Imagine if Gandhi had a gun

Updated October 11, 2016


Black American writer Charles E. Cobb Jr has set off a strange and unexpected train of thought in my mind with his 2014 book: This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.

Cobb narrates an unusual story about the black liberation struggle in America and the role of armed violence in its early evolution. The violence was tamed by a subsequent philosophy that caught the fancy of Afro-American leaders. They were inspired by Gandhi.

A riveting incident sets the tone of the book. American journalist William Worthy visited Martin Luther King Jr at the peak of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, and he almost sat on a loaded pistol. “Just for self-defence,” King assured him. It was not the only weapon King kept for such a purpose, Cobb observed. One of his advisers remembered the reverend’s home as an “arsenal”.

A question that now stalks the mind is: what if Gandhi also had a pistol instead of an innocuous walking staff. A less absurd counterfactual query could be: what if Ambedkar, Gandhi’s political rival and iconic leader of Dalits, had canvassed for guns to protect his campaign against an upper-caste hegemony of the national movement?

Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolence seems to have left a confused legacy for many Indians.

There was indeed more to the national movement than the Hindu-Muslim binary, which Pakistanis usually overlook. The Muslim League missed out on caste. Gandhi and the Congress underplayed its centrality.

An immediate trigger for the seemingly absurd questions about Gandhi and Ambedkar and their non-existent weapons lies in India’s current rightward trajectory. The nation’s surge to the right is replete with many of the features of the armed street violence in 1930s Europe. Some of India’s classical elements of fascism are disguised as Hindutva.

It happens to be Dussehra or Vijayadashami today. Hindu militants have projected the slaying of demon king Ravana by Lord Rama as a symbol of unity for the entire country. Prime Minister Modi has described this year’s Vijayadashami as special. Hindutva-sponsored posters in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh have left no doubt that the festive air is a reference to the claim that Indian troops have taught Pakistan a lesson. Posters in Varanasi are showing Modi in Rama-like posture and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as the 10-headed Ravana.

More importantly for our purposes, however, Dussehra is that time of the year when advocates of militant Hindutva stage elaborate worship of arms and weaponry. It is not unknown to the Indian state that arms like these are not embraced to fight any enemy on the border but to target vulnerable quarries within India. As a matter of fact Gandhi’s pistol-wielding killer, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, was an early member of this militant group’s formative days. It is not surprising that in the current phase of Hindutva, Gandhi’s popularity has waned before the rise of Nathuram Godse who shot the Mahatma at a prayer meeting in Delhi.

To underscore this mutated image, Gandhi has been stripped of his political argument for communal peace at home and amity with Pakistan. He is instead being projected as a symbol of municipal cleanliness. And it is hardly possible there was no official connivance in the installation of a temple to Godse in Meerut near Delhi this year on Gandhi’s birthday on Oct 2.

Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolence seems to have left a confused legacy for many Indians. Suppose he had a pistol instead of bamboo staff, even if symbolically? What if Ambedkar had a gun to foil his tormentors? Would they both be Bhagat Singh’s comrades, with ancillary support from Subhash Chandra Bose? My flight of fancy assumes that Gandhi and Ambedkar would first be able to settle their own deep differences over caste.

Cobb’s revelations about the role of armed violence in the liberation struggle of black Americans prompts further questions. What if Abdul Ghaffar Khan had picked up a rifle to liberate the Pakhtuns instead of becoming a Gandhi loyalist? Would that have prevented the future Taliban from claiming hegemony of the Pakhtun cause? What if the lawyers in Quetta who were blown up in a gory suicide attack were flawlessly armed to take on those that stalked them? Imagine all the liberals suffering silently at the hands of violent Muslim extremists in Pakistan equipped with the deterrent to keep their allergens at bay.

Had Rohith Vemula believed in the gun would he commit suicide? Suppose India’s Dalits took up arms worship as their Hindutva tormentors do. Would thousands of indebted farmers who have killed themselves since the start of India’s market economy not have changed the equation by rejecting Gandhi’s and King’s nonviolence? Cobb’s book has an unanticipated slew of these questions for India.

A friend, a writer whose political views are usually deemed radical, was scandalised by my search for a counterfactual reality. In her view, if everyone had access to guns as they have in the United States, the probability was that Dalits would be shooting Dalits more than anyone else, that’s the way they have been seduced and co-opted by the formidable caste system. She gave the example of Chicago where African American gangs target each other destructively. But my question flowed from the Cobb book I picked up from the writer’s diverse and rich library.

While Indians were ranged between supporting and opposing Britain’s war effort before independence, African-Americans were uniformly looking at wars in Europe as a chance to wriggle out of a condemned existence. They tolerated the racial slurs of fighting together with white officers, but they knew they were fighting against a supremacist ideology, similar to what tormented them at home. There was, however, a greater worry for the white establishment.

Worries about new black threats revolved around fears that Europe-bound whites would be outnumbered at home and that blacks would engage in armed rebellion. Cobb quotes a federal official in Texas expressing alarm in 1917 thus: “Negroes are organising all over the state under the name of the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’ and are buying up all the high-powered rifles and ammunition they can possibly buy.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn October 11th, 2016