How Gandhi’s writings justify a security state using notions of “cleanliness”

24 February 2019

In the book Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, the authors Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi conduct an in-depth philosophical study into the thoughts and writings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Among other things, Mohan and Dwivedi examine Gandhi’s political and scientific thoughts as expressed in his writing, such as in his weekly journal Young India, to understand anew his position on various issues, such as will, truth, violence, law and anarchy. In the following excerpt from the book, the authors study Gandhi’s position on the relationship between the state, privacy and security. They note that Gandhi justifies actions such as surveillance measures and restrictions on a free press as symptoms of a fundamental problem—the “sin of secrecy.” Mohan and Dwivedi write, “ Gandhi’s covenant seeks to bring about the elimination of the sin of secrecy by demanding of men that they lead their inner lives and outer lives as if under the watch of a judge of morals.” The authors also discuss how Gandhi’s beliefs on privacy are influenced by his pernicious positions on caste and race. For Gandhi, they write, “The state in which all men think only clean thoughts succeeded upon by clean speech and act would be determined by the notion of ‘cleanliness.’”

The quest of the passive resister is to remove the masks, the crypts, sepulchres, codes, and milieus which deny the exposure of man to the Truth that is God. Often that which denies Truth is enticing and alluring, and gives man a false sense of sufficiency in it.

The face of truth is hidden by a golden lid. Why should we fear to speak the truth or to act truthfully? How can we catch a glimpse of truth so long as we do not remove the glittering lid of untruth?

Hence, Gandhi wrote, “I detest secrecy as a sin.” Truth telling is related to concealment by secrecy, which is to be distinguished from truths unknown and from truths unspeakable. A truth is converted into a secret through many means—promise and pact, encryption, legislation. When a man tells another a truth and demands the promise that “you shall keep it a secret,” this truth is held by the promise extracted—promise is encryption and the breaking of the promise is decryption. The commandment “thou shalt not break a promise” is expected to weigh more than the commandment to tell the truth at all times. Encryption, or keeping truth within a crypt, can be executed by writing a statement on a sheet of paper and locking it up in a safe, or using a mathematical operation to encrypt the text. The law of the state classifies truths under secret, top secret, and other categories. From the point of view of the citizen, the state is a staggered labyrinth of secrets; and, from the point of the state the citizen is the life that should be lived as if it were an open book, the ideal of the Great Soul. Gandhi’s understanding of the relation between secret and truth telling is not different, except that the Gandhian state is the Kingdom of the Maker. He wrote a text titled “The Sin of Secrecy” in Young India, where he demanded of his passive resisters to “avoid even thinking thoughts we would hide from the world,” a condition which would be the limit of a security state. That is, a state in which all men think, speak, and act the thoughts which are determined to be “Good,” is one which will find security measures uneconomical and redundant. The total security state will not distinguish between privacy and secrecy. The distinction between secrecy and privacy is to be found in the disruptive power invested in the former and the conserving power invested in the latter. That is, those thoughts and actions which would not threaten the regularities in the public and in the private domains, and also the line dividing the two, are not worthy of the name secret. Instead, a secret—such as the domestic secrets or the secrets of the rulers—is held under lock and key for the power invested in it. In this sense, often, a prohibited thought or transgressive act is the object of secrecy. In village societies, with which Gandhi was familiar, secrecy and privacy are indistinguishable. That is, a woman’s recourse to privacy in the name of shame would invite concern in all the other members, as she may act in a secret way which would be harmful for the whole village. It is the case that even today, in many Indian villages, the village councils prohibit women’s privacy in several ways, including that of having access to mobile phones. In the Gandhian scheme, this state of affairs does not make a primitive place out of a village. The village state he envisioned for the whole world, the actual villages of India, and the absolute security state are indistinguishable, which is something that did not concern Gandhi. Instead, as we will find later, Gandhi reveals the essential relation between security, truth, and the limit of epochs. That is, how we recognise an epoch in its old age is a question which Gandhi enables us to ask.

Shaj Mohan a philosopher based in India.

Divya Dwivedi is a philosopher based in the subcontinent. She is an assistant professor in the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Keywords: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi surveillance security philosophy