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.

Gandhi is an aetiologist who sought the resistant depth of causes rather than the ever hastening surface of symptoms; we found that the man who overeats and suffers from indigestion is aided in the pursuit of the feast by a doctor who gives him a digestive, instead of seeking the cause for his suffering. For Gandhi, the security measures, the intimidating presence of the policemen, the eavesdroppers and spies with their cocked ears and alert bodies, the press restriction laws, the men on the streets huddled around each other like a single organism looking around everywhere before speaking, the self-censoring editorials in the newspapers are each the elements of the augmenting speed at which a symptom untreated gives rise to the next. The cause—the sin of secrecy—quickens the raising up of the most oppressive of states; and, paradoxically, the removal of the cause creates a state which resembles the ideal of the oppressive state:

Non-co-operation is essentially a cleansing process. It deals with causes rather than symptoms. The detective department is a symptom of the secrecy which is the cause. Removal of secrecy brings about the full disappearance of the Secret Service without further effort.

It is important to note the two senses in which Gandhi’s criticism of the relation between the state and secrecy unfolds. First, the state itself resorts to security measures, since its present form might be threatened by the thoughts and acts of its subjects; when the subjects speak the truth at all times, especially their dislike for their rulers and the rejection of the legitimacy of the rules which govern them, the state stands openly challenged. In the open challenge, as Gandhi knew very well, the state would resort to repressive measures, even the extremes of which were most welcome for Gandhi, as we found in his response to the Jews of Nazi Germany. Second, the equivocity of the proposal to eliminate secrecy does not reveal a state of man as Marquis de Sade would have imagined: a state where the innocence of man was given convenience and realisation in the illimitable unfolding of all possible thoughts and acts, in such a way that man does not stand in a field of oppositions of possibilities. Rather, the man-made state with its man-made laws is displaced by the enclosure of the Maker’s Law. That is, man is to be conceived as the being who releases himself from the imperfect and fragile immurement of the state of man, into the absolute immurement of the Maker. Gandhi places the terms of a covenant before every state of man, and not merely the colonial administration, such that if he were to give them a state of the Maker it would render the economy of policing and patrolling redundant.

The thorn of secrecy, which festers and confounds men into adopting gestures inimical to man as he was made by the Maker, can be removed to bring about the ease of truth in society only by looking up to the Maker. How is one to live in the state of the Maker? Would one ever hide a missive in a whisper? Would there be men huddled into a single organism with a dozen eyes darting from it conspiring about revolutionary notions? The covenant of Gandhi—which is nothing but the covenant of the Maker—is based on the assumption that it will be impossible to hide from the Maker who is all knowing. Gandhi’s questioning of secrecy is continuous with his questioning of privacy. If privacy characterises actions as shameful—those which are not fit for exposure before the public, such as defecation—secrecy characterises disruptive action. Indeed, when all actions are committed to the public, the need for both secrecy and privacy vanishes from society. 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 Maker is indeed the judge; and nothing, even a moment at which a thought, unknown to the thinker, steals away in order to enjoy the freedom of thinking which belongs to it, eludes the Maker who watches and judges:

If we realized the presence of God as witness to all we say and do, we would not have anything to conceal from anybody on earth. For, we would not think unclean thoughts before our Maker, much less speak them. It is uncleanness that seeks secrecy and darkness. The tendency of human nature is to hide dirt, we do not want to see or touch dirty things: we want to put them out of sight. And so must it be with our speech. I would suggest that we should avoid even thinking thoughts we would hide from the world.

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.” Cleanliness has several determinations, including that of caste and race. Caste and race were understood to be the same by Gandhi; when he wrote about the native South African people—“the half-castes and Kaffirs, who are less advanced than we” —caste and race merged into one concept, which is of a hierarchy of advancements. The least advanced were the untouchables of India and the black people of Africa, who had to be considered apart from mankind as conceived by the Maker; the essential names for the less advanced people ranged in Gandhi’s writings from “kaffirs,” savages, the children of god (Harijan), the Cinderellas. The unclean, while being racial, is also moral; such a position is consistent with the caste order in the subcontinent. The unclean has a philia for darkness and secrecy, which is where it finds its truth. Then, the dark and the unclean are the obverse and the converse of the same coin: the dark skinned untouchable’s invisible life outside the bounds of society is consistent with his truth; the coming into the light of social life of the untouchable would be his participation in un-truth. For Gandhi, the actions through which men move away from their family obligations, clan rules, and social codes are measures taken by men against the Maker, who had set the speeds and occupations for each man. The watchful eyes of the Maker follow each man as he steals away from the given truth of his birth. The truth of birth is discussed by Gandhi under several discourses, including in his justifications for the caste system in India:

Western scientists are busy trying to prove that heredity is an illusion and that milieu is everything. The sole experience of many lands goes against the conclusion of these scientists; but even accepting their doctrine of milieu, it is easy to prove that milieu can be conserved and developed more through caste than through class.

The Maker who gazes upon men never blinks, and he sees each violation of truth, including the transgressions of the laws of heredity encoded in the caste laws, the whispers of the revolutionaries, the stolen caress of the lovers—“Being immanent in all beings, He hears everything and reads our innermost thoughts.” Gandhi’s covenant would usher the Maker’s Kingdom in which all the senses of Truth would be practised by all men. Gandhi was consistent in his hypophysics and its use in discovering the inherited truths of each people. Hypophysicalising Darwin, he found the ground for his racism:

Some hold that Darwin taught that strength is enough; that is, those who are physically strong ultimately survive. Superficial thinkers may believe that morality is of no use. But this is not Darwin’s view at all. We will find evidence from the early history of man that races without morality have disappeared.

He spoke of Hindus and Muslims in terms of that which is immanent to each and hence heritable: “My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussalman as a rule is a bully and the Hindu a coward. Where there are cowards there will always be bullies.” This very same narration of “the victimisation of Hindus” is what led to the assassination of MK Gandhi and the pogroms against Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Dalits since independence in India. That is, the attempts in India which still continue to hold Gandhi as the fakir of peace between the ethnic groupings are still playing, often unwittingly, a game to bring about “Hindu Raj” interpreted as secularism.

This is an excerpt from Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi’s book, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, published by Bloomsbury.