In 1916, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai, who had not yet become a fervid adherent of the policy of non-violence, were debating the principles of ahimsa. That year, more than a decade before Rai led a peaceful protest in Lahore against the Simon Commission, he took issue with one of the speeches given by Gandhi, who had recently returned home from South Africa.
In an article that was published in July 1916, Rai wrote that the elevation of ahimsa to the highest doctrine had led to the downfall of India. This article was published in the Modern Review, a Calcutta-based journal of opinion that was founded by the Bengali thinker and reformist Ramananda Chatterjee in 1907. The historian Ramchandra Guha has described the Modern Review as “the first Indian equivalent of Les Temps Moderne, the New Statesman and The Nation.” The journal—which emerged as a vital platform for debates on nationalism, history and society—counted among its contributors Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Premchand, Verrier Elwin, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and CF Andrews.
Patriots, Poets and Prisoners, an anthology of essays published in the Modern Review from 1906 to 1947, captures some of the debate surrounding the nationalist movement. In this excerpt, Gandhi responds to Rai’s critique, reminding us of the evils of violence, noting that one’s “love of the cow or the country is a vague thing intended to satisfy one’s vanity or soothe a stinging conscience.”