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Gandhi, the Martyr; via J.P.S. Uberoi

This year January 30 brings with it the memory of a student of Gandhi and his truth, who though little read as an interpreter of Gandhi, came the closest to extracting the essence of the Mahatma and his death for our times and beyond.
Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Mahatma Gandhi died a martyr at the hands of the Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948, not even a year after India had won its independence. The details of that event and its aftermath, including what we see unfolding before our eyes till today, have been discussed by social commentators and interpreters of history in detail, often with insight and not infrequently driven by intellectual guilt and obligation to make sense of the gruesome murder of the father of the nation. However, this year the above date brings with it the memory of a student of Gandhi and his truth, who though little read as an interpreter of Gandhi, came in my view the closest to extracting the essence of the Mahatma and his death for our times and beyond.

The figure in question is the sociologist Jitendra Pal Singh Uberoi (1934-2024), fondly known to his colleagues and students as Prof Uberoi or just JPS, who passed away this January 3 after living an extraordinary and exemplary life of thought and ideas as the longest serving professor (1969-1999) at the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics.

Professor Uberoi is greatly admired by friends and enemies alike for his pioneering contributions to the study of European modernity, critical science studies and his study of religion, specifically Sikhism. Apart from his scholarly and in the true sense path-breaking writings, Professor Uberoi inspired generations of students, not only through the course of his formal employment for over three decades at the department, but subsequently too as the man of/in the library (Ratan Tata Library), which he continued to frequent, mostly without fail, till sometime in the year 2018.

Apart from insights offered in more formal settings like a classroom or as a supervisor, informal conversations with him, both pre and post-retirement, were strewn with breathtaking suggestions containing ideas and vignettes, which can, and did open new worlds for their listeners. It is in this sense Professor Uberoi inspired countless students, and thus remains the most remembered and revered, even though often misunderstood and shockingly little read teacher from the famed centre of sociology in India.

Not going into the various dimensions of his multi-faceted and truly incomparable scholarship, in this short piece I want to highlight for his potential interlocutors, JPS’s fascinating engagement with Gandhi, particularly his tireless and consistent efforts to illuminate the meaning of his martyrdom.

Also read: The Ram Rajya Being Imagined Is Certainly not That of Gandhi’s

To be sure, JPS never wrote a book ‘on’ Gandhi, but to those who have read him or conversed with him his reading of Gandhi managed to present to us the most radical and strikingly sharp version of the Mahatma. What structured Professor Uberoi’s carefully thought out and committed probes was to give expression to the most robust and non-parochial understanding of swaraj through his intellectual pursuits, taking a leaf out of Mahatma’s advocacy of the same in the fields of language, labour and culture, in short living a life of swaraj, of self-rule and self-reform, at the university in his capacity as a teacher-administrator as well as a well-wisher and interlocutor post his retirement in 1999.

References to Gandhi are scattered across his oeuvre, which though appearing at the most surprising of places, including in his readings of science and Marxism, are part of a consistent system which most clearly inheres in his robust and unwavering application of the method he came to champion and christened the same as dialectical semiology.

The said method, unlike the structuralism of France, involved a non-dualist search for mediations between supposedly opposed entities like science and politics, fact and value, and that much abused one, nature and culture. As an example of a text similar in spirit to Uberoi’s method, as mentioned and discussed by him only, is Friedrich Engels’s Dialectics of Nature; the only difference being that as compared to Engels and other later day dialecticians he was as sensitive to the symbolism of labour as to its instrumentality. Readers will note that a non-dualist understanding of symbol and instrument also set him apart from the later day semiologists who were, in contrast to Engels, more absorbed in the issues of sign and symbolism at the expense of work and labour. To rush to a conclusion here due to the paucity of space, Gandhi is nothing if not this method for Professor Uberoi; a method or principle behind mediation and not merely a search for a balanced-middle. With these remarks, which are only suggestive, I would now like to discuss briefly JPS’s most direct engagement with Gandhi, which as I began this article with, concerns his martyrdom and the astute professor’s remarkable attempt to outline a comparative sociology and theology of martyrdom.

In his studies of Sikhism and Islam, and religion more broadly, as well as his expository work on the concept of civil society, JPS accorded to martyrdom the agency which was only cursorily associated with it, owing to its mistaken identification with violence and destruction. JPS on the other hand thinks of martyrdom as a prime mover of society and history; a harbinger of salvation-in-society through non-violent means.

Announcing the inauguration of Indian modernity, saint-poets like Kabir and Nanak sounded and led an ushering of a revolution in the fields of language (vernacular), labour (artisanal crafts) and liturgy (direct communion with God-in-society), literally creating in process a mediating civil society as against the priest (Brahmin) on the one hand and the prince (Rajput) on the other. Professor Uberoi methodically and with sound purpose equates the discourse of Indian modernity with the emergence and subsequent strengthening of Sikhism and what by implication he calls as the ‘modern-Indian’ religion (and not Hinduism, Islam or Sikhism taken in isolation); a form of religion which defines society and protects its unity-in-variety vis-à-vis the uniform and homogenising tendencies of power. Professor Uberoi appends the long list of martyrs who had laid down their lives for the ‘truth’ of Indian modernity, which he admirably delineates for us in a series of sparkling essays, with the martyrdom of Gandhiji. Here a few clarificatory remarks on the institution of martyrdom will be helpful.

Professor J.P.S. Uberoi ( September 5, 1934 – January 3, 2024). Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Harking back to the twin meanings of the Urdu word shahid, the witness and the martyr, JPS shows that martyrs are essentially witnesses or testimony-givers for the truth of the cause which betokens them. This cause has to be judged and evaluated, and in Professor Uberoi’s rendering it more often than not comes down to the right of a people to congregation and to follow the calling, whether religious or secular, that the congregation chooses for itself. The martyr, embodying twin principles of representation and vicariousness, lays down their life on behalf of the group, leading to a resurrection of both the group and the truth it is based on. Giving oneself in self-sacrifice, through suffering and non-violence the martyr bears testimony to the manyness yet indivisibility of truth, a part of which is apportioned to/by their group. They are not only representatives of their groups, but also in their act others may find refuge and forgiveness of their sins, hence the principle of vicariousness. It is in this sense that Gandhi was the martyr par excellence in line with the Sikh gurus, Imam Husain and Jesus Christ, and figures such as John Lambert in the modern period. But what was Gandhi a martyr for? JPS’s unequivocal answer is, for the cause of the national civil society. However, before JPS can wager this answer he needs to place the concept of civil society on surer footings than on which it has been placed by academic scholarship and this he does with style and creativity befitting his reputation.

Uberoi noted that civil society has always been thought of as a domain betwixt and between the state and the Church, and seldom as an autonomous arena generating and sustained by its own custom, which pertains not only to professional, but also and equally to ethical and religious life. The integral plurality of institutions constituting civil society (a domain which has been narrowly viewed as a domain to be governed) and the salvational possibilities it creates through associated living, with the right to one’s own and unstinting regard for one’s neighbour’s labour, combined with peaceful coexistence with equally forceful, yet simultaneously incomplete and partial truths forming its core, has been ignored both in the dominant liberal and Marxist traditions. Whereas in the former it often plays a second-fiddle to market and politics, in the latter it is reduced to the playing field of class-conflicts and the hegemonic consensus which eventually overpowers or smoothens them. As against this, and drawing out the possibilities inherent in figures as diverse as Hegel and Marx on the one hand and Bhakti saints and poets on the other, JPS pins down civil society as the true domain of self-realisation and by implication of self-rule such that both tradition and authority, as against custom and usage, are reduced to playing a minimalistic role in the life and progress of society.

Also read: Mahatma Gandhi and the Story of Two Temples

It is to the cause of such civil society, positively informed by religion as sewa instead of religion as cultural identity, and hence consistently and principally avoiding the path of either state-established religion or religion-established state, that Gandhi laid his life for; a civil society corresponding to genuine federalism and sincere respect for all faiths and their corresponding truths. A civil society moreover which is not just a category of bourgeois society or modern capitalism, but a universal human institution presencing as per its own logic in a variety of contexts, globally and historically.

JPS’s Gandhi comes across like a rockstar, much like JPS himself was. His Gandhi is quirky and exacting at the same time and his sheer novelty of thought and practice shines through whatever JPS wrote, even though the writing in question may not directly concern Gandhiji’s life or career. Whether it is his passionate defence of labour theory of value or the unearthing of the alternate science of Goethe in the face of dominant Newtonian-ism, Gandhi is the vantage point from which Professor Uberoi thinks.

This in my view rehabilitates Gandhi in a way that no amount of direct commentary, whether critical or hagiographic, could ever do.

Today as we see the crisis of Indian civil society, not to say of state and spirituality, unfolding before our eyes one wonders what remains alive of Gandhian martyrdom and its defence by true-spiritual disciples like JPS. As the prince and the priest become one again, recalling to the mind the institution of divine kingship as studied by James Frazer, in the zealously active role played by the state in the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya; as the institutions of civil society, including the courts and judiciary cower down to the executive and comply to the tunes sung by the powers that be; as the universities lose their way, submitting themselves to the logic of either state or market and thus increasingly not able to carry forward independent traditions of inquiry and knowledge creation; as organisations such as the various small and big NGOs are breathing their last due to the state directed drying up of funds and other supports; and as the position of informal labour slides to ever greater depths; reading JPS and Gandhi via him is simultaneously depressing and hope-inducing.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with JPS or Gandhi for that matter, it dawns upon one’s conscience that Gandhi’s death was a gift India was not ready to receive and has never fully accepted ever since. Gandhi embodied a truth which was not just his, but of a project which encapsulated India’s tryst with its own modernity; a truth which the civil society in post-independence India has always struggled to internalise and seems to have finally given up on. In this context one recalls JPS’s letter to the Editor, The Times of India (dated October 30, 1984), at the height of the Punjab problem (as viewed by the state) and a day before the assassination of Indira Gandhi where he makes a distinction between Gandhian and non-Gandhian secularists.

The latter, he suggests, as they are forever caught up in the statist logic of majority and minority, are not able to spell out an agenda for, to use JPS’s own terms, ‘stronger philosophical digestion and stronger social institutions’. The Gandhian variant of secularism on the other hand, premised on the cherished principle of unity-in-variety and the pursuit of Truth-and-God-in-society, gives us a formula, yet to be fully-successfully tried out, for combining a multi-religious nation with a federal-secular state; the combining instrument being a robust and philosophically secure civil society.

Also read: Gandhi and the Future of Slow Philosophy

If thoughts like these and others to the same effect are read, even if, in fact particularly if by practising and believing Hindus outside the precincts of the academia, JPS’s work and the Gandhi which it attempts to salvage for us, has the potential to look them into the eyes and ask about their moral-courage regarding the right to define their faith in their own way and not be treated merely as a handmaiden of the executive branch of the state. In fact the stirring plea implicit in Professor JPS Uberoi’s work to revisit Gandhi and his faith as a method if the fate of India as a nation and society has to be reimagined cannot be emphasised enough. In this body of work lies the most sustained articulation of the truth of Gandhi, including the ordered anarchy of civil society the Mahatma most consistently advocated.

Least of all, and most humbly, Professor Uberoi’s sociology can enable us to make sense of the loss many of us feel in contemporary times, but are unable to articulate a coherent response in the face of it. It teaches us to look at it squarely in the face before a response, particularly, and here I am talking as a teacher and researcher of sociology, a scholarly and intellectual response can be wagered. Measuring up to the challenge in a manner somewhat close to what JPS accomplished in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 by unravelling for his interlocutors and detractors, the truth of religion, particularly Sikhism as against the Hindudom of a Savarkar which threatened to, and still does with much greater alacrity than ever, overpower religion, civil society and the state in India. And if the lesson of martyrdom, as understood by Gandhi and drawn-out by JPS for the social-sciences, is to be believed, a struggle and sacrifice at one frontier is likely to have liberating consequences for all institutions in civil society; representatively and vicariously.

To end with, I am unable to resist recalling an anecdote of a conversation with Professor Uberoi under the expansive and generous fig tree outside the RTL. While on one his swan songs on history and society in India he looked at me with his, at the same time piercing and kind eyes, and said in his deep voice ek hi to Hindu tha aur aapne use maar diya (there was only one Hindu and you killed him). He further added that the name of Rama that Gandhi had on his lips when he died was most profoundly that; a name. A mode of intersubjective address through which the lord and the devotee revel in each other’s co-presence as darshan or didar. A loving call of address and remembrance, and not just a deity belonging to or claimed by a particular group, but a metaphysical ideal shared across traditions. Some of these words found their way into his deeply insightful paper on the theory of the name and Indian modernity; a paper he was working on in the RTL when I used to consistently interact with him while studying for MPhil (Sociology) at DSchool (2011-2013). One reads this and other such papers today and is not only struck by the premonition JPS had regarding what the name of Rama will be reduced to in the days to come, but also by the sincere urgency with which he tried to ring the true sense of the same for us.

Just like Gandhi’s life and martyrdom, Professor Uberoi’s scholarship is also a gift; the question arises are we ready to receive it? A further question follows; if not now, then, when?

Saumya Malviya is Assistant Professor (Sociology), School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India.

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