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Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | Gandhi’s odyssey of ends and means as a guiding force

In a world full of inequality and injustice, there has been a constant striving for a more egalitarian and just order. Crucial to the question of efforts at a better world has been the tussle between ends and means. “Collateral damage", “ends justify the means", “strike in enemy territory", ‘re-education camps’—the terminology may change to justify the means adopted to make a better world, even if it results in violence and bloodshed. A lack of awareness and acknowledgment of our own drives towards power, domination and aggression, and their impact on our efforts at social change also form a running thread. The saying “power corrupts" seems to bear a proviso: “Power corrupts everyone but us." André Gide, the French author and Nobel laureate who was once an official guest of the Soviet Union, came away convinced of the early stages of a totalizing despotism among communist officials in the 1930s. “Power does not corrupt people," Gide said, “people corrupt power."

It is a crucial interface of the internal and external world that is Mahatma Gandhi’s unique contribution to the human urge for a more just world. Time and again, we come across individuals who subscribe to the abstract ideals of equality and democracy, but are pretty autocratic, with little tolerance of differences. Sheila Rowbotham, the eminent feminist, articulates it neatly: “We can be opposed to hierarchy and elitism and yet feel superior."

If you stare into the abyss, though, the abyss stares back at you. A “liberation army" forged to “counter" the villains of hierarchy and inequality could end up as a mirror image of the armed forces being fought. Command structures and obedience to superiors underpin the methodology of armed conflict, after all. A battle against a jihadi strand of Islamist ideology may result in similar characteristics being adopted. What appears to be an apparent victory may turn out be a defeat, a win for what affronted our ideals in the first place.

In his autobiography, Gandhiji narrates how a friend convinced him—a young boy from a vegetarian family—that the English ruled India because they ate meat and were strong. In what seems like an attempt to address an anxiety of being weak, young Mohandas ate mutton and could hear the lamb bleating in his stomach at night. Anxieties, insecurities, feelings of smallness and helplessness are a part of human existence and may get mobilized at times for aggression against the perceived threat of an “enemy" other.

In this context, what’s notable are Gandhiji’s methods of political mobilization against the all-conquering British. He always took the high moral ground, and his hunger fasts were as much about self-purification as protests against the imperial power. Unlike the concept of a macho revolutionary, the conception of the political activist was a satyagrahi, a seeker of truth, armed with the tools of non-violence and civil disobedience. This seems a likely reason that a large number of women got mobilized for the freedom struggle. Like Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic method of listening, it stood in contrast to prevalent notions of active masculinity. The methods were non-violent, yet the actions were forceful and conveyed strength rather than weakness. His declaration that preaching disaffection for imperial rulers was his foremost duty, pleading guilty at his 1922 trial for sedition, conveyed active strength.

A simplification of Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment as the championship of master birds of prey may suggest that Gandhian methods were weak. Gandhiji’s frame of politics was not of retributive morality and did not posit the English as evil. Nor did he preach hate against them. Indeed, the forceful actions of a politics that uses apparently passive means can be looked upon as not too far from the Nietzschean amor fati, a zest for life, action and creativity.

In the context of ethno-religious-caste-community tensions, what seems universal is “the other" being considered “dirty" by the dominant group. In rising Nazi Germany, for example, Jews were categorized as such; in the context of Hindu-Muslim tensions, Muslims may be seen through this lens by some of the majority; and under the British Raj, the colonial masters designated “the natives" as unclean. This phenomenon of “splitting-off" the “bad" parts of the self and projecting it onto an external object or community is not confined to feelings of “dirtiness" alone, but extends to other aspects considered shameful, like lust. Jews were projected as lustful in Germany of the 1930s and 1940s; many see Muslim males as lustful; White supremacists are known to perceive African-American males as lustful.

Gandhiji espoused a complex psychology, linking external strife and violent events to his own failings in practising truth, non-violence and brahmacharya (abstinence). The 1946 killings in Noakhali seem to have nudged Gandhiji into renewed experiments as part of his fight against communal strife.

Gandhiji’s self-purification fasts are a remarkable illustration of acknowledging and taking responsibility for aspects considered bad or dirty within one’s own self, rather than projecting them onto anybody else. Taking a cue from Gandhiji, instead of letting “the other" serve as a repository of all that is “bad", harmony could be achieved if we develop methods to initiate group processes towards acceptance of “bad" aspects at a collective level by communities.

Rakesh Shukla is a member of the International Council of Jurists, and a consultant with the International Psychoanalytical Association Committee of Law and Psychoanalysis

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