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Reading Gandhi and Avowing the Impossible

Vinay Lal

By Faisal Devji
Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2012, pp. 215, price not stated.


It was not so long ago that Mohandas Gandhi was, at least to the academic world, a largely forgotten figure. In the 1980s and 1990s, as postcolonial thought in its various inflections became quite the rage in significant sectors of the Anglo-American (and Indian) academy, and the ‘master narratives’ of the Enlightenment, as they were called, came under sustained interrogation and assault, attention would come to be lavished upon those figures who were viewed as the torchbearers of resistance, critical of deeply embedded frameworks of interpretation that had given succour to elites, and harbingers of a politics of emancipation for those, especially, relegated to the margins. Curiously, though Gandhi is a critical figure in the histories of struggles against colonialism, racism, and the oppression of women and minorities, he remained singularly unattractive to the most prominent postcolonial theorists and intellectuals of other stripes. He was seen as a distinctly unsexy figure, dismissed as a ‘doer’ rather than ‘thinker’, scarcely worthy of the company of Aime Cesaire, C.L.R. James, or the much lionized Fanon. The stately Edward Said was habituated to giving lists of the great figures of anti-colonial resistance, but in the thousands of pages of his writings there is barely any mention of Gandhi’s name. When at all attention was bestowed on Gandhi by a famous intellectual, it was more for effect than out of any serious consideration of his thought, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s extraordinary and one should say careless attempt, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), to suggest that sati could be associated with ‘Mahatma Gandhi’s reinscription of the notion of satyagraha, or hunger strike, as resistance.’ As she adds, ‘I would merely invite the reader to compare the auras of widow sacrifice and Gandhian resistance. The root in the first part of satyagraha and sati are the same’ (p. 298). Since when did satyagraha and ‘hunger strike’ become synonymous? Fasting is no doubt part of the grammar of satyagraha, but does anyone suppose that satyagraha can be reduced to hunger strike? And is there no distinction to be made between fasting and hunger strike? One would have expected a great deal more from someone who has been a relentless advocate of careful and hermeneutic readings of texts.   Much, however, has changed in the course of the last decade. Gandhi has found favour in the most unusual circles, ...

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