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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 41, October 1, 2011

Politics of Identity and Gandhi

Wednesday 5 October 2011, by Upasana Pandey


It is the irony of the day that most of the thinkers are assuming that change in the system will automatically bring about change in the individual. But we have witnessed that the more we are laying stress on having good governance and a democratic system, the more corrupt, unconscious and undemocratic individuals we are producing. Opposing this, Gandhi said it is not the system which will bring about change but it is the conscious and self-realised individual who will ensure all change. Gandhi insisted that we must put our effort at the individual’s sphere. If an individual is good and conscious enough then the whole society will automatically be transformed. Without having good individuals we cannot even imagine about constructing any societal set-up.

Issues of Debate

CONTEMPORARY thinkers like Amartya Sen (Identity and Violence I) and Bhikhu Parekh (A New Politics of Identity) have presented a notion of Global Citizenship. For them, in this global world order, our identity is neither universal nor local; instead it is global. Bhikhu Parekh says that global interdependence requires us to act in the spirit of human solidarity and activate our human identity. And this requires us to energise and consolidate our shared humanity. For this, both of them with equal voice raise their claim for global ethics and global value system.

Amartya Sen writes: “There is a compelling need in the contemporary world to ask questions not only about the economics and politics of globalisation, but also about the values, ethics and sense of belonging that shape our conception of global world.”1 This sense of global belonging can be developed with the help of dialogue among different identities. Sen assumes that democracy may help us in this direction. He says democracy is not just about ballots and votes, but also about public deliberation. Democracy does not only mean democratisation of institutions, but it also means government by discussion. Democracy stands for public reasoning. That is why in a democratic global state, democracy is seen in terms of active public participation. Global problems will be discussed at the global floor and the approach will make globalisation fairer. A dialogue between societies at the economic, political and other levels is the only way to deal with their conflicts, says Bhikhu Parekh.2

But, we have seen, dialogue and discussion at the global level (public reasoning) is not an easy task. It has its own limits. And then, is it possible for everyone to get global citizenship? How many of us are global citizens? Who will take part in this global discussion? Moreover, merely to hold a global discussion is not enough. A sense of global belonging is also required. And how many of us are sensitively attached to global issues?

Modernist Descartes says: “I think, therefore I am.” But postmodernist Baudrillard says: “I consume, therefore I am.”3 In such a consumerists and capitalist scenario, where 20 per cent countries are dominating over 80 per cent of the world resources ,4 is it easy to develop this sense of belonging and to conduct a smooth global discussion and public participation? Is it possible to think about Global Justice and Global Morality? I think we must see farther than the objectives of Liberal Democracy.

Actually, the question of Identity, Global Morality and Global Ethics must be discussed beyond the mainstream of politics. The question of Identity is not a subject of politics. And here lies the importance of Gandhi. The way he talked about inclusive and coherent identity has its own relevance in the present world order.

Gandhi on Identity

IN fact, the notion of Identity in Gandhian philosophy can be understood from three different perspectives: Individual Identity, Social identity and Spiritual Identity.

Individual Self: In Gandhian philosophy, the formation of Individual Identity is a process, which starts from birth and moves on throughout his life unto his death. Unlike the postmodernist ideas of ‘death of man’ and ‘end of metaphysical being’, Gandhi speaks about a conscious living being. Gandhi’s subject must answer the questions: what is he? What is the meaning of his life? And what is the purpose of his being? Whether he confronts, ignores, or remains unaware of these questions, an individual cannot reject them as irrelevant. It is man’s destiny to find answers to these questions. He cannot find answers in conformism or in totalitarianism. The answers to these questions are uniquely discovered by each individual as he gains self-knowledge through self-transformation. The central human concern is self-knowledge.

Contrary to the postmodernists’ notion, in Gandhian philosophy there is no death of the individual. Instead, there is a self-realised, self-conscious and autonomous individual who wants to govern himself; resists any source of domination, whether in the controlled tradition or in the modern liberalised world order. Gandhi’s individual is a very conscious being. Gandhi holds no text and economic process can claim to possess a truth that displaces the autonomy of the individual.

Once Gandhi was asked: what is truth? [He replied] A difficult question; but I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the voice within tells you. How then, you ask, different people think of different and contrary truths? Well, seeing that the human mind works through innumerable media and that the evolutions of the human mind is not the same for all, it follows that what may be truth for me may be untruth for another, and hence those who have made these experiments have come to the conclusion that there are certain conditions to be observed in making those experiments…It is because we have at the present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.5

In clear terms Gandhi said that it’s not easy to hear your inner voice. As the process of self-realisation, which is the ultimate aim, is not easy. On Gandhi’s account, it can be realised via two approaches: either though social service or through spiritual practice.

Relational Self: Gandhi talked about the relational identity. In his concept, self and other is a necessary structure of human consciousness, and there is no self free from dynamic dialectical relations with the other. That is why in a unique structure of Gandhian society every movement is around the individual self. In Gandhi’s terms, “If individual ceases to count, what is left of a society? Individual freedom alone can make man voluntarily surrender himself completely to the service of society. If it is wrested from him he becomes automation and the society is ruined. No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom.”6

For Gandhi, the individual’s development and societal development are both parallel to each other. Gandhi’s individual is not the non-social, anti-social individual. For Gandhi, the social is an essential dimension of self-realisation and developing a moral and spiritual political order of constructive self-other relations. In his analysis of Swaraj and Swadeshi, various constructive programme were incorporated. Actually, Gandhi’s idea of social service is not only limited to “field work” and “extension activities” of these days. Instead, he included communal unity, removal of untouchability, prohibition of liquor, khadi, other village industries, village sanitation etc. into the list of social services. Even academicians are social servants. As new or basic education, women’s education, education in health and hygiene, learning of provincial languages, national languages were also there in the list of constructive programme. Economic equality and upliftment of kisans, labourers, adivasis and lepers also have their space in a part of the constructive programme.

Intentionally, students were kept in the last chapter. Gandhi had huge hope from students. In his words, “I know that they (students) waste a great deal of time in idleness. By strict economy, they can serve many hours. But I don’t want to put an undue strain upon any student. I would, therefore, advice patriotic students to lose one year, not at a stretch but spread it over their whole study. They will find that one year so given will not be moral and physical, and they will have made even during their studies a substantial contribution to the freedom move-ment.”7 Gandhi said that “the constructive programme may otherwise and more fittingly be called construction of Poorana Swaraj or Complete Independence by truthful and non-violent means”. Gandhi’s individual is a social relational self. Gandhi resists reducing the individual to social analysis. Indeed, the individual’s inner voice is often posed against the social. Gandhi wrote in India of My Dreams, “The greatest service we can render society is to free ourselves…”8

All his 18 constructive programmes are full of vision. Gandhi develops the constructive programme where each and every unit of society has its valuable role to play. And while performing their duties they will realise their importance in the development of society. Like a drop of the ocean an individual feels proud to share the glory that he keeps in his bundle of energy to make things possible at the societal level.9 Thus, in Gandhian philosophy the individual and society are not different and contradictory to each other but they are essentially comple-mentary. The mutual development of both will serve the purpose. The individual will serve and in return, automatically, he will get recognition and identity.

Spiritual Self: Then, Gandhi moves towards the second aspect of the self, that is, Spiritual Self. Gandhi said that the identification of development with that of self-realisation is clearly stated in Bhagavadgita: “Man is not at peace with himself till he has become like unto God. The endeavour to reach this state is the supreme, the only ambition worth having. And this is self-realisation. This self-realisation is the subject of Gita, as it is of all scriptures. But its author surely did not write it to establish that doctrine. The object of the Gita appears to one to be that of showing the most excellent way to attain self-realisation.”10

Like a karmayogi, Gandhi believes that religion of self or truth or God is possible only through service of humanity. Contrary to the self-centric materialistic, instrumental modern civilisation, Gandhi believes that when an individual does duty without any passion of gain or reward, then only he could actualise the nature of god or truth or self in the real sense of the term. Accordingly, God, Truth and Love mean nothing but service and morality. In Gandhi’s words: To me God is Truth and Love, God is ethics and morality.11

For Gandhi, it is impossible to reach God, that is, truth, except through love. Love can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction (to cipher) is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint. That is why he said that the one seeking truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker of truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth. That is why evening prayers were essential in Gandhi’s various projects. Gandhi assumes that prayer will make an individual more enlightened and a sense of brotherhood will develop naturally among the members of society. Thus, Gandhi’s spiritual self believes in eternal oneness, that is, ad-vaita. He says: “I do not believe... that an individual may gain spiritually and those who surround him suffer. I believe in ad-vaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent.”12

Since we are all sons of the same God, we are all eternally attached to each other. Directly or indirectly we are getting influenced by our fellow-beings and also influencing them. That is why Gandhi believes in the principle of non-duality. In his own words, “The atman was the same in all men and could not provide the principle of individualisation. Although separate and distinct human bodies were so many different anatomical configurations of the identical material substance, were subject to the same laws, displayed the same basic properties and functioned in the same way. The body was the seat of particularity not individuality, a principle of numerical not substantive or essential differentiation.”13

Gandhi also believes that all of us are part of the same soul. Though all of us are having different outlook physically, yet spiritually the essence of our life is one. God is the origin, source of all our activities. It is only this spiritual force to which we are bound. That was why Gandhi accepted the power of spirituality in every movement of our life. This is the reason why he used to say: “The purpose of life is undoubtedly to know oneself. We cannot do this unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives. The sum total of that life is God.”14

This shows that either through social service or through spiritual practice an individual can co-relate himself with society. And in this process of relative activity there will flourish a unique kind of identity. This identity is not something which will be given to an individual from any external institution or discourse. This identity is not merely a honour (given by the state), position (given by the institution) or recognition (given by the community). Rather, it is something beyond all these. It is the yearning by an individual throughout his life, from his birth to death.

Gandhi’s subject is neither like the modernist who says, “I think, therefore I am”, nor like the postmodernist subject who says, “I consume, therefore I am”; rather Gandhi’s autonomous, conscious and self-realised relative subject says, “I own, therefore I am.”


THE project (not the politics) of identity is a huge one where reconstruction of the whole civilisation is required. It does not mean that it is a herculean task. We can start right now with ourselves, with an individual. But a change is mandatory. To have a global system is not enough; an individual who is continuously getting affected through this global world scenario must also be changed. And it is not possible merely through a global dialogue; rather an effort for transformation of an individual’s instrumental nature into a self-realised conscious-being is the crying need of the hour.


1. See, Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Penguin, London, 2006, p. 185.

2. See, Bhikhu Parekh, A New Politics of Identities: Political Principles for an Independent World, Palgrave Macmillan Publishers, 2008 (Introduction).

3. See, Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, Trans. Nicola Dufresne, New York, Semiotext, 1983.

4. Baldev Raj Nair, The Geopolitics of Globalisation. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, p. 40.

5. Krishna Kripalani (ed.), All Men Are Brothers, p. 94.

6. Harijan, 1-2-1942.

7. M.K. Gandhi, Constructive Programme: Its Meaning And Place, Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 2006, p. 26.

8. M.K. Gandhi, India of My Dreams, Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 2001, p. 172.

9. Gandhi’s tendencies towards collectivism and egalitarianism are beautifully expressed in the following words: “A drop torn from the ocean perishes without doing any good. If it remains a part of the ocean, it shares the glory of carrying on its bosom a fleet of mighty ships.” Harijan, 23-3-1947, p. 78.

10. Arne Ness, Gandhi and Group Conflict, p. 35.

11. Parelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, vol. 1, 1956, pp. 421-422.

12. Arne Naess, Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Experiment of Satyagraha:Theoritical Background, Oslo-Bergen-Tromso, Universitets for laget, 1974, p.43.

13. Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination, p. 93.

14.Raghavan Iyer, The Moral And Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press, New York, 1986, p. 28.

Dr Upasana Pandey is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Vasanta College for Women (Krishnamurti Foundation India), Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

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