubling and powerful among the politicians and political parties today are a range of appropriators who uphold forms of intolerant, divisive, violent, xenophobic, Indian nationalism, usually with a chauvinistic view of Indian/Hindu superior exceptionalism and with their Hindutva ideology that Gandhi rejected and would find extremely dangerous today.

In your book, Gandhi After 9/11, you write about Gandhi's ideas on terrorism. But what do you think would be his views in the age of social media trolling, politicians calling each other names and often abusing each other? Where does Gandhi's non-violence fit here?

Gandhi, who believed in the oneness and interconnectedness of life, in how what unifies us is more real than what divides us, and in a unity with a tolerance and respect for differences, would resist what is happening today as violent, untruthful, and immoral. Social media trolling by politicians and others is violent and sometimes results in terrorizing and terrorism. Gandhi challenges us to broaden and deepen our views of violence and nonviolence. We are in an age increasingly characterized by dimensions of language-use, psychological, economic, political, media, cultural, religious, and educational violence and terrorism. In social media, politics, and all other aspects of life, Gandhi’s nonviolence is directed at resisting how we become entrapped in the vicious cycles of violence and to actively transform them into human relations based on ethics, truthful living, loving kindness, compassion, control of ego-driven desires and attachments, and concern for the suffering and well-being of others.

Is Gandhi being appropriated outside of India as well? How?

Yes, Gandhi is being appropriated in the United States and other parts of the world, although this is usually based on little knowledge of Gandhi, his philosophy, and his practices. On the whole, he is invariably listed as one of the most admired iconic human beings of the 20th century as expressing heroic selfless virtue and ethical spirituality. His image and widely-quoted sayings are among the most recognizable appearing on posters, bumper stickers, and other expressions of popular culture. For most of my students, their main exposure to Gandhi is the Academy Award-winning Hollywood movie Gandhi from the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the fact that uninformed human beings outside India usually respond so positively when first exposed to Gandhi should give us some hope for the potential of future Gandhi-informed changes.

What do you think Gandhi's thoughts would have been on Artificial Intelligence and social media?

My longest chapter in my Gandhi after 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability is on whether the seemingly anti-technology Gandhi is irrelevant in our modern age of technology. I submit that based on a careful analysis of his own life and all of his formulations, Gandhi can accept some of modern technology, but only if it is human-centric and moral-centric and is one of many limited means for living more developed moral, nonviolent, and truthful lives of authentic living and human flourishing. Therefore, with regard to dominant formulations and uses of Artificial Intelligence and social media, Gandhi would be very critical in finding them overwhelmingly dehumanizing, objectifying human relations, and leading to concentrations of wealth and powerful, but he would also explore their potentials for alleviating suffering and allowing for more value-based meaningful living.

Do you think the India-Pakistan issue can be solved with Gandhian thoughts? How?

I thought of this recently as we faced the real danger of nuclear conflict, with the potential for the death of tens of millions of Indians and Pakistanis and for catastrophic environmental consequences. I also thought of this last month when my Newark-New Delhi flights were cancelled at the last minute because of the crisis over India-Pakistan air space, and I had to scramble to rebook extra flights to avoid the contested South Asian air space. As I try to do in applying Gandhian thoughts to all contemporary crises, my view is that a Gandhi-informed approach is necessary but not sufficient. Gandhi provides us with invaluable insights, values, priorities, and actions, but he does not have all of the answers, and some of what he proposed now needs to be rejected as ill-informed or as no long relevant for our contemporary contexts. In addressing the India-Pakistan issue today, we need selectively to appropriate what remains invaluable in Gandhi and creatively to reformulate and reapply what is Gandhian in new contextually significant ways and to integrate this with complementary non-Gandhian approaches that may be more insightful in other ways.

How much do you think Pakistan was influenced by the Gandhian philosophy?

It is easy to answer: not very much. Gandhi-informed philosophy has been extremely difficult to practice in a Pakistan that has usually been authoritarian, repressive, and silences, imprisons, and kills opponents and others questioning its authority. We have the tragic example of the famous Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Badshah Khan), the “Frontier Gandhi.” He was not only one of Gandhi’s most dedicated followers. He was an inspirational Pashtun leader and a remarkable Pakistani Gandhian leader in his own right. As we know, he spent 40 years after the Partition, mainly in Pakistan under many years of arrest and in exile. On the other hand, my experiences have been that some of the widespread appeal in Pakistan of Bollywood movies, Indian cricket, Sufi music, and popular culture and the efforts by some courageous Pakistanis to work for peace and nonviolent conflict resolution give me some hope for the potential of Gandhian philosophy in Pakistan. In addition, the extent to which Gandhian philosophy has a greater influence in India will be relevant to the extent to which Gandhian philosophy may have a greater influence in Pakistan.

You talk a lot about terrorism in your book-- what is terrorism and what is not. How do you see Kashmir? How would Gandhi see it? Can Kashmir issue be solved using Gandhian philosophy?

This, of course, is a huge complicated topic with many contradictory groups and issues. Gandhi did not have and does not have some Gandhian blueprint or simple solution for solving the ongoing crisis. In countering the common stereotypes that render Gandhi irrelevant when confronting some forms of terrorism and of the current Kashmir crisis, I have analyzed how Gandhi upholds the absolute ideal of ahimsa, but he allows that violence is sometimes the most nonviolent response contextually possible. However, such violence is tragic, indicating human failure; we should never glorify it; and we should do everything possible to change the root causes and basic conditions and determinants that give rise to the Kashmir issues. It is revealing to me that many Hindutva and other Hindus, who over the decades would attack Gandhi as a traitor who was responsible for Partition and Kashmir and for weakening India, now appropriate him as one of the outstanding Hindus/Indians who ever lived. I have great admiration for many courageous Indians, including young Kashmiris, who are dedicated to transforming Kashmir in Gandhian ways. In addressing the Kashmir issue today, we need selectively to appropriate what remains valuable in Gandhi and creatively to reformulate and reapply what is Gandhian in contextually significant ways to Kashmir. We need to integrate this with complementary non-Gandhian approaches that may be more insightful in other ways.

Do you feel 'Mahatma' is the right title for Gandhi?

In my previous book Mahatma Gandhi, I showed how Rabindranath Tagore was not the first to apply this honorific title to Gandhi, but he most famously popularized its use. In many ways, Tagore had the appropriate approach. He honored and elevated the incredible M. K. Gandhi, but he also felt free repeatedly to criticize Gandhi as an admirable but limited and sometimes deeply flawed human being. I have mixed reactions to the title. It inspires us, provides us with exemplary models and values, and challenges us to become more active moral and spiritual beings. But it is also used by admirers and critics in ways that are not helpful. For many admirers, the Mahatma has elevated superhuman status, too good for this world. He provides us with the perfect blueprint and all of the solutions if only we would listen and follow his Gandhian way. For many critics, the otherworldly title presents a Gandhi who is arrogant, rigid, and irrelevant for dealing with our non-Mahatma world. In my interpretation, such uses of “Mahatma” are not useful, are really anti-Gandhian, and deflect our Gandhi-focus on how we can understand and become active agents in transforming our own selves and our world.

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