The Gandhian Moment

The Gandhian Moment

by Ramin Jahanbegloo

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Gandhi is revered as a historic leader, the father of Indian independence, and the inspiration for nonviolent protest around the world. But the importance of these practical achievements has obscured Gandhi’s stature as an extraordinarily innovative political thinker. Ramin Jahanbegloo presents Gandhi the political theorist—the intellectual founder of a


Gandhi is revered as a historic leader, the father of Indian independence, and the inspiration for nonviolent protest around the world. But the importance of these practical achievements has obscured Gandhi’s stature as an extraordinarily innovative political thinker. Ramin Jahanbegloo presents Gandhi the political theorist—the intellectual founder of a system predicated on the power of nonviolence to challenge state sovereignty and domination. A philosopher and an activist in his own right, Jahanbegloo guides us through Gandhi’s core ideas, shows how they shaped political protest from 1960s America to the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond, and calls for their use today by Muslims demanding change.

Gandhi challenged mainstream political ideas most forcefully on sovereignty. He argued that state power is not legitimate simply when it commands general support or because it protects us from anarchy. Instead, legitimacy depends on the consent of dutiful citizens willing to challenge the state nonviolently when it acts immorally. The culmination of the inner struggle to recognize one’s duty to act, Jahanbegloo says, is the ultimate “Gandhian moment.”

Gandhi’s ideas have motivated such famous figures as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. As Jahanbegloo demonstrates, they also inspired the unheralded Muslim activists Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose work for Indian independence answers those today who doubt the viability of nonviolent Islamic protest. The book is a powerful reminder of Gandhi’s enduring political relevance and a pioneering account of his extraordinary intellectual achievements.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this brief book, Jahanbegloo, a professor of Islamic Studies at York University, explains and elaborates on some of Gandhi’s basic ideas, including satyagraha (truth force in civil disobedience), a belief in cultural and religious pluralism, and a commitment to Indian independence based on Hindu-Muslim unity. He also discusses two of Gandhi’s influential Muslim ideological allies and his influence on political and religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu. However, Jahanbegloo hews too closely to Gandhi’s published writings and draws only occasionally on his political polemics or policies. In part because of this, and perhaps influenced by Gandhi’s highly idealistic rhetoric, the author’s language can sound ethereal while making grandiose claims on Gandhi’s behalf, as when he writes that his subject’s “political journey” involved “a search under the umbrella of truth toward a new agenda of global transformation.” In explicating Gandhi’s thought, Jahanbegloo fails to critique it or cite others to discuss its limits. Attempts to apply Gandhi’s thought in a largely unmediated way diminish the book’s political applicability. (Mar.)
Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh
A stimulating and imaginative exploration of Gandhi's nonviolence both as a method of resistance and as the basis of a new kind of national and global political order. It demolishes many a myth about Muslim societies and insightfully shows Gandhi's relevance to them.
Sudhir Kakar
Jahanbegloo's rediscovery of Gandhi makes a compelling case for the power of love to transform collective action against injustice and oppression. An eloquent and highly original contribution to Gandhi's political philosophy that is becoming increasingly relevant in struggles against autocratic regimes around the world. A required reading for thinkers and activists alike.
Dr. Faisal Devji
Straddling political philosophy and activism, Jahanbegloo's work situates Gandhi in today's global political arena, where many of the Mahatma's ideas and practices have assumed a fresh new meaning. There have been one or two books that have tried to place Gandhi in such a global context, but Jahanbegloo is, to my knowledge, unique in focusing on Gandhianism as a critique of modern, state-centered sovereignty. This represents an extraordinarily fruitful line of inquiry.
The Hindu - Swaran Singh
More than ever, the world needs Gandhi today. Especially, in the face of Islam and Muslims being portrayed as synonymous with terrorism populist ideological responses of political Islam to Western hegemony have proved counterproductive. [Jahanbegloo] exhorts Muslim leaders to draw upon not only Gandhi but upon the non-violent contributions of people like [Abdul] Ghaffar Khan and [Maulana] Azad. For [Jahanbegloo], Gandhi's formulations of self-examination, self-criticism and self-purification and their adaptations by leaders like Ghaffar Khan and Azad provide useful tools for taking Western models of conflict resolution towards more nuanced models of non-violence and peace.
Choice - R. J. Terchek
Jahanbegloo offers a stimulating account of the theory and practice of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to injustice. In this short work, the author not only follows Gandhi’s Indian campaigns but also takes readers on brief excursions of Gandhian resistance to injustice elsewhere, particularly in the U.S. and South Africa. Especially welcome is his discussion of Maulana Azad and Ghaffar Khan, two Muslim advocates of communal harmony and Indian independence who were associates of Gandhi. Jahanbegloo pits a Hobbesian theory of the sovereignty of an omnipotent state that claims legitimacy for itself against Gandhi's theory of the individual’s duty to resist injustice. He sees Gandhi’s arguments negating Hobbesian claims to legitimacy and leading to larger claims to nonviolent civil resistance. The Gandhian Moment is a solid, clearly written addition to the Gandhian literature.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Karuna Mantena
[Jahanbegloo’s] elaborations on Gandhian thinking are nuanced and engaging, and serve as important responses to the political dilemmas posed by the struggles over democracy in the Middle East today…Directing Gandhi’s thinking toward contemporary concerns in this manner is a fruitful line of inquiry, and Jahanbegloo’s considerations are insightful.
Library Journal
Jahanbegloo (Islamic studies, York Univ., Toronto) has written a tightly focused examination of Gandhi’s philosophy and politics, emphasizing his central reliance in advocating nonviolence to challenge injustice and tyranny. Motivated by the need to end colonial rule in India, Gandhi drew on Hindu thought to assert the primacy of moral duty over individual rights. Yet he rejected Hindu chauvinism and promoted pluralism and inclusion to reach out to other communities in India, especially Muslims. As well as carefully analyzing Gandhi’s shaping of separate principles into a coherent view, Jahanbegloo demonstrates the continuing impact of Gandhian thought outside India, particularly upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights leadership, Nelson Mandela’s successful challenge to apartheid, and the spread of nonviolent demonstrations against repressive regions throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Perhaps surprising to American readers, Jahanbegloo highlights Muslim leaders in the Indian independence movement who integrated Gandhian nonviolence into Islamic thought, contrary to recent claims that Islam is inherently violent or terrorist.

Verdict This complex and serious analysis will interest readers willing to think rigorously about political philosophy and options for change in today’s world.—Elizabeth Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Chicago

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Five: Gandhi’s Reception in India

Gandhi and his Critics

Jinnah insists that Gandhi should admit that he is a Hindu. Gandhi insists that Jinnah should admit that he is one of the leaders of the Muslims. Never has there been such a deplorable state of bankruptcy of statesmanship as one sees in these two leaders of India.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar

The dispute between Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar well known to specialists on contemporary Indian history. However, what is not often mentioned by historians is that Gandhi acknowledged Ambedkar as the most capable and talented representative of the Dalit group (Untouchables) and that he personally intervened for Nehru to choose him as Law Minister after independence. Perhaps Gandhi did so, despite his disagreements with Ambedkar, because he believed in Ambedkar’s political capacities as a true freedom fighter and an integral builder of democracy. Back in 1930, Ambedkar was a rising leader of the Untouchables in the Indian public sphere as he led a direct action movement to allow the entry of Harijans (Gandhi’s term for Untouchables) into the temple. Criticizing Gandhi for not making it a priority to end the caste system, Ambedkar accused Gandhi and Gandhians of strengthening Hindu domination in India. Asked about his critique of Gandhism and his ideas about social revolutions, Ambedkar explained: “Man has been waging war against Nature and conquering her in order to be happier and happier and less and less handicapped. This process must go on until mankind becomes entirely happy and his poetic paradise is realized on earth. As I understand it Gandhism is against this. Gandhism only wants to reduce man to the position of two bullocks he yokes to his plough, to shut up his women in the cottage to make her cook and procreate and ply on the charkha and deprive both of them of all cultures that can develop only by using the brain and mental faculties. This is Gandhism which is wholly reactionary. Whatever movement Gandhi may start, its roots will be found in this line of thought and so Gandhi is not acceptable to me.” What Ambedkar points out here as unacceptable is the limit to which Gandhi would criticize castes. Gandhi certainly agreed that Untouchables should be permitted into temples and had written extensively on the fate of the Untouchables in 1920-1921 while explaining his religious position as a follower of Sanatan Dharma. But Gandhi’s adherence to the spirit of the Varna system which denied socio-economic inequality and maintained hierarchy is evident in his article in Young India written December 1920, where he affirms: “I believe that caste has saved Hinduism from disintegration…But like every other institution it has suffered from excrescences. I consider the four divisions alone to be fundamental, natural and essential. The innumerable sub-casts are sometimes a convenience, after a hindrance. The sooner there is fusion the better… But I am certainly against any attempt at destroying the fundamental divisions. The caste system is not based on inequality, there is no question of inferiority, and so far as there is any question arising, as in Madras, Maharashtra or elsewhere, the tendency should undoubtedly be checked.” This passage reflects Gandhi’s adherence to the principle of Varna. It clearly implies his acceptance of the fusion among castes and his rejection of the Hindu orthodox reading of the caste society in India. However, as Christophe Jaffrelot underlines adequately, “Such a conception is naturally the exact opposite to that of Ambedkar, for whom the individual had to become the basic unit of an egalitarian society, with castes as collective bodies serving only as temporary means of advancing his politics of equality.”

Ambedkar was fully aware of the dangers of an independent India where there would be no share in political power for the depressed classes. He, therefore, expressed his disillusionment with a constitution which did not take into consideration the need for representation of the Untouchables. It became obvious that Gandhi’s views and Ambedkar’s could not be easily reconciled. Ambedkar did not take an extreme position, as did the Muslim League under Jinnah, to ask for a separate state, but he made it politically clear that he considered the Untouchables a separate minority.

Meet the Author

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Associate Professor and Noor–York Chair in Islamic Studies at York University, Toronto.

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