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.”
Had Lala Lajpat Rai first ascertained what I had actually said on ahimsa, his remarks in The Modern Review for last July would not have seen the light of day. Lala-ji rightly questioned whether I actually made the statements imputed to me. He says, that if I did not, I should have contradicted them. In the first place, I have not yet seen the papers which have reported the remarks in question or those wherein my remarks were criticised. Secondly, I must confess that I would not undertake to correct all the errors that creep into reports that appear in the public press about my speeches.
Lala-ji’s article has been much quoted in the Gujarati newspapers and magazines; and it is perhaps as well for me to explain my position. With due deference to Lala-ji, I must join issue with him when he says that the elevation of the doctrine of ahimsa to the highest position contributed to the downfall of India. There seems to be no historical warrant for the belief that an exaggerated practice of ahimsa synchronised with our becoming bereft of many virtues. During the past fifteen hundred years, we have as a nation given ample proof of physical courage, but we have been torn by internal dissensions and have been dominated by love of self instead of love of country. We have, that is to say, been swayed by the spirit of irreligion rather than of religion.