ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Gandhi and the Debate about Civilisation

For Gandhi, the national question was much more than a struggle between two culturally-defined civilisations. For him, getting rid of colonial rule was part of a larger project to replace and resist modern civilisation. This article situates Gandhi's endeavour against the backdrop of the romantic vision of India's past, envisaged by the Orientalists, and the disparaging perspective of the Utilitarians and the evangelists.

Gandhi put the critique of “modern civilisation” at the centre of his earliest and most seminal work, Hind Swaraj or Home Rule. He thereby entered a long-standing debate in India and beyond about the meaning and consequences of civilisation. The ancient Greeks thought of the invading Persians as uncivilised barbarians. Similarly, the ancient Chinese thought of themselves as civilised and neighbouring kingdoms as uncivilised barbarians. And we learn from the laws of Manu that ancient Indians regarded foreigners as mlecchas, again uncivilised barbarians. From ancient times until the contemporary era the difference between self and other has often been constructed in terms of a civilised “us” and an uncivilised “them.”

This long-standing debate about civilisation was given a boost when the late Samuel Huntington, a professor of political science and international relations at Harvard, published “The Clash of Civilisations?” in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs. It created an enormous initial response with intense debate about the nature and consequences of civilisation and civilisational differences for world politics. Huntington saw civilisations as closed, bounded homogeneous entities which, when they encountered one another, would clash. His critics have held that civilisations are typically heterogeneous and pluralistic, with soft boundaries, as likely to learn from each other, to exchange, as to clash. Our question is, how has the civilisational debate been framed in India and how has Gandhi contributed to it.

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