Gandhi, Non-Violence and Modernity


Conveners: John Docker and Debjani Ganguly

The interdisciplinary conference of national and international scholars on Gandhi Non-Violence and Modernity, held at the Humanities Research Centre, between 1-3 September 2004 was a great success.


Academic Issues
In this era of unspeakable global violence, the conference was an attempt to revisit and re-envision a transcultural nonviolent ethics of the political everyday through one of modernity’s greatest spokespersons on peace and nonviolence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The conference delegates came together not to deify Gandhi as an apostle of nonviolence who transcended the messiness of our complex humanity, but to debate on many aspects of the worldliness and embodied nature of not just his global legacy, but of the man himself and his everyday praxis of ahimsa (nonviolence). It was no coincidence that the three opening talks of the conference gave us vignettes of Gandhi’s anti-imperial energy refined and filtered through his experience of vegetarianism, his renowned fasts (Tridip Suhrud) and his quirky experiments with alternative medicine (Sandhya Shetty).

The conference was launched by Leela Gandhi, Gandhi’s great-granddaughter from La Trobe, with a fascinating keynote address on Gandhi’s formative influences as a young man in England at the end of the nineteenth century. She traced a complex etymology of Gandhian nonviolence by arguing that Gandhi’s anti-imperial politics and polemic had transnational sources in his active involvement with fin de siècle vegetarianism which itself constituted part of late-Victorian animal welfare movements in England. This was a radical reading of Gandhian thought, resistant to those modes of analysis that mark his nonviolent activism in purely indigenous/Indian/Hindu terms. The papers that followed panned out in thematic profusion to include contemporary issues of deep geopolitical and ethical significance – global peace movements, modes of intercultural friendship and their importance in Gandhi’s life, meditations on nonviolence, legal, ecological and pedagogical concerns in the contemporary world, histories of dispossession, theories of how formerly colonised societies decolonise, Gandhi’s legacy in postcolonial India and in world history.

Particularly noteworthy was the session on “Gandhi and Indigenous Australia” with well-known indigenous scholars Frances Peters-Little, Larissa Behrendt and John Maynard – a remarkable conversation between Gandhian ideas and Aboriginal perspectives, probably a first in Australia in the field of indigenous/anti-imperial/postcolonial studies. Another noteworthy session was on “Global Peace Movements” which featured original and never before published research on the impact of Gandhi on British Pacifists (Sean Scalmer), on Black women’s activism in 1960s Baltimore (Rhonda Williams), and on peace movements in contemporary Burma (Penny Edwards). Other powerful presentations included those by established Gandhi scholars, Tom Weber (La Trobe) and Ajay Skaria (Minnesota) on the importance of friendship in Gandhian thought and praxis, a relatively new dimension in Gandhian research, by Brian Martin (Wollongong) on the mechanics of nonviolence, and by Charles Di Salvo (West Virginia) on Gandhi’s unique perceptions and experience of the legal profession through his years as a lawyer in the brutally colonialist regime of South Africa. Jim Masselos explored Gandhi’s thinking of time in interesting new ways. All the above in the sheer originality of archive and methodology, helped extend the scope of debates within the overlapping fields of Gandhian studies, Peace Studies and postcolonial/globalization studies. It was also interesting to learn about Gandhi’s relative irrelevance in the land of his birth, India, from presentations made by Anjali Roy (IIT, Kharagpur) and Makarand Paranjape (JNU, Delhi). Gandhi sadly continues to appear as a misfit in postcolonial India, notwithstanding attempts by a handful of historians and social scientists to reexamine his legacy and make him speak to the exigencies of late modern India. One of the most moving sessions of the conference was a reading from the biography of Gandhi’s estranged eldest son Harilal Gandhi, by prolific Gandhian biographer and translator, Tridip Suhrud (Gujarat). Tridip’s visit was sponsored by the Australia Indian Council which also sponsored two other academics from India.

Other papers extended thinking about Gandhian ideas of nonviolence to illuminate literary, cultural and political histories in wideranging ways, revealing the protean vitality and relevance of Gandhian perspectives. Satendra Nandan (University of Canberra) explored the relationship between writing and the outsider figure that Gandhi so much represented and embodied. Ned Curthoys (University of Technology Sydney) revisited the bitter post World War Two Camus-Sartre conflict over the Algerian War of Independence in terms of Gandhian notions, raising provocative questions concerning decolonisation and challenging the postcolonial theories of Sartre, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Edward Said, and Ghassan Hage while also foregrounding the neglected theories of Albert Memmi. John Docker (HRC) re-opened a key question in Jewish political history, past and present, of whether or not Josephus in antiquity was a ‘traitor’ or a Gandhian avant la lettre who drew attention to moments and traditions of non-violence in biblical history, at the same time highlighting Gandhi’s powerful critiques of contemporary Zionism.

The conference vastly benefited from the HRC traditional practice of having no parallel sessions, so that discussion could be cumulative, shared, and focussed. Discussion from beginning to end, both in the sessions themselves and in tea/coffee breaks and at lunch, was intense and exciting. Such excitement extended to the final panel where we repaired to the theatrette for concluding comments from Dipesh Chakrabarty, Leela Gandhi, and Ajay Skaria, followed by general discussion. Indeed, the conference didn’t end there, with participants proceeding to the University House bar for celebratory last drinks: even here participants were still excitedly bringing forth new aspects of Gandhi’s thought. Overall, the conference bore out the hope of the convenors, that it would prove relevant and challenging in the new millennium to re-think Gandhi as an historical figure who is all the more interesting because so eccentric and idiosyncratic, while extending Gandhian perspectives to new areas and fields not usually considered. It was a very stimulating, very enjoyable, conference, conducted at a consistently high intellectual level, and the responses during it and afterwards in terms of emails and comments from people were gratifyingly supportive, saying what a memorable event it was.

All the papers presented at the conference were written for the event, including the ones given by Leela Gandhi, Ajay Skaria and Tom Weber who see their respective essays as chapters in their forthcoming books. It is likely that two publications will emerge from the conference. Borderlands e-journal will definitely carry a special issue on Gandhi with selected papers for their May or October issue in 2005. We also propose to put forward a formal proposal for a book manuscript to Orient Longman or Oxford University Press (Delhi) in the next couple of months once we receive and referee the papers.

All in all, the conference achieved the following:
- Radical perspectives on the theory and practice of non-violence
- Perspectives on the transnational and cross-cultural dimensions of Gandhi and his legacy
- Detailed historical and ethnographic analyses of post WWII and contemporary global peace movements
- An envisioning of nonviolent praxis through everyday modes of living – friendship, animal welfare, vegetariansim - and not just through macro political battles
- Interdisciplinary exchange of scholarship across overlapping fields of study – Peace Studies, Gandhian studies, Postcolonialism, Environmental studies.

Administrative Issues:
Venue: The Humanities Research Centre, as Australia’s foremost academic keeper of humanist thought and values, was a very appropriate venue for the conference. The Conference Room at the Old Canberra House very comfortably accommodated the 50 or so delegates who attended the conference. Two of the sessions, Indigenous Australia and Gandhi and the keynote address by Leela Gandhi attracted over 100 people. The audiovisual equipment at OCH is state-of-the-art and we had no problems setting them up for the speakers.
Organizational Assistance: The $5000 funding from the HRC, an HRC visiting fellowship to one of the delegates and the extra $6600 from the Australia Indian Council to cover costs of delegates from India, were adequate to cover expenses. The Program Officer of the HRC, Leena Messina, provided invaluable administrative help in organizing the event – managing its website, keeping record of registrations, booking travel and accommodation for invited speakers, printing booklet and nametags and arranging catering for lunches and tea/coffee. The Finance Officer, Michelle Macginness, was also very helpful in sorting out budget requirements. The IT officers, Glenn Schultz and Anna Foxcroft, helped with all technical requirements.
Catering: The lunches and tea provided were quite substantial and served us adequately.
Registration: 44 delegates (includes paper-presenters)
Publicity: The event was publicized very widely across universities in Australia, both through email and hard copy posters. Perhaps a little more assistance would have helped us publicize the event to the wider community – in newspapers and journals.
Accommodation: Our invited speakers were very pleased with the spacious studio accommodation of Liversidge Court. Other delegates who paid for their accommodation found the University House very reasonable, comfortable and convenient.
Travel: The invited speakers bought their own air tickets and we reimbursed them on arrival. The HRC also provided them with taxi vouchers. Other delegates made their own arrangements