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history & passive resistance Arrow vol 4 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 3, 2005


An Aboriginal Session on Gandhi's Indian Home Rule interview
about History and Passive Resistance, 1909

Frances Peters Little

Australian National University


In September 2004, I was invited by John Docker and Debjani Ganguly from the Humanities Research Centre, ANU to share a panel with two other Australian Aboriginal scholars at the 'Gandhi, Non-Violence and Modernity' conference. The other panel members were Larissa Behrendt who came from the University of Technology, Sydney and spoke about 'Indigenous Choices: Some Thoughts on Gandhi and DuBois' and John Maynard who came from Flinders University and presented a paper on ''Be the change that you want to see': The Awakening of Cultural Nationalism - Gandhi, Garvey and the AAPA'. I, on the other hand, presented a paper entitled 'Resistance and Maintenance in the Ordinary Day to Day Life of an Aborigine' which explored some of the similar beliefs shared by Aboriginal historians with Gandhi's view on western notions of history.

I welcomed the opportunity to speak at this conference because it had been the first time in my academic career anyone had called upon me to speak about anyone other than Aboriginal people, but was ultimately attracted to the idea of sharing a panel with Behrendt and Maynard to talk about one of the world's most intriguing political figures. I thought that sharing a panel with two of my 'countrymen' about such a magnanimous historical person would be one thing; however, presenting a 'collective' Aboriginal viewpoint about Gandhi, could be quite another kettle of fish. Yet after listening to the other speakers and hearing some of the questions that were asked during our session, I felt inspired to seek out what Aboriginal people elsewhere thought about Gandhi. So by November that year when I was invited to present a paper at the Indigenous Researchers Forum (IRF) at Newcastle University I asked if I could present the same paper I gave at the 'Gandhi, Non-Violence and Modernity' conference, and was nicely surprised by their reactions and their interest in Gandhi's views about western history. Here is the paper I gave on Wednesday 1 September 2004 for the 'Gandhi, Non-Violence and Modernity' conference.

Resistance and Maintenance in the Ordinary Day to Day Life of an Aborigine

1. Today I want to talk about an interview with Gandhi that would later become known as Gandhi's first important written work entitled Indian Home Rule in 1909. In this Gandhi compares a Gujarati [1] version of history which translates as meaning 'it so happened', to western notions of history. In the chapter on 'Passive Resistance', he criticises European notions of history, which he describes as focusing too much upon the recording of countless interruptions which occur between nations, families and kings (Jack, 1956: 110-111). [2] Considering Gandhi's criticism of western ideals of history, I wish to open discussion about and suggest why I feel it is necessary for Aboriginal historians to discover new ways of recording and teaching history, and why Aboriginal history need not only be a history about colonial interruptions of our past and everyday lives.

So what is Gandhi saying here about European history and why would he think that it was about countless interruptions?

2. During this interview Gandhi compares the European notion of history to the Gujarati equivalent; Gandhi had been responding to a question about ' historical evidence'. The interviewer, or in this case, reader, asked him if he could provide evidence of where 'soul force' or 'passive resistance' has been used to overcome 'evil-doers' in the past. Gandhi responds and says:

The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step. The universe would disappear without the existence of that force. But you ask for historical evidence. It is, therefore, necessary to know what history means.

At this stage he goes further to describe European notions of history as a record of the wars of the world, about how kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another. But more than that Gandhi points out that if we are to only believe this version of history, then we become paralysed to understand why the world continues to survive. And that this is because historians have failed to teach us anything about the hundreds of nations who have survived and manage to coexist with each other.

3. So how in effect does Gandhi recount his knowledge of Aboriginal history? Unfortunately Gandhi knew very little about the survival of Aboriginal people and culture. He instead stated in this same interview that he thought that hardly any indigenous Australians were 'left alive by the intruders', and what had contributed to this fact was that Aboriginal people did not use 'soul force' in their defence.  

4. Perhaps Gandhi was only displaying his own lack of knowledge about Aboriginal history, and was relying upon white written documents and information that would have been 'historically evident' in 1909.

5. I also disagree with his point that Aboriginal people do not use 'soul force'. I would argue that Aboriginal people are using 'soul force' all the time, but that we are yet to find a way of 'recording' it in terms of history. Now let me explain.... Now to begin, it is a fact and it so happens, that not only have Aboriginal people survived massacres, disease, colonisation etc. etc. but that we continue to resist and that we manage to maintain our sense of identity without resorting to physical violence. This is of course common sense. But how we recognise what is 'Aboriginal history' still mainly hinges on western notions of 'evidence' and on the record of countless 'interruptions' to everyday ordinary life and memory of Aboriginal people. For example, to take a look at the way Aboriginal history is understood, I refer to this current course outline which generally might read as:

Aboriginal Studies is the study that enables students with an interest in Aboriginal studies to take a set of interrelated units in different disciplines without the normal prerequisite required in each unit. That to do a major in Aboriginal Studies is to undertake an interdisciplinary program in which it is possible to combine archaeology, anthropology, history, music and linguistics for a broadly based understanding of Aboriginal societies and cultures, both past and present. Taken together, the units provide a comprehensive insight into all aspects of Aboriginal studies including Aboriginal origins, their occupation and adaptation to the continent, their traditional social, cultural and linguistic practices, the impact of European colonisation, the history of the interrelationship between Aboriginal people and other Australians and the place of Aboriginal people in Australian society today.

In this we can see how Aboriginal life exists pre-contact and then in the second part how Aboriginal co-exists with European contact. I find this to be an important outline for grasping Aboriginal history, and I wish to make clear that I do not think that this model should be replaced. But I also think that Aboriginal historians must come up with alternative ways of teaching and interpreting Aboriginal history.

6. The way some see Aboriginal history in many ways remains indifferent to the increasing numbers of Aboriginal historians entering into the academy. They still think Aboriginal history need only be aggregates of past events; chronicles and accounts and records of interruptions. But there must be another way.

7. I come back now to Gandhi's challenge to the western notion of 'historical evidence', and the recording of 'interruptions' as a key point in understanding why most Aboriginal native title claims are crushed. I believe he would have been very surprised to see how similar the Gujarati view of history which translates to mean 'and it so happened' is to the Aboriginal view. Yet still, Aboriginal people with native title claims, particularly in New South Wales, are not only expected to provide historical evidence through 'western notions of history', but we are expected to provide 'historical evidence' couched in judicial terms, or at the very least able to be construed or summarised, in or by, a court of law.

8. Further to this, in the Yorta Yorta case for example, Justice Olney decided that a 'tide of history' was responsible for washing away the Yorta Yorta's traditional laws and customs, thus extinguishing their claims for native title; the Yorta Yorta people were expected to provide additional 'evidence' indicating a 'continuity' to land and culture. So that the Yorta Yorta were expected to provide evidence that their land or culture had not been interrupted.

9. However, this raises a bigger problem for me, and that is, I am left wondering now, after so many failed native title claims in New South Wales, what effects this may have on the way Aboriginal people may interpret the meaning of Aboriginal history and how we may record it in the future, which brings me to my next point.

10. Although I am not going to be able to supply you with a quick solution, or even pretend to say that I know what I think people should know about Aboriginal history, I can, however, say what I think we need not be doing anymore. And that is we can at least know how to talk about ourselves without only seeing ourselves in terms of the many 'interruptions' or indeed absence of interruption.

11. After all, this is the dialogue that I understand myself and other Aboriginal people that I interact with, and how we constantly engage with each other. It is almost as if what some historians may think is worthy of historical record is only when it focuses on how we relate to them. In short, what I mean is that I quite understand, why whites may think that all we ever do is talk about them, but in fact, talking about whitefellas is the last thing I discuss at the dinner table with my family and friends.

12. What I do talk about, in the everyday ordinariness of our knowledge and history, are things which are of very little value or of evidence to anyone; however this is not to say that I believe the ordinariness of Aboriginal life is not worthy of historical importance.

13. So to get to the title of this paper, I want to say that I believe that Aboriginal people are constantly using somewhat of a 'soul force'. That we are survivors and that we can speak about ourselves without referring to whites. And that the ordinariness of our everyday lives is worthy of record, so that Aboriginal history does not have to measure itself in terms of contact, land rights struggles, stolen generation movement, self-determination, native title, colonisation, post-colonisation etc. but of other matters of ordinariness, which include the internal dialogues that we have with each other and of ourselves, that is not privy to European historical discourse.

14. For that is where I see Aboriginal 'soul force' truly in action for the future, and that is to know how we can discuss ourselves without referring to the European interruptions of our culture.

15. Now in postscript to this paper, I was approached by several people who asked how many Aboriginal historians had been doing any research on our interaction and interrelations with Indian/Asian Australians. And of course, immediately I thought of all those Indian doctors who seem to work with Aboriginal people, but then to look more closely and less obviously, it so happens that my family has been married to many Ceylonese and Asians, but that none of us had discussed this very much, and took it that we were just all Aboriginal.

16. I can't really think why this has been the case. I could think that thinking of my own interrelationships with other cultures on a personal level was perhaps too ordinary to discuss. But now I see this sort of ordinariness is something that is of the utmost importance, and if not at least it is of more interest now to me, than just thinking of myself as a historian or indeed an Aboriginal person who is confined to the recording of history, as focussing on the 'interruptions' of European attacks.

Thank you.

The Indigenous Researchers Forum (IRF), Newcastle University, November 2004

17. So then, we began to discuss what little if any did Gandhi know about Aboriginal history and agreed that it was unfortunate that Gandhi knew very little about the survival of Aboriginal people and culture, and mistakenly thought that hardly any indigenous Australians were left alive by the intruders, because Aborigines did not use 'soul force' in their defence. Gandhi stated:

Those people who have been warred against have disappeared as, for instance, the natives of Australia of whom hardly a man was left alive by the intruders. Mark please, that these natives did not use soul force in self-defense, and it does not require much foresight to know that the Australians will share the same fate as their victims. "Those that take the sword shall perish by the sword." With us the proverb is that professional swimmers will find a watery grave.

18. We assumed that Gandhi was perhaps only displaying his own lack of knowledge about Aboriginal history, simply because he ironically had only relied upon white written documents and information that would have been available to him at the turn of the century. We also disagreed with Gandhi that Aborigines had not used 'soul force'. We argued that we have been using a parallel kind of force for more than 200 years, but that we referred to it as our 'Aboriginality'. [3] That Aboriginal people were constantly resisting and maintaining 'Aboriginality' even though the dominant view of resistance was generally limited to understanding 'resistance' only in terms of violence on the frontier, and 'maintenance' was mostly understood by whites only in terms of 'maintaining' those values that existed before they interrupted us.

19. In further consideration of Gandhi's criticisms about the western ideals of history, I wanted to discuss why I thought it was valuable for us as Aboriginal researchers to rediscover new ways of recording and teaching history. I thought that this may empower us into thinking more about Aboriginal history as something that need not only be a history about colonial interruptions of our past and everyday lives. This I felt was a giant step in the right direction and found it reassuring and refreshing to be able to talk about Aboriginal history, without discussing whites or refer to Aboriginal history in terms of pre-and post colonisation or relying upon white 'evidence'. Regardless of the fact that many Aboriginal people have been initially motivated to seek out white 'evidence' during the process of trying to reclaim members of their family taken during the stolen generations era, the upsurge in the numbers of Aboriginal people wanting to record their own family histories has become a popular preoccupation in recent years. In fact an example of where we could see this already happening was in the way that Aboriginal people have been recording Aboriginal oral family histories. That is that Aboriginal families generally take clues from various genealogies that have been prepared by white archaeologists such as Tindale; analyse them, only to re-write them by adding their own oral historical knowledge of family bloodlines and lineages.

20. With all of us expressing our various annoyances at the way most had experienced Aboriginal Studies in the past, we no doubt agreed that there would have to be major mind-shifts in the way 'history' is generally thought of in schools before we can hope to see any positive changes in the future. And we hoped that the increasing number of Aboriginal people entering the academy might have a lasting effect upon the way Aboriginal history might be taught in the future. It is almost as if what some historians may think is worthy of historical record is only when it focuses on how we relate to them. In addition to this we very briefly touched on the History Wars between white historians, however this discussion lost impetus, the more we thought that this had been a problem that white historians were having amongst themselves, because they were indeed trapped by their own interpretations of 'history' i.e. evidence, violence, conquest, pre-post colonisation etc.

21. In addition to the way Aboriginal history was thought of in schools, many related to what Gandhi had said in terms of the burden of providing 'historical evidence' in native title land claims. That specifically in the case of native title claims, Aboriginal people have been burdened with the responsibility of finding historical evidence of white 'interruptions'. We agreed that it had been particularly difficult for us in New South Wales, since not only were we expected to provide historical evidence by means of 'western notions of history', but we are expected to provide 'historical evidence' that could be couched in judicial terms, and summarised and sanctioned, in or by, a court of law. In the Yorta Yorta claim, for instance, it had been a classic case where the Judge, Justice Olney suggested that a 'tide of history' was responsible for washing away the Yorta Yorta's traditional laws and customs, thus extinguishing their claims for native title. So in effect, the lunacy of Olney's decision was that he had expected the Yorta Yorta people to not only provide white evidence, but that it had to be evidence that would prove that their land or culture had not been interrupted.

22. Uncertain how my session would go, and more curious about what if anything would come from it, I suppose the most uplifting thing to emerge was simply to get a discussion going. Admittedly, our discussions were somewhat unstructured and friendly, but I was mostly pleased at the level of diversity of interest in the group, who incidentally were all women.

23. Some spoke about hearing their elders talk about Gandhi in the 1930s, and remember their elders speak of Gandhi as a leader of all brown-skinned people. Others were really interested to know why there were so many Indian doctors working in Aboriginal medical clinics across the country, although, I'm not sure if one can be certain that Indian doctors have a preference to work in Aboriginal medical services more than the mainstream. Then we began questioning why was it thought that the Aboriginal political movement in Australia was a copyist movement of Afro-American civil rights and Black Power movements in the United States and not as influenced by Gandhi. And finally some of those present said that they had been curious as to how many Aborigines grew up with or married into Indian/Sri Lankan families who have migrated to Australia, from Woolgoolga to Bundaberg. Even in my own family, two of my relatives, a cousin on my mother's side of the family, and an uncle on my father's side of the family, married into Sri Lankan families. Yet all along, I had just grown up having Christmas and birthday celebrations etc. with my Sri Lankan relatives, and peculiarly enough never thought to discuss it with them and visa-versa. And my experience was not isolated. In many of the questions we raised during the forum, it seemed we had begun to reflect the message that seemed to underpin Gandhi's point; that is, we were discussing Aboriginal history, without needing to refer to evidence, violence, conquest, 'white interruptions' and pre and post-colonial occupation by whites.

24. It had been a stimulating discussion to have at a forum, but it was a discussion about Aboriginal history nonetheless, even if it felt something like one that one has at home with the family. In fact it was refreshing to be in the practice of discussing Aboriginal history in terms of Aboriginal everyday ordinariness of our knowledge and culture...

Frances Peters Little is currently a Research Fellow in the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at ANU. Frances has a Masters of Philosophy degree in Australian Studies. Her The Return of the Noble Savage will be published in 2006 (Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra). She is currently working on a biography of Aboriginal singer/entertainer Jimmy Little. Prior to this, Frances spent many years as a documentary filmmaker for ABC TV.)

[1] Gujarati is a language of the Central West part of India. It is the language of a large part of the Indian immigrant community in East Africa, Britain and the Americas. It is also the language of the Muslim Ismaili community many of whom write in the Arabic script. It is the language of Mahatma Gandhi and of Mohammed Ali Jinnah the founder of Pakistan.

[2] Homer A. Jack (ed.), The Gandhi Reader: A Sourcebook of His Life and Writings (Grove Press, New York, 1956), pp.110-111.

[3] Aboriginality meaning the ways of living, knowledge, spirituality and practices that are shared by Aboriginal people living in urban, remote and rural Australia, that is by nature and necessity identified as all things Aboriginal.

© borderlands ejournal 2005



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