Gandhi the Modernist?

A few days ago, Michael Shellenberger blogged about how some of India's most prominent thinkers, like the leader of the downtrodden, Babasaheb Ambedkar, and poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore, have critiqued Mahatma Gandhi's anti-technology, anti-modern and anti-Western-Civilization views. Not only are Ambedkar and Tagore's views important, if one takes a closer look at Gandhi's life, one does not really find a clear-cut rejection of modernity even there.


Though it is true that Gandhi severely criticized modernity, it is not often understood just how much Gandhi was an integral part of a rapidly-modernizing India and the role he himself played in this process. Gandhi was born in 1869, a mere seven years after the death, in 1862, of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last ruler of the Mughal dynasty. It was only in 1857, just twelve years before Gandhi's birth, that the Mughal Empire, already much diminished from its earlier glory, had come to an end, symbolizing the final end of the old feudal order. Bahadur Shah Zafar held pre-modern feudal values -- values that are almost impossible for us to even comprehend today. His social and political horizons were limited and he spent most of his energy squabbling over who should become the heir apparent to the Mughal throne (For more, read William Dalrymple's brialliant new book, "The Last Mughal." Read my review of the book here.).

The Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and Gandhi were both prominent Indian political figures in their respective eras. However, they had very little in common. Though their lives almost overlapped, in their thinking and in their world-views, they may well have been separated by centuries. For all his criticism of modernity, Gandhi, unlike Zafar, was firmly rooted in the modern world. His critique of modernity was located within modernity itself.

Gandhi was part of the first generation of Indians to grow up in a post-feudal India. At the age of around eleven Gandhi enrolled in Rajkot's Alfred High School, part of first sizable generation of Indians to get a modern education. In 1888 Gandhi set sail for England to study law. Here again, part of the first sizable generation of Indians to seriously engage with the outside world. In 1893 (an incident shown the movie Gandhi) he stood up for his rights when he was thrown out of a 'Whites-only' railway coach in Pietermatizburg, South Africa. The idea that Gandhi stood up for that day, the idea that all individuals have equal rights -- though not always honored in practice -- is very much a modern ideal, an ideal that lies at the very core of modernity.

In 1915 Gandhi returned to India, and was soon leading the struggle for Indian independence, inspired by the modern concepts of liberty and nationalism. By the time Gandhi died in 1948, India was an independent nation. In 1950, India became the world's largest democracy, embracing the very modern ideas of development and progress. Gandhi's life, book-ended on one side by the demise of the last Mughal Emperor and on the the other side by the birth of an independent, democratic, and forward looking Indian Republic, neatly encapsulates India's remarkable journey into modernity -- a journey in which Gandhi himself played a huge role.

To see how just Gandhi much engaged with modernity, consider the following points:

    • From an early age, Gandhi seems to have had a thirst for modern ideas. What drove 19-year old Gandhi to go to study in London? It was not an easy venture. Traveling overseas was considered taboo for high-caste Hindus, and Gandhi's caste elders declared him an outcast. However, his burning desire to go to England prevailed. He would recall later that he had imagined London as "the home of philosophers and poets, the very center of civilization." Clearly, young Gandhi was very eager to engage with the wider modern world.
    • Consider Satyagraha, Gandhi's technique of protest through non-violent non-cooperation. The success of this technique was entirely dependent on influencing public opinion, which would have been impossible without modern communication technology -- the railways, the telegraph, newspapers, etc. Consider the Dandi March (shown in the movie Gandhi), in which Gandhi led a group of marchers to the sea and made salt from sea-water, in contravention of the Salt Act. This event by itself was nothing spectacular. It is likely that coastal communities in India had always made small quantities of salt from sea-water, whatever the stipulations of the Salt Act. What was unique in Gandhi's actions was the well-publicized, open, and intentional, breaking of the Salt law. The ability to publicize this event was key to its success. If, instead of telegraphs and newspapers, Gandhi had to rely on messengers on horseback for publicizing the event, it would likely have been a failure.

      Rather than seeing Satyagraha as a rejection of modernity and technology, I see it as making smart use of available technology and prevailing circumstances to achieve certain political goals without resorting to unnecessary and destructive violence. It is worth noting that while Gandhi criticized modern printing technology, saying "now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds," he himself edited one newspaper or another throughout most of his political life.
    • Gandhi lived his life on three continents. Between 1888 and 1931 he made as many as 15 international voyages between India, England and South Africa. Though Gandhi eulogized small self-contained and relatively isolated "village republics," he himself was a global traveler long before words like "globalization" came into vogue. And though he denounced the railways on the grounds that they "spread the bubonic plague," "increased the frequency of famines" and "accentuated the evil nature of man," he himself traveled extensively by rail across the length and breadth of India, getting to know India and her people.
    • As he himself acknowledged, Gandhi's critique of modernity and the West largely originated from the works of Westerners. In criticizing modernity, Gandhi claimed to have "endeavored humbly to follow Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson and other writers, besides the masters of Indian philosophy."
    • Though he had the moral and political authority to oppose it if he wanted to, once independence was achieved, Gandhi actively supported the installation of unabashed modernizers and progressives like Jawaharlal Nehru and Babasaheb Ambedkar in important positions in the new government of independent India.

In my view, Gandhi's critique of modernity, technology and Western Civilization does not indicate a complete repudiation of these, as eco-romantics would have us believe. In my view, the context is very important. As leader of the Indian independence movement, Gandhi realized that independence could only be achieved if Indians embraced a sense of nationalism -- a sense of shared identity, self-confidence and civilizational pride. At a time when attitudes of racial superiority/inferiority were common, and many influential Westerners like Winston Churchill insisted that Indians were not even capable of self-rule, spreading a self-confident Indian nationalism was not an easy matter for an Indian political leader. Gandhi's ideas and his actions must be seen in this light, through the prism of nationalism, through the prism of the Indian independence movement.

Consider Gandhi's simple clothes and his simple lifestyle -- by all appearances a life of poverty. Did he really believe in the virtues of poverty? Or was it an attempt to identify with the masses of poor Indians, so as to create a sense of shared identity? In my mind there is no doubt that it was the latter. In fact, people often had to go to great lengths to accommodate Gandhi's "simple" lifestyle. As Sarojini Naidu is said to have remarked, "It took a lot of money to keep Gandhi is poverty."

In the case of modernity, too, Gandhi's stance was very similar. Rather than a true repudiation of modernity, Gandhi's criticism of modernity stemmed mainly from his desire to encourage a sense of self-confidence and civilizational pride among Indians, and his refusal to cede the higher moral ground to the British for being more modern.

Gandhi's anti-modernity and his glorification of poverty must be seen in the particular context of the Indian independence movement and in light of its particular needs. In today's very different context, invoking Gandhi to criticize modernity or to justify poverty does not make any sense whatsoever. In my view, had Gandhi lived today, he himself probably would not have been a "Gandhian" in the sense being anti-modern or pro-poverty.