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Book review: Indian Nationalism – The Essential Writings, ed. S. Irfan Habib

A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat

Indian Nationalism

Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
Pages: 285
Price: INR 499 (Hardbound)

They used to say when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce. Well, history seems to have a way of throwing irony at us. At least that is what I imagine those commentators would feel who announced the last rites of the concept of nationalism with glee in the last decades of the previous century, amid the oft repeated phrase of globalization. While 20th century saw the rise of nationalism in the first half, it also saw its waning hold towards the turn of the century; many saw globalization as having sent nationalism to the side wings of the world theatre, but come 21st century, and nationalism is back on the centre stage with a vengeance.

The use of the word ‘vengeance’ is perhaps far from being fortuitous at the beginning of a review of a book on Indian nationalism. It is this side of nationalism, the angry, militant, violent side that has been its manifestation in India recently, and as the quotes on the cover page of this book signify, that seems to be the immediate context that has engendered the publication of this book. Readers need only to take a look at its cover page which prominently displays Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Is hatred essential to Nationalism?’ to understand the raison d’être that has occasioned it. The prefatory note begins by alluding precisely to this context – words that stand out in the first two sentences are: ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘shrieks’, ‘frenzy’, ‘threatening’, and ‘tear apart’. The contemporary public discourse in India, surfeit with strident, insistent and persistent debates surrounding nationalism are surely the reason this book has been conceived and designed the way it has been. We have today a generation that is ready to go ballistic over nationalism, raise its emotional and nuisance quotient very high in defence of just the word with very little meaning, intent or content attached to the idea behind it. Perhaps it is to remind this generation of ‘nationalists’ that the book provides an account of the history of the idea in India and its various shades as it developed during the era that nation itself was in the making.

It is true that even the earliest theorizations of nationalism refer to the positive and the negative sides of this political concept. And this schismatic view runs through the entire history of scholarly attention to this idea. Every kind of duality may be found attributed to the idea – whether about its nature or meaning. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Such classical experts on nationalism as Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Ernest Gellner, Horace B. Davis and Eric Hobsbawm have all seen in nationalism some sort of ‘Janus Face’. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman in their book Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism. This book too, through its paratext, the essays included and the sections under which these are arranged reminds the readers that one can’t take the idea of nationalism as an unquestionably noble value (as some news anchors are wont to assert), or as a naturally beneficial and benevolent idea. Irfan Habib, noted historian, who has edited this timely collection of essays on “Indian Nationalism”, points out at the outset that nationalism is a double-edged sword which ‘…can be a binding force or a deeply divisive instrument used to cause strife around political, cultural, linguistic or more importantly, religious identities.’ If our polity had better use of its memory then, one doubts whether after the horrors unleashed by parochial nationalism at the dawn of independence, we would have ever allowed it to resurface and resurge.

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Book Review: Gandhi on Non-Violence edited by Thomas Merton

By Chandra Ganguly

gandhi-on-non-violence_frontGandhi on Non-Violence was first published in 1965. It would be hard for any book on Gandhi not to be full of Gandhi’s own seemingly rather intractable views on non-violence as well as the author’s views, either in support or not, of the activist. The author, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), was well-known in the fields of spirituality, philosophy and social justice. In this book he brings forth a collection of Gandhi’s quotes on non-violence along with a couple of essays with his own views, mainly in support of Gandhi and non-violence as a doctrine.

In many ways, regardless of one’s own personal take on the man or the doctrine, this book is a fascinating read because it brings together effectively for the reader so many of Gandhi’s ruminations, convictions and sometimes contradictions about non-violence as a political act of defiance. Non-violence as a revolutionary act can be an excuse for the weak who do not wish to protest or fight, and the book reveals how this troubled Gandhi. It is not oft-publicized and these little-known quotes are what makes this a valuable read. Morton ends the book with quotes that reveal a more vulnerable and unsure Gandhi — “I failed to recognize, until it was too late, that what I had mistaken for ahimsa was not ahimsa, but passive resistance of the weak, which can never be called ahimsa even in the remotest sense.”(p.143)

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Once Upon a Time in Bombay

By Dipti Nagpaul D’souza

A year into the Non-Cooperation Movement, Mahatma Gandhi announced the Tilak Swaraj Fund. The Fund, a homage to Bal Gangadhar Tilak on his first death anniversary, aimed at collecting Rs 1 crore to aid India’s freedom struggle and resistance to the British rule. A massive amount at the time, the skeptical were proved wrong when the money came in by the set deadline of June 30. Of the collected amount, Rs 37.5 lakh was donated by Bombay, which led him to refer to the city as “Bombay the Beautiful”.

The use of the expression surprised Mumbai’s Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sanghralaya President Usha Thakkar when she came across the reference during one of her researches. “He believed that rural India was the heart of the nation and often called cities ‘India’s plague ports’. I was curious as to what led him to call Bombay beautiful,” she recounts. The search led her to discover a plethora of lesser-known stories about the role Mumbai (then Bombay) played in the Mahatma’s journey and India’s freedom struggle. Read more

Source: The Indian Express

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Excerpts: Gandhi on Non-Violence edited by Thomas Merton


The political scope of non-violence

Gandhi does not envisage a tactical non-violence confined to one area of life or to an isolated moment.

His non-violence is a creed which embraces all of life in a consistent and logical network of obligations. One cannot be violent, for example, in interpersonal or family relations, and non-violent with regard to conscription and war. Genuine non-violence means not only non-cooperation with glaring social evils, but also the renunciation of benefits and privileges that are implicitly guaranteed by forces which conscience cannot accept.

Austere political implications of the non-violent way of life are suggested in some of these texts.

So long as I lived under a system of government based on force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in a war, unless I non-cooperated with that government and renounced to the utmost of my capacity the privileges it offered me.            I–73

There is no escape for any of us save through truth and non-violence. I know that war is wrong, is an unmitigated evil. I know too that it has got to go. I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom.      I–75

Merely to refuse military service is not enough…This is [to act] after all the time for combating evil is practically gone.     I–106

Non-cooperation in military service and service in non- military matters are not compatible.        I–108

Non-Violence to be a creed has to be all-pervasive. I cannot be non-violent about one activity of mine and violent about others. That would be a policy, not a life force. [1935]


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Review: The Secret Diary of Kasturba


In giving voice to a person who is simultaneously a household name and a mystery and fictionalising her life, The Secret Diary of Kasturba takes a bold step. Written as a series of journal entries by Kasturba Gandhi, the book is also about the intimate, familial side of a man who has largely been mythologised as “the Father of the Nation”.

Without treating anyone with undue reverence — be it the titular character, her husband or their children — the book imagines the turbulent life of the Gandhis. Dalmia Adhar adheres accurately to history in terms of names, dates and encounters, but fills in the gaps of Kasturba’s story.

She reimagines Gandhi as the truant boy, the teen struggling with desire and guilt, the cold, dominating husband who could, at times, be cruel and violent, the father who saw every Indian as his child. We also see moments where Kasturba wonders at Gandhi’s ability to treat his children with his own brand of home medicine, at the way he
picked up his share of household chores and the rare glimpses of familial affection. Read more

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For Hindi literature, Hans writes a story of grit and revival

Hans has quite a rich history and a formidable literary reputation.

It was founded in 1930 in Varanasi by none other than Munshi Premchand, who was called ‘Upanyas Samrat’ (the king of novels) and had Mahatma Gandhi as its editorial adviser. From the very beginning, the magazine has enjoyed an anti-establishment reputation, always inquisitive and provocative. In the editorial published in the first edition of the magazine, Premchand, stated its objectives thus: “Hans will play a major role in inspiring the countrymen to mobilise themselves against British rule.”

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Mahatma Gandhi’s letter accusing son of rape to go on sale in London

Mahatma-GandhiA British auction house has put on sale three explosive letters revealing Mahatma Gandhi’s deep concerns over the behaviour of his eldest son Harilal. Mullock’s Auctioneers are hoping to fetch over £100,000 for the letters written in June 1935. 

“You should know that your problem has become much more difficult for me even than our national freedom,” Gandhi says in one of the letters in reference to Harilal’s daughter Manu, who had come to stay with her grandfather at Sabarmati Ashram. “Manu is telling me number of dangerous things about you. She says that you had raped her before eight years and she was so much hurt that medical treatment was also to be taken.” 

Mullock’s said in a statement that the letters were written in Gujarati and were in good condition. “These have come via descent from a branch of Gandhi’s family to the present vendor,” the statement said. “As far as we are aware they have never before been seen in public and as such they provide remarkable new information on the troubled relationship Gandhi had with his son.”

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Review: Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles by Ved Mehta

Why has Penguin inflicted anew on Indian readers this desultory book on Mahatma Gandhi, quite the worst by a long chalk among the lot I have read? That may sound heretical in view of the many laudatory reviews excerpted on the flyleaf of this edition (obviously not corrected or updated). “It has not aged well” might be a charitable explanation, but I would have rated it the same had I read it when it first came out 37 years ago.

The contents of the book appeared initially in The New YorkerThey are grouped into three sections: subtler and more lasting shapes, in the steps of the autobiographer and his biographers, and, finally, the company they keep.

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The Man Who Would Be Mahatma

Gandhi before IndiaInterview with Ramachandra Guha on Gandhi Before India: Open Magazine

“There’s lots and lots, including the characters—they’re very important. I wrote a piece in the Financial Times times two weeks ago, [‘Gandhi’s Formative Years’, 20 September 2013] which… was about the laws of biographical writing. One of the laws I’ve arrived at through my studies is that a biography is only as good as its portrait of the secondary characters. And the secondary characters of his South African phase are incredibly fascinating in their own right. They shape and mould him too, but they are forgotten. We know about the characters of his Indian phase; we know about his political followers like [Vallabhbhai] Patel and [Jawaharlal] Nehru, his spiritual followers like Mira Behn [Madeline Slade], and his antagonists like [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah and [BR] Ambedkar. Continue reading

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Ramachandra Guha on ‘Gandhi Before India’

Gandhi before IndiaQ&A with Author and historian Ramachandra Guha on his book Gandhi Before India

Author and historian Ramachandra Guha is a leading authority on Indian history and has just published a new work chronicling the life of Mohandas Gandhi before he became the Mahatma.

In “Gandhi Before India,” Mr. Guha explores the time the leader of India’s independence movement spent in London and South Africa and argues that those years shaped him and produced his philosophy of non-violence.

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