Category Archives: Gandhiji

Gandhiji on Linguistic Pluralism in India – Towards knowing Gandhiji: Part 4

The Q in GandhijiThere were several reasons why MK Gandhi was successful in becoming a pivot around which the common Indian opinion spun itself to become desi khadi.  Many believe that Gandhi’s success was in parts due to his stubbornness (be it the ethically contentious idea of ahimsa, or the crazy idea of celibacy or the brilliant idea of non-cooperation), and also his instinct for radical journalism played a role. One of the questions that has troubled me immensely over the last decade concerns the future of linguistic pluralism in India. Karnataka is inhabited by Kannada peoples (Kannadigas, Tuluvas, Kodavas, Konkanis and others who have learnt to speak/read/write one of these languages while they inhabit Karnataka). The tyranny of Hindi imposition (inhibition of other languagues) by the Indian central government on Karnataka makes my blood boil. My restraint is a form of cowardice and I have no hesitation in admitting that.

In 1922 Gandhi says

Non-violence, which only an individual can use is not of much use in terms of the society…our non-violence need not be of the strong, but it has to be of the truthful…Some of us seem unfortunately, to have merely postponed the date of revenge”. 

I wish my restraint had more inner strength as well as truthfulness, but I am not that lucky. I don’t know when I will end up doing something “foolish”.  I started wondering about the Mahatma’s position on languages in India. Here, I discuss my readings of Gandhi’s view on language pluralism in the pre-independent Indian subcontinent. I try to see if his views have any resonance with the present-day language federalism debate in India.

Gandhi used to run a multilingual journal while he was in South Africa and continued to do that after he came back to India. He apparently constituted state-congress committees on linguistic lines. These just show that Gandhi probably understood the importance of effective communication in the vernaculars of India. However, my initial readings of his selected works did not convince me that Gandhi had a pluralistic language philosophy.


In 1909, Gandhi says

If man will only realise that it is unmanly to obey laws that are unjust, no man’s tyranny will enslave him.  This is the key to Self Rule. It is a superstition and ungodly thing to believe that an act of a majority binds a minority”.

And he goes on to say

it is we the English knowing Indians (less than 0.1% of ~200000 Indians in 1920s, now nearly 100000 out of 1.2 billion) that have enslaved India…we may learn and use English as the case may be.  Those who have studied English will have to teach morality to their children in their mother tongue, and to teach them another Indian language, but when they have grown up, they may [opt] to learn English. We have to improve all our languages…English books which are valuable should be translated into various Indian languages”

All of these sound just great, don’t they?  If we take Gandhi’s arguments in the context of Hindi majoritarian politics played by the Central government today, Kannadigas must feel no obligation to follow unjust constitutional provisions exploited by the Central government.  Hindi must not be allowed to be the official language of the Indian union.  They must repeal all privileges extended to Hindi (at the cost of other Indian languages) or they must extend all privileges to all Indian languages. The former is more practical than the latter. If and only if we (Kannadigas) disobey the central government (on these matters) that we will fulfil our ambitions of living in economically, linguistically, and psychologically autonomous Karnataka. We don’t and must not oppose the Indian constitutional values. We must however not accept constitutional provisions that undermine our regional and ethnic identity (I cannot say the same with conviction when it comes to religious and caste identities). Before we feel enthused by Gandhi’s universal philosophy of disobedience (when faced with unjust laws), I was disappointed to read this from Gandhi who argues the following (again in 1909)

Every cultured Indian will know in addition to his own provincial language [two more languages] …A Hindu [will know] Sanskrit, a Muslim [will know] Persian, and all [will know] Hindi.  Northerners should learn Tamil. A universal language for India should be Hindi, with an option to write it in both Persian and Nagari characters…in order that Hindus and Muslims may have closer relations”.

In 1925 Gandhi says the following

if English were our common language…then the democracy will be [that] of a mere handful. Common language of the vast mass can never be English. It is a matter of course a resultant of Hindi and Urdu or Hindustani as I would call it….our English speech [has made us] foreigners in our own land. I have profound admiration for the English language…but I have no matter of doubt in my mind that the English language and people occupy a place in our life which retards our progress”

Gandhi mentions Tamil as an example perhaps because he was familiar with Tamil through his South African experience.  But, I hate it when North Indians (including Gandhi dare I say) see all South Indians as Tamilians. Are all North Indians Hindi speakers?  I am sure North Indians will be offended by such a remark.  People living in Karnataka are Kannada peoples (please see the introductory paragraph for a definition of Kannada peoples). North Indians must know that Kannada is among the most ancient living languages in the world (not just South India) and Kannada’s prolific literary tradition is second to none in the world (let alone South India). Let me suggest to all of you to replace the word ‘English’ with the word ‘Hindi’ in Gandhi’s quote given above and replace ‘Hindi’ with ‘Regional languages’. That will be a neat summary of my attitude towards Hindi today.  Now, back to Gandhi’s ideas on Hindi and frankly some of them are outrageous in the modern Indian context.  Gandhi was thinking about religious harmony but he could not foresee the venomous propaganda of a Hindi-centric central administrator.

Let us grant and understand that Gandhi was trying to unify divergent religious forces to fight the British. However, his notion that Hindi must be known by all Indians is at the heart of Hindi hegemony in India. Hindi is retarding our progress. By raising our voice for linguistic autonomy in everything in our lives, we Kannada people are not advocating a Kannada majoritarian oppression of others in Karnataka. We are asking (requesting) people residing in Karnataka state to learn Kannada or any other language of Karnataka. By doing so, non-Kannada people will not only win their bread while in Karnataka, they will also win our hearts and minds.  

Towards knowing Gandhiji : The Soul-force : Hind Swaraj : part 3

ಹೃದಯವೆಂಬೋ ಮಡಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ  photo credit : the Associated Press
ಹೃದಯವೆಂಬೋ ಮಡಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ
photo credit : the Associated Press

Last year there was a major natural disaster in the glacier pilgrimage town of Kedarnath (North India) that left many dead and damaged an entire ecosystem.  Perhaps, I should say we, in-humans had damaged an ecosystem and mother nature took the first step towards restoring herself.  Reacting to the incident in an interview veteran Hindi actor Tom Alter thought that we should go back to old ways of travelling to such places of significance.  Those remote places had difficult access in the past, hence needed personal effort from the pilgrim to go there.  We built roads in places where none were supposed to be built and nature wiped them all at once.  In the same vein, Gandhiji resents modern (western) tendency of making everything ‘easy’.  Gandhiji says “the holy places of India have become unholy” because they have become easily accessible to rogues (mala-fide intentions).

Gandhiji sees the virtues of railways (a western symbol of modernity) as its fundamental flaws.  Modern professions such as law and allopathic medicine appear to him as instruments of deceit.  His resentment towards lawyers (being a lawyer himself) seems to have come from personal experience.  I am not a lawyer. I also strongly feel that lawyers are a burden on this society and the fact that most politicians in India and probably in the whole world are lawyers, shows why India still continues to fail after independence*.  However, Gandhiji’s views on medicine and doctors are more contentious and inhuman although may still appeal to cold-hearted naturalists.

A naturalist from a spiritual/personal view is not the same as a naturalist in science/philosophy.  The former is not interested in the order of things and the mechanisms.  The spiritual naturalist is restricted to the human era (Anthropocene). The naturalist in Gandhiji makes careful observations of human society and history.  He is in search of an ethical framework that defines us, the human race.  18th century Carnatic composer Sri Tyagaraja writes in Telugu “చక్కని రాజమార్గము లుండగ, సందులు దూరనేల ఓ మనసా (chakkani raaja maargamu lundaga…sandulu dooranela O manasa)” which means “here is a majestic boulevard, why do you choose narrow alleyways, Oh mind”.  Gandhiji proposes an idea of a ‘soul-force’ or ‘truth-force’ as the main road towards freedom.

For Gandhiji the most advanced civilization is the Indian component of the human race.  He goes to the extent of saying that the Indian civilization is complete by itself and it has nothing to learn from others.  No reasonable individual would agree with Gandhiji on that.  If we want to be generous and give the benefit of the doubt to Gandhiji, then we may say that he was trying to establish pride in Indians trying to fight British rule.   Where I disagree with the great man is when he says “we Indians are one as no two Englishmen are.  Only you and I and others who consider ourselves civilized and superior persons imagine that we are many nations”.  Gandhiji blames the mechanized western ideas for creating a sense of distinction among Indians.  I have a different take on this.  I have always felt that India has never been a single entity.  It is a melting pot of differences and it amalgamates large differences perhaps so large that they cannot be left to their own devices.  As Gandhiji says we cannot have home rule if we fear our own brethren.  I would say we could never afford to have such fear.  In other words, we should fear ‘fear’. Fear is too dangerous.  We are safer together than apart.  Gandhiji’s utopian soul-force has a pragmatic side to it.  The key to managing differences and maintaining harmony is to strengthen the soul-force, in other words ‘the individual mind’.  In essence, he argues that in situations where a collective conscience is hurt, to sacrifice personal interest is the most ethical of solutions.

The Q in GandhijiDrawing a great deal from the ‘Bhagavadgeetha’, Gandhiji emphasizes ‘duty’ over ‘rights’. When people become conscious of their rights, a greater awareness about performing their duties must take precedence over obtaining their rights. Such and only such supreme devotion to duty shall add meaning and legitimacy to rights or demands. Personal liberation from slavery is a necessary step towards liberating a nation. The Gandhian view of slavery goes beyond the British oppression of India through rule of law. To get freedom, we need to relieve ourselves from being enslaved by the modern civilization. The soul-force originates in a dutifully conscientious individual who wants freedom. Gandhiji uses a beautiful metaphor by equating the individual soul to an earthen pot.  A pot made of clay is fragile until it is burnt (purified).  Baking clay is akin to preparing one’s mind to harness the soul-force.  16th century Carnatic composer Sri Purandara dasa writes in Kannada and refers to “ಹೃದಯವೆಂಬೋ ಮಡಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ (hrudayavembo maDakeyalli)” that literally means “in a clay-pot called as heart”.  Gandhiji’s idea of baking hearts (made of clay) takes them to greater strength and integrity and the hearts (soul-force) become natural and invincible.

Explaining the lack of evidence for the success of soul-force crusades in obtaining freedom, Gandhiji again puts on his hat of a spiritual naturalist.  He says “History…is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history”.  Clever man Gandhiji!  He is absolutely right in saying that history is a record of aberrations. History is news and news is sensationalist (out of the ordinary).  Thus, syllogically history records extraordinary things.  Origin and spread of soul-force is an ordinary phenomenon and is part of nature.  Hence, there are few records that prove the strength of soul-force.

more to follow…

*All political parties in India today are full of lawyers.  All ministers are lawyers and former bureaucrats.  Politics has been taken away from political thinkers and given to technocrats.

ಹೃದಯವೆಂಬೋ ಮಡಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ  photo credit : the Associated Press
ಹೃದಯವೆಂಬೋ ಮಡಕೆಯಲ್ಲಿ
photo credit : the Associated Press

Towards knowing Gandhiji- Hind Swaraj: part 2

Towards Knowing Gandhiji_2Gandhiji’s ‘Hind Swaraj‘ is a discourse on the principles that provide basis to an Indian demand for freedom from British rule.  In his preface he mentions the date (22-Nov-1909) and the place, Kildonan Castle, where he wrote the book.  I looked it up and wondered what was Gandhiji doing in a remote island, south of Scotland in the winter of 1909?  I soon found that Gandhiji wrote his book while he was travelling from United Kingdom to South Africa in 1909, on SS Kildonan Castle, a passenger/cargo ship.  It is remarkable that he gathered all his thoughts and wrote the whole thing in 9 days while he was on that ship.  ‘Hind Swaraj‘ is presented in the form of a conversation between an editor (Gandhiji himself) and a reader (an average skeptical Indian who is unsure about the means to obtaining independence).  If it weren’t a conversation, one could have classified ‘Hind Swaraj‘ as an uninterrupted and passionate promotion of true self-sufficiency and its role in obtaining liberation.  It is a monograph or one could even call it a long argument *.

Gandhiji promises to remain truthful in his endevours and truthful he remains.  He claims no originality and that is true.  He vows to remain open to criticism and it appears to be true. He believes that a successful struggle (of any kind) always has an invisible beginning and he draws an analogy between a tree and its invisible (underground) origins from a seed that degenerates after germination.  He identifies the importance of discontent in fueling change.  The seed of discontent is a personal germ and it is an individual’s responsibility to take the step without waiting for a collective backing.  Soon, the discontent multiplies and takes over the society.  While we are tempted to see the discontent Gandhiji refers to, as cancer (hence unknown origins and rapid spread), we soon realise that we are not looking at an undifferentiated mass of ideas/people.  Each individual knows what he is hence each individual is a force.

The argument soon turns into a scathing attack on western ideas of progress and Gandhiji uses the phrase ‘modern civilization’ to collectively refer to western thought and life.  At first they appear to be misconceived and at some places they are downright absurd.  However, one cannot overlook some compelling aspects of what Gandhiji intends to achieve by openly attacking European civilization.  He calls the English parliamentary system a ‘prostitute’, ‘a costly toy of a nation’, and even ‘an emblem of slavery’ (all his terms).  However, he falls short of calling British legislation (an outcome of their parliament) bastardly, although his descriptions are quite adequate to convey the same sentiment.  He portrays the unethical and immoral modern civilization as far inferior to the superior Indian one.

I had recently been to my grandmother’s ancestral village in Southern rural India and one of her sister’s children (my uncles and aunts) still live there.  I hadn’t been there for nearly 7 years and I was curious to know more about the happenings in the village since my last visit. I asked my uncle what had changed. He said one of the oldest banyan trees in the village succumbed to a storm and he added that the civilization had arrived!  I immediately corrected him and said he probably meant urbanization and not civilization.  He didn’t argue.  Now, after reading Gandhiji’s ‘Hind Swaraj‘, I am not so sure what my uncle meant.  I knew that the atmosphere in that village had deteriorated over the last several decades due to unbearable political divisions. Cities in India have long succumbed to the seducing beast. However, now I also know that in recent years stinking self-preservation at the cost of others, idleness and a sense of artificial reservedness (masked as quiet) has taken root even in Indian villages.

Gandhiji was religious. Gandhiji speaks about inseparability of Indian thought and religiosity **.  He makes it clear that by religion he does not mean being Hindu, Muslim or anybody    Reacting to a question on the evils of religion (riots and violence), Gandhiji juxtaposes “fear of God” and “fear of fellow human beings” and makes one of his more powerful statements “So long as we fear our own brethren, we are unfit to reach the goal (of home rule)”.

more to follow….

*Prof Steve Jones (University College London) refers to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and aptly calls it a long argument.

**Prof Ashis Nandy (CSDS, India) refers to theories of transcendence and recognizes religion (in its full potential) as one of the instruments of ordinary people to practice ethical existence