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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Akeel Bilgrami, Indian-born philosopher

'Gandhi did not oppose science'

February 26, 2007

Professor Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York. He is also director of Columbia's Heyman Center for the Humanities. A Rhodes Scholar, the India-born Bilgrami arrived in America with a degree from Oxford University and earned his PhD from the University of Chicago.

Harvard University Press recently published his book, Self-Knowledge and Resentment. One of the most distinguished philosophy professors in America, he has also written Belief and Meaning.

The philosopher spoke to Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais in New York.

Part I of the interview: 'What Osama is demanding is on the lips of almost every ordinary Muslim'

As a professor of philosophy and author of several books, you wrestle with mostly Western philosophers. So some people could be surprised that Gandhi had engaged your mind and even roiled it a bit. How did it start at all?

It grew out of dissatisfaction with most of the writing on Gandhi, which viewed him predominantly as a political leader, but not as a thinker. I think Gandhi was a very creative philosopher, more so than any Indian of the last few centuries.

Most Indian philosophy of the last few centuries consists of the study of Indian philosophers of the past. Gandhi was one of the few who produced a philosophy of his own.

One of the aspects of Gandhi that I wanted to study was his critique of some enlightenment ideas. My essay on Gandhi, Newton, and the Enlightenment is an effort to present a politically radical side of Gandhi, correcting the view of him as a nostalgist anti-modernist. I do so by situating his thought in a certain intellectual history, which goes back to the radical dissenting tradition of seventeenth century England.

Gandhi did not oppose science or even technology blindly. Rather, he wanted it to be in the control of ordinary people, not the corporate elite and the governments that serve them.

He thought from very early on that science in the seventeenth century -- because it got aligned with commercial and mercantile interests and the propertied classes -- led to a predatory attitude towards nature, which makes not only for ecological disaster but destroys human relations among us who inhabit the natural world. Isn't it interesting that many of his thoughts are repeated today by a new generation that is opposed to the dehumanising effects of rampant globalisation and destruction of the earth as a place to live in?

You have also written about how while violence has many sides nonviolence has no sides at all.

I was thinking about (in an essay) about different kinds of violence. State violence against other states, political violence by those who resist the State's violence, psychological violence, institutional violence, planned violence, spontaneous violence, delinquent violence as well as police violence.

A great deal has been written on violence, on its psychology, on its philosophical justifications under certain circumstances, and on its long career in military history. But nonviolence, in comparison, is unconditional.

However, we must also remember that Gandhi gave nonviolence a different dimension. There were many Indian nationalist leaders, such as (M G) Ranade and (Gopal Krishna) Gokhale, at the time that Gandhi had just returned to India from South Africa, who did not like nonviolence but for whom this meant that we must work within a constitutional framework to get more power and self-governance from the British.

These leaders were making nonviolent constitutional demands. But Gandhi had seen such demands had not been very effective. The conventional alternative then would have been a revolutionary violent response, which was carried out by isolated groups but not due to mass mobilisation. So he introduced his own strategy of civil disobedience, at once a non-violent and yet a non-or extra-constitutional strategy; and virtually overnight (well, over just a very few years) he created a mass movement.

You also note that Gandhi felt negative attitudes and criticism too could lead to some form of violence. And yet wasn't he was always critical of social traditions, including the caste system?

More important than his criticism of these things was his effort to live (and to urge the satyagrahi to live) an exemplary life. The notion of an exemplary action is very different from the notion of moral judgment, which is based on principles. I analyse that in my essay on Gandhi's philosophical integrity.

He may have voiced criticism of others from time to time, but he was much less frequent in doing so than others. He may have criticised institutions and practices extensively, such as caste, but he avoided criticising people. In fact, he believed so much in the moral transformation of people rather than institutions (one more aspect of his anti-Enlightenment thought which put great stock in the capacity for politics to constrain rather than change people) that he did not demand the abolition of castes.

This was a major criticism against him by the likes of B R Ambedkar and the Dalits. No doubt Gandhi was wrong about this, but one has to, even so, understand the larger philosophical attitudes from which these attitudes of his flowed.

As a Rhodes Scholar and as an academic, you have lived abroad for many years. Have you thought of the role a section of the Indian community here (in the United States) plays in appeasing, and at times even applauding, Hindutva politicians?

The Indian communities in India have a great deal of variety, in class, and in political opinion. One should not elevate upper-class professionals to spokesmen of the entire Diasporic community. They are just one among the many kinds of Indians in America. Many of this class have supported the Sangh Parivar activity with financial contributions. But a large number of lower middle-class immigrants have far fewer Hindutva ideologues among them.

In Queens, New York, I have seen lots of Hindus and Muslims -- ordinary people, not upper class professionals and rich business people -- who live side by side with Muslims with many de facto and informal solidarities. We should count these people too when we think of the diasporic communities from India. What I am saying is equally true of the many Indian academics, who are not at all given to Hindutva.

Many Hindu leaders accuse Leftist and secular academics and community leaders for not holding the Muslims to task the same way when it comes to communal riots. There is no denying that some Muslims have been contributing to communalism. There are zealots in all religions and Islam is by no means an exception.

But this criticism you mention fails to understand that the Leftist and secular people are trying to be sympathetic to the conditions of the Muslim in an increasingly majoritarian country ever since the Congress under Indira Gandhi tapped the majoritarian sentiments against Muslims and Sikhs to gain success in elections.

Though there were always Hindu conservative elements in India, the kind of Hindutva we know today did not exist before Indira Gandhi became prime minister of the country. Her Garibi Hatao programme had been exposed as empty rhetoric and so she took to other avenues to gain the votes. This in the decades after her created a very poisonous atmosphere in Indian politics and, of course, because the Bharatiya Janata Party could play the majoritarian Hindu card with much less hypocrisy than the Congress party, it rose in power in that period.

Her son Rajiv Gandhi also played the card of communal politics. He opened the gates of the controversial Ayodhya site where Hindus were demanding a temple be built by pulling down a mosque since they believed Lord Rama had been born there and a temple had existed.

When a divorced woman Shah Bano's supporters went to the courts to get her (and, by extension, other Muslim divorced women) alimony from her husband, Rajiv Gandhi backed reactionary Muslim leaders who opposed such settlements, saying that it was a community issue and the Muslim community was able to take care of that. Such action created a bigger rift between Muslims and Hindus. And so Muslims became an even more blatant target and Christians began to be vilified and attacked, too.

There is another piece of the analysis, which is worth mentioning. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies also rose in power to unify Hinduism against a backward caste emergence that was threatening to create a deep caste division within Hinduism. So they created an external enemy (the Muslims).

They also hoped that this external enemy could scare even the backward caste Hindus and bring them into the larger Hindu fold. By doing so, the upper caste Hindutva movement distracted from the demands of the backward castes especially after the Mandal Commission report (which backed affirmative action and the release of which resulted in violence across India in 1990).

So the Leftist and secular forces analyse all this and stress what I said earlier -- that the defensive attitudes of Muslims which makes them turn to the orthodox aspects of their religion is a result of this longstanding feeling of defeat and helplessness in a majoritarian context. They are not simply pardoning Muslim zealotry where it exists, or the violence that Muslims sometimes commit.

In general, it is very honorable to show sympathy to a subjugated minority. In my short essay on 'The Crisis at Columbia' (which should be on the 'Censoring Thought' web site and also in the 'Columbia Spectator' web site archives), I try to say it is the intellectual's duty to support those worse off sections of a society, as the Muslims certainly are in India.


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