The Folds of Empire: Gandhi and Print culture in the Indian Ocean world

Monday, 12 March, 2012 - 15:00

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In one of his many memorable phrases, Benedict Anderson describes imperialism as a process of “stretching the tight skin of nation over the gigantic body of empire” (86). To Mohandas Gandhi, a reluctant nationalist at best, this sentiment would have seemed back to front. For much of his life, Gandhi regarded empire as cardinal, the nation state as a secondary, and unfortunate growth upon it.  Yet, as nationalism gained ground, the equation had to be posed the other way around. What happened when one tried to bunch the vast skin of empire on the nation?  What to do with all those ungainly folds?

Gandhi’s political project, especially during his South African years (1893–1914), can be interpreted as an attempt to smooth out some of those gathering folds.  Whether espousing imperial citizenship or what from the 1920s would be called Greater India (S. Bayly), Gandhi grappled with how to articulate versions of ‘India’ and ‘empire’ (understood as a guarantor of rights for British Indians) that could be interchangeable.  

In a radical formulation, Gandhi devised one answer to this problem by inserting ‘Truth’ (or satyagraha/‘passive resistance’/‘soul force’) as the third term in the equation. The resulting triad – Truth, India, Empire – compelled his imagination; to it, he “own[ed] allegiance” as the preface to the English version of Gandhi’s manifesto Hind Swaraj explained (“Preface” 7). By being a true satyagrahi, anyone, wherever they were, could learn to rule the self, creating a miniature zone of sovereignty, and thereby laying one small precondition for broader ideals like ‘India’ and ‘empire’.  

This equation located self-rule in the individual rather than a territory.  This novel idea of sovereignty took shape in the context of southern Africa where, on the one hand, Gandhi had to endure the obscenities of white settler nationalism, and, on the other, ponder who could be ‘Indian’ outside ‘India’.  The elegantly minimal definition of ‘India’ and ‘empire’ that these circumstances produced didn’t survive the journey back to India.  In a climate of anti-Imperialism, nations are destined to become more national, erasing the traces of their prefatory formation elsewhere.   

This book concerns itself with these utopian traces of Gandhi’s South African years. Print culture provides the lens for doing so.  The book examines Gandhi’s printing press, the multilingual newspaper Indian Opinion, and the pamphlets that it produced (the most famous of which is Hind Swaraj).  Together these are interpreted as radical experiments in transnational communication. As Anderson has taught us, nationalist media instrumentalize time, space, and language through the newspaper, the novel, and print capitalism (33–43).  Gandhi’s experiments, yet again, went the other way.  His ‘newspaper’ and ‘pamphlets’ were rehearsals in trying to undo this instrumentalization; to fashion print items that did not commodify time, space, and language, and could circulate outside the realm of the market and the state.  

These anti-commodity experiments raised novel questions. Could a press operate outside the hasty and urgent tempos of industrialism? Could a newspaper be something other than a commodity of one day’s duration, bought and then cast aside?  Could pamphlets be ethical interventions rather than brief topical outbursts?  Could publications in their content and modes of circulation redefine space beyond the nation state, intellectual property law, and the market?

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