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Gandhi, Gandhism and Terrorism

Antony Copley

HELEN STEVEN CONCLUDED her recent Gandhi Foundation Annual lecture1 by raising the question. How would have Gandhi dealt with today’s terrorism? She raised the question too late to formulate any kind of sustained answer, given the strong emphasis in her lecture on the need for dialogue. She suggested that Gandhi would certainly have wanted to enter into some kind of conversion with the terrorists. The appalling case of Ken Bigley was then in everyone’s mind. It occurred to me later that Gandhi, in such circumstances, would have had an idea where the kidnappers would be hiding him. (Later we learnt that Scotland Yard and MI6 had some ideas, but chose to act through an intermediary and it was his attempt to spring him that triggered his beheading).2 At the time of the lecture I felt that a response from the floor would be that a likely strategy of Gandhi would be to have entered into a fast. But of course beyond these gruesome particulars the question is very close to Gandhi’s life’s work. Arguably satyagraha and the strategy of nonviolence were targeting as much any other phenomenon as an alternative to violent tactics of terrorism.

This paper has two parts. The first deals with the known aspects of Gandhi’s own life and attitudes in relation to terror while the second raises the far more speculative question as to how he might have responded to the terrorist threat of today. The first part begins by setting the context within which Gandhi was forced to address the issue of terrorism. We have to discuss both state terrorism as well as private. Definitions of state terrorism are bound to be controversial. At the outset of his career there was at least one terrorist movement, that in Tsarist Russia, which attracted mixed responses and indeed for many these Russian revolutionaries were heroes and heroines. Was there not a real risk that a like-minded movement in India would attract an equal cult following? It was a risk that Gandhi had always to face and tragically he was himself to die at the hands of a terrorist. The paper then goes on to discuss the character of Gandhi’s response to the threat of a terrorist movement in India.

The second part entails stepping back and trying to make sense of Islamic terrorism. Is it rooted in traditional Islam? Alternatively, does fundamentalism not paradoxically emerge from modern European thought; or as John Gray has interpreted it, Islamic terrorism is in fact a product of western influences on Islam. It clearly is important to establish whether the current terrorist threat is driven by the traditional cultural values of Islam or of the west for this will leave us in a better position to judge how Gandhi might have responded. After all, whatever his own mixed response to the west, his own private quarrel lay with the violent tendencies in western imperialist culture.

To elucidate Gandhi’s response to terrorism is one possibility. To suggest that Gandhism has an answer to terrorism is another. Maybe here we are running up against the limits of satyagraha.

State Terrorism

A definition of state terrorism by the Shorter Oxford Dictionary begins with a reference to the reign of terror in France during March 1793 to July 1794 and describes it as ‘a state of things in which the general community lives in dread of death or outrage.’ Any subsequent example of the coerciveness of extreme sate power has been branded as terrorism. Possibly radical governments are more likely to acquire this label than reactionary. The most obvious recent example would be the terror as practiced by Stalin’s Russia. If Nazism is rightly likewise branded terrorist it maybe because of it’s rightly likewise programme. Maybe regimes with overt millenarian aims teed more horrifically towards terror.

But course attribution of terror has been used in far more generalized ways. Just about any authoritarian state can be accused of terror. For the anarchist the state is by definition an instrument of terrorism. And state terror breeds private terror. Here is John Pilger:’ only by recognising the terrorism of states is it possible to understand, and deal with, acts of terror by groups and individuals which, however horrific, are tiny by comparison.’ Israel, for example, he brands as a perpetrator of ‘its own, unrelenting planned terrorism for which there is no media language.’ Another contemporary example he cited is Russian state terrorism in Chechnya.3 States which exercise undue force reap the whirlwind of terrorist reprisal. But, of course, we could almost indefinitely extend the list of states practicing terror against their subjects.

The way Gandhi challenged state authority is at heart of satyagraha. First he had to meet the repression of colonial authority in South Africa and the proto-apartheid state governments of Natal and Transvaal. Here was experience he could turn to advantage in the struggle for national independence from the Raj. Just how far this encounter suggests the appropriateness of a Gandhian response to the more repressive and totalitarian terrorist regimes of the recent times is open to question, for the Gandhi was indisputably helped by having in Smuts an opponent open to the spiritual dimensions of Satyagraha and in the raj a regime rhetorically committed to the rule of law together with an official class conditioned by public school values of fair-play. It took the horror of the Amritsar massacre to open Gandhi’s eyes to the readily available state violence behind that legal facade. The massacre released in Gandhi a readiness to move beyond constitutionalism and dialogue to non-cooperation and nonviolent civil disobedience. In response to colonial repression Gandhi worked out a strategy of political resistance which could equally be deployed to meet the challenge of other evils of his time as he saw them, such as industrial capitalist exploitation of labour, landowner oppression of the peasantry and communalism. How did this political agenda relate to terrorism?

Terrorist Movement in Gandhi’s Lifetime

The histories of modern Russia and India have much in common and the struggle of the Russian intelligentsia to liberate Russia from serfdom and autocracy was an obvious role model for India’s own emergent radical intelligentsia. It began with the Decembist movement and from the beginning here was a radical protest movement divided between a constitutional liberal approach and recourse to Jacobin style terrorism. The same tension appeared in its successor, populism, with the alternative of a ‘going to he people,’ a nonviolent propaganda assassination of official back on acts of extreme terror, with the assassination of officials and landowners and in 1881 the murder of Tsar Alexander 11. A section of the intelligentsia turned nihilist. In the mind of the leading exponent of anarchism, Bakunin, a positive cult of the cleansing power of revolutionary, millenarian violence took hold. In the final phase that led to 1917 the same tension prevailed between a Marxist social democratic movement and a social revolutionary one which remained wedded to the practice of violence by a revolutionary elite.

Maybe what would have alarmed Gandhi the most about Russian terrorism was the extent public opinion was on its side. Take, for example, the support for Spridovna, the 20 years old assassin of General Luzhenovsky, when in 1906 public opinion forced a commutation of her death sentence to life imprisonment with crowds returning again and again outside her detention quarters in Moscow. ‘Comrades, we shall meet again in a free Russia’ were her words as she was put on the train to her prison in Siberia.

But what should have been a prison journey became a triumphal progress. Mysteriously, at each stop, cheering crowds had assembled. At Omsk and Krasnoyarsk the frenzy mounted. The engine driver was stoned, the Marseillaise was sung and red flags waved; the prisoner addressed the crowds from behind her bars as offerings rained through them, kopecks, five-rouble gold pieces, flowers and fruits. At each halt it seemed more likely she would be rescued and the guards were trebled. But they too seemed infected by the extraordinary circumstances and soon Spridrovna was holding receptions, regally, from the steps of her wagon. Yet she did not try to escape nor did the feared rescue take place.4

A parallel could be drawn with Irish nationalism, another movement split between a parliamentarist and a terrorist approach, and one which exercised an almost an almost equal spell over Indian nationalists. Might a terrorist movement become just as attractive in India?

It is sobering to discover just how far sections of the nationalist leadership and India’s radical youth were by the rhetoric of terrorist violence at the very time Gandhi was working out his own theory and praxis of nonviolence. Whilst still in touch with events in India and making periodic returns to South Africa, Gandhi’s main concern were terrorists outside India. Through his visits to London to petition the Colonial office on behalf of the Indian minority he became aware of them. Their ideas drove him to write Hind Swaraj. But terrorism within and without India was all part of the same terrorist conspiracy and both have to be considered if we are to set Gandhi’s philosophy in context.5

Terrorism as centered in Maharashtra, Punjab and Bengal. Two nationalists coming to prominence as the leading extremists- Tilak from Maharashtra and Aurobindo Ghose, a Bengali by Origin-were to be closely associated with terrorism. Had he lived beyond 1920 Tilak would have posed probably and insuperable barrier to Gandhi’s taking over the leadership of the nationalist movement and Aurobindo was, by all account, the most brilliant Prime Minister India was not to have. The continually teasing question of this terrorist movement is whether it was driven by a revivalist nationalism or merely adopted the outer trappings of a traditional culture whilst in fact being inspired by a wholly modern nationalist and terrorist agenda.

In Maharashtra the initial lead came from a rural Chitpavin Brahmin, Waredeo Balwant Phadke, who dreamt of a rising of Hindusim against foreign rule but he got no further than a series of wild west gangland robberies prior to his flight to Hyderabad and capture in July 1879, followed by transportation to Aden and death in 1883. A more conspicuous act terror came with the murder in Poona of the intolerably heavy-handed Plague Commissioner, W.C. Rand, by two Chitpavin Brahmins, Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar, on 22 June 1897, Their grudge had been as much against Hindu social reformer as foreigners. They were certainly known to Tilak and he helped both at the time of their trail. There is no evidence, however, of his collusion with them for Rand’s murder and it was because of tendentious newspaper articles that he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment on charges of sedition. Jail was already becoming the pathway to political reputation.

Bengal became the centre of the terrorist movement. It is a highly dramatic story, worthy of opera, with the deeply mysterious Aurobindo as the as the figurehead. Its membership is almost a roll-call of the nationalist elite. In the nature of any underground movement its narrative has to be uncertain. Within Bengal the intelligentsia, in sense no more than undergraduate societies revolutionary cells, inspired by the Carbonari and Mazzinni, began to coalesce. One Jatindra Nath Banerjea, a bit of a loner and by character a martinet, had contacted Aurobindo in Baroda in his search for military training. This had become and obsession with the terrorists and various countries including Japan were tried till Switzerland came up with an offer. Jatindra joined the Anushilan Samiti (Cultural Association) in Calcutta which was to become the most prominent revolutionary cell, formally launched on 24 March 1902. Meanwhile, a leading acolyte of the late Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, and an Irish woman, Margaret Noble, met Aurobindo in Baroda and became actively involved in the movement. Vivekananda’s brother, Bhupenesh Dutt, also joined the Anushilan Samiti.Links were made with Tilak in Bombay. Aurobindo met him for the first time at the Ahmedabad Congress meeting in 1902. Tilak appeared to him as “the one possible leader of a revolutionary party.’6 Maharashtra, later, was to give way to Bengal as the centre of terrorism. There was also Thakur Saheb’s secret society, aimed at subverting loyalty in the Army. Jatindra was later to turn to sanyassi but his preaching in the North-west Frontier was in time to recruit Har Dayal, a Punjabi Hindu, to the terrorist movement and he, in his turn, won over Bhagat Singh, the most impressive among the later generation of the movement.

The terrorist movement was momentarily eclipsed by the populist Swadeshi movement, Bengal’s outraged response to its division in 1905, but as that protest waned it once again took centre stage. Meanwhile Aurobindo’s brother, Baring Ghose, had usurped Jatindra’s role as leader and set up a kind of ashram in the garden of a suburban house in Maniktola. The most outstanding new recruit to the cell was the explosive experts, Hem Das who had returned recently from Europe. Now began a series of attempts to assassinate prominent officials, first choice being the highly unpopular Lt. Governor of East Bengal, Sir Banfylde Fuller-‘the unsuccessful attempt to commit to kill Fuller was probably the first serious attempt to commit a political murder in Bengal’s modern history.’7 Next choice, likewise abortive, was his successor, Sir Andrew Fraser, through the blowing up of his train. District Magistate D.C. Allen was shot by the Dacca branch of the Anushilan Samiti in December 1907. Then the Chandernagore cell failed in the assassination of the French mayor of the city, M.Tarnivel-he’d effectively cut off the arms traffic between French and British India. Finally the Calcutta cell got its victim if not its chosen target (Douglas Kingsford, Calcutta’s Chief Presidency Magistrate recently transferred as judge to Muzaffarpur in Bihar) in March 1908, the terrorist murdering, instead, a Mrs Pringle Kennedy and her daughter, the assassins being Khudiram bose and Prafulla Chaki. The hand held bomb, christened ‘the bomb of Mother Kali,’ had become the symbol of violent revolution.

All these events became the focus of the Alipore Conspiracy trial held in 24 Parganas, Calcutta. The government’s main aim was to incriminate Aurobindo. If he had become increasingly absorbed in his journalism, editing the Bande Mataram, he had never lost contact with the terrorists and was yet to renounce violence. In large part through the brilliant advocacy C.R.Das-how any one as clever as Aurobindo could have become associated with such a crackpot amateur outfit as the Anushilan Samiti - he was acquitted. As Peter Heehs puts it, ‘he had just escaped imprisonment for an offence that was the unquestionably had committed. Not only was he a conspirator, he was the originator and the first organiser of a conspiracy whose declared aim was to drive the British from India.’8 His brother and Hem Das were not to be so fortunate. Barin was condemned to death, through on appeal this was commuted to a life sentence, and he along with Hem Das and others, was deporated to the Andaman Islands. They were not freed till February 1920.

Aurobindo took up the cudgels again, editing another radical newspaper Karmajogin, but it was obvious that the authorities were determined to get him was to enter on a lifetime’s internal exile, fleeing via Chandernagore to Pondicherry. But Aurobindo had undergone a sea change, renouncing the Russian and Irish path of terror as unsuitable for India, and embarked on his yogic quest for the supermind. Tilak, likewise heavily compromised by these events, was charged with sedition for an article in Kesari, which allegedly justified the terrorism of Muzaffarpur murders, and was sentenced to six years imprisonment and deported to Mandalay. He was only released in Poona on 17 June 1914.

But violence had not yet had its day. The CID officer involved in the trial, Inspector Shamsul Alam, was murdered. There was another attempt on the life of Fraser. A new terrorist group, Jugantar, took up the running, climaxing with the attempted assassination by Rash Behari Bose of Viceroy Hardings on his entry into the Raj’s new Capital on 23 December 1912. The terrorist had almost matched the Russian assassination of Alexander 11 in 1881.

Gandhi had been more immediately concerned by the terrorists in London. On 2 July 1909 Sir Curzon Wyllie, Secretary of State for India, had been shot at the Imperial Institute in Kensingtone by Madanlal had been shot at the Imperial Institute in Kensington by Madanlal Dhingra, ‘ a tall, gangling Mahratta with thick curly hair and a square revolutionary terrorist movement which goes back to one Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930), a rich Inner Temple trained barrister, Dewan of several Indian princely states, who used his wealth to finance the cause of Indian nationalism, with who lectureships and scholarships, and also founded India House in Highgate in 1905, a home for Indian students, which all but became a cell for terrorist. He edited a journal much influenced by the ideas of Herbert Spencer, The Indian Sociologist, whose reading Gandhi oddly encouraged in his own Indian Opinion. Paynes states that ‘Gandhi genuinely liked and admired him.’ He took himself and his journal off to Paris in 1907.

If, as Anthony parel writes, Krishnavarma was ‘the organizing genius of the Indian expatriates, ‘V.D.Savarkar (1883-1966) was ‘the brain of the group.’10 He had briefly resided in Highgate House. Savarkar proved to be a major force in Indian political life, inspiration for Hindu nationalism, that communally divisive hindutva movement. At this stage Savarkar encouraged terror, took Dhingra under his wing, grooming him for political martyrdom. Intially the target was the former Viceroy Curzon, but an opportunity was botched. On the day Dhingra was to murder Sir Curzon Wyllie, Savarkar allegedly gave Dhingra a nickel- plated revolver and said, “ Don’t show your face if you fail this time.”11 Gandhi was surely right to see Dhingra as acting under the influence of others. He was sentenced to death and hung on Augest17. Rather strangely, Gandhi, on Dusshera day (24 October), then engaged with Savarkar, Gandhi Taking up the Theme of the exemplary role of Rama, emphasising his peaceful courage and devotion to duty, Savarkar dwelling on the goddess Durga, ‘the bringer of sudden death,’ Astonishingly, Savarkar remained free, only to be involved with Planning terrorist acts in the presidency of Bombay and providing the murder weapon that killed the District Magistrate of Nasik, A.M.T.Jackson on 29 December 1909. He was staying with Krishnavarma in Paris at the of his arrest warrant on 22 February 1910. He inexplicably surrendered himself to the authorities and was sent for trail to Bombay, briefly escaping in Marseilles en route. Savarkar was the arch-conspirator of the Nasik Conspiracy trail. There was a Chance that Hague Tribunal might decide Savarkar had been illegally arrested in France and hence acquitted. But the Hague Tribunal had no sympathy for terrorist, turned down the appeal, and on 23 December Savarkar was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andaman Island. In 1924 the Labour government released him: at forty one he looked sixty and resembled a lean and hungry hawk, with bitter mouth and eyes that seemed hooded.’12 He was to inspire Ghodse, Gandhi’s assassin, and lived on till 83, dying on 26 February 1966.

Gandhi’s Response

At the time Gandhi had embarked on a programme of nonviolent civil disobedience the murder of Sir Clifford Wyllie was a disturbing reminder that he was up against a potentially hugely influential alternative strategy of terrorist violence. Indeed, Gandhi’s entire political life was to be overshadowed by this alternative. Admittedly, in some ways it advantaged him in the sub-continental freedom struggle, for, to quote Heehs, Gandhi realised ‘that much of his strength came from being regarded by the British as a lesser evil.’13 But it was a challenge he had to confront and on his return to South Africa on board Kildonan Castle, in an almost inspired way between 13 to 22 November he wrote the Gujarati version of Hind Swaraj. Anthony Parel has persuasively shown how Gandhiji’s critique of so-called ‘modern civilisation’ was in large part driven by what he saw as its violent pursuit of power. Madan Lal Dhingra’s crime, to quite Parel’s interpretation of Gandhi’s response, ‘was a modern political act par excellence- Terrorism legitimized by nationalism.’14 Gandhi admittedly separated out from western civilisation which had a modern and Christian Dimension. Not all had been corrupted. But in Industrialism and imperialism there was clear evidence of violence within this modernity. Gandhi was profoundly committed to a view that ends did not justify means that violent means could only have outcome, and it was vital for an ancient civilisation such as India not to allow these western values to take hold. Taking a stance the violence of terror became part of larger defense of Indian values, through Gandhi was all too aware there had to be a transformation from within, a revitalization of dharma, if India was to advance. It is in this continuing tension between tradition and a kind of vulgar modernity that we will find best the answer to how Gandhi would have reacted to today’s Islamic terrorism.

There is, however, another way of critiquing terrorism. It can read as a form of political immaturity. The way forward for the nationalist movement lay in reaching out for greater popular involvement and indeed in that very democratization of the struggle that Gandhi was to introduce. Tilak and Aurobindo are faulted by the JNU historians for their failure to direct the young revolutionaries of Maharashtra and Bengal in this direction. Only when Tilak came to see the need for a broader based democracy did he come of age as a politician. Exactly the same debate had of course gone on within the Russian revolutionary movement. Turning away from the democratic route to have had a fatal attraction. This was to have a baleful long-term appeal.

But the terrorist movement continued within and without India to surface as an option. Abroad its centre passed to Canada and the American west coast in the Ghadar (Revolt) movement. Here was a Punjabi and Sikh involvement in terror, Lala Har Dayal its inspiration. It spread back into India, but in 1915, with the CID on its trail, a planned rebellion under the leadership of Rash Behari Bose, was stifled at birth: ‘an entire generation of the nationalist leadership of Punjab was thus politically beheaded.’15 Still, in terms of the secularism of the movement, ‘The Ghadarites certainly,’ the JNU historians believe, ‘contributed their share to the struggle for India’s freedom,’ In its aftermath the lesson of democracy was seemingly learnt but only in the short –run and many former terrorists played their part in the non-cooperation movement only to revert to terror after its withdrawal. Most famously, there was Bhagat Singh, seen as ‘a giant of an intellectual,’ active in the Hindustan Socialist republican Association (Army). He was one of the terrorists who murdered a police official, Saunders, as a national hero with Lal Lajpat Rai in a lathi charge, and then became a national hero with his lobbing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly on 8 April 1929. Admittedly his intention had been to attract publicity through a trial, little damage had been done, and subsequent Bhagat Singh renounced terror in favour of mass action. He was hung in March 1931.

Within Bengal terror flared up again at much the same time as the salt satyagraha. The Yugantar and Anushilan groups merged. A Chittagong group, on 18 April 1930, a day chosen to coincide with the date of the Dublin Easter uprising,16 seized the police armory and embarked on a rebellion with a full scale military encounter on the neighboring Jalalabad hill. Its leader Surya Sen was not to be captured till 16 February 1933.

Through, as the JNU historian claim, revolutionary terrorism gave way to the radical leftist parties in the 1930’s; Gandhi could never relax his grip. There was always the fear of its resurgence. He tried to wean such activities as Jayaprakash Narayan off terror by absorbing them within the ashram movement. He desperately, through not unsuccessfully, tried to contain the appeal of subhash Bose still locked in the terrorist tradition in Bengal. The risk was to become all too apparent in usurge of violence in the Quit India satyagraha- the prevailing of Narayan who was Highly active in terror against properly tradition in upsurge of violence in the Quit India Satyagraha- the Prevailing of Narayan who was highly active against property rather than persons, and, Subhas Bose’s far more sinister fascist-style Indian National Army. It seemed all too horribly appropriate that Gandhi was in the end to lose his to a terrorist.

The Origins of Muslim Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism does not inevitably lead to terror. But they are closely associated and it is here we have to begin the exploration of terror and Islam. Given Gandhi’s sympathy for traditional culture and antipathy for the modernizing West it makes sense to try to establish whether fundamentalism is rooted in the past of Islam or is a relatively recent and modern phenomenon.

Not that such generalization about Islam is without difficulty. Samuel Huntingdon’s theory of a clash of civilizations,17 with its over simplification about Islam, may have served the need for the West to have an alternative ‘other’ to demonise with the collapse of the Soviet threat, but quite this has been seen to be’ sloppy and dangerous language.’18 Jason Burke states: ‘It is facile and dangerous to talk of “a clash of civilisation.” The West and the Islamic world are not monolithic blocs where identity is based around religion or secularism, tyranny or democracy, human rights or repression, as or secularism, tyranny or democracy, human rights or repression, as all who have traveled in the Middle East know. Even the most devout do not define themselves by Islam alone.’19 In other words, we all have multiple identities. Islam clearly is a chameleon faith and expresses itself differently according to historical, social-economic, political and cultural circumstances. Maybe what is so distinctive about the present wave of fundamentalism is just its attempt to take on more monolithic character.

There are two paradigms for situating contemporary both Islamic fundamentalism and terror, one that interprets it as a consequence of a wounded civilisation and sees at work here a revivalist movement, and those who view it as an entirely modern phenomenon, perversely drawing on modern western concepts to attack the West .To make sense of the first approach we have to undertake a kind of survey without the detail of the story of Islam itself.20

Source: Gandhi Marg, Issue: January – March 2005, Vol. 26, No. 4

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