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Book review of "THE DISOBEDIENT INDIAN: Towards a Gandhian Philosophy of Dissent by Ramin Jahanbegloo"

India Seminar
By Professor  

IN November 1936 Basil Mathews asked M.K. Gandhi, ‘where do you find the seat of authority?’ Gandhi pointed to his breast, probably to the very same spot through which one of the bullets entered and lodged itself in his body, and replied, ‘It lies here. I exercise my judgement about every scripture, including the Gita.’ Gandhi was only pointing to what Socrates called his daimon/daemon, his inner voice. If the inner voice or the conscience is the source of authority, it is the source of all judgement of truth, if it is the measure of things then disobedience of what is repugnant to it becomes not only an imperative but that capacity defines such an individual, the very idea of human vocation.

Ramin Jahanbegloo’s meditation on the possibility and the need for dissent is premised on the human capacity to distinguish between truth and lie, between virtue and evil, between that which affirms life and that which while seeming to preserve life and order destroys the very purpose of it.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is no stranger to dissent, to disobedience and the freedom that it accords even while, or perhaps only in captivity. Marshalling allies from Socrates to Heidegger, via Thoreau and Albert Camus, he brings us to Gandhi to ask a question: why do we disobey? In seeming to answer this question he poses a more basic question. What is it that we obey in the act of disobedience? And our answer to this question would, he suggests, defines for us the realm of politics and its relationship to human action.

There are many possible answers to this question. One could be that we obey God. This requires us to believe that God can and will save us. But if we do not have faith in divine intervention to save us, the act of obedience would have to take a more secular, this worldly, form. And this we believe is the realm of the political, a realm that asserts that human beings are integral to common life and can and have to realize their freedom through common life. And this common project could be that of human autonomy. Ramin Jahanbegloo suggests that if our obedience is to the common life attained through autonomy then we are duty bound to challenge and defeat the ‘twin corruptions to democracy: Imposed conformism and normalized complacency’ (p. 43). The challenge to the corruptions of democracy for him is posed through moral capital, not just ethical behaviour but our capacity to wrestle with the place of violence in a challenge to political evil. This wrestling enables us to discover our own nature as humans and the nature of the world that we inhabit. This discovery is what Gandhi called swaraj, as both self-recognition and self-rule. Such disobedience creates the possibility of swaraj.

If that were the only concern of the book, we could have perhaps dispensed with reading it. But the book proceeds to question the primacy of the realm of the political. This he does by opening up the idea of solidarity, solidarity as ‘a reciprocated sense of empathy and a consciousness in the commitments of others to shared purposes’ (p. 57). By bringing the concern of the political from organization of order, from the question of power to the possibility of acting and living in solidarity, in ethical awareness of the limits to power, we create a ground for collectively, for common cause that is not rooted in an exercise of self-interest to the exclusion of all others. Ethical awareness of common cause allows us to fight all forms of inequities – of gender, wealth, colour, of Empire and slavery. It creates a public realm of which all of us are trustees. In this sense an act of disobedience becomes an act of trusteeship.

This brings us to Gandhi, who Jahanbegloo calls a ‘disobedient mind’. He knows that for Gandhi the act of dissent is not an act of willfulness, but one of deep obedience, obedience to non-violence which alone can create the fabric of freedom through solidarity, empathy and a quest for freedom through common cause. He knows that for disobedience to create freedom it requires a delicately tuned breast that recognizes the distinction between the voice of Rama and that of Ravana.

Ramin Jahanbegloo alerts us that disobedience is an act of trusteeship. As trusteeship each individual act of disobedience – even while seeming to fail in face of the world which is After Virtue to use Alasdair Macintyre’s phrase – expands the scope of trusteeship, both as trust, as solidarity, as empathy and as common cause. These philosophical meditations are a primer and primary for all those perturbed by the authority of the lie in our times.


Tridip Suhrud

Professor and Director Archives, CEPT University, Ahmedabad