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The Tavistock Square Gandhi: 'war on terror' and non-violence

About the author
Vinay Lal is associate professor of history at UCLA. He is the author of Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy.

Central London has many beautiful squares, oases of rest, reflection, and rumination. Nearly every square has historical associations, but Tavistock Square is uniquely significant. At its centre is one of the most moving of all statues of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948). The statue, by British sculptor Fredda Brilliant, was gifted to London by the Indian High Commissioner in Britain in 1967, and unveiled by the Labour prime minister of the day, Harold Wilson.

On my first visit to London in 1989, once I had checked into my lodgings on Upper Woburn Place, I hastened to Tavistock Square to see this memorial of the chief architect of India’s independence movement. The harmony it seems to express between form and function, place and purpose, history and present, is a richly associative tribute to Gandhi’s own philosophy of peace and non-violence.

In the aftermath of the horrific carnage and mayhem created by coordinated bomb attacks in London on 7 July 2005, it is doubtful that very many people are thinking of the fate of a statue. But its presence near the scene of carnage in Tavistock Square that day - where one of the four bombs blew apart a bus, taking thirteen of the fifty-two innocent lives lost - has its own significance in the history of our time.

The Gandhi statue lent Tavistock Square a certain serenity, and it was soon followed by a number of peace memorials. A cherry tree was planted (on 6 August 1967) to remember the victims of the Hiroshima bombing; in 1986 the League of Jewish Women planted a field maple to mark the United Nations' International Year of Peace; on 15 May 1994, a volcanic-slate memorial was installed at the square to honour conscientious objectors, and unveiled by one of their number, the composer Michael Tippett. One can understand why, among Londoners, Tavistock Square became known as "the peace park".

The Gandhi represented here is a seated figure, ponderous and meditative, not the more familiar Gandhi with the walking-stick, a searing image made popular by his famous march to the sea. It is this seated image with which, for a long period through the 1970s and 1980s, the state-owned television channel, Doordarshan, announced its news bulletin.

Non-violence as conversation

A short walk from Tavistock Square is University College London, whose website claims Gandhi as one of its graduates. Gandhi arrived in London in 1888 shortly after his 19th birthday to study law. London would begin and end his foreign sojourns; though where he first arrived to "play the English gentleman" and render the homage that the subjugated customarily accord to their oppressors, his last (1931) trip was to parley with the viceroy on equal terms and negotiate India's independence. On the way, Gandhi shed a great deal: a top hat, coat-tails, the native's awe for the white man, and western civilisation's addiction to violence.

Gandhi had learned to become an unflinching advocate of non-violence through close encounters with its opposite. He came face-to-face with the sheer ugliness of racial violence in South Africa on numerous occasions. He raised an ambulance corps to assist the British when the Boer war broke out in 1899, and again at the start of the Zulu “rebellion” of 1906.

Most commentators have, rightly, seen these incidents as expressions of Gandhi's ardent belief that Indians could only claim their rights within the British empire if they were prepared to defend the empire against its opponents. In an era when the language of rights was already becoming part of the vocabulary of political conduct and discussion, Gandhi still insisted on the importance of retaining a conception of one's duties.

But it is characteristic of Gandhi that, rather than running away from violence, or becoming paralysed by its brutalities, or claiming a pacifist sensibility, he entered into the battlefield of violence in the capacity of a healer, bearing truth (as he then saw it) on the stretcher of non-violence. He would henceforth have a dialectical, dialogic, and hermeneutic awareness of non-violence.

The advocates of violence seldom if ever speak to the votaries of non-violence, and one of the many reasons why Gandhi held non-violence to be superior to violence is that its proponents extend an invitation to those who swear by violence to enter into a dialogue. The advocates of non-violence are always in a conversation with the adherents of violence. This relationship brought Gandhi to an awareness of the fact that some forms of non-violence are tantamount to violence, that avoidance of violence is not necessarily a form of non-violent action, and that there may be occasions when the practice of violence is the only way of honouring the spirit of non-violence.

In Gandhi's own time and later, he was nearly alone among the principal theorists and practitioners of revolutionary change in arguing for the primacy of non-violence, and he stands ranged against a whole galaxy of figures – Lenin, Trotsky, Fanon, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara – who not only glorified violence but dismissed non-violence as a chimera. Gandhi had held up the later Tolstoy as a figure worthy of emulation, though Lenin spoke with open contempt of his compatriot’s "imbecile preaching about not resisting evil with force."

One hears even less of non-violence these days. It may be argued, of course, that Trotsky, Fanon, and Che are just as much foreign figures to jihadis or suicide bombers as Gandhi, and that the schooling terrorists receive is of a different order. There has already, in the aftermath of the 7 and 21 July London attacks, been much talk of the "sleeper cells" that al-Qaida is said to have formed in Britain, of the madrasa at which Muslim men are believed to be indoctrinated to hate the west, and of the experts in terrorist warfare who are one species, altogether unintended, of the iconic transnational figure of the 21st century.

Whatever the precise training required to strap explosives together into a bomb, plan and orchestrate an attack in heavily monitored areas, and eventually to steel oneself to explode devices strapped to one’s own body in a busy public space, the schooling received by the perpetrators of the Tavistock Square and tube bombings was not confined to madrasas or radical mosques.

They also attended secular schools and colleges in Britain, and imbibed the learning of its “streets” – not in the sense of street urchins or deprived children, but as observers (via television, video, and popular culture’s dissemination of war-heroics) of the United States’s and Britain’s prosecution of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They took their cues from a culture of violence in which the architects of the war on terror are deeply immersed. The perpetrators of terrorism have understood that there are numerous ways in which one can enlist oneself as a member of the “profession”.

A pact of violence

It may be that, despite the horrors of 7 July, Tavistock Square will continue to be known as London's "Peace Park" – if only because the instant legend of the grit, resilience, and resolve of Londoners needs to be embodied as well as remembered.

But such soothing consolations disguise more than they reveal about the culture of violence which stitches together modern society. Gandhi was felled by an assassin, as was Martin Luther King Jr, two decades later. It is supremely if ominously fitting that a proponent of violence should answer the prophet of non-violence. One of the most disturbing aspects of violence is that it is irreversible, just as its perpetrators, through their very act, claim to be in possession of a superior version or account of truth.

Gandhi divined a key truth about colonialism, namely that it is a pact – and pacts are not without their element of deception, coercion, and attraction – between colonised and coloniser. This is something that can be brought to our awareness of the pact that drives the modern culture of violence. The colonised were, to be sure, exploited and beaten; but they were also lured by the glitter of the modern west. Today’s western leaders and “good Samaritans” are, indeed, repulsed by savage and brute acts of violence; but they also breathlessly await such acts, as if they are uttered in a language that they themselves intimately understand. How else can one explain that stupefyingly idiotic, obscene, and terror-laden phrase, indeed ambition – "the war on terror"? Terrorism, after all, is manna to the prosecutors of the "war on terror".

It would be wishful thinking to suppose that the London bomber who chose to explode a bomb in London's peace park, a short distance from the statue of Gandhi, was seeking in his own macabre way to enter into a dialogue with Gandhi and the advocates of non-violence. We have entered into a phase of brutal and unending violence. Terrorists and advocates of the “war on terror” are bound together in a horrifying pact. Violence has a ravenous maw. It countenances no opposition. The assassin of Gandhi and his numerous patrons, having done away with the old man, have been determined ever since to install violence as the supreme monarch. One wonders whether, once the assassins of non-violence are finished with their work, any statues of Gandhi will remain.


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