Youth in Rang De Basanti

“The youth will have to bear a great burden in this difficult times [sic] in the history of the nation. It is true that students have faced death at the forward positions of the struggle for independence. Will they hesitate this time in proving their same staunchness and self-confidence?”[1]

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s 2006 smash hit,[2] Rang De Basanti: A Generation Awakens (Paint it Saffron: A Generation Awakens, hereafter referred to as RDB), polarizes its audiences. To some it is misguided and naïve; to others it is fresh and eye opening. Generally, academic critics fall into the former category, while urban middle-class youth fall into the latter. (Popular critics, as in most cases, are more evenly divided.) Though the academic critiques of the film are many and varied, four stand out: its use of violence, its misrepresentation of Bhagat Singh, its narrow view of politics and the nation, and its use of time/history as a narrative device. Notably, notwithstanding that RDB is acknowledged to be a “youth film,” youth as a theme in its own right is missing from the scholarship on the film. This essay attempts to fill that gap. Rather than simply stopping at that, however—at adding youth to the list of themes—I argue that we should view RDB as a film primarily about youth. Not only will this provide us with new insights into the film, but it will also allow us to arrive at a more balanced understanding of it.

Because of the narrative structure of RDB, summarizing it is a complicated task; inevitably, any attempt to summarize it will contain several gaps. Nonetheless, I will attempt a summary because I believe any study of a film must contain at least some context. The film begins with a young British woman, Sue McKinley,[3] traveling to India to make a documentary about the young, now legendary Indian nationalists/revolutionaries of the early twentieth century: Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekar Azad, Hari Shivaram Rajguru, Ashfaqulla Khan, Ramprasad Bismil, and Durga Bhabhi.[4] To Sue’s dismay, none of the Indian students who audition for the roles can connect to the characters well enough to play the parts convincingly. Not soon after, though, Sue finds her cast in the misfits Karan, DJ (Daljeet), Sukhi, Aslam, Laxman, and Sonia.[5] These youngsters, although they agree to be in Sue’s film, are reluctant to do so because the revolutionaries and their values seem too distant from the world they inhabit. Gradually, they ease into their roles as revolutionaries, but a distance remains between the revolutionaries and the youngsters of the present until about the last third of the film.

About half way through the film, Lt. Ajay Rathod,[6] Sonia’s fiancé and a friend of the group, dies in a plane accident because the plane had faulty parts. When a high-up government official blames the accident on the pilot’s inexperience, the youngsters decide to hold a candlelight vigil to bring attention to the circumstances of Rathod’s death. After the police violently break up the vigil, the group decides to kill the high-up government official that shamed Rathod by falsely blaming him for his own death. It is here that the distance between the youngsters of today and the revolutionaries of the past disappear; from this scene on, the group uses the spirit and actions of the Indian revolutionaries to guide their actions. After confessing to the murder of the government official and one more person (Karan’s father), the young men are gunned down by the Indian state. In the end, the youngsters of today die as martyrs just like the revolutionaries of the early twentieth century.

Youth as Genre

According to Ulka Anjaria and Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, RDB is part of a genre of youth films that began with Dil Chahta Hai (2001).[7] That film, they claim, “like the films that followed it, reflects a shift towards representing capitalist decadence and the rise of a commodified ‘transnational and pronational youth culture’ emerging from the economic changes of the 1990s.”[8] This is a sentiment shared by Nandini Chandra, who writes, “as the logic of transnational capital was internalized and made palatable, a new wave of Bombay films also emerged fixating on Indian youth and their inspired and inspiring relationship to the nation, such as Yuva ([The Youth] dir. Mani Ratnam, 2004), Lakshya ([The Goal] dir. Farhan Akhtar, 2004), and, most iconically, RDB.”[9] This genre of films, thus, addresses the growth of nationalism among the Indian youth in the face of increasing transnationalism. As Anjaria and Anjaria note, these films also discuss “the anxieties of youth, postcolonial desires for world-belonging and generational difference in contemporary urban Indian culture.”[10] Any analysis of RDB needs to acknowledge its place in this new generation of youth films.

“Central to this new genre,” write Anjaria and Anjaria, “is the celebration of youth—not merely as a stage to be bypassed on the way to adulthood, but as having ontological value in and of itself.”[11] But what exactly is the ontology of youth? How did it come about? What are its confines? What are it characteristics? These are questions that Parul Bansal attempts to answer, at least in part, in Youth in Contemporary India. On the creation of youth as a stage with “ontological value in and of itself,” Bansal writes that, in general, scholars believe “that prolongation of education due to the requirements of economic life in modern age has opened up opportunities for an extension of psychological development, which in turn is creating a new stage of life called youth.”[12] At a basic level, this stage of life is defined by age: “Youth as a biographical life stage is located between adolescence and adulthood. . . . It is distinct demographically and subjectively from adolescence (roughly from ages 10-17) and adulthood (beginning roughly since 30).”[13] That is, in biographical, demographical, and subjective terms, youth begins at age 18 and ends at age 29. The majority of youth thus takes place in one’s twenties.

Age is merely a foundation, however, and therefore lends itself to be built upon. We might ask, for example, what distinguishes the twenties from other years? Bansal asserts that “it is a phase characterised by exceptionally high level of change and diversity.”[14] Moreover, in their twenties, “the young stand between alternate ways of life”[15]—that is, adolescence and adulthood. In this reading, rather than being a time of internal stability, one’s twenties are a period of experimentation, transformation, and instability. “Thus,” concludes Bansal, “the measuring yards for youth should not be only inner balance, consistency and proficiency but must also encompass confusion, dare devilry, extremism and fragmentation. Youth, thereby, represent multiple possibilities from delinquency to creative deviancy, rebellion to conformity, alienation to vigorous involvement in the spirit of the era.”[16] Like the new genre of Hindi films that tries to represent it, youth is a mixture of competing forces. RDB, then, with its invocation these forces and its suggestion of possibilities, is perhaps the best of recent films about youth.

Identity Synthesis in RDB

RDB cannot be considered a youth film simply because its main characters are young. No, RDB must be considered a youth film because it captures certain aspects of the youth condition, and specifically identity formation. Bansal sums up some of the processes and problems of identity formation in this sentence: “In finding the match between inner needs, aptitudes, potentials, aspirations and ideals with the opportunities and constraints of the environment, the young strive to glimpse a meaningful resemblance between what they have come to see in themselves and what the significant others judge and expect them to be.”[17] The main characters in RDB carry out the search for the “match” between the interior and the exterior, or, to put it another way, between what is wanted, what is expected, and what is right. For example, it is expressed in the incongruity between different characters’ values, such as that between Ajay and the rest of the group. It is also demonstrated in the spliced scenes of past and present that appear throughout the film. At the beginning of it, when the contemporary individual (the self) and the revolutionary nationalist of the past (the significant other) are at odds with one another, the jump between past and present is disjointed. At the end of it, when the individual and the revolutionary nationalist reconcile, the jump between the past and the present is seamless.

RDB also seems to lend credence to psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson’s claims about identity synthesis in youth. As summarized by Bansal, “Identity synthesis represents a sense of ‘a present with an anticipated future’. This implies that past, present and future are not separate and distinct, rather they coexist together. The present carries impressions of the past, and in that sense, the past is an actual alive portion of the living present. It also counterpoints the future possibilities and prospective potentials.”[18] In other words, identity synthesis is a type of identity formation in youth that entails a complex interaction between past, present, and future. In this interaction, the temporal stages impinge on each other. It is not a novel observation that RDB uses the intersection of temporal stages to great avail; most of the scholarship on the film discusses it, or least mentions it.[19] For instance, Parvinder Mehta writes, “Mehra stitches history with contemporary Indian setting and suggests a mimetic, patchwork framework whereby the seams demarcating the different time frames are rendered invisible.”[20] With the exception of one scholar,[21] however, no one mentions how the film’s temporality is related to the formation of youth identity. This is an unfortunate oversight because, based on Erikson’s use of temporality in his definition of identity synthesis in young people, as well as its intersection with Mehta’s argument about RDB’s use of temporality, it would be hard to deny that the film is about youth identity.

To put it another war, just as RDB is a film about violence, nationalism, and politics—the topics most discussed in the scholarship—so too is it a film about identity formation in the young main characters. As the cuts between past and present become increasingly seamless, or, in the words of Manisha Basu, “the geometrically aligned congruencies between obsolescence and contemporaneity take on a different and even somewhat sinister aspect, one not merely being mediated by the other, but inextricably intertwining and becoming one with the other,”[22] the film achieves its own version of what Erikson terms “configuration.” As Bansal describes, “Erikson conceives of an intrapsychic process whereby multiple identifications are transformed into a unified structure.”[23] What results is a configuration. Bansal goes on to explain that, in Erikson’s view, three processes are “involved in the creation of a configuration: ‘selective repudiation’ refers to a process whereby certain identifications are rejected and/or suppressed; ‘mutual assimilation’ suggests synthesizing process whereby two or more identifications somehow are merged into one, without rejecting either; ‘absorbing identifications in a configuration’ implies a process where different identifications are still seen as separate, none are rejected and they continue to exist separately side by side in some sort of dynamic balance.[24]

All three processes that lead to a configuration occur in RDB. (For clarity of argument, I will discuss them in the order that they occur in the film, and not in the order that they are defined.) “Selective repudiation” takes place in beginning of the film when the main characters reject identification with their past selves.[25] For example, during the script reading, Karan reads the words of Bhagat Singh only to deride them at the end: “’I’ve committed my life to the freedom of this country. I know you want me to get married but I have made freedom my bride. Your son, Bhagat Singh.’ Who talks like that for God’s sake? Your son… My freedom… What’s his problem?”[26] At the same time, the suppression of identifications is hinted at by the recurring appearance of the historic personas in contemporary shots. “Absorbing identifications in a configuration” occurs in the middle of the film when the youngsters ease into their roles yet still exist separately from their past selves. In other words, at this point in the film, the main characters still see Bhagat Singh et al as roles to be played, and thus, remain identities separate from their own. This process of configuration is demonstrated at Ajay and Sonia’s engagement party: although the contemporary young persons have been playing nationalists in Sue’s documentary for some time, they are still removed from the past. Cinematically, the distance that remains between the past and the present is shown through patchy jumps between past (the documentary) and present. “Mutual assimilation” appears at the end of the movie—from the scene where the group decides to kill the Defense Minister until the young men die. In this part of the film, the main characters’ past selves are merged with their present selves. A synthesis occurs whereby the distinction between past and present becomes irrelevant. Basu sums it when well: “In a perfect convergence, past and present can comfortably coexist, even without the arbitration of the documentary instrument because time as a contingent medium of rupture and as the instigation to strife has been increasingly rendered obscure and finally even erased.”[27] At the end of the film, after all three processes, a configuration is finally achieved: the martyr.

Bhagat Singh and Youth

At this time, I would like to turn to a discussion of Bhagat Singh; after all, he is the young man who acts as the axis on which the film pivots. Taken together, the scholarship on RDB avers that the film misrepresents the famous revolutionary. Aarti Wani, for instance, writes that “the Bhagat Singh of Mehra’s imagination, mediated through the diary of an English jailer and his granddaughter is only a hot-headed patriot who willingly sacrificed his life for his country. Nowhere do we hear about his ideas on religion, students and their role in politics, imperialism, exploitation and oppression or socialism.”[28] According to Wani, Mehra’s reading of Singh is narrow because he only portrays the active side of the revolutionary; his ideas are nowhere to be found. It is therefore no surprise that she concludes, “Rang De Basanti merely succeeds in effectively silencing Bhagat Singh.”[29] Similarly, Neelam Srivastava contends that, in RDB, “Bhagat Singh, actually a secular Marxist revolutionary influenced by Trotsky and Lenin, is divested of his radical and structured political message and is appropriated as a generic ‘national’ hero, a shining example for a disaffected Indian middle-class youth to urge them to fight corruption and change the nation.”[30] Like Wani, Srivastava believes that Mehra strips Singh of his “radical” ideas, clearly their favorite ingredient in the Bhagat Singh formula. Thus, because the film misrepresents Singh, a grave error occurs: “Mehra’s revolutionaries are only these fiery-eyed young men of action, sans thought, sans ideas.”[31] Clearly, Wani and Srivastava favor ideas over actions. The question is, did Bhagat Singh?

By asking this question, I do not mean to suggest that ideas were not important to Singh (of course they were); but it would be a mistake to think that ideas were primarily important. Actions were just as important as ideas—if not more so—and this is demonstrated best, in Chris Moffat’s view, through an interrogation of “the slogan of Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA): Inquilab Zindabad, ‘Long Live Revolution’—a life for revolution, a life of revolution. What does it mean to commit to revolution in perpetuity? What form does this militant life take in the present? This is to direct our study of politics to action and the contexts of action, rather than propositions and ‘mere beliefs’” (Italics in the original).[32] Focusing on action, continues Moffat, “allows us to acknowledge the primacy of the gesture in the political life of the HSRA: it was, I will argue, the bomb, the bullet, the chant, the hunger strike, the kissing of the hangman’s noose that did the demonstrative work for these revolutionaries, rather than any idea of the good articulated in a pamphlet.”[33] In this reading, Wani and Srivastava’s critique of RDB (i.e. that it misrepresents Bhagat Singh because it empties him of his ideas) is painfully unoriginal. Like Gandhi, Singh was not only a “thinker,” but also a “doer.”[34] Indeed, Singh was a precocious thinker who did articulate his beliefs in writing; but his ideas only reached their potential through action. This is what Moffat calls active thought, which emphasizes the importance of acting on ideas in the present. Explains Moffat, “Gestures toward a contingent present speak politics as active thought, an anti-doctrinal orientation captured in Lenin’s question: What is to be done? Rather than simply demanding the elaboration of a deed (‘to be done’), this question necessitates engagement with the present as the platform for action . . . This is a politics conceived as craft or art, a form of judgment rather than the mastery of certain theories” (Italics in the original).[35] In the film, the question “What is to be done?” is answered in the scene where the group decides to kill the Defense Minister. After the Defense Minister breaks up the candlelight vigil, which was supposed to bring attention to government corruption, and leaves untainted, the group feels they have no option but to kill him. The dialogue at the beginning of the scene reads thus:

“The Bastard got away with it again.”

“What can we do when the law of the land protects people like the defense minister?”

“We have to take drastic measures.”

“What drastic measures? What do you want to do?”

“Kill him.”[36]

The killing of the defense minister can be read as a “gesture toward a contingent present” where corruption (embodied in the defense minister) does not exist, or as the act that fulfills the idea. So, if we follow Moffat’s lead and “direct our study of politics to action,” then the “primacy of the gesture” in RDB, rather than misrepresenting Bhagat Singh, presents him in a surprisingly authentic form.

Not surprising, however, is Moffat’s belief that a politics of action is inseparably tied to youth; for, just as the contingent present of a politics of action is always vanishing, so too is youth. The question is, why do young persons get involved in politics of action if youth is vanishing? As Moffat explains, “when we speak of ‘youth’ anointed as a force in politics, this is to suggest [that] certain practices of engagement and perceptions of common capacity are defined by an internal temporality of belonging—that of age. But age is an unstable marker: years pass and so too, the capacities of youth.”[37] Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that the youth have the most to gain by getting involved in a politics of action as well as the most to lose by not getting involved in such a politics. On the one hand, if the youth get involved now and succeed in achieving their political goals, then they benefit from those rewards now. On the other hand, if they do not get involved in politics now, then they cannot reap the benefits that go along with acting now (i.e. enjoying the benefits of political action for a longer time span). Thus, youth get involved in a politics of action not in spite of the vanishing present, but because of it. As Moffat puts it, “the sense of a vanishing present exhorts urgency.”[38]

Importantly, “the urgency of a vanishing present” answers more than one question:[39] in addition to explaining why the youth get involved in a politics of action, it also explains why they are best suited for it. In Moffat’s reading of Singh and the young revolutionaries of the early twentieth century, “youth are constructed against those who, with age, have become buried under accumulated interests and obligations, who may possess the will but not the capacity to let go, to respond completely to the demands of a present.”[40] In short, change in the present demands someone with a will and a capacity to act, and that is the youth. According to Simona Sawhney, this is an idea that the film’s title, Rang De Basanti, evokes: “Basanti, the colour of spring, is also the colour of sacrifice and renunciation. Behind the association of spring with renunciation possibly lurks the idea that only in youth, or in springtime, is sacrifice possible; as Bhagat Singh often remarked, only the young have something to give: their energy and hope, their future.”[41] Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we have come back to Singh’s ideas. I say “unsurprisingly” because, as we have seen, Singh’s actions and ideas are interwoven. More important, one could argue that, of all Singh’s ideas, none is more lofty or exclusive than youth. Notwithstanding its connection with action, then, youth inevitably brings us back to the idea.

Central to Singh’s notion of youth as a force in politics is, as Sawhney hints at in the quote above, the belief that sacrifice is “the privilege of youth.”[42] As Singh so eloquently puts it in a passionate essay on youth from 1925, “without an adolescent, who can denote blood? For sacrifices you will have to look towards the youth. The youth is the fortune-builder of every community. A scholar has rightly said, ‘It is an established truism that young men of today are the countrymen of tomorrow holding the high destinies of land. They are seeds that spring and bear fruit.’”[43] As the men of tomorrow, the young men of today carry with them the burden of the future. Sacrifice, then, is the privilege of youth because the future is the responsibility of youth. Concludes Singh, “a true youth without hesitation embraces death. He defies and confronts the sharp and pointed bayonets. He smiles while sitting on the mouth of the canon. He sings a song on the jingling of shackles. He swings on the gallows with bravery. On the day of his execution his weight increases. O, Indian youth, you are ignorant and sleeping carelessly. Open up your eyes and see the light of the rising sun. Don’t sleep more […].”[44] The five young men who became martyrs by the end of the film fulfill this call to action. Not only do they awake from ignorance and come face to face with the light,[45] but they also smile in the face of death. Each man becomes, in the words of Bhagat Singh, “a true youth.” In the last analysis, although RDB may not call on the full pantheon of Singh’s revolutionary ideas, it does elicit his ideas about youth.

Of course, there is a flaw in looking at RDB as a film about youth. As many scholars have written, RDB “casts the affluent middle class exclusively as the voice of political agency” in contemporary India.[46] Thus, the youngsters of the film represent only a small minority of India’s youth. This is undoubtedly true and, along with the other commentators, I must concede this. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, my goal was to find some way to balance the polarized critiques of the film. Youth, notwithstanding its pitfalls, seems to be the most practical way of doing this; as the size and relevance of the middle class increases, the film’s commentary on youth will also increase in importance. The question is, will the next generation of Indian youth accept the film’s portrayal of youth identity and politics?


[1] Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutta, “Message to Punjab Students’ Conference,” in Chaman Lal, ed., Bhagat Singh: The Jail Notebook and Other Writings (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2007), 139. The text is also available online at (accessed last on July 6, 2014).

[2] I say “smash hit” because, according to one author, Rang De Basanti was “a runaway hit that grossed over 345.5 million Rupees worldwide in its very first week.” Manisha Basu, “Rang De Basanti: The Solvent Brown and Other Imperial Colors,” in Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora, ed. Rini Bhattacharya Mehta and Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande (London: Anthem Press, 2010), 181n1. Another commentator adds some important context when he notes, “Rang De Basanti has been a runaway hit but its success appears to have been perhaps greater in the metropolitan cities (and with non-residents) than in the hinterlands/rural areas because it seems to be positioned this way.” M. K. Raghavendra, “Globalism and Indian Nationalism,” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 16 (2006): 1503.

[3] Alice Patten plays Sue.

[4] The male revolutionaries are, unsurprisingly, the focal point of the film.

[5] Siddharth plays Karan/Bhagat Singh, Aamir Khan plays DJ/Chandrashekhar Azad, Sharman Joshi plays Sukhi/Hari Shivaram Rajguru, Kunal Kapoor plays Aslam/Ashfaqulla Khan, Atul Kulkarani plays Laxman/Ramprasad Bismil, and Soha Ali Khan plays Sonia/Durga Bhabhi.

[6] Madhavan plays Lt. Ajay Rathod.

[7] Ulka Anjaria and Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, “Text, genre, society: Hindi youth films and postcolonial desire,” South Asian Popular Culture 6, no. 2 (2008): 131-37.

[8] Ibid., 132.

[9] Nandini Chandra, “Young Protest: The Idea of Merit in Commercial Hindi Cinema,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30, no. 1 (2010): 121-122.

[10] Anjaria and Anjaria, “Text, genre, society,” 133.

[11] Ibid., 132.

[12] Parul Bansal, Youth in Contemporary India: Images of Identity and Social Change (New Delhi: Springer, 2013): 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 12.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 16-17.

[18] Ibid., 17.

[19] Questions of temporality in RDB are discussed most extensively in Parvinder Mehta, “Predicaments of history and mimetic agency: Postcolonial return, repetition and remediation in Rang De Basanti,” South Asian Popular Culture 9, no. 3 (2011): 299-311. Basu, “Rang De Basanti: The Solvent Brown,” deals with temporality at some length, as well.

[20] Mehta, “Predicaments of history,” 306.

[21] On youth reception of RDB, Jyotsna Kapur writes, “The visceral response the film evoked amongst the young, urban middle class, I believe, has to do with the disillusionment it expresses with the hollowness of consumer culture [(present)] while holding out the possibility of taking charge of history [(past)] and setting it correct [(future)].” The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India (London: Anthem, 2013), 127n2.

[22] Basu, “Rand De Basanti: The Solvent Brown,” 106.

[23] Bansal, Youth in Contemporary India, 17.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sonia, one could argue, is probably the only character that does not reject her past self. Rather, it seems that her past self is suppressed.

[26] Rang De Basanti, directed by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra (2006; Mumbai: UTV Motion Pictures), Netflix, accessed July 6, 2014, All translated dialogue that appears in this paper is taken from the Netflix version of the film.

[27] Basu, “Rang De Basanti: The Solvent Brown,” 107.

[28] Aarti Wani, “Uses of History: A Case of Two Films.” Film International 5, no. 1 (2007): 75. This review essay is also available at (accessed last on July 6, 2014).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Neelam Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema: Violence, Patriotism and the National-Popular in Rang De Basanti,” Third Text 23, no. 6 (2009): 713.

[31] Wani, “Uses of History,” 75.

[32] Chris Moffat, “Experiments in political truth,” Postcolonial Studies 16, no. 2 (2013): 185.

[33] Moffat, “Experiments in political truth,” 185.

[34] I borrow the terms “thinker” and “doer” from Vinay Lal, “Reading Gandhi and Avowing the Impossible,” Lal Salaam (blog), October 4, 2013, (accessed last on July 6, 2014).

[35] Ibid., 185-86. Moffat is not the only one who makes a connection between Bhagat Singh and politics as art. For another take on the connection, see Simona Sawhney, “Death in three scenes of recitation,” Postcolonial Studies 16, no. 2 (2013): 202-214. On the realization of politics as art in RDB, Sawhney writes, “only by learning to speak a different aesthetic language are the protagonists of the film able to become political agents. Thus poetry appears as both the shaping of an aesthetic language that functions as the (essential) supplement to the political, and as the inheritance, internalization, and repetition of this language” (210).

[36] Rang De Basanti.

[37] Moffat, “Experiments in political truth,” 186.

[38] Ibid., 187.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Sawhney, “Death in three scenes of recitation,” 210.

[42] I borrow the phrase “the privilege of youth” from Moffat, “Experiments in political truth,” 186-87.

[43] Bhagat Singh, “Youth,” Matwala (May 16, 1925), quoted in Ishwar Dayal Gaur, Martyr as Bridegroom: A Folk Representation of Bhagat Singh (New Delhi: Anthem Press, 2008), 67-68. Note that Bhagat Singh was seventeen years old when he wrote “Youth.”

[44] Ibid., 68.

[45] The phrase “come face to face with the light” is from the song “roobaroo,” the last one to appear in RDB.

[46] Kapur, The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India, 127. The quote used here is a part of Kapur’s summary of Chandra, “Youth Protest.”

Globalizing Palestine

The historian James L. Gelvin, in The Modern Middle East, claims that “in spite of the fact that the size of Palestine and the number of people directly affected by its political problems are minuscule in comparative terms, the dispute between Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians and various Arab states, on the other, has been at the forefront of international attention for over sixty years.”[1]  John Collins, an interdisciplinary scholar who has spent most of his academic career writing about Palestine, agrees with this observation in his fascinating book Global Palestine.  Unlike Gelvin, however, Collins does not stop at simply describing the internationality of the Israeli/Palestinian quagmire: he attempts to show the global significance of Palestine.  Specifically, Collins seeks to reveal how Palestine’s past and present can shed light on the globe’s present and future.  This essay looks at why Collins asks us to look at Palestine from a global perspective and how he articulates such an abstract idea as global Palestine.[2]

In the preface to Global Palestine, Collins gives us a pretty good idea about his project.  Explaining why he wrote the book, Collins writes, “I began this book with a desire to step outside the circle of often tired political frameworks within which Palestine has generally been imprisoned.”[3] The circle of frameworks he is referring to are “the seductive narratives of nationalism, with the binary logic that splits the world into hierarchically ordered halves (us/them, East/West, Orient/Occident, developed/developing, terrorism/legitimate state violence, etc.) and with the stale language of realpolitik and ‘national interests.’”[4]  According to Collins, they need to be avoided because, “if recent decades have shown us anything, it is that there are significant interpretive and political limitations associated with” them.[5] In short, the study of Palestine has been hindered by the rhetoric of the nation as well as by that of the state.  Thus, in Collins’ view, to emancipate the study of Palestine and take it in new directions, scholars will need to step outside the conceptual box.[6]

As the title of his book suggests, Collins’ solution to pulling Palestine out of its scholarly and political rut is to think of it in global terms.  In fact, this is the thesis of Global Palestine: “the book’s core idea is that the same forces operating to produce Palestine’s troubling realities are also operating globally in ways that have implications for all of us, and that examining Palestine’s recent past and present in this light can yield new insights about Palestine itself while also revealing important clues about global processes that too often remain hidden, camouflaged, and poorly understood.”[7]  On the one hand, Collins is claiming that Palestine is not exceptional: events in Palestine are a product of “the same forces” that are working across the globe.  Therefore, studying Palestine from a global perspective can “yield new insights about Palestine itself.” On the other hand, Collins is arguing that Palestine is exceptional: studying Palestine can enlighten our understanding of global processes.  In other words, Collins’ central thesis asks us not only to view Palestine from a global perspective, but also to view the globe from a Palestinian perspective; only this will allow us to understand the importance of Palestine.

Beyond political and interpretive boundaries, Collins informs us that the book is also designed to transcend (and even reject) disciplinary boundaries.  As he claims, “the book’s orientation also reflects the fact that I have always been, at heart, an interdisciplinary (I sometimes prefer the term anti-disciplinary) researcher who seeks to probe the boundaries of conventional wisdom.”[8]  This, he explains, is one reason the book draws on the work of Walter Benjamin, John Trudell, and Paul Virilio—three intellectuals whose work Collins describes as “unconventional” and “subversive.”[9]  Furthermore, “these influences . . . signal the use of an approach that embraces the practice of theoretical, methodological and thematic diversity for the simple reason that the deep structures of global politics have as little respect for disciplinary borders as they do for national ones.”[10]  Taking into account his claims about other types of boundaries, Collins ultimately holds that we can only truly understand Palestine and its politics by denying boundaries any significance.

In the chapter “Approaching Global Palestine”—the most important chapter for understanding the author’s program—Collins elaborates further on the need to study Palestine globally.  “In short,” he explains, “the remarkable global profile [of Palestine] tells us a great deal about the politics of globalization in general, from the impact of ‘time-space compression’ to the complex dynamics of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, from the troubling realities of permanent war to the changing face of international solidarity activism.”[11]  The key word in this sentence is globalization, for it comprises the global processes Collins describes and constantly refers to throughout the book.  In addition, globalization can be read as an attempt to emphasize Palestine’s importance in understanding the future—that is, where Collins sees the world heading.  Restating his thesis from the Preface, but adding to it in important ways, Collins writes, “the central argument here is that far from being shaped by global and globalizing processes, Palestine has been and continues to be an often prophetic index of and shaper of these processes, a kind of monadic unit that contains important clues to a series of much broader realities.”[12]  Mirroring what he says in the Preface, Collins believes Palestine “contains important clues” about global processes and “broader realities.”  The difference here is the use of the terms “globalizing” and “prophetic,” which signal Collins’ belief that understanding Palestine is important to understanding the future.  To restate, Collins holds that understanding Palestine’s present is integral to understanding the global present as well as the global future.

At the juncture, you might be tempted to ask, in what specific ways does Collins believe Palestine is prophetic? “First,” argues Collins, “as the primary targets of an ongoing settler colonial project (Zionism), Palestinians have been test subjects for, and in some cases active agents helping to catalyze, an emerging world of pervasive securitization and violent acceleration, a world order symbolized by the ‘Global War on Terrorism’—(GWOT)—a war in which anyone can be a target.”[13]  Therefore, in Collins’ eyes, Palestine is first prophetic in its experience of settler colonialism.  As Palestine becomes marked by increasing securitization and acceleration, so too does the world.  “At the same time,” continues Collins, “[Palestinians] also continue to be important actors in and symbols of the ongoing struggle for global justice, a struggle in which the defense of life and locality plays an increasingly prominent role.”[14]  The second manner in which Palestine is thus prophetic is in “the ongoing struggle for global justice.”  As the struggle progresses for Palestinian justice, so too does the struggle for global justice.  According to Collins, then, Palestine’s prophetic qualities demonstrate that, rather than being on the receiving end of globalization, Palestine is actively shaping it in crucial ways.

We might ask, however, if Collins is the first person to articulate the idea of a global Palestine.  In short, the answer is no; but a more nuanced picture is required for a better understanding of where Collins fits into the historiography of “global” Palestine.  As Collins notes, “for decades [the scholarly] literature was dominated by an implicit exceptionalism rooted” in Zionist claims and “corresponding claims of exceptional victimization on the part of Palestinians.”[15] This, according to Collins, prevented comparative studies between Palestine and other parts of the world and prevented global political theory from being applied to Palestine.  Along with binaries and zero-sum logic, claims Collins, this was the state of scholarship on Palestine until about the late 1980s.  Since then, “an increasing number of scholars have been pushing back against inherited frameworks of all sorts.  As a result, work on Palestine is increasing characterized by references to transnational processes, such as militarization, racialization, capital accumulation, ‘states of exception,’ biopolitics and a range of power/knowledge structures.”[16]  Thus, what Collins refers to as “Palestine’s Global Turn” was, on the one hand, made possible by a general global turn across the social sciences.[17]  On the other hand, “the opening up of the literature to these broader debates is, in its own way, part of the globalization/Palestinization phenomenon referred to above.”[18]  That is, events in Palestine contributed to the global turn just as the global turn may have contributed to events in Palestine.

This does not mean, however, that Palestine became global only in the 1990s.  Using Arjun Appadurai’s idea of “process geography,” Collins asserts “that the Palestinian struggle has always been a global one.”[19]  Process geographies, summarizes Collins, “are best understood as ‘precipitates of various kinds of action, interaction, and motion’ rather than as ‘relatively immobile aggregates of traits.’”[20]  One can see Palestine as process geography in the experience of Palestinian refugees, who never quite leave there homeland behind.  As Collins explains, “like all members of any globalized community, Palestinians who live in exile carry with them memories and markers of the homeland,” and “these are components of the global Palestinian experience.”[21]  So, even though they may not be physically in Palestine, Palestinian exiles bring their homeland with them wherever they go.  Palestine and Palestinian identity then become involved in a process of constant negotiation and (re)interpretation.  Some other ways we can see Palestine as process geography are in the involvement of other states in the geopolitics of Israel/Palestine and in what Collins refers to as “the global flow of the technologies of violence” (e.g. bulldozers) into Israel/Palestine.[22]  According to Collins, it is because of this “action, interaction, and motion” between Palestine and the rest of the world that we can speak of a global Palestine before the nineties.

Finally, let us turn to Collins’ use of the term “globalization.”  For, after looking at Collins’ central points, one could argue that Global Palestine is, more than anything else, a book about globalization.[23]  In Collins’ mind, globalization is not a new phenomenon: “the age of globalization is, after all, the age of linkages,”[24] and global linkages are far from novel.  Even so, globalization in the twenty-first century is unique.  It is not merely a question of acceleration, though Collins does see speed as an important aspect of twenty-first-century globalization.  Nor is it a simple matter of colonization, securitization, or occupation.  What is unique about globalization in the twenty-fist century is how acceleration, colonization, securitization, and occupation work together.  In the twenty-first century, claims Collins, these processes have, on the one hand, “produced a world marked by both radical integration and radical hierarchy,” and on the other hand, extended “the logic of permanent war across the globe in a way that complicates those narratives that focus almost exclusively on capital accumulation as the motor driving global history.”[25] Collins’ idea of twenty-first-century globalization can therefore be summed up as the compression of time and space (maybe even to the point that neither concept has very much meaning), the radicalization of global hierarchy, and the perpetuation of global conflict.

To recapitulate, Global Palestine is John Collins’ attempt to get us to see “Palestine’s prophetic global significance.”[26]  This essay offered some insight into Collins’ rationale for claiming that Palestine has global significance as well as how he articulates such an idea.  Perhaps most important in the idea of global Palestine is that what is happening to the Palestinians is also happening—or will eventually happen—to the rest of us.  In this reading, we are indeed all Palestinians.


[1] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 217.

[2] I say abstract because, in my opinion, adjectives like “global” lend themselves more to theoretical concepts than they do to concrete concepts.  The success of Collins’ argument depends on this abstraction.

[3] John Collins, Global Palestine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), ix.

[4] Ibid., x.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Whatever the merits of this cliché, telling people to step outside the box (the exact phrase is “step outside the circle”) can hardly be considered new and creative.

[7] Collins, Global Palestine, x.

[8] Ibid.

[9] These descriptions can be found in ibid., xi.

[10] Ibid., xi.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Ibid., 2

[13] Ibid., 2-3.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] The phrase “Palestine’s Global Turn” can be found in ibid., 3.  It is the title of a section in Chapter 1, “Approaching Global Palestine.”

[18] Ibid., 4.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 5.

[22] Ibid., 6.

[23] I was introduced to this idea in a discussion with Reem Bailony on 6 March 2014.

[24] Collins, Global Palestine, 7.

[25] Ibid., 15.

[26] Ibid., 16.

 Works Cited

Collins, John. Global Palestine. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[Thanks to Michael O’Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

Oil, Geopolitics, and Neoliberalism

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey makes an intriguing argument about why neoliberalism-in-theory did not equate neoliberalism-in-practice (neoliberalization).  For him, the neoliberal turn of late 1970s was, more than anything else, “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19).  This explains why the reality of neoliberalization looked so different from the ideals of neoliberalism.  As he claims, “the theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has … primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve” the restoration or creation of an economic elite (19).  Moreover, “when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable” (19).  In short, neoliberalization has not meant the realization of a neoliberal utopia because the economic elites have distorted or discarded neoliberalism to (re)assert their dominance over the lower classes.  Importantly, because neoliberalization was about the restoration of the economic elites, it allowed for the creation of non-Western elites. This, according to Harvey, is further proof that neoliberalism cum neoliberalization was simply an “antidote to threats to the capitalist social order” and “a solution to capitalism’s ills” (19).

On the other hand, James L. Gevin alleges, in his article “American Global Economic Policy and the Civic Order in the Middle East,” that the post-WWII economic order is best understood through the North-South divide.  This divide played out until 2008 in a “three part dialectical process—1944-71, when the global economic system created an environment conducive to economic nationalism in the South; 1971-1980, when the South deployed the power derived from economic nationalism to challenge the system; 1980-2008?, when a reinvigorated system effectively vanquished economic nationalism in the South—through which the present order achieved dominance and the civic order of those states was put to the test” (9).  Between 1944 and 1971, the Bretton Woods doctrine of “embedded liberalism” benefitted the countries of the South.  Embedded liberalism was both national and international in scope: it honored national sovereignty but also allowed countries to participate in the new global order economic order.  From 1971 to 1980, the South challenged the North’s (especially the US’s) hegemony.  The two main events that precipitated the challenge were the “Nixon Shock” of 1971 and the oil shock of 1973-74.  In the third phase, lasting from 1980 until 2008, the North asserted its dominance through neoliberalism.  The onset of neoliberalism brought an end to the Bretton Woods system, and therefore, the South’s ability to effectively challenge the North.  Ultimately, by challenging the North, one could argue that the South actually accelerated its own demise; the oil shock of the seventies pushed the North to adopt neoliberalism.  Some might even say that the South ended the era of transnationalism and inaugurated the era of (Berger’s) globalization.

Finally, in Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell claims that, by looking at the role of oil in the economy and political structures of the Middle East, we can better understand how “carbon energy and modern democratic politics [are] tied intricately together” (5).  One way he shows this is through a discussion of the 1973-74 oil crisis.  In Mitchell’s reading, rather than a simple example of supply and demand that ushered in the era of neoliberalism, the oil crisis created a new discourse about energy that ushered in the era of militarism in the Middle East.

Works Cited

Gelvin, James L. “American Global Economic Policy and the Civic Order in the Middle East.” In Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept, edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, 191-206. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso, 2011. 


Defining Third Worldism

Third Worldism was an ideology that came out of and responded to decolonization, which coincided with the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  The authors Robert Malley and Mark T Berger each provide definitions of this concept but with slight variations.  In this brief paper, I will scrutinize both definitions closely in the hope of coming out with a clearer understanding of Third Worldism.  First up: Robert Malley.  According to Malley in The Call from Algeria, Third Worldism was “the belief in revolutionary aspirations of the Third World masses, in the inevitability of their fulfillment, and in the role of strong centralized states in this undertaking” (2).  For his part, Mark T Berger claims that Third Worldism assumed four things:

1) the ‘popular masses’ in the Third World had ‘revolutionary aspirations’; 2) the fulfillment of these aspirations was an inevitable working out of history that linked pre-colonial forms of egalitarianism to the realization of a future utopia; 3) the vehicle for the achievement of this transformation was a strong and centralized nation-state; and 4) in foreign policy terms these nation-states should form an alliance that would act collectively under the umbrella of various regional and international forms of political and economic cooperation, such as the non-alignment movement and the United Nations (“After the Third World?, 34, note 4).

At first glance, it might look as if the only difference between the two definitions is that Berger provides an additional point. But what would a closer examination reveal? After all, Berger admits that his definition of Third Worldism is similar to Malley’s, but “departs in key respects” (“After the Third World?”, 34, note 4).

Regarding the first point, both Malley and Berger claim that Third Worldism believed that the masses of the global south had revolutionary aspirations.  They also share views on the second point, though slightly diverging from each other. Both men maintain that Third Worldism assumed that the achievement of the Third World’s aspirations was the “working out of history.” For, although Malley does not articulate such an expression, he implies it in his use of the term “inevitability.”  Berger breaks away from Malley, however, by adding that, according to Third Worldism, the “working out of history” meant linking “pre-colonial forms of egalitarianism to the realization of a future utopia.”  Indeed, Malley uses deceptively similar concepts—assimilationism, traditionalism, and Marxism—in another section of his book[1], but he is a lot more ambivalent about Third Worldism’s approach to establishing a dialogue between the past and the future.

After slightly diverging from each other on the second point, Berger and Malley converge again on point three.  In their eyes, Third Worldism believed that the revolutionary ambitions of the Third World could only be achieved through the nation-state. The similarity ends there: Berger and Malley deviate from each other once again on the last point. On the one hand, Berger claims that Third Worldism assumed that an alliance between the states of the Third World should be established to promote cooperation within the global south.  On the other hand, Malley, by failing to provide a fourth point, implies that transnational organizations were not a central tenet of Third Worldism.  This is a crucial difference, though it is not a surprising one.   For one thing, the two scholars have a different focus: whereas Malley tends to focus on themes, Berger tends to focus on chronology.  It is even less surprising given that Berger, writing seven years after Malley, had the opportunity to build on Malley’s definition of Third Worldism.  However, notwithstanding the differences between the two definitions, and notwithstanding Berger’s claim that his definition of Third Worldism “departs in key respects” from Malley’s, I would argue that the two definitions are more alike than not.

[1] Refer to pp. 23-27 of The Call from Algeria for a discussion on assimilationism, traditionalism and Marxism.

Works Cited

Malley, Robert. The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Berger, Mark T. “After the Third World? History, Destiny, and the Fate of Third Worldism.” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2004): 9-39.

Questioning Transnationalism

Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way open their article “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis” by stating that “Transnationalism is a much abused word,” then by asking, “is it the same thing as globalization? As internationalism? Is neoliberalism a particular period in the history of the political economy of transnationalism, or something else? Was the colonial period transnational or prenational?” (625). In their eyes, transnationalism is a form of antinationalism. Specifically, as the title of their article suggests, they claim that using transnationalism as an analytical category is a useful—perhaps the best—way to dispute and disprove the assumptions of nationalism as an analytical category. For example, when describing the goals of the article, the authors claim that they “want to suggest that “transnationalism” can do to the nation what gender did for sexed bodies: provide the conceptual acid that denaturalized all their deployments, compelling us to acknowledge that the nation, like sex, is a thing contested, interrupted, and always shot through with contradiction” (627). This suggestion is not something Roger Waldinger and David Fitzgerald would agree with. For them, transnationalism cannot be the end of the nation because it is mediated by the state. Referring to migrant communities who are often described as transnational, Waldinger and Fitzgerald reminds us that “states and the politics conducted within their borders fundamentally shape the options for migrant and ethnic trans-state social action” (1178). In other words, they believe transnationalism (in the way it is normally discussed) cannot do away with the idea of the nation because its terms are dictated by the nation-state. Furthermore, Waldinger and Fitzgerald claim that transnationalism doesn’t do away with identities; it reinforces them: “for transnationalism, the relevant forms of social action do not transcend difference but rather are directed entirely toward specific places or groups” (1179). In short, whereas Briggs, McCormick, and Way hold that transnationalism undermines the idea of the nation (and therefore, the nation-state), Waldinger and Fitzgerald hold that the nation-state undermines transnationalism.

As Yossi Shain’s article “American Jews and the Construction of Israel’s Jewish Identity” would seem to suggest, however, there are more than just two definitions of transnationalism. Shain takes a middle path between the Briggs-McCormick-Way definition of transnationalism and the Waldinger-Fitzgerald one. In his mind, Judaism connects Jewish-Americans to Israel in an “Israel-Diaspora relationship”, and thus, allows them to transcend the borders of the United States. However, Jewish-Americans transcend borders of one nation-state (the US) only to connect themselves with another (Israel). And that connection—and any influence that Jewish-Americans hope to have on events in Israel—is limited by the reality of living in the United States. One could argue, therefore, that Shain holds transnationalism to be both national and supranational. John Collins takes a similar stance in “Global Palestine: A Collision for Our Times,” when he says, “in the United States, the antiwar movement has found itself making common cause with the struggle for Palestinian rights, an alliance that is paralleled by the growing alliance between US conservatives and supporters of Israel” (3). So, although transnational alliances exist between Americans and other groups, they are informed by political antagonisms in the US. Nevertheless, Collins does ultimately contend that the struggle of the Palestinians is not merely transnational (in its ability to forge transnational alliances), but also global (in its prophetic qualities). In the end, then, all four articles give varying definitions of transnationalism. But is that “abuse,” or is that scholarship? Personally, I believe it is the latter.

Works Cited

Briggs, Laura, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way. “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis.” American Quarterly 60 (September 2003): 625-648.

Collins, John. “Global Palestine: A Collision for Our Time.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 16 (Spring 2007): 3-18.

Shain, Yossi. “American Jews and the Construction of Israel’s Jewish Identity.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 9 (Fall 2000): 163-201.

Waldinger, Robert and David Fitzgerald. “Transnationalism in Question.” American Journal of Sociology 109 (March 2004): 1177-95.

[Thanks to Micheal O’Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

Faces of the Raj

In his brilliant essay State, Power, and Colonialism, Douglas M. Peers states, “The Raj might in some of its military and economic ambitions be characterized as modern, but it was decidedly pre-modern and perhaps even anti-modern in many of its social, cultural, and political aspirations” (31).  What, we might ask, does Peers mean by this characterization of British ambitions in India? How can the Raj be described as both modern and pre-modern, or even modern and anti-modern?  Further, if we accept this claim, what led to the divergence in imperial ambitions? According to Peers, it is quite simple: “the imperatives of security and stability which stemmed from the anxieties and ambivalences of ruling such a complex and variegated land dictated the form and function of the state…” (16).  That is to say, the anxieties of empire produced a style of governance that favored military aspirations.  With military spending over fifty percent of government revenues in the early colonial period, it was only natural that economic ambitions became a top priority, as well.  These ambitions were modern because they worked together to develop a fiscal military state in British India.

Economic ambitions were, however, only a priority inasmuch as they financed the military state.  As Peers notes, the Raj prioritized “military needs in policy-making and financial transactions that created an increasingly efficient financial mechanism but at the cost of economic development” (31).  Likewise, the military needs of the colonial state hampered social and political improvements.  This was especially true after the Rebellion of 1857-8, when “the need for order took precedence over social and political reform” (24).  In this sense, the British Raj was a despotic regime.  We can say, then, that as a despotic regime, the British Raj was pre-modern; as “a liberal regime employing markedly illiberal means to perpetuate its rule,” the Raj was anti-modern (17).  Ultimately, according to Peers, the multiple characterizations of the Raj as modern and pre-modern or modern and anti-modern require us to question the commonly held assumption that colonialism equates modernity.

Work Cited

Peers, Douglas M. “State, Power, and Colonialism.” In India and the British Empire, edited by Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu, 16-43. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[Thanks to Micheal O’Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

Gandhianism and the Darker Nations[1]

This essay is concerned with understanding Gandhi’s influence in the darker nations, specifically how Gandhian nonviolence (Gandhianism) inspired Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. in leading their own struggles against oppression.  Using one piece of writing from both Mandela and King, I will try to understand how Gandhi’s ideas about nonviolent activism were interpreted and negotiated in the darker nations.  What made Gandhianism attractive to the darker nations? Was it even possible to practice Gandhianism in the darker nations? If so, how was it altered to fit the needs of the people? If alteration did occur, how much was by choice and how much because of political, social or cultural context?  For Mandela, the political reality of South Africa made it necessary to significantly challenge the basic assumptions of Gandhianism.  For King, the cultural reality of the southern US made it necessary to supplement Gandhianism with Christian concepts.  Ultimately, I will argue that even though they practiced Gandhianism in different ways, both Mandela and King adopted Gandhianism in their struggles for freedom and dignity.  As a result, I hope to also show how Gandhianism’s adaptability is what allowed it to become a universal weapon against oppression.

In the beginning of his essay “Black Gandhi,” Vijay Prashad writes, “Gandhi, in his lifetime, came to symbolize a new kind of politics, but his tactics had the weight of history behind them.  The elements that distinguished Gandhianism—marches, fasts, disobedience and strikes—had little novelty.”[2]  But if nonviolent activism was nothing new, what made the Gandhian brand of nonviolence so unique?  According to Prashad, “while most political movements used nonviolent tactics, Gandhi raised nonviolence to a moral ethic, to a strategy with a vision for recreating the world” (emphasis in original).[3]  Specifically, although “other political traditions shared the Gandhian adherence to strikes, fasts, and other nonviolent forms of protest,” they did so “without rejecting other tactics, such as sabotage, destruction of property, and militant confrontation with the police.”[4]  Thus, Prashad argues, “Gandhianism alone believed that the end of peace could only be attained through the means of peace.  No violent means, according to the Gandhians, could possibly create a nonviolent society.  Violence, in this scheme of things, breeds violence.”[5]  In short, Gandhianism was the first political tradition to wholeheartedly reject violence in the practice of nonviolence.

Importantly, the success of Gandhian nonviolence as a mass political tactic was not only recognized by Indians and Britishers, but also by other colonized and oppressed peoples around the globe.  As the success of mass nonviolent resistance became plain, moreover, Gandhi became increasingly famous.  Corroborates Prashad, “in the 1920s and 1930s, as the Indian freedom struggle became synonymous with Gandhi, colonized and oppressed people in the darker nations took notice.  From Jamaica, African America, and southern Africa, among other places, came the query: Where is our Black Gandhi? Will our Black Gandhi come?” The darker nations, witnesses to the political magic of Gandhi, could not help but wonder whether they would get a mahatma of their own.  “Implicit is such queries,” Prashad notes quite rightly, “was a demand for a replication, across the globe, of the type of anti-imperialist mass movement that Gandhi is believed to have fashioned in India.”[6]  But was a replication possible? That is, was the replication of Gandhian mass nonviolence possible in the darker nations? Black radicals in particular asked themselves these questions. As Prashad points out, “the Black International engaged aspects of Gandhianism that centered on whether it was possible to entirely eschew violence when confronted with an extremely violent colonial or racist regime, such as those in southern Africa and the southern USA.  Could nonviolence, as a hard standard, succeed in bringing about popular mobilization when racist violence had shattered the confidence of a people? Would the oppressed not need a violent revolution to restore their sense of self?”[7]  One senses that the underlying concern the Black International had with Gandhianism was that it was not masculine enough, and therefore, could not produce the desired results of the violently oppressed.  In other words, they were under the assumption that, to gain their dignity back, they needed to answer violence with violence.  After all, violence was the language of the oppressor: it was the only language they spoke and the only language they understood.[8]  In spite of their concerns, however, and “despite occasional bouts of violence, the bulk of the population throughout most of the black world came to a simple conclusion: unless forced into guerrilla warfare by a ruthless adversary, it was far better to engage the last ounce of goodness in the enemy through moral nonviolent confrontation.”[9] Seeing nonviolence as a moral ethic is, in Prashad’s view, “the genius of Gandhianism that appealed to many in the Black International.”[10]

Nelson Mandela, in his 1999 Time Magazine essay “The Sacred Warrior,” shows quite clearly that Gandhi and “the genius of Gandhianism” inspired him in his struggle against oppression in South Africa.[11]  For example, towards the beginning of the essay, he writes, “[Gandhi] is the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary.  His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally in our century.”[12]  Two things become clear from this passage. First, Mandela’s admiration for Gandhi is unabashed: Gandhi is the perfect example of an anti-colonialist.  Second, Mandela believes that the genius of Gandhianism inspired movements against oppression the world over.  He sharpens these ideas soon after when he claims, “the Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless.”[13]  In Mandela’s view, then, Gandhianism was more than just the inspiration for several anticolonial movements: it was also the dominant inspiration.  Moreover, Gandhianism was the dominant inspiration because it generated power and forged unity among the oppressed.  In fact, nonviolence was so appealing and successful that it “was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence.”[14]  Gandhianism gave the moral upper hand to the oppressed, and Mandela—inspired by Gandhi—understood this better than most.

Still, as the Black International anticipated, Gandhianism could only do so much in the darker nations.  In the face of extreme violence, black South Africans had no choice but to resort to violence themselves.  Admits Mandela, “Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.  We founded Unkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle.”[15]  Even after violence became necessary, however, Gandhian ideals were not simply thrown to the wayside.  In fact, Mandela reminds the reader that “Gandhi himself never ruled out violence absolutely and unreservedly.  He conceded the necessity of arms in certain situations. He said, ‘Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honor rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor…’”[16]  As Mandela sees it, rather than disavowing Gandhi by becoming violent against their aggressors, black South Africans heeded his advice.  That is, black South Africans resorted to violence only to defend their honor.  However, Mandela insists, “violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[17]  To put it another way, as long as nonviolence as moral ethic predominates over violence in a struggle against oppression, the authenticity of Gandhianism is not compromised.  Part of the “genius of Gandhianism,” then, is that is adaptable to political contingency.

Like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Gandhi and Gandhianism.  In his capacity as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he espoused nonviolent resistance as the path to freedom for African America.  It is hard not to see the inspiration of Gandhi in King’s written work, but there are a number of pieces that explicitly mention Gandhi or Gandhian ideals in their connection to nonviolent activism in the southern US.  For instance, in the opening remarks of his essay “An Experiment in Love,” King proclaims,

From the beginning a basic principle guided the movement.  This guiding principle has since been referred to variously as nonviolent resistance, noncooperation, and passive resistance.  But in the first days of the protest none of these expressions was mentioned: the phrase most heard was ‘Christian love.’…

As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to assert its influence.  I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.[18]

In short, although nonviolent activism was practiced in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, it was not yet connected to Gandhi.  As time went on, however, Gandhianism began to “assert its influence” within the movement.  Without replacing the original motivation for nonviolent resistance—Christian love—Gandhianism provided African Americans with an essential tool in their fight against oppression.  As King concludes, “Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal.  In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method” (emphasis mine).[19]  The importance of what King is saying in that last sentence should not be overlooked: Christ is the motivation for the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhianism the method.  On one level, this idea demonstrates the deep impact that Gandhi had on King.  On another, possibly more important level, it demonstrates that, for King, Gandhianism can operate successfully in a deeply violent and racist environment.

However, not all African Americans were convinced that mass nonviolent resistance would bring about the change they desired.  One such person was W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed, as Prashad explains, that “the African American situation…was different from India’s.  Gandhi’s struggle thrived in a context where a tiny minority oppressed the vast majority, whereas in the US blacks comprised a small percentage of the population, and any call for nonviolent resistance ‘would be playing into the hands of our enemies.’”[20]  King may well have agreed with Du Bois that the African American situation was different from India’s, but he would have not agreed with Du Bois’ logic about violence—that is, if nonviolence benefits the oppressor, then violence benefits the oppressed.  In King’s estimation, “to meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love, we must meet physical force with soul free.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”[21]  As King sees it, violence cannot be the answer to violence because, in the end, it is detrimental to everyone.  Therefore, violence can only be met with nonviolence; that is the way to a better society.  Undoubtedly, this is the essence of Gandhianism.  Remember that, according to Prashad, Gandhianism differed from other forms of nonviolent activism because it “alone believed that the end of peace could only be attained through the means of peace.”[22]  If this statement is indeed true, then there is no denying Gandhi’s influence on King and the Civil Rights Movement, in general.

In an article written about his trip to India in 1959 (“My Trip to the Land of Gandhi”), King makes the following comment: “While I understand the reasons why oppressed people often turn to violence in their struggle for freedom, it is my firm belief that the crusade for independence and human dignity that is now reaching a climax in Africa will have a more positive effect on the world, if it is waged along the lines that were first demonstrated in that continent by Gandhi himself.”[23]  It is almost as if King, anticipating the bloody future in Africa, is pleading with Mandela to remain true to Gandhianism.  Unfortunately, that was not what happened.  Mandela and black South Africans practiced “pure” Gandhianism for as long they could.  There came a point, though, when the oppressed had no option but to resort to violence.  King and most African Americans, on the other hand, made nonviolent resistance the central tactic of the Civil Rights Movement.  Still, in order to accommodate African American culture in the southern US, Gandhianism linked with Christian Love.   In the end, despite the differences between Gandhianism as practiced in South Africa and the southern US, both of the darker nations in question adopted Gandhianism in their struggle against oppression.  Gandhianism, in its ability to adapt, functioned as a universal tool for achieving freedom and human dignity.

[1] I use the term “darker nations” as it is used in Vijay Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” Social Scientist 37 (January/February 2009): 3-20,  In that essay, the term is used to distinguish Gandhi (someone with “brown” skin) and peoples with darker skin color (people with “black” skin).  The distinction is important because in Prashad’s Darker Nations (2006), the term is used to describe the entire global south. The darker nations discussed in depth in this paper are African America and southern Africa.

[2] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 3.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] I was introduced to this metaphor in Nelson Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior,” where Mandela quotes a speech he gave in 1962: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence.”

[9] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As a more recent reflection from Mandela, I realize that this source is in some ways problematic.  Still, as an essay written by Mandela himself, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

[12] Nelson Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior,” accessed December 11, 2013,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 16.  I was introduced to this essay and others in Prashad, “Black Gandhi.”

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 13.

[21] King, Jr. “An Experiment in Love,” 17.  These statements echo one made by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj: “We who seek justice will have to do justice to other.”

[22] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 4.

[23] Martin Luther King, Jr., “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 27.