The Ethics of Gandhi
The Dead Weight of Statecraft

A non-historian in a houseful of those who worship at the Temple of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, is an oddity. I accepted your invitation without considering its possible consequences and can ascribed it to an occasional propensity to succumb to temptation!

Even though history was not the discipline formally pursued by me, I confess to having dabbled in it from time to time. I recall Ibn Khaldun’s dicta that “the pasture of stupidity is unwholesome for mankind” and that the historian, in his quest for truth, should “lift the veil” from the condition of the previous generations to “wash his hands of any blind trust in tradition”.

History and particularly recent history thus remain critically relevant to our daily life, to the perceptions that shape our approach to contemporary questions, and to the lessons that we tend to draw from proximate or distant past.

Our subject today is India and the making of modern India. The subcontinent as an entity can be defined geographically in geological terms and as sufficiently ancient in cultural terms. In political terms however its contours are recent. The historical process of the latter, as depicted by Tilak and some others of that period was a nation-in-the-making. Nationhood therefore could not be taken for granted and had to be constantly developed and consolidated. This process was undertaken by the freedom movement which defined its diverse identity and plurality and provided a platform for its articulation.

This nation-in-the-making exercise necessarily had many dimensions. It meant freedom from constraints as also freedom to act in pursuit of certain desired objectives. The struggle to be free to decide our own destiny involved in the first place a moral and ethical judgment about the desirability of freedom. Next to it was the question of methodology; how to achieve this objective and how not to proceed in pursuit of it.

The religio-philosophical legacy of the Indian civilization was an existential reality and had its impact in varying degrees on Indian minds. The initiation and consolidation of the British rule in India also resulted in the emergence of a class of Indians who imbibed modern education and familiarized themselves with many of the principles that were being articulated in the philosophical, political and legal debates in the world beyond our borders. Both these streams of thought influenced those who led our freedom movement; both impacted on the ideas of the Mahatma.

Gandhi ji once told an interlocutor that ‘most religious men I have met are politicians in disguise; I however who wears the guise of a politician am at heart a religious man. My bent is not political but religious.’ He said to him religion meant not a particular creed but ‘belief in the ordered moral government of the universe and is identical with morality’ that has to be embedded in truth.

How did Gandhi express this in practical terms? He looked upon politics as an unavoidable evil involving the control and use of state authority which is essentially coercive. ‘If I seem to take part in politics’ he said, ‘it is only because politics today encircles us like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out no matter how one tries. I wish to wrestle with the snake… I am trying to introduce religion into politics.’ By religion he meant not a particular faith but the underlying principles that harmonize all faiths.

The Raj Ghat at New Delhi is visited reverentially by the public, ritually by public figures, and out of curiosity by tourists. A little away from the Samadhi is a stone tablet with the inscription: Seven Social Sins. These are listed on the tablet:

  • • Politics without principle

  • • Pleasure without conscience

  • • Wealth without work

  • • Knowledge without character

  • • Commerce without morality

  • • Science without humanity

  • • Worship without sacrifice

Each of these is a statement of principle that can be comprehended, interpreted and implemented, individually and collectively. On my part, I would like to discern a pattern in the last words of each dictum: principle, conscience, work, character, morality, humanity and sacrifice. A similar pattern, summing up different forms of human activity, is discernable when the first words of the statements are put together.

In the Gandhian approach, therefore, conscience is motivated by considerations of humanity and sacrifice to develop a moral character that holds aloft in its work the banner of a principled approach. The reverse of it would be selfishness inducing an unprincipled, opportunistic approach to work. The latter would produce neither justice nor humaneness. On this approach, the choice would be clear if the human being is a moral creature having a sense of right and wrong in his individual and group conduct.

Gandhi’s philosophy dealt with the method of regulating, along no-violent lines, group life in its political, economic, national and international aspects. Thus the Gandhian state was meant to be a non-violent state in which authority would be diffused and will perform its functions with a minimum of coercion.

Here we are confronted by a set of questions:

  • • Can the principles of public morality be different from those of private morality?

  • • Can a society have one set of ethical norms for governing conduct of public institutions and another set of norms for citizens in their individual capacities?

  • • Is the State required to observe norms of behaviour in its functioning (a) in relation to its citizens and (b) in inter-state relations?

In the Gandhian approach, the answer is in the negative to the first two questions and in affirmative for the third. In other words, the theory of morality has to be a unified one rather than occasion-differentiated. Such an approach would be in consonance with Gandhi’s philosophy of a code of morality universally applicable; it would also embody the essence of the Preamble of our Constitution and the injunctions in Article 51 and 51A. The alternative, of having different sets of principles for judging an individual’s or a society’s moral or legal actions, can only promote legal confusion or amoral or immoral judgments that may tide over specific situations but could end up doing longer term damage to a society’s ethos.

It will of course be argued, as Lord Gray did in 1828, that ‘I am a great lover of morality, public and private, but the intercourse of nations cannot be strictly regulated by that rule.’ This, however, is a slippery slope and has been used down the ages for state conduct that violated the norms of legality. The global community, in any case, has in recent decades moved

some distance towards the development of normative standards, however imperfect, be they in human rights, environmental protection or even brazen use of force.

An instance of the deadweight of statecraft is the debate on the law of sedition – Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. It was drafted by our colonial masters to suppress expression of opinion not to the liking of the government. Gandhi ji accepted the charge and caused consternation with the presiding judge calling him ‘a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life.’ A good number of freedom fighters contested the charge of sedition brilliantly. When it came up for discussion in the Lok Sabha in May 1951 Prime Minister Nehru said ‘so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons.’ Notwithstanding this, it has remained on the statute book till now and has been used frequently enough against those who articulate views not to the liking of the authorities. It was only in July last year that the Law Commission of India initiated a Consultation Paper to ascertain views on ‘public friendly amendments’ to the law ‘so that it is not misused to curb free speech.’

On individual conduct in public affairs, modern India’s record can only be described as patchy. There is enough in the public domain to substantiate it. I have only to mention official documents like the Vohra Committee Report of 1993 and the Ethics in Governance Report of the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission of 2007. No less scathing is the Transparency International India’s Report of the same year. Together they bring out the moral crisis in the ranks of public figures involved in statecraft. Nothing has happened since then to belie these perceptions.

Individual conduct apart, what then has been the record of the Indian state in such matters? The Constitution prescribed a set of rights and duties. We dedicated ourselves to the concept of the Rule of Law and established legislative, executive and judicial institutions to implement these principles. Together they constitute a charter of citizenship that would pass, it was hoped, the test of Gandhian principles. And yet, credible observers have spoken of the Rule of Law being under serious threat and of ‘cancerous developments eating into the fabric of each institution.’ This a far cry from what Professor Upendra Baxi has sought to read in the rule of law as going beyond a mere division of functions in modes of governance; to him, it is the rule of good law and is as such reflective of the struggle of a people ‘to make power accountable, governance just, and state ethical.’ He adds that the Indian constitutional conception of the rule of law links its four core notions: rights, development, governance and justice.

Our failure on these counts is thus writ large; the saving grace is our dedication to them, even as distant horizons.

Alongside, our commitment to liberal democracy reflective of the ground reality of a plural society is being diluted in favour of an illiberal or ethnic one premised on cultural vigilantism and its attendant consequences. The Preamble enjoins us to secure Fraternity; instead today we have pervasive intolerance forgetting Gandhi’s observation that ‘intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s own cause.’

The nation-in-the-making exercise has clearly deviated from its Gandhian premises even if ritual homage to Gandhi continues to be offered year after year. One can fervently hope that this nation-in-the-making is not leading us to being a nation of hypocrites.

Jai Hind.