14 May Gandhi and bin Laden: Further Thoughts
By Anjum Altaf
We read not just to be informed but to be provoked, to have our certainties challenged, our biases questioned, and often to have our entire worldviews turned upside down. The texts I cherish most are precisely those that set me off on new lines of thought.
It is in this context that I acknowledge a debt to Joseph Lelyveld’s juxtaposition of Gandhi and bin Laden in his biography. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the connection would not have occurred to me. But having thought about it, I find I have far from exhausted the ideas that have begun churning in my head.
The first and most obvious thought pertains to our understanding of history, something that I mentioned briefly earlier. To what extent are Gandhi and bin Laden important and for what purpose do we study their lives? Revisiting the events of the two periods one begins to identify salient forces that threw up the individuals who would carry events to their next stage. To what degree would the two histories be different if Gandhi and bin Laden had never existed? Would their roles have been assigned to others whose lives we would have been studying with just as much interest?
It seems that the transition to an agitational phase in the Indian national struggle was inevitable once the British decided not to yield any ground to the moderates. Agitation was already in the air – members of the Ghadr Party (should we think of it as a secular Al-Qaeda?) had been deported from North America for “political terrorism.” Subhas Chandra Bose was already elected President of the Indian National Congress over Gandhi’s preferred candidate though Gandhi did manage to marginalize Bose. Can one assume that in the absence of Gandhi, the historical role would have been assigned to Bose or someone like Bose?
If this reading is correct, it suggests that Gandhi, or bin Laden for that matter, only imparted a certain color and personality to the events in which they had the central roles but did not initiate or alter them in any fundamental sense. In this context, I think of Qurratulain Hyder’s celebrated novel Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) that vividly illustrates this interpretation. The forces at play were literally like a river of fire that consumed all who were in its path. In the novel, it were the many idealistic and well-intentioned characters who dreamt of keeping India together. In real life, it was Gandhi himself. And it is ironical that it was Gandhi, the ‘greater’ individual, who succumbed to the forces within while bin Laden had, at least, the dubious satisfaction of falling to the ‘enemy’ he challenged.
The second thought concerns the dichotomy between intentions and consequences. If one accepts the fact that the mix of religion and politics is lethal and has fatal consequences, then the only dimension that separates Gandhi and bin Laden is intentions. Here we can stay with the consensus narrative that Gandhi was well-intentioned and bin Laden’s intentions were decidedly evil. But to what extent is that any consolation to those who suffered the violent consequences of the politics of religion whether they were peasants in Malabar or workers in New York?
This dichotomy between intentions and consequences is a much discussed topic in ethics and philosophy and people categorize themselves as ‘intentionalists’ or ‘consequentialists’. This is not my area of focus so I may be out on a limb, but it seems to me that the issue is not one of individual orientation; it really is irrelevant to history how I classify myself as an individual. In thinking over this issue in the context of Gandhi and bin Laden, it seems to me that some societies are more one or the other at a given point in time. And that distinction matters. The illustration that comes to mind is that of medical malpractice. In the case of a wrongful death in the US, the aggrieved does not care much for the fact that the doctor might have been well-intentioned. In South Asia, on the other hand, the intentions carry a lot more weight in the decision to pursue the grievance.
Therefore, despite the fact that in both the cases under discussion, the politics of religion had disastrous consequences, society accords a much higher moral stature to Gandhi than to bin Laden. And this is despite the fact that the grievances that impelled bin Laden found resonance even amongst those who opposed his ways.
Thus there are two issues to contend with: What exactly is the role of the individual in history if history is more like a river of fire than a fork in road? And how do intentions affect our interpretation of events and assessment of the individuals who are the central characters in the drama of history? Needless to say, what applies to history in the large applies equally to history in the small which comprises the personal stories of our lives.
I don’t have good answers but I am glad to be engaged in the search.