Violence : Uday S. Mehta


Let me turn to the second context I referred to earlier: Gandhi’s most searching reflections on violence (along with fear, courage, sacrifice, and death) in the context of the First World War. In July 1918, he wrote to Millie Polak, “I am undergoing a revolution in my outlook upon life. As it seems to me some old cobwebs are falling away.”3 In the same month he wrote to C.F. Andrews, Esther Faering, and many others that his views on violence and sacrifice were undergoing a profound clarification. What was this clarification and revolution in his outlook on life?

But first some context. By the summer of 1918 Gandhi had come to the firm conviction that it was essential for India to contribute men to fight alongside the British and others in the war effort in Europe. This offer was to be unconditional and not pegged to the British introducing or promising to introduce any political reforms in India. As he said in a letter to the Viceroy (that he later included in his Autobiography), “I recognize that, in the hour of danger, we must give — as we have decided to give — ungrudging and unequivocal support to the Empire.” He went on to say that,

If I could make my countrymen retrace their steps, I would make them withdraw all the Congress resolutions, and not whisper “Home Rule” or “Responsible Government” during the dependency of the war. I would make India offer all her able-bodied sons as a sacrifice to the Empire at its critical moment . . . It will be national suicide not to recognize this elementary truth. We must perceive that if we serve to save the Empire, we have in that very act secured Home Rule . . . I write this, because I love the English Nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman.4

It is important that for Gandhi it was the very act of serving in the war, of fighting and being prepared to die for the Empire, which would secure Home Rule. Such an act was not a precondition of Home Rule, but rather Home Rule itself. Gandhi was asserting an identity between Home Rule and the willingness to die for the Empire. On the same day that he wrote the letter to the Viceroy, he wrote to his private secretary requesting that he be appointed “recruiting agent-in-chief” for the war effort so that he “might rain men” in support of the British fighting effort. To underline his own credentials for the job, he reminded the private secretary of his record in the Boer War, his presence at the battles of Colenso, Spionkop, and Vaalkranz, his efforts during the Zullu campaign in 1906, and his more recent work in the ongoing war in 1915. Regarding this last effort, he emphasized that it was only terminated because of a bad attack of pleurisy and because after he had recovered, Lord Hardinge refused his offer to resume his work in Mesopotamia or France, thus forcing him to return to India. On Gandhi’s account, he returned to India only because he was denied a role in the war in Europe. He was clearly proud of this curriculum vitae.

On the matter of his role as a recruiter for the war and on his broader insistence that India should fight unconditionally in support of the Empire, Gandhi strained many of his closest relationships with both Indians and Europeans. C. F. Andrews, Esther Faering, Annie Besant, Herman Kallenback, not to mentions most of his compatriots, found his reasons, and especially his zeal, utterly puzzling. And zeal there was.

The record suggests that for most of the latter part of 1918 Gandhi’s attention was devoted to going from village to village in Gujarat trying to get volunteers to sign up to join the war effort in Europe. The intensity of his purpose and language on this issue matches anything he did or wrote on either the Hindu-Muslim question or the issue of untouchability. He described the opportunity to fight, and possibly die in the European war, as India’s greatest possible satyagraha. What was the deeper purpose that undergirded such immoderate tenacity for a cause that was distant, for an interest that was obscure, and for values that appeared to be starkly at odds with the behavior that was being insisted on?

In a letter to Esther Faering in June 1918 Gandhi wrote,

I felt at once that I was playing with the greatest problem of life in not tackling the question of joining the army seriously. Either we must renounce the benefits of the State or help it to the best of our ability to prosecute the war. We are not ready to renounce. Indians have a double duty to perform. If they are to preach the mission of peace, they must first prove their ability in war. This is a terrible discovery but it is true. A nation that is unfit to fight cannot from experience prove the virtue of not fighting. I do not infer from this that India must fight. But I say that India must know how to fight. Ahimsa is the eradication of the desire to injure or kill.5

The terrible discovery was that real non-violence could not just be a value, rather it had to stem from a profound type of choice, and one could only exercise that kind of choice through the intimate immediacy of the very opposite of that choice, namely the ability to be violent and to kill. The experience of battle was therefore crucial. It alone represented the conditions under which the choice became fully self-conscious, or to put it in terms that Gandhi might have used, the choice stemmed from a resoluteness of the soul. Gandhi was not just concerned with behavior, understood as an externally manifest act, but rather with the internal comportment that backed the behavior.

This was precisely the argument Gandhi made regarding Arjuna’s hesitation at the eve of the epic fratricidal battle in the Gita. The resolution of Arjuna’s dilemmas, his trepidation at the prospect of killing his own kinsmen, could not be settled by choice in the ordinary sense, where ethics stems from the amplitude of alternative possibilities, but rather by the moral meaning of his actions under conditions where precisely such amplitude was absent. His actions could retain moral meaning only where they were backed by a personal comportment that was attentive to the present and to who he was, rather than being instrumentally linked to some future condition. By invoking, as he did, the effect that Arjuna’s flight would have on the wives and children of the Pandavas (Arjuna’s immediate kinsmen), Gandhi wished to associate civic action not with a heroic condition but with the most commonplace facts of social life, namely, with the ordinary and extant conditions of social and familial responsibilities.6

3. Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1980), 144.

4. Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, 7-10.

5. Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, 109.

6. “Let us suppose that Arjuna flees the battlefield. Though his enemies are wicked people, are sinners, they are his relations and he cannot bring himself to kill them. If he leaves the field, what would happen to those vast numbers on his side? If Arjuna went away, leaving them behind, would the Kauravas have mercy on them? If he left the battle, the Pandava army would be simply annihilated. What, then, would be the plight of their wives and children? . . . If Arjuna had left the battlefield, the very calamities which he feared would have befallen them. Their families would have been ruined, and the traditional dharma of these families and the race would have been destroyed. Arjuna, therefore, had no choice but to fight.” Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, 20.

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