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About borderlands Volume 4 Number 3, 2005



Gandhi, Non-Violence and Modernity

John Docker
Australian National University

1. The essays that follow represent a selection of papers from an international conference, "Gandhi, Non-Violence and Modernity", that Debjani Ganguly and I co-organized and which was held 1-3 September 2004, at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU. The idea for the conference came about in the most hesitant and informal of ways. Fellow postcolonial theory scholars, in 2003 Debjani and I were shaking our heads over the American war in Iraq and the increase generally in violence in the world, and wondering if it could get worse. Was humanity doomed, we wondered. Almost at the same moment we theatrically exclaimed: 'What about Gandhi's non-violence? Maybe Gandhi is the only hope for the world.' Then there was silence, as an idea intruded into both our minds. 'No,' I said, 'we can't have a conference, because I helped organize a conference only a couple of years before; after that was over, enjoyable and rewarding as it was, I vowed never to organize or help organize one again, it's too utterly exhausting and I'm getting old.' (With the Bakhtin scholar Subhash Jaireth, I convened "Adventures of Dialogue: Bakhtin and Benjamin" at the HRC in June 2001. See the edited issues of JNT, Docker and Jaireth 2002, 2003).

2. After another short silence, Debjani and I agreed that we would convene a conference together on Gandhi. We would not treat Gandhi as a purely 'Indian' figure, as if he belonged in modernity to one history only, for that would be to deny Gandhi his eager cosmopolitan interest in many and diverse world histories. Nor would we conceive of him as a canonical figure beyond criticism, for that would make for a tedious and boring event. Rather, we would aim to elicit papers that were imaginative and adventurous, individual and surprising; papers that might explore the most eccentric and idiosyncratic aspects of Gandhi; papers that might glance off Gandhi to speculate about other figures and histories; papers where Gandhi's influence and impact would resonate with the concerns and dangers of the present.   

3. In 2003 Debjani and I put out a call for papers, very pleased to announce that our keynote speaker would be Leela Gandhi, and outlining our approach:

Gandhi is, without doubt, one of the most intriguing political figures of modernity. His mode of passive, non-violent resistance against the mightiest of modern empires is the stuff of legends now. Seen alternatively as a maverick, though wily, politician and a great visionary with impeccable ethics, Gandhi has continued to inspire, puzzle, exasperate, activate and enlighten countless ordinary and not so ordinary people around the globe. In recent years, his lived philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence, preserving the sanctity of life) has resonated with particular force in the minds and hearts of those who have been aghast at the widespread carnage they have witnessed in the names of God and Nation.

We hoped, we wrote, to establish a dialogue between Gandhi and (post)modernity.

4. As it turned out, the conference attracted and mixed Gandhi specialists with those intrigued by Gandhi in more general ways. Two publications have emerged from the conference, this one for Borderlands, and another that includes the more specialist papers, also edited by Debjani and myself, and entitled Anti-Imperalism, Peace and Modernity: Historicising Gandhi's Global Legacy, to be published by Orient Longman and Routledge UK.

5. Leela Gandhi, Gandhi's great-granddaughter, launched the conference with a fascinating keynote address on Gandhi's formative influences as a young man in England at the end of the nineteenth century. She traced a complex etymology by arguing that Gandhi's anti-imperial politics and polemic had transnational sources in his active involvement with fin de siècle vegetarianism which itself constituted part of late-Victorian animal welfare movements in England. This was a radical reading of Gandhian thought, resistant to those modes of analysis that mark his nonviolent activism in purely indigenous/Indian/Hindu terms. In the next two papers, Tridip Suhrud described Gandhi's renowned fasts, while Sandhya Shetty discussed his quirky experiments with alternative medicine. The papers then panned out in thematic profusion—global peace movements, modes of intercultural friendship and their importance in Gandhi's life, meditations on nonviolence, legal, ecological and pedagogical concerns in the contemporary world, histories of dispossession, theories of how formerly colonised societies decolonise, Gandhi's legacy in postcolonial India and in world history.

6. Particularly noteworthy was the session on "Gandhi and Indigenous Australia" with well-known indigenous scholars Frances Peters-Little, Larissa Behrendt and John Maynard—a remarkable conversation between Gandhian ideas and Aboriginal perspectives, probably a first in Australia in the field of Indigenous/anti-imperial/postcolonial studies. Another noteworthy session was on "Global Peace Movements" which featured original and never before published research on the impact of Gandhi on British Pacifists (Sean Scalmer), on Black women's activism in 1960s Baltimore (Rhonda Y. Williams), and on peace movements in Burma (Penny Edwards). Other powerful presentations included those by established Gandhi scholars, Tom Weber (La Trobe) and Ajay Skaria (Minnesota), on the importance of friendship in Gandhian thought and praxis , a relatively new dimension in Gandhian research; by Brian Martin (Wollongong) on the mechanics of nonviolence; and by Charles Di Salvo (West Virginia) on Gandhi's unique perceptions and experience of the legal profession through his years as a lawyer in the brutally colonialist regime of South Africa. Jim Masselos explored Gandhi's thinking of time in interesting new ways. All the above, in their originality of archive and methodology, helped extend the scope of debates within the overlapping fields of Gandhi studies, Peace Studies and postcolonial/globalization studies. It was also interesting to learn about Gandhi's relative irrelevance in the land of his birth, from presentations made by Anjali Roy (IIT, Kharagpur) and Makarand Paranjape (JNU, Delhi). Gandhi sadly continues to appear as a misfit in postcolonial India, notwithstanding attempts by a handful of historians and social scientists to reexamine his legacy and make him speak to the exigencies of late modern India. One of the most moving sessions of the conference was a reading from the biography of Gandhi's estranged eldest son Harilal Gandhi, by Tridip Suhrud (Gujarat) the prolific Gandhian biographer and translator. Tridip's visit was sponsored by the Australia India Council which also sponsored two other academics from India.

7. Other papers extended thinking about Gandhian ideas of nonviolence to illuminate literary, cultural and political histories in wideranging ways, revealing the protean vitality and relevance of Gandhian perspectives. Satendra Nandan (University of Canberra) explored the relationship between writing and the outsider figure that Gandhi so much represented and embodied. (Nandan, 2005) Ned Curthoys (CCR at ANU) revisited the bitter post World War Two Camus-Sartre conflict over the Algerian War of Independence in terms of Gandhian notions, raising provocative questions concerning decolonisation in Algeria. John Docker re-opened a key question in Jewish political history, past and present, of whether or not Josephus in antiquity was a 'traitor' or a Gandhian avant la lettre who drew attention to moments and traditions of non-violence in biblical history; at the same time he highlighted Gandhi's powerful critiques of contemporary Zionism.

8. Of these presentations, those by Charles Di Salvo, Penny Edwards, Anjali Roy, Sandhya Shetty, Ajay Skaria, Tridip Suhrud, and Tom Weber will be in Anti-Imperalism, Peace and Modernity: Historicising Gandhi's Global Legacy, but not in this issue of Borderlands.

9. The conference vastly benefited from the HRC traditional practice of having no parallel sessions, so that discussion could be cumulative, shared, and focussed. Discussion from beginning to end, both in the sessions themselves and in tea/coffee breaks and at lunch, was intense and exciting. Such excitement extended to the final panel where we repaired to the theatrette for concluding comments from Dipesh Chakrabarty, Leela Gandhi, and Ajay Skaria, followed by general discussion. Overall, the conference bore out the hope of the convenors, that it would prove relevant and challenging in the new millennium to re-think Gandhi as a historical figure who is all the more interesting because so idiosyncratic, while extending Gandhian perspectives to new areas and fields not usually considered. It was a very stimulating, very enjoyable, conference, conducted at a consistently high intellectual level, and the responses during it and afterwards in terms of emails and comments from people were gratifyingly supportive, saying what a memorable event it was.

10. There was nevertheless one odd not to say uncanny feature of the event that I still occasionally puzzle over. Both convenors were ill during the conference. Debjani was sick with a mild fever, while I was in the throes of a particular sub-genre of thyroiditis, where one becomes burdened with certain physical symptoms as well as a kind of melancholy, as I learned later when I was diagnosed. I can only surmise that we were perhaps experiencing the symptoms of  mal du siècle or more precisely new-millennium world-weariness, that was at war with the slim slim hope that Gandhi represents for humanity and history. In the second fragment of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History", which he wrote in 1940 as catastrophe loomed, Walter Benjamin, perhaps in desperate hope, mused: "There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim." (Benjamin, 1969: 254) Perhaps for the generations of modernity and now postmodernity, Gandhi embodies that "weak Messianic power": frail yet powerful, illuminating, guiding.

11. Looking back now, I think Debjani and I were also conceiving of Gandhi in terms rather like Benjamin's conception of the monad, as Benjamin deploys that Leibniz term in section XVII of the "Theses". I'll quote from the passage, some of whose phrases are of course extremely well known. Benjamin is saying that he doesn't like historicism nor what it culminates in, universal history (Foucault's later admonitions against total history come irresistibly to mind here. Foucault, 1972: 3-6) Benjamin prefers historical materialism as he rather enigmatically conceives it, a kind of historical writing where thinking

suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad.... He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. (Benjamin, 1969: 262-3)

In the monad of a historical subject—a lifework, era, history—is crystallized every manifestation or aspect of that subject, even the most extreme, eccentric, tiny, or detailed. (Curthoys and Docker, 2006: 107-8)

12. Debjani and I are delighted that Borderlands, in its hospitality to the innovative and experimental, is publishing these papers from the conference. We hope this selection is just right for Borderlands and its readers: the essays are 'cutting edge' and offer perspectives that are new and range widely in transnational, transcontinental, and world terms. We are particularly pleased to include two papers from the Indigenous session, by Frances Peters Little and John Maynard—a 'world first', we think, in opening a conversation between Gandhi and Australian Indigenous historiography. It's interesting to note in this regard, as reported in the Melbourne Age (18 February 2006), that a sculpture of Sir Douglas Nicholls and his beloved wife Lady Gladys will be erected near Parliament House, the first, says the Age reporter, "to be erected in Victoria to honour an Aborigine". Sir Douglas' grandson Gary Murray said that his grandfather was a leader in every sense of the word: "He was virtually our Gandhi, in a sense. He was a very good and powerful man, culturally, politically and religiously."


Debjani Ganguly, of the Centre for Cross Cultural Research, ANU, is the author of Caste, Colonialism and Countermodernity, 2005; John Docker, of the HRC, ANU, published, with Ann Curthoys, Is History Fiction? also in 2005.


Benjamin, W. (1969), "Theses on the Philosophy of History", in Illuminations, ed. and introd. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken).

Curthoys, A. and Docker, J. (2006), Is History Fiction? (Sydney: UNSW Press).

Docker, J. and Jaireth, S. eds. (2002), "Benjamin and Bakhtin: New Approaches–New Contexts", JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3.

Docker, J. and Jaireth, S. eds. (2003), "Benjamin and Bakhtin: Vision and Visuality ", JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol. 33, No. 1.

Foucault, M. (1972), The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Harper Colophon).

Nandan, S. (2005), "Gandhi's Gift: The Markings of an Outsider", in Kenneally, M. and Kenneally, R. R. eds. From 'English Literature' to 'Literatures in English': International Perspectives (Universitätverlag, Heidelberg): 213-223.


© borderlands ejournal 2005



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