October 03, 2006

Anti-imperial ideas

Bapu & Friends Friday September 29 2006 19:28 IST Atul Chaturvedi
The historiography of the freedom movement is focused almost exclusively on the political and economic situation which prevailed under the British Raj. The study of the ideas which fueled Indian nationalism, their origins, and the manner in which they impacted is, however, a largely neglected province, except for the application of Marxist categories to Indian society. The reason for this neglect may lie in the fact that intellectual history demands of its practitioners a strong documentary and evidentiary base, combined with intellectual rigour of a very high standard. Some historians start well, but then find themselves writing as ideologues, not historians, or end up in a sociological morass posing as history.
There are, of course, notable works in this area, including S R Mehrotra’s study of the origins of the Congress, and A R Desai’s study of the social background of Indian nationalism. A major new addition is Affective Communities, by Leela Gandhi of Melbourne’s La Trobe University. Gandhi has taken on the job of explicating how the anti-imperial ideas of western thinkers, many from the fringe, and now largely forgotten, through their relationships with Indians, came to have a wide-ranging influence on India. At one level, her canvas is broad — she dissects these ideas through the categories of Sex, Meat, God and Art. At another, it is narrow—she explores the links through the central figures of the young Mahatma Gandhi and the now-obscure but once-influential socialist thinker Edward Carpenter and the militant apostle of animal rights and vegetarianism, Henry Salt; and the French mystic Mirra Alfassa and Aurobindo Ghose.
The subtitle —“anticolonial thought and the politics of friendship”—sums up the book’s basic premise. An important point Gandhi makes is that this radical thought had its influence at a very specific point of time — end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century. The anticolonial thought is the anti-imperialism of the English socialists, which was more moralistic than revolutionary in tone. This socialism, which focused on the condition of the individual and spoke of love, came to the notice of the young Gandhi. Similarly, the cruelties against animals and the virtues of vegetarianism were espoused by Salt, and became the diet of Gandhi’s own discussions on the topic. Uncomfortable as it may make some feel, Gandhi’s “fads” were the bedrock of the vision of India that developed.
In the case of Mirra (The Mother) and Aurobindo, Gandhi notes that: “Together Mirra Alafassa and Sri Aurobindo developed a culturally collaborative spiritualist critique of both imperial culture and its anticolonial nationalist derivation.” A case study of Aurobindo’s brother Manmohan, a minor poet and a member of Oscar Wilde’s circle, shows how aestheticism came to India, and failed to flower. Gandhi links up this particular period, its principal proponents, and Indian nationalism with the fringe radicalism and counterculture which exploded in the 1960s briefly, its descendants in the 1990s and today, the opponents of globalisation. She sees a continuity of radical anticolonial thought. The past, it seems, is still part of our future.

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