Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Across the Himalayan Gap > 


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]






By Way of Explanation

  M.K. Gandhi and Mao Zedong continue to be highly controversial political figures even decades after they have faded away from the political scene. Questions of a fundamental nature regarding their political roles and philosophies still surround them. For instance: Was Gandhi a saint, a religious and ethical teacher, or a wily politician? Was he really an uncompromising opponent of modernity? Was Mao more Chinese, less Marxist? Did his “thought” contribute to the relevance and enrichment of Marxism in the changed world of the 20th century? Or was it a denial of ideological fundamentals? Did their philosophies and praxis have significance beyond the historical time and the national space in which they lived and worked? It is therefore necessary to begin by outlining my approach to an understanding of these two men as well as the whole integrated complex of thought and action that together constitute, the historical role they played.

I regard Gandhi and Mao as the most outstanding of the many remarkable men that Asia, and perhaps the world, has known in this century. The ideas they advocated and the methods they used were unique and novel. They cannot be appreciated in their fullness if they are located within the narrow confines of the nation, its culture and history, or even of the spiritual knowledge and intellectual traditions on which they drew. The historical context in which they functioned was of course, national. But, what they opposed and the objectives they set for their national struggles were global and holistic. To explain: Both men struggled against and rejected not merely the colonizing or invading power (Britain for Gandhi and Japan for Mao) but the system as each perceived it that these powers represented. This was western civilization, industrialization or modernisation as Gandhi termed it. Or, imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, as Mao called it. The phenomenon both opposed was, to put it loosely, the West.

Although Gandhi and Mao approached this phenomenon from widely different if not mutually hostile perspectives, both understood it as being exploitative, oppressive, violent and dehumanizing. Both also perceived the West (qua system) as rapidly becoming hegemonic across the globe, ready to draw in all post-colonial newly independent nations. This was the only and seemingly inevitable future for all nations, including their own, which they rejected. It was, however, a desirable and tempting future for many, replete as it was with the promise of progress, modernity, and national strength. Gandhi and Mao advocated instead, a value-centred alternative future, and experimented with new type political and economic institutions and social relationship as interrelated parts of an equally holistic and integrated system. Neither, however, specially Gandhi, had a road map or detailed blue print of the alternative future. For Mao, there was the example of the Soviet Union which, however, he did not follow, and which, in later years, he treated as a “negative” not positive example.

Both men, I argue, perceived their national political circumstances in essentially similar ways. One was that the challenge of the West qua system, confronted the nation in both the outer (external) and inner (domestic) spheres of national life. This in turn dictated the dual objectives that each set for his national struggle: independent statehood, and an end of the dominant-subordinate equation that characterized the colonizing/aggressor power and the nation in the outer sphere. And, in the inner sphere, the objective was to catch up with modernity and the modem world. In the 20th century modernity, it can be argued, was a historical necessity and not a matter of choice specially for large entities like India and China. To these objectives that were common to all newly independent countries, Gandhi and Mao added the objective of guiding the country towards rejecting the West and envisaging an alternative future.

The other was the national condition of India and China. The two countries were continental in size and population, with a diversity of nationalities, religions and, in India, languages They were rural, poor and in the main, pre-modern in every aspect of national life, including an underdeveloped sense of the national self in modern political terms.

It was towards these ends that the two leaders aroused a proud and self-reliant nationalism among the masses, and used a political idiom that borrowed heavily from popular tradition and culture. Both based their national struggles on the peasant and the countryside; gave priority to agriculture; to collective and manual labour over the machine, whether tractor or factory; to traditional but improved means of production (the spinning wheel and the hoe). Both also rejected the intellectual traditions and educational systems of the West as a package, and borrowed selectively what was useful. Simultaneously, however, both stressed the need for the masses to acquire features of modernity like punctuality, efficiency, objectivity, rationality, individual rights and of course technology.

Gandhi and Mao also, in broadly similar fashion, attempted to convey a picture of their preferred alternative societies to the masses. They did so again, in cultural and pre-modern terms. Gandhi spoke of the future as Rama Rajya and Mao of Tatong. These terms were invested with radically different content and meaning which, yet again, was conveyed to the people in startlingly similar ways. For one, the method of political struggle was itself a teaching/learning experience which, over the long term, helped generate a new political culture, as did participation in productive work and, of course, formal instruction. The preferred mode of conveying the new meaning to the people for both, was personal and leadership example. It was also perhaps the most effective.

It was towards these ends within view Gandhi and Mao in fact conceptualised and constructed a culturally rooted, poor peasant national identity. This contrived identity not only reflected the national condition, it formed the basis of a new national unity and the focus of policy. Even more, it contained the seeds of its evolution over time into a future identity as satyagrahi for Gandhi, and the proletariat for Mao, appropriate to their envisaged futures. Each personified this complex identity by his personal identification with his nation and its poor peasant. At the same time, each also personified the evolving identity of the satyagrahi or true proletariat immanent in it.

Images are powerful things. The images of Gandhi and Mao as nationalists and peasant leaders are still powerful enough to discourage any serious considerations of the universalist dimension of the national identities they constructed, and of the alternate systems they advocated not for their nations alone, but for all humankind.

The essay that follows, is a preliminary attempt at examining how Gandhi and Mao came to construct such complex national identities and why these identities have been rejected by both societies.


The life and personality of Mahatma Gandhi were such as to create a series of indelible images each symbolic of the man, of his political role, and of his larger message. Four such images are evocative and compelling.

One is of the quiet withdrawn ascetic working his charkha in deep empathy with the peasant. The second is of the spindly legged leader, at the head of a ragged band of equally spindly legged followers, marching to the sea to defy the mighty British Empire, by the simple mundane act of making salt from sea water. The third is of a determined, half-naked fakir striding proudly up the steps of Buckingham Palace. The fourth, is again of a Gandhi working his charkha. But this time, withdrawn into grey silence in Calcutta, face turned away from the Independence Day celebrations in Delhi. All four images unmistakably establish Gandhi’s identity as an Indian, as one of India’s dumb millions. This is the Gandhi Nehru described in 1944 as “the great peasant, with a peasant’s out-look on affairs and a peasant’s blindness to some aspects of life...”1 who nevertheless, symbolized the nation and awakened it to life, hope and courage.

The last image, for Nehru at least, was symbolic perhaps of Gandhi’s “peasant blindness” to some aspects of life, modernity, industrialization and machine magic, which was the Congress choice in 1947, denying the Gandhian alternative. This last image conveyed in a manner that words cannot, the depth of Gandhi’s depression over the Congress decision to accept partition, which for him was an evil and a “sin” - and the failure of his chosen heir, and of the nation, to walk him towards swaraj.

All four images convey without ambivalence, Gandhi’s Indianness, an identity that has never been seriously questioner either by his political opponents or by his followers. Gandhi was, in appearance, in dress, in the political vocabulary and in the political symbols he adopted, as well as in the methods of political action that he innovated, deeply and rootedly Indian. He was not uncertain of his lndianness as was Nehru and, in Gandhi’s view, the westernized Indian, “a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home no where” as Nehru described himself.2

Yet only the last image conveys also Gandhi’s universalism in its inability to celebrate only a transfer of power from British to Indian hands, and the rejection of his alternative future. This nation-transcending identity however, has never been seriously examined and explored. On the contrary it has been more often rejected and denied by locating him exclusively in Hindusim and as a discrete Indian. Yet Gandhi’s refusal to celebrate independence or to regard it as the end goal of the struggle he had led, his sojourn in Noakhali and in riot-tom Calcutta, taken together with his major post-independence activity, testify to his commitment to the goal of Puma swaraj as an alternative future for all nations and for humankind as a whole. In short, Gandhi’s identity with all mankind and indeed with all forms of life, has not been recognised in his own country. This is ironic for Gandhi’s concern for all forms of life has been universally acknowledged. Recognition of the universalism of Gandhi’s message came even during his lifetime - from Leo Tolsoy as early as 1910 and, decades later, from Albert Einstein who regarded Gandhi “as the only truly great political figure of our age”. ‘The veneration in which Gandhi has been held throughout the world” he wrote, “rests on the recognition, for the most part unconscious, that in our age of moral decay he was the only statesman who represented that higher conception of human relations in the political sphere to which we must all aspire with all our powers... It is my belief that the problem of bringing peace to the world on a supranational basis will be solved only by employing Gandhi’s methods on a large scale.“3 In later years, Gandhi’s method of non-violent political revolution inspired movements as varied as those of Martin Luther King in the US, of Czeck students during the Prague Spring; of the Vietnamese bonzes; and the Eritrean rebels whose motto was “Gandhi in one hand and the gun in the other” and even of a section of Chinese students who demonstrated at Tiananmen in 1989. That Gandhi’s universalist identity was visible through his Indian idiom in politics is also affirmed by the number of non-Indians who were drawn to work with him from his earliest days in South Africa upto his death. Indeed, it is possible to assert that Gandhi’s identity as a universalist thinker is more relevant and commanding today than is his identity only as an Indian nationalist.

The same seems to be broadly true of Mao Zedong the other great Asian personality of this century. Like Gandhi, the Chinese peasant identity he represented was widely valued and acknowledged through the years of the national struggle, but has lost its appeal and relevance in today’s China. But, unlike Gandhi, Mao’s universalist or Marxist image has also suffered largely because of the collapse of the communist experiment worldwide. It has, however, still more vitality and universal appeal than does that of Stalin or even of Lenin.

In Mao’s case however, despite his deliberate choice of Marxism-Leninism as the fount of his ideas and practice, his Chineseness was never in doubt. A year after Mao’s death, Wang Gungwu assessing Mao wrote: “No one surely could mistake Mao for anyone but a Chinese.”4 Like Gandhi, Mao’s Chineseness resided in his appearance, in his dress (the blue jacket of the peasant), his language, in the symbols and methods of political action that he innovated. And, above all, like Gandhi, it resided in his identification with the peasant. Unlike Gandhi, Mao’s identity as peasant was more spontaneous and natural, He came from peasant stock and had not been denaturalized by western education and culture as had Gandhi. Consequently, Wang Gungwu observed that “Mao never wasted time worrying about his Chinese identity or about the decline and fall of Chinese civilization. He was effortlessly and supremely confident about being Chinese almost the way Churchill was about being English, and never suffered the agonies and self doubts, which paralysed so many of his generationan.”5 Mao could therefore, he said, take a foreign ideology like Marxism-Leninism to the Chinese people “as if it were the most natural thing for him to do. “6

Again, like Gandhi, since Mao’s chineseness was never in doubt, its imprint on the borrowed ideology was proudly acclaimed in the signification of Marxism. In turn, despite Mao’s self-identification as a Marxist, the seriousness with which he undertook theoretical explorations and innovative practices of Marxism (and his deliberate attempts to uproot the Confucian basis of Chinese culture), provoked wide debate on whether or not Mao was a Marxist. In the late 1980s, as Sino-Soviet relations worsened, Moscow and the CPSU, as the explicators of Marxist doctrine, placed Mao firmly in the category of a chauvinist Chinese with a feudal mentality thus challenging his Marxist identity, “Mao thought” was condemned as being parochial, as having no universalist theories, by Soviet theoreticians. Within China, Mao’s post-1958 Marxist innovations were condemned by his domestic political opponents as “mistakes” having no relevance to Marxism or to China or to its economic development. The tragic Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last attempt to revitalise the struggle for liberation at least within China, and to put the Chinese and world revolution back on the right tracks. If Gandhi turned his back on the achievement of independent statehood for India in August 1947, and even on the Congress Party a few months later by advising it to disband itself, then Mao, it may be said, turned his back on all the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state over some 35 years, by calling upon the people to “Bombard the Headquarters” at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Like Gandhi, Mao, it seems, was prepared to plough a lonely furrow, to risk sacrificing the political future of China, if necessary, for the cause of making revolution world wide.

As political leaders and thinkers, Gandhi and Mao had dual objectives, dual concerns and they followed, therefore, dual strategies. They walked politically, to borrow a Maoist phrase, on two legs. Gandhi’s striving throughout his life, was to seek and “do truth”, just as Mao’s was to pursue his socialist truth and, in like manner, to “do socialism”, or in his words to “make revolution”. For both each individual act and policy therefore had to be illumined by, and reflect this search. Each act had also to contain the seed or the germ of its own enlargement into an ever higher dimension of “truthful” (for Gandhi) and “revolutionary” (for Mao) life, that would lead to the desired future. Few, if any, of their acts were finite or limited in purpose, meaning and symbolic significance. It would however be incorrect to assume that the two great leaders began with the gift of certitude about the desired future. Instead, each acknowledged the experimental and tentative nature of his search and of his truth and liberating action. The only certitude both had was that of what should not be. For Gandhi this was what he variously termed as modern, western or industrial civilization best epitomized in Imperial Britain and its political, social and economic institutions. For Mao it was “capitalism” best epitomized in western imperialism, and after World War II, in the United States and its social and economic institutions. It is important to emphasize here, that both Gandhi and Mao were opposed to the systems that colonialism and imperialism represented not merely to the country that was the nation’s imperialist enemy i.e., to British colonisation of India or to Japanese aggression in China. For both it was not the British and Japanese nation or people that was the enemy or the other. It was their system and the values and policies it advocated and adopted. The fact of colonisation and aggression only provided the occasion, the external condition, and the basis for invigorating their oppressed countrymen into collective struggle for national independence as the first major step towards the higher goal of swaraj or socialism. Thus from the earliest their separate political activity was conducted at two distinct levels of objectives, method and organisation. The one, independence, was limited in time to the short run, and in space, only to the nation. The other, namely swaraj or socialism, extended into epochal time and encompassed all of humankind.

On his return to India, Gandhi worked through the Indian National Congress and its leaders for political independence from British rule. It was for the attainment of this objective that he was to name Jawaharlal Nehru as his heir, in acknowledgement of Nehru’s national standing. Mao, in Yanan, was as unaware of Gandhi’s political thought and action, as Gandhi was unaware of his. The two great leaders were distant neighbours. But, in 1937 when the second united front with the KMT was formed, Mao like Gandhi, also worked for China’s national liberation from Japanese aggression through the KMT and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, acknowledging thereby the national following that Chiang could command. Both, as history and even their successor regimes testify, were successful in the way they worked this strategy. In 1947 India and in 1949 China emerged into nationhood and independence. India’s post-independence leaders acknowledged Gandhi’s contribution and leadership gratefully, and en-shrined im as the father of the nation. In China, after the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping and his comrades continued to praise Mao for his leadership of the national liberation movement, even as they proceeded to diminish his Marxist contributions.

Both leaders were at that time and for a considerable time thereafter, minor or side currents within the mainstream of the national movements of their countries and within, as it were, their parent parties, the Congress and the KMT. Both however, honed and trained their own corps of followers distinct from what I have called their parent parties: Gandhi, through his constructive programme trained satyarahis and Mao, in Yanan, trained and disciplined the communist party. These were their “troop in the struggle for the higher goal of swaraj for Gandhi and socialism for Mao. For both leaders, however, there could be no sharp divide between the two broad goals. It would be incorrect therefore to describe them as first stage and second stage goals. Instead they were for both Gandhi and Mao, umbilically linked parts or aspects of a whole. To explain: It was said earlier that or both men each individual act even in the struggle for independence contained the seed or the germ of its own enlargement into ever higher dimensions of swarajist or socialist life. Thus the method, the programme and the leadership of the movement or the attainment of political independence were to be the womb and guarantors of this later enlargement. For Gandhi the effort as to transform the Congress from within, to commit it to the use of “truthful and non-violent means, and to the service of the dumb semi-starved millions who inhabited India’s 700,000 villages. Towards this end, he tried to transform the Congress by giving t a mass (peasant) base, a four anna membership, as well as khadi, the livery of the empowered poor, and to have the Congress employ Hindustani instead of English, and make it the common language of the people.

That was in 1920 when the special session of the Congress held in Calcutta, which seemed to usher in a Gandhi era in Indian politics. Writing his Autobiography, Nehru recalled how “the whole look of the Congress changed; European clothes vanished and soon only khadi was to be seen… the language used became increasingly Hindustani... and there was a growing prejudice against using a foreign language in our national work, and a new life and enthusiam and earnestness became evident in Congress gatherings.7 It was then that Congress and with it, India, adopted the Indian identity that Gandhi had so carefully constructed, and made it their own. Two years later violence broke out at Chauri Chaura. This and many other happenings made Gandhi realize that neither Congress nor its leaders like Nehru had been converted to his philosophy of non-violence, that the majority were uncomfortable with the identity he had created. It seemed likely then that they would not share in the struggle and sacrifice for puma swaraj. Gandhi then withdrew organisationally from the Congress to train his satyagrahis for carrying the struggle beyond independence to swaraj with, without, or even against an untransformable Congress. Nevertheless Gandhi continued to work with the Congress and to influence its decisions in the direction of adopting only non-violent methods of struggle even if it did not accept his philosophy, and towards a compromise form of system that he called “parliamentary swan However, the manner in which independence was finally accepted by Congress, namely its voluntary acceptance of the partition of India on religious grounds, destroyed that identity and unity of the Indian nation and the Indian people which he had so deliberately constructed and of which he had made himself the living symbol.



Gandhi’s own Indian identity was slow to evolve. The process began when he was a young boy, and reached its loin cloth, sandalled image only in middle age. As a child he ate the forbidden meat because, as he confessed in his autobiography, “he wished to be strong and daring and wanted my countrymen a/so to be such, so that we might defeat the English and make India free.”8 Little is known of his childhood experiences to explain this early sense of nationalism, of country and nation. We may safely presume that political nationalism was in the Indian air, as it were, as was its corollary, the urge for political freedom The Englishman in his strength and stature (five cubits tall), remained the model for the young nationalist to emulate. This was further reinforced in London when he encountered the resident British and found them to be highly principled and tolerant. So Gandhi’s first response was to become “a proper Englishman” in dress, in manners and in accomplishments. Yet he remained a hungry vegetarian for he had vowed, under maternal pressure, not to eat meat. Vegetarianism however soon became a matter of faith and belief for Gandhi began to redefine the meaning of strength. In articles that he wrote for the Vegetarian he set out to prove that Indians, though vegetarians, were “as strong, if not stronger than Indian meat eaters and for that matter, even Englishman ....”9 He also abandoned the attempt to become a fancy English gentleman and began to advocate the virtues of simplicity and frugality. Gandhi’s ideal type from then on was that of a strong sturdy vegetarian “shepherd: who led an outdoor life in harmony with nature. Where Gandhi derived this idea from is not known. Just as I have been unable to explain why, suddenly, Gandhi became aware of salt as a heavily taxed article, a burden on the poor millions of India, and therefore an act and a symbol of the great injustice of colonialism and of the ruling British. Gandhi never lost sight of these ideas, Rather, they came to provide the first rough sketch of the Indian identity that he was to conceptualise, construct, and assume over the coming years in South Africa and complete in India.

His years in London were evidently a period when Gandhi experienced deep confusion about his identity, and what it meant to be an Indian. This was also the period in which he became aware of his ignorance and of his very limited knowledge of things Indian. Thus, when asked by Quaker friends to compare the English version of the Gita with the original, he was ashamed at having to confess that he was neither familiar with its text, nor could he read Sanskrit. In similar fashion, it was a Conservative member of Parliament whose advice led him to read Indian history and to familiarise’ himself with Indian customs before he began to practise law in India. It was also in London that Gandhi discovered religion and was strongly drawn towards Christianity. He joined the Theosophical Society but resisted conversion on the plea of his ignorance about the religion into which he had been born. It was perhaps only a deep innate sense of national pride that precluded him from being converted. Thus began his search for his Indian roots, and a discovery of India quite unlike that of Nehru, for it was more an exploration of the meaning of India and of being Indian.

This exploration took the form of learning about Hindu, not historical India; of studying not his provincial language, but Sanskrit, the classical language ‘of India and of its great philosophical writings; of finding a way to live and practise law, ethically and honestly. He returned to India a compulsive social reformer, beginning first with his own family. He introduced all manner of reform -- though still on western lines - including physical exercise, dietary changes, the wearing of shoes and of European instead of Indian dress and so on. Unable to compromise with the moral corruption he saw all around him, and even in the profession that was supposed to ensure justice, he failed miserably as a lawyer. His only success was to draft a memorial for a poor Muslim farmer whose land had been confiscated, for which he charged no fee. Nevertheless the debts he had accumulated had to be met, so Gandhi escaped to South Africa when the opportunity arose.

In South Africa, Gandhi’s life was scan dominated by the world of politics, and the relationship between imperial Britain and its subjects. I have said elsewhere that he experienced South Africa in that he reacted with deep humiliation to racial discrimination as its social practice and its official policy. Even the rich established traders of Durban did not, he found, react to ‘conditions which implied grave insult” because, as Gandhi observed, “they did not mind such things being habituated to them.”10 Gandhi had arrived in South Africa when anti-Indian feeling was on the rise and the law described the Hindus as ‘semi-barbarous Asiatics or persons belonging to the uncivilized races of Asia, who were therefore not legally entitled to the rights enjoyed by the “civilized”11 The worst sufferers were the Hindus, the only Indian group to be called “Asiatics”. The Mussalmans, though Indian, declared themselves to be Arabs, the Parsees claimed to be Persians, and the Indian converts (who were largely waiters), to be Christian, and were therefore not, by legal definition, “Asiatics” and uncivilized. Only the Hindu was called a “coolie”, with all what that term denoted. Gandhi, to his distress discovered that there was no ‘Indian” community, for none of the 150,000 Indians in Natal, was aware of his identity as an Indian.

Gandhi had gone to South Africa only on a year’s contract and was reluctant to undertake practical action to rectify this state of affairs. Nevertheless, he used his time to investigate the Indian condition in South Africa and to impress upon the traders the gravity of the problem as he saw it. He also wrote letters to the newspapers to establish insult, to protest insult to the traders, and to create a sympathetic public opinion by appealing to the much admired British system of justice and to Christian values. he also advised the traders to organise themselves. And, when his farewell party turned into a working committee meeting because of the proposed government move to defranchise even the propertied traders, Gandhi decided to stay on and to fight.

As Gandhi constructed the problem, he perceived it to be principally one of identity. Many years later at his famous trial in Ahmedabad, Gandhi would say that it was in South Africa that he discovered that as a man and an Indian he had no rights. “More correctly I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian.”12 The identity imposed on them, that Gandhi felt had to be rejected by those of Indian origin, was that of the Hindu as coolie who was by legal definition therefore, uncivilised. Even Gandhi himself, respected in London and Bombay, was regarded as a coolie, being Hindu, though he was a lawyer trained at the inner Temple. Gandhi therefore swiftly drew up a strategy of petitions to the Natal Legislative Assembly and to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. The very first petition rejected the coolie identity and claimed a new identity for all Indians. It began with the sentence “Your petitioners are British subjects”. This phrasing placed all Indians as British subjects, under British protection even from Natal’s colonial legislation. The sanction for claiming this identity was derived from the Queen’s Proclamation of 1885 which promised “our subjects, of whatever race or creed be freely and impartially admitted to office in our service....” Indians in South Africa, Gandhi argued, were first subjects of the British Empire because the Indians of India were its subjects, and were as such resident in South Africa. Gandhi was to convert this claimed identity into a statement of political fact not open to infringement or compromise. This petition, according to Gandhi, sowed “the seed of the fight for national self respect”13 of the despised Hindu and Indian in far away South Africa.

His activity thereafter took on that rounded character so characteristic of all Gandhi’s political action. He used this identity to fuse the divided, apathetic and demoralised Indians, into a self aware and united community. He built ties between this new community and India as the mother country; and made both the Congress and the British Indian government aware of his struggle against what he called “national injustice”. Simultaneously he insisted that the Indians as British subjects, should demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown, and as Indians, should organise themselves. So the Natal Indian Congress was established and the rich traders became its mainstay, the Christians its translators and the indentured labourers, the only real coolies, its mass base. Under his direction, the Natal Indian Congress became a “teaching shop.” Its members learnt to speak up, to question, to participate in discussion and decision making. They were introduced to Indian history and culture to counter the charge of being uncivilized, and were educated in election procedures, hygiene, sanitation, keeping accounts, recording proceedings and punctuality. In short, the members were being forged slowly but deliberately into a modem Indian community united across religion, language, social status and caste. And, when famine broke out in India, the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) collected donations for “the starving poor” in India, thus forging links with the motherland. Gandhi also committed the NIC meaning the rich traders, to serve and support “the poor and the helpless” meaning the indentured labourers or coolies, with whom they had little in common. This was perhaps his first experiment with political trusteeship. A few years later, when the strategy of petitions needed to be strengthened with more direct political action, the wealthy traders would become “coolies.” The sold vegetables from door to door, like coolies, in support of the indentured. Later, Gandhi would lead his long march of the indentured to defy the Transvaal laws, dressed in the loongi of the coolie, the identity he was now ready to assume.

During his stay in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India several times. In 1902 he attended the Congress session at Calcutta. Each visit seemed to confirm the extreme degree of alienation of the Indian, particularly the educated Indian, from his cultural and religious roots. The dirt and filth he saw all around seemed to him to symbolize the extent to which Indians had lost both national and personal self respect. He was disappointed at the manner of functioning of the Congress, at the lack of seriousness and of debate, the disinterest of the only national party in the plight of the South African Indians, and so on. Each time on his return to South Africa, he tried to ensure that the NIC would not develop on the same lines, or function as India National Congress did.

Almost exactly a century ago, in 1894, Gandhi began an intensive search for the Indian identity that was to lead him back to Hinduism. There was a certain deliberateness about his pursuit of this interest, for Hinduism did, not at that time, influence or form an important part of Gandhi’s personal life nor of his public and political life. He made the Gita his book of daily reading, but not as prayer. Instead, Gandhi sought in it a way to integrate personal morality with social and political morality and found this to lie in its emphasis on duty. This exploration into Hinduism was, for Gandhi, both a personal and a political exploration in search of his own identity as an Indian and that of India as a nation. For Gandhi there could be no divide or distinction between the India he represented in his person and the Indian nation which he sought to identify in contemporary terms. The interface that he sought between his inner and his outer lives, came about through his own interpretation of Hinduism and of the Gita.

In his private life Gandhi sought to do his duty. He assumed responsibility for all his actions and for those of his followers; discovered what he called the “true” practice of law and later of journalism; began to dispossess himself of worldly material good including a petty life insurance; took the vow of sexual abstinence; and experimented through political organizations and the farms he founded to live the alternative life style, “the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman”. His, it will be recalled, was the model of the strong Indian, that he had advocated as a student in London. His public life rested on unpaid service to the community; on invoking God - as morality not religion, to bind the multi-religious Indian community to its vows and promises; on transforming all organisations he created into institutions based on service to the most needy and deprived; to make trusteeship the commanding principle; and above all to make the various groups of Muslims, Parsees, Hindus and Christians aware of a single shared identity, as Indians. And, as Indians, to empower them to struggle against the prevailing racial injustice through what I have called elsewhere, “truth action”. These developments both resulted from and resulted in a growing disenchantment with western/English/modern/industrial civilization, which reached its apogee in the years from 1908-1909. It was expressed in a small booklet that he wrote hurriedly on his voyage back to India, called Hind Swaraj.

Gandhi’s years in South Africa were years of intense learning and unlearning, of experiment in the individual ‘and collective practice of his moral and political philosophy, in the shape of truth action” or sahlaaraha. In the Drocess. he borrowed from the counter currents of western thought particularly from Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau, as well as from the leaders of the Indian national movement. However, Gandhi acknowledged no religion, no ideology and no guru as his own. Only Gokhale came close to being his mentor but even then Gandhi made his differences with Gokhale quite evident. By the time he returned to India in 1915, Gandhi had adopted an identity for himself and constructed one for India that bore little resemblance to any identity advocated by other Indian leaders. The Ramarajya he invoked was a national construct not a historical fact. It symbolized swaraj a society based on truth and truth-action, on nonviolence, high personal morality, and a commitment to selfless service. This society, as Gandhi envisaged it, would be comprised of free individuals (satyagrahis) able to act individually against injustice, who contributed their labour and who, above all, were in harmony with nature and all living things, willing to die rather than compromise with untruth and violence. In brief, what Gandhi did was to construct a revolutionary identity for India and the Indian, which would convey the essence of its long civilization, the realities of India as it struggled against colonisation and subjugation, and the India that he would like it to become.

Gandhi derived this national identity from two sources. One was his unfolding understanding of the external condition, that is of the world of politics dominated, as he saw it, by British power and western civilization. As this understanding was enlarged by his experience of oppression, injustice, racialism and, above all, by Christian hypocrisy, the identity he constructed comprised all its dialectical opposites. It was displayed in 1930, in Gandhi’s most perfect act, the Dandi March, that symbolically pitted the unarmed, hungry, oppressed but courageous peasant, against the armed and rapacious British lion. It was as backdrop to this act that Gandhi had announced his disillusionment with British imperial principles and policies and his metamorphosis into a non-violent non-cooperative west-rejecting rebel and nationalist, at his trial in 1922. Political independence and swaraj became his, declared goals, long before the Congress resolved to demand independence, not dominion status in 1930.

The second source of the identity that Gandhi constructed for India, was his perception of the domestic Indian reality, its dominant Hindu culture and its Hindu majority, its communal, and provincial divides; its diversity of language and custom, the excrescence of the caste system and of untouchability, its moral decay, its apathy, its cowardice and its loss of a sense of self. The recovery of the Indian self became his principal objective for which he provided an image and identity that bypassed the western educated Indian to extol the peasant still untouched by western civilization. His economics and his emphasis on rural development too were derived from his perception of the Indian reality, “The economics and civilization of a country, where the pressure of population on land is greatest, are and must be different from those of a country where the pressure is least. Sparsely populated, America may have need of machinery. India may not need it at all. Where there are millions upon millions of units of idle labour, it is no use thinking of labour-saving devices.”14

This composite national identity was not a past or present reality, It was both Gandhi’s preferred or reinvented reality as well as the ideal type to which he, at that time aspired. In sum, he reinvented the Indian nation as a civilizational unity of many religions and many languages, proud of its tolerance of diversity and of community, capable of ahimsaic action, of forging a global alternative to western civilization, that would be life sustaining not life destroying. He was fond of repeating “if we are to make progress [towards swaraj] we must not repeat history but make new history”. And, to make new history, to make the imagined identity a present reality, the central tasks he listed were to ensure Hindu-Muslim unity, eradicate untouchability and promote khadi.

This identity as mentioned earlier energised the Congress and the masses and ushered in the short-lived Gandhi era. By the mid-1930s Gandhi had begun to part ways organisationally and programmatically with the Congress, Rather it may be more accurate to say that Nehru and the Congress majority became increasingly intolerant of Gandhi’s higher level goal of swaraj. The one remaining link was the shared objective of achieving independence. But the manner in which this came about – through partition - destroyed the very basis of Gandhi’s preferred identity for the Indian nation, namely unity between Hindu and Muslim.

Jinnah’s two nation theory became, after 1947, the new reality to which Gandhi began to respond by constructing a new Indian identity, a new political programme and new symbols which would, at the same time, convey his larger message to India and to the world. This was the problem to which he addressed himself after 1947. Gandhi resumed writing in the Harijan and began a series of articles which should count amongst his most serious writings. He wrote on what he called “things of eternal value,” to be woven into “a system of ethics and morals suited to the present day.” But the truth-action he undertook in those critical years before his assassination was, as in Noakhali, individual not collective. This was symbolic of his altered appeal –to the individual in independent India not as before independence, to the national collective. It was, in brief, the identity of the solitary individual - as a variant of Gandhi’s example of the solitary satyagrahi, willing and prepared to pit himself against the organised power of his own state, that for him could still link the altered present to a swarajist future.



Mao in China followed a broadly similar circuitous route before he came to conceptualise and construct an identity for the Chinese nation and people. He began, like Gandhi, with rebellion against injustice and an early sense of injured nationalism. Unlike Gandhi, however, he rebelled against, his father and left home. His early reading consisted mainly of classics and old romances about peasant rebellions. In the course of his studies he came across a pamphlet that opened with the sentence “Alas China will be subjugated!“. It bemoaned the loss of outlying areas of the Chinese empire like Korea, Taiwan, Indo-China and Burma to the western imperialists, and left a lasting impression on Mao. He also learnt of the advances in western technology that introduced railways, telephones, steamship etc. and wanted to have them for China, and he read biographies of the years leaders of the west. From all this he drew the conclusion that China had to be made rich and strong and free of imperialist control. From then on India, as a full colony, became the negative example of a fate that must not befall China. Mao like Gandhi, manifested a strong sense of nationalism even in early youth, and also a spirit of social reform. He supported the 1911 revolution that destroyed the old imperial system, admired Sun Yat-sen and joined the regular army briefly. Then followed the formative years of his intellectual development, his interest in the relationship between ethics and good government, in attacking old social customs and traditions and in the self-cultivation of mind and specially of the body. “... when the body is strong” he wrote, “then one can advance speedily in knowledge and morality....”15 (emphasis mine). In 1918 at the age of 21, Mao went to Beijing where he worked as a library assistant at Beijing University. There he was exposed to socialist ideas, to parliamentary democracy and to anarchism. He recalled being confused, still Yooking for the road”. His only certainty was that he knew he was anti-imperialist and anti-militarist. On his return to Changsha a year later, he had already settled on the socialist idea and at the same time had instincively identified himself with the poor and the hungry, especially the peasant. Equally instinctively he sensed that a great union and a great progressive force was latent in the masses of the Chinese people. All this led him to help found the Communist Party in 1921 that was committed to opposing both the imperialists and the militarists.

Nevertheless, Mao’s uncertainty about the road and the method of revolution continued. With hindsight the reason for this persisting uncertainty are not too difficult to identify, For one, the “anti-imperialism” that was, written into the first and second manifestos of the CPC (1922) was in the context of China’s times, a mewling bloodless abstraction which was given rather short shrift. In vulgar imitation of Soviet Russia, the manifesto referred to “anti-imperialism” more as an ideological slogan than as a dominant and oppressive national reality. Czarist Russia, it may be recalled, was not a victim or object of imperialist aggression: it was itself imperialist. For the Bolsheviks, therefore, “anti-imperialism” was directed only somewhat vaguely against “world imperialists”, and more urgently against Czarist imperialist policies - at home in relation to non-Russian nationalities, and abroad to Czarist expansionism, particularly in China. “Anti-imperialism”, as included in the CPC manifesto, blindly followed this formulation. It conveyed little of the gravity of the imperialist onslaught that China had suffered since the Opium Wars. It resonated even less, with the contemporary and growing menace of expanding Japanese aggression.

Moreover, for the Comintern and for all Marxists including the young CPC, nationalism was suspect. It was regarded as the “handmaiden” of the bourgeoisie, the dynamic only of the bourgeois democratic revolution. The leadership of the Chinese revolution which was democratic and national was consequently gratuitously entrusted to the KMT by the CPC. Thus, while it supported the bourgeois” revolution led by the KMT, the CPC in keeping with Comintern orthodoxy, awaited the right historical moment when, as the vanguard of the proletariat, it would be called upon to conduct China’s proletarian revolution. For almost fifteen years thereafter, that is, for as long as it held to this understanding imperialism and of its own historical role, the CPC was unable to register success, or to discover that its awaited historical opportunity had arrived or was about, to arrive. The CPC needless to say, had no solutions or answers to the central political question in China namely, how to save China, for the simple reason that it did not pose the central question as a national question. Mao’s confusion therefore persisted. Some decades late he was to describe his dilemma thus:

“When I joined the Communist Party, I knew that we must make revolution, but against what? And how were we to go about it? Of course we had to make revolution against imperialism and the old society. I did not quite understand what sort of a thing imperialism was, still less did I understand how we could make revolution against it. None of the stuff I had learned in thirteen years was any good for making revolution. I used only the instrument language.”16

In those intervening years, the revolution and the CPC failed in its repeated attempts at formenting urban insurrections and suffered a major defeat at the hands of the KMT in 1927.

Around that time Mao began a long journey of investigation away from party and Comintern orthodoxy, to seek answers to what “making revolution” was all about, who would “make revolution”, and how it was to be made. In order to do so, he moved from the realm of the “idea”, to that of China’s objective situation, that is to its contemporary social and political realities. This led to a unique Maoist understanding of the concrete substance of domestic and external aggression and of the strong linkages between them. His investigation into domestic oppression resulted in his discovery of peasant unrest and revolutionary ferment in Hunan in response to the multiple oppression of the peasantry. From the specific investigations he conducted in Hunan in 1927, Mao generalised an entire Chinese countryside with revolutionary potential. He concluded that without the peasantry, and more specifically, without the poor peasant, there would be no revolution of the oppressed. As for external aggression, Mao found evidence of it writ large across China: It pointed to Japanese imperialism as the aggressor at a time when the western imperialists seemed to be in retreat. It was through these twin “discoveries” that Mao came, as he put it, 40 understand the objective world of China”. Working thereafter from inside out, from Chinese reality to the Marxist idea, from CPC practice to CPC theory, Mao summarised the revolutionary experience of those fifteen years, and gradually arrived at the ‘correct line”, that is, at the strategy and tactics for “making revolution.” The conclusions he drew from his discoveries of the what, who and how of “making revolution” came to form the basis of his strategy of revolution and what has been called his Signification of Marxism.

In brief, Mao concluded that Japanese aggression posed the principal danger a$ well as a new threat to China in that Japan, unlike the western imperialists, was determined to control the whole of China and to transform it into a colony like India. Anti-imperialism for the CPC unlike for the CPSU could not therefore, remain an abstract slogan; it codified the hegemonic reality of China. He argued that his new danger had fundamentally transformed class relations within China, making resistance to Japanese imperialism a national and not a CPC’S issue. The CPC’s past experience of unsuccessful urban insurrection and his discovery of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, led Mao to transfer the locale of the revolution from the cities to the countryside. But, in those early years, it was still with the objective of setting up Soviets, on the model provided by the Soviet Union.

The theoretical question that Mao faced thereafter, was how to link together the two dominant features of China’s “objective world”: an oppressed therefore revolutionary peasantry, and a nationwide anti-Japanese struggle, and how to do so without denying the ideology he had espoused, that is, while pursuing the goal of “making revolution”. By relying on his perception of China’s “objective world” and by rejecting Soviet/Comintern, CPC orthodoxy, Mao was to stumble upon and so discover the “key”, as he put it, to “making revolution”.

The essential features of Mao’s strategy are well known. They are: controlled guidance of peasant revolution, to direct it not only against “feudal elements” and “militarists” as the direct oppressors of the peasantry, but also against them as natural allies of Japanese imperialism; the call for a nationwide struggle against Japanese aggression; the innovative strategy of the united front from above; the legitimation of Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT as leaders of the united front in the national war of resistance; the separate but simultaneous training and honing of the CPC and the Red Army in Yanan, for later seizure of power from the KMT; and finally the establishment of intimate, inseparable and critical linkages between the outside world (including the imperialists) and the Chinese struggle and the call for building a parallel international united front against Japan (or Fascism).

It was also at this time that Mao undertook a reconstruction of the concept of China as a “single multinational state”, and of the Chinese nation as “a union of all nationalities”, including the Han. No longer was the party to promise statehood and self-determination to the various nationalities of China as it had done in the Ruijin Constitution of 1931. Instead, Mao began to posit a larger unity - that of the “people” - which included all, regardless of ethnicity or social class, who supported the struggle against Japan. Mao’s reconstructed China was presented as a country with a “rich revolutionary tradition”, but which was “semicolonial and semifeudal” and for whom imperialism was the most ruthless enemy”. Japanese imperialism in China was thus cast as the most important contemporary reality, a non-national external factor that threatened the entire Chinese people and the Chinese state. Accordingly, the principal goal of the Chinese Revolution was redefined as resistance to Japan and not just the struggle against militarist and anti-democratic forces within China.17 Hence the high ideological CPC objective of conducting a pure or orthodox proletarian revolution led by the working class to usher in Socialism was also scaled down. Thereafter the task of the CPC was to resist Japan and complete the national and democratic revolution that had so far been entrusted to the KMT Thus by the mid-thirties, the CPC, under Mao, was no longer content to patiently await conditions for a proletariat-led revolution: It was to use the struggle against Japan to create the conditions for this eventuality to come about. In Mao’s new strategy this called for direct CPC participation in the national struggle and the later leadership of the national democratic revolution, and its transmutation into a movement of national liberation. From about that time the enlarged meaning given to the term “national liberation, and the revolutionary role assigned to it by Mao and the CPC, were to differ from Soviet usage and practice. These differences were to persist and to be reflected in CPC strategy and policy, even after the PRC came into being.

The identity that Mao - a self confessed Marxist, conceptualised for China as a nation, and the revolutionary role he assigned to the peasantry, bear greater similarity to the identity that Gandhi created for the Indian nation and people, than they do to those envisaged by his contemporaries whether Marxist or not. Neither identity was cast in class terms as it had been in 1922. Nor did it take the urban worker as its model, even as the future was envisioned in proletarian terms. Mao, in fact, displayed some of the same distrust of China’s urbanised workers and the urban educated as Gandhi did of the westernized urban Indian. Many years later, Mao was to describe the peasantry as being “poor and blank” thus suggesting that it was neither “contaminated” by the ideas of western liberalism nor by the mainstream Soviet and CPC doctrines on “making revolution”. The Long March was the most symbolic of Mao’s revolutionray acts: It pitted the ragged, ill-fed, ill-equipped millions of Chinese peasants, against the better fed, better equipped forces ranged against them. The images of the peasant as representing China and as revolutionary, were then fused into a composite identity that symbolised the essence of being Chinese with the potential of becoming socialist. At that time, this identity seemed both true and relevant to China’s situation. Like Gandhi again, Mao based his strategy of development -- political, social and economic, on the villages. The commune that he innovated in 1958 can be imaginatively regarded as the experiment in the field of Gandhi’s governing idea of a self reliant, multifaceted, multiproductive, self governing (in the main), and peaceful village community. For Gandhi this was the unit of a future swarajist society that would expand from the village to the nation, and beyond to the world, consisting of fully enlightened swarajist individuals. The communes that Mao advocated in 1958 were similarly to be the building blocks of a future socialist society, which would also expand beyond the geographic, cultural and racial frontiers of the nation to the whole world. For both men, liberation or salvation could never be for just the individual or his small national community: It required the salvation of all humankind. Like Gandhi again, Mao laid great emphasis on changing the way the people perceived themselves, their reality and their future, and of the importance of changing their ways of thinking, their value systems and their social relationships. The tragic Cultural Revolution that Mao embarked upon in later years, was intended to bring about just such a transformation, not only of party leaders and cadres, but also of the people, by “touching their souls” because, as Mao once put it, “you have to be reborn to be a communist.”

Unlike the struggle led by Gandhi, the revolution led by Mao was an armed struggle, undoubtedly dictated by the Chinese political reality but also by his ideology. If is always interesting to speculate how a Gandhi transplanted into Mao’s China would have perceived and responded to the situation: As Mao did, or by Sincising satyagraba? Mao, in a quite literal sense, armed the oppressed Chinese peasant and created the legendary Red Army as the people’s army. Simultaneously, however he placed the army firmly under civilianl/political leadership and control and disciplined the soldier to till the soil, work the machine, and serve the people. It is possible to see in Mao’s writings his preference for the use of non-violent means whether for overcoming the enemy or for changing society and the individual. Also through his writings runs a concern for ethical values and a socialist truth to be discovered beyond, and perhaps inspite of, Marxist doctrine. That he regarded all orthodoxies as man -made and therefore open to reinterpretation and further development, is suggested by philosophical statement that new contradictions would arise even in a socialist society.

After his death Mao, like Gandhi in India, has been hailed as the father and liberator of the nation. The present leadership however has abandoned all empathy with this long term goal of “making revolution” as he envisaged it. The culturally rooted peasant revolutionary identity that he created for the nation and the people and which he attempted to realise in political life, after 1958, is no longer resonant with the economic policies and political goals of today’s China. This identity has instead faded into history as has that of the Indian nation created by Gandhi. This loss of a revolutionary identity symbolised in the persons of these two leaders, has resulted in two things. One is its replacement by an emergent elitist identity in keeping with that of the modernised west. The other is the metamorphosis of the nation into the state in both countries. India and China have become or are in danger of becoming what I have described elsewhere as “ordinary” countries, fast becoming integrated into that system that Gandhi and Mao had opposed. They are no longer making or are even concerned with making what Gandhi called “new history”.

1. Jawaharlal. Nehru, An Autobiography (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1939) p. 253.

2. Ibid., p. 597.

3. Albert Einstein, “On Peace - And Gandhi”, in Norman Cousins (ed), Profiles of Gandhi (Delhi : Indian Book Company 1969), p. 99.

4. Wang Gungwu, “The Chinese”, in Dick Wilson (ed.) Mao Tse-tong in the Scales of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 273.

5. Ibid., p, 274.

6. Ibid., p. 275.

7. Nehru, op. cit., pp. 65-68.

8. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Trust, 1929) p. 15.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 78.

11. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, (New Delhi : Publications Divison, 1975) Vol. 1, p. 19.

12. A.G. Noorani, Indian Political Though Trials (New Delhi : Sterling Publishers, 1976), p. 193.

13. Gandhi, op.cit., p. 104.

14. M.K. Gandhi, “Two Civilizations” in the Harijan, 11 May, 1935.

15. Stuart Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tun, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p. 152.

16 “Talk on Question of Philosophy” with Kang Sheng and Chen Boda, 18 August 1964, in Stuart Schram (ed:) Mao Tse-fung Un rehearsed (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) p. 20.

17. See “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party” (1939) in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954) Vol. Ill, pp. 72-101.



[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

[ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher. 

Published in 1998 by 

Gyan Publishing House

5, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj,

New Delhi - 110 002.