The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This dense, scholarly work addresses Mohandas Gandhi’s political philosophy through a prism that seeks to refigure him as an extraordinary realist whose creed of nonviolence was less idealistic than a means to an end. Devji (The Terrorist in Search of Humanity), reader in Indian history at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, contends that Gandhi implicitly accepted the inevitability of horrific violence as part of the quest for India’s independence. This was a major factor in his demand for a speedy British departure in 1947 without their supervising the religious division of the subcontinent. Partition was an orgy of violence, which, Devji argues, Gandhi—“the most hard-headed of all self-proclaimed realists”—accepted because it would prompt Indians to accept “political responsibility, which they could do by dealing directly with each other.” This notion is laboriously and meticulously sketched in abstract terms, concluding that Gandhi helped develop a “prejudice” that would allow Indians to evolve politically in a postcolonial context. While this treatise is appropriate for graduate-level scholars, Devji does allow a few accessible ideas to seep through, notably that the Mahatma praised the Bhagavad-Gita’s detached creed of swadharma (sacrificial killing) because it represented the most sublime of moral acts and emphasized that “ethics was either possible everywhere and available to everyone or it had no meaning at all.” (Sept.)
The Caravan
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.
The Hindu

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

Tehelka

Historically rigorous and topical.
— Aditi Saxton

Dipesh Chakrabarty
This powerful book brings out very clearly Gandhi's conceptions about the socially embedded but solitary moral agent and about responsibility for moral action. Devji manages to tease gently out of Gandhi's writings intellectual-political positions that both surprise and enlighten the reader. The questions he asks and the propositions he puts forward are sometimes disturbing as they challenge many of the everyday assumptions of those who connect politics to the idea of rights.
David Arnold
Considering how much has been written about Gandhi over the years, it is impressive to read a book that presents such a fresh and insightful view of the Mahatma and his ideas. Devji effectively situates Gandhi, not as an outmoded, sentimental idealist, adrift in an anachronistic rural utopia, but as a remarkably original thinker who speaks to many of the most pressing issues of modernity and present-day politics - not least the abiding problem of violence and the place of minorities within contemporary societies.
Leela Gandhi
This subtle yet polemical study presents M.K. Gandhi as the genius behind an anti-majoritarian type of mass politics which emerged in the twentieth-century but still awaits proper elaboration. Devji's highly original portrait is not always salubrious but it makes Gandhi look all the more radical, and sometimes almost like a postcolonial heir to Friedrich Nietzsche.
Arjun Appadurai
This remarkable book will secure Faisal Devji's reputation as the boldest historian of twentieth century political ideas of liberation and humanity. Freeing himself from both the hagiographic cant and cynical clichés, Devji has presented us with a Gandhian book about the Mahatma, embracing contradiction, forsaking easy friends and embracing obvious enemies. Devji is able to show that Gandhi sought nothing less than to erect a new sort of moral subject in India during British rule, a subject who can, even at great cost, make history as she pleases, placing the exigencies of justice, freedom, and truth securely within the search for a sovereign self, free of the tyrannies of various seductive images of the inevitability of political modernity. Neither Gandhi nor political theory will be the same again.
The Hindu - Swaran Singh
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.
Tehelka - Aditi Saxton
Historically rigorous and topical.
The Caravan - Tridip Suhrud
Faisal Devji's The Impossible Indian is an audacious book. He approaches Gandhi counter-intuitively; instead of foregrounding Gandhi's non-violence, Devji explores what he calls 'the temptation to violence.' His earlier work on jihad and terror gives him insights into the fascination with violence as a legitimate means of politics...He shows Gandhi engaged with the question of violence inherent in Empire and fascism. Gandhi is concerned about the civil war in South Africa and the possibility of such a war starting in India. Devji convincingly argues that, for Gandhi, sovereignty and its validation lies not in the State but within the ethical self-a self rooted in dharma and engaged in moral negotiations with real and potential violence. In the course of this argument, Devji also provides a departure from Gandhi's reading of the Bhagvada Gita as a discourse on detached action. Gandhi saw the Gita as a spiritual guidebook, in the sense that it enlightened him in his quest for the moral agency that lay within. This search for a solitary moral agent committed to ethical action and duty, willing to grapple with modernity as also with violence both of the traditional structures and that of modern civilization, makes Devji's Gandhi a political philosopher whose revolutionary potential is yet to be grasped.
The Nation - Thomas Meaney
[A] rich and provocative book.
The Caravan

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674066724
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/20/2012
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 987,457
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
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Read an Excerpt

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.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

Introduction 1

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

Conclusion 185

Notes 193

Index 207

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