The Subcontinent’s Anti-Colonial Movement Never Ended. It’s Where We Actually Are in History.

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By Priya Satia, the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University: Every historian worth their salt knows that historical and local specificities ultimately render all analogies inaccurate. Yet people navigating times of great change and uncertainty habitually seek reassurance from the past. In 1852, Karl Marx observed how revolutionaries “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past … to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise.” By helping to legitimize major change, historical analogies have played a key role in the very making of modern history, including its ugliest episodes: The Nazis defended their camps, for instance, by pointing to British concentration camps in the South African War at the turn of the 20th century. Much of what has transpired in history has been justified by reference to some precedent. 

Making new comparisons thus helps shift the paradigms and false equivalences through which we inherit the past so that we might make new history in the present. Despite their own inevitable inaccuracy, fresh analogies help uncover the darker historical truths obscured by the more flattering comparisons that enabled them. The question is not so much whether to analogize but whether the analogies we invoke serve ethical ends.

Today, the world faces climate crisis, a pandemic, vast inequalities, war—a litany of troubles that makes our time seem unprecedented but also profoundly continuous with the past: The climate crisis is a product of the accumulated pollutants of the industrial age, and inequalities are partly the legacies of the historical processes of slavery and colonialism that were never redeemed. If our goal is to identify a propitious historical analogy that will help us cope with and overcome polluting industrialism, racist oppression, and violence, we might look to the Indian noncooperation movement that began in the 1920s—not as something done, over, in the past, but as an ongoing struggle that we might resume. 

The Indian struggle for independence from British rule had begun much earlier, but tactics of nonviolent protest burst on the scene under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi from the 1920s to 1940s. Gandhi’s approach built on earlier struggles in India and South Africa and was the product of a global intellectual history, including Jainism and Leo Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism. In a series of mass movements, protesters engaged in tax resistance, marching, and boycotting British educational institutions and British-manufactured cloth (in favor of local hand-spun cloth). Autonomy was achieved and proved through the very act of nonviolent refusal of British rule, whatever its consequences. In this sense, it was fundamentally about redemption of the self. 

Among the movement’s actions that seized global attention was the Salt March of 1930, when Gandhi and dozens of followers set out on a 25-day, 240-mile march to protest the British salt monopoly and extortionate salt tax. Tens of thousands joined as Gandhi spoke to crowds along the way. On reaching Dandi on the Arabian Sea coast, Gandhi picked up a lump of salt-rich mud on the shore and declared the British law breached. Over the next several weeks, masses around the country violated the salt laws and other repressive laws. Hundreds of nonviolent protesters were beaten; more intense British violence was checked by extensive international press coverage. Gandhi was among the 60,000 arrested by the end of 1930—but the following year, the British conceded his demand to participate in negotiations about India’s future.

Image courtesy: Foreign Policy

The British departed India in 1947, but, to many, the struggle for decolonization remained unfulfilled, as the institutions and values the British had established remained intact. In the Gandhian vision, the mere transfer of power was not decolonization, for the enemy was not the British but British civilization’s centering of material desire as the key to prosperity and progress. A regime in which white rulers were simply replaced by brown ones would also have to be resisted. It would remain, in Gandhi’s words, “foreign rule.”

This warning that the struggle for decolonization had to be permanent is the movement’s most compelling legacy for our time. It emerged from an understanding, shared by other anti-colonial groups, that liberation—in the sense of a recovery of our full humanity, not just political freedom—is something experienced in the course of common struggle. Man’s purpose, Gandhi’s contemporary the philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal argued, is to remake oneself ethically rather than to remake the world.

The idea that struggle is meaningful itself, regardless of its effects, pushed back against European colonizers’ claims that history is a story of progress in which evils such as colonialism are sometimes necessary. To Gandhi, this vision of history discounted the sustaining force of love that routinely defuses would-be conflicts in a manner illegible to history. Nonviolence embraced such quotidian practices of love, creating new possibilities for the future by calling on humans to be morally accountable exclusively in the present. Insofar as it was about being ethical—and thus civilized—now, nonviolence was the end in itself, not a means to some political end. It was self-rule (“swaraj”) in the most substantive form.

“It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves,” Gandhi explained in 1909. “It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands.” Freedom might be attained instantly, entailing only refusal to be ruled by another. Each person would thus “become his own ruler,” he wrote in 1939; government itself would be redundant. Such utopianism was necessary to meaningful decolonization, he insisted: “To believe that what has not occurred in history will not occur at all is to argue disbelief in the dignity of man.” Straining after the ideal mattered more than arriving at it: “Let India live for this true picture, though never realizable in its completeness,” he affirmed in 1946.

For Gandhi, then, moral transformation at the level of the self, more than the departure of the British, was the movement’s real goal. It meant recovery from the values of colonialism: that material attainments (rather than ethical being) were a measure of civilization, that evil might be justified by some future vindicating effect, that society thrived through individual self-interest rather than the reciprocity of interests. Such values were incompatible with planetary habitation: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Gandhi warned in 1928. “If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

Given these goals, Gandhian noncooperation, or satyagraha, relied on boycotts and strikes against British economic dominance and unjust laws but also everyday practices aimed at redeeming the mind and soul—walking, singing, fasting, and spinning yarn. Sacrifice, of conveniences or even life, for the sake of ethical action demanded by the present—as opposed to instrumental sacrifice in the name of some future purpose—was at its core. Satyagrahis’ willingness to endure deprivations, violent punishment, imprisonment, and even death sought to awaken the suppressed humanity of their oppressors. The point was not to punish but to open themselves up to punishment to instigate the conversion, or decolonization, of their oppressors’ minds. As Faisal Devji, a historian at the University of Oxford, recently put it, Gandhian noncooperation was “motivated by love for the opponent’s humanity, no matter how residual it might have become.” More here.

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