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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘Degeneration and Satyagraha: Hind Swaraj and the crisis of liberal democracy’, 19th December, 2014 .


‘Degeneration and Satyagraha: Hind Swaraj and the crisis of liberal democracy’


Prof. Dilip Menon,
University of Witwatersrand,
Johannesburg, South Africa.


We have a tendency to make contemporaries of thinkers we feel affinity towards. Gandhi is one of those who have been mined for aphorisms on issues ranging from the environment and alternative economics to an ethical politics and the placebos of peaceful coexistence. While the thoughts that what we need is less civilization rather than more and that the solutions that we offer are indeed sometimes the problem are bracing, it’s the genealogy of the arguments that we make that is crucial here. Gandhi’s words may have a resonance in our times, but the contextual influences on his arguments or indeed the diverse and now forgotten fields of discourse that his positions were located in have to be paid attention to. This is not about merely conducting a historicist exercise that imprisons thought in a temporal context. We have to deal creatively with notions of anticipation, prescience, and prolepsis. Thoughts are of their time, but they contain too, traces of the future, like plants reaching for the light: a phototropism of intellection. At the same time, there is a field of interlocutors within which arguments are made, as Skinner has reminded us, so that what appears so apposite to us in the present, may have been a response located within a now discredited field of ideas. For instance, we are wont to say, a tad smugly, that on some issue we are on the side of the angels. Of course, this is to forget that Benjamin Disraeli, said this in the context of disagreeing with Darwin on the idea of the origin of the species and of human descent from the apes: he preferred the inspiring story of God and the angels. To emphasize too much, whether for sentimental or progressive reasons, that Gandhi is our contemporary is to occlude the particularity, even eccentricity, of the positions within and against which his stances were forged.


Prof. Dilip Menon studied in Delhi, Oxford (Balliol), has a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge, UK (Trinity) and was a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge before returning to India to take up teaching posts and fellowships in Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad and New Delhi. Prof. Menon has held post doctoral and teaching positions at Cambridge, Yale, ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin and MSH (Paris). He has published three books and several articles on caste, socialism and modernity in India. He is currently the Mellon Chair in Indian Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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