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The Impossible Indian offers a rare, fresh view of Gandhi as a hard-hitting political thinker willing to countenance the greatest violence in pursuit of a global vision that went far beyond a nationalist agenda. Revising the conventional view of the Mahatma as an isolated Indian moralist detached from the mainstream of twentieth-century politics, Faisal Devji offers a provocative new genealogy of Gandhian thought, one that is not rooted in a clichéd alternative history of spiritual India but arises from a tradition of conquest and violence in the battlefields of 1857.
Focusing on his unsentimental engagement with the hard facts of imperial domination, Fascism, and civil war, Devji recasts Gandhi as a man at the center of modern history. Rejecting Western notions of the rights of man, rights which can only be bestowed by a state, Gandhi turned instead to the idea of dharma, or ethical duty, as the true source of the self’s sovereignty, independent of the state. Devji demonstrates that Gandhi’s dealings with violence, guided by his idea of ethical duty, were more radical than those of contemporary revolutionists.
To make sense of this seemingly incongruous relationship with violence, Devji returns to Gandhi’s writings and explores his engagement with issues beyond India’s struggle for home rule. Devji reintroduces Gandhi to a global audience in search of leadership at a time of extraordinary strife as a thinker who understood how life’s quotidian reality could be revolutionized to extraordinary effect.
Rarely someone manages to restrict his engagement to Gandhi's thoughts alone; and even more rarely someone manages to decipher Gandhi and make a value addition to the existing body of knowledge. The book by Faisal Devji, aptly titled The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence, presents one such rare work and should be celebrated as a collectors' item. There is something strikingly distinct about Devji's style. He invokes, then whets the intellectual taste-buds of his readers and then takes them on a roller-coaster ride in richly sourced complex of abstract ideas.
— Swaran Singh
Historically rigorous and topical.
— Aditi Saxton
This is an account of the Mahatma as a political thinker, one who recognized how the quotidian reality of modern life could be radicalized to produce the most extraordinary effects. Devji's book reveals Gandhi to be a hard-hitting political thinker, someone willing to countenance violence to achieve his objectives; it challenges the idealistic portrayals of the Mahatma that prevail even today.
From Chapter Five: Hitler’s Conversion
Like all the challenges he encountered during a lengthy career, Gandhi saw in fascism a test as much as an opportunity for nonviolence. Though he was not interested, therefore, in making Nazism out to be an exceptional phenomenon falling outside the ken of non-violence, neither was the Mahatma concerned with minimizing the unprecedented nature of its violence. Indeed he was keen to acknowledge this violence in as fulsome a way as possible so as to test the “matchless weapon of non-violence” against it. At the very commencement of war, then, Gandhi went much further than most in imagining the destruction of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament in London, shedding tears in the presence of the viceroy at the thought of such an eventuality. Naturally these tears were taken as a display of hypocrisy, and went on to become the subject of numerous jokes by the Mahatma’s enemies. Even more outrageous were considered Gandhi’s statements that Britain could not represent her struggle with fascism as being dedicated to the cause of freedom so long as she held countries like India in subjection, arguing that the British were only able to fight Nazism by adopting its violence. But if leaders like Churchill were mobilizing their people to die in the cause of liberty, why not train them to do so in a nonviolent way that might for the first time disrupt the never-ending cycle of military preparations and war? Only prejudice, thought Gandhi, could lead men to approve the first and reject the second way of sacrifice, since both demonstrated that men could indeed be made to give their lives in the cause of an ideal.
Instead of embarking upon the contradictory task of rejecting fascist violence by trying to match its ferocity, the Mahatma advised the British to prove their principled opposition to Nazism by letting Hitler’s forces enter their country without a fight, while at the same time refusing to cooperate with them in any way. In the absence of armed opposition, he suggested, German troops would lose their purpose, and the refusal of civilians to cooperate with them would render Nazi rule impossible. But more than this it would display the kind of individual and everyday courage that were alone capable of converting Hitler’s soldiers to the path of virtue. Only such a course of action, thought the Mahatma, could translate into reality the anti-fascist resolve that Britain was trumpeting to the world in the name of her people. Before dismissing this advice as unrealistic, we should recognize that the Mahatma never expected his counsel to be followed. He was simply making the argument that Britain’s preparations for war were prompted by fear rather than courage, since they relied upon propaganda that demonized the Germans.
1 Bastard History 9
2 A Nation Misplaced 41
3 In Praise of Prejudice 67
4 Brothers in Arms 93
5 Hitler's Conversion 119
6 Leaving India to Anarchy 151