The book at hand attempts to study a significant and for the present times, a deeply pertinent field: the similarities, influences and overlaps in terms of the understanding, commitment and praxis of two of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century namely Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
By giving his book the title ‘Confluence of Thought’ Chakrabarty’s avowed aim is to offer a meditative analysis of the manner in which the two leaders combined religious and political thought in a creative synthesis and evolved a dynamic and potent form of resistance.
Towards this end Chakrabarty divides his study into four core chapters, besides an introduction and a conclusion. The introductory chapter attempts to trace the social and political contexts of Gandhi and King. The first chapter is further divided into two parts and investigates the influences and roots in the thought of Gandhi and King and the creative evolution of the basic principles of their ideology and praxis within the larger intellectual streams of the times through debates with contemporaries. Chakrabarty examines Gandhi’s debates with Ambedkar, Tagore and M.N. Roy as well as the seminal writers and books which had a lasting influence. It also traces the trajectory of the many meetings between African American civil rights activists and Gandhi, through several trips of the former to India from the 1930s or so and the growing influence of Gandhi on the American civil rights movement culminating in the leadership of King who ‘meaningfully’ wove together the Christian ethos of his upbringing with the Gandhian message and strategies of nonviolence.
Chakrabarty discusses the central paradox of both colonial and racial hegemony: that these emanate from liberal societies and are contrary to the fundamental values of the Enlightenment. If Gandhi pointed out the threat which colonialism posed to core tenets of British liberalism, King argued that racial segregation was contrary to the liberal principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution and the 1863 Emancipation Declaration. This chapter also discusses with textual evidence another central paradox of Gandhi’s career: his rather perplexing position on the ‘kaffir’ in South Africa that speaks of his own initial discriminatory approach towards the question of race, though Gandhi was to radically alter his views later as his meetings with American African leaders testify. And it is here that the issue assumes very contemporary significance in the light of the debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi and the latter’s somewhat ambivalent position on varnashrama (even as he struggled lifelong against the evils of untouchability), which is seen by several recent commentaries to be of a piece with his attitude towards the native African.
The book then focuses on the several movements and agitations that Gandhi and King initiated against colonialism and racism in India and America, that were born out of a whole range of political, social and spiritual ideas which formed their very distinctive understanding of the human condition and their struggle for freedom from oppression and hunger. Both were assassinated, yet their thoughts and their untiring and comprehensive efforts to work towards their ideals along with compatriots ensured that a transformative democratic ethos involving the marginalized and disinherited was set into motion.
Chakrabarty charts a deeply significant set of influences and correspondences between the two great world leaders, both marked by profound compassion and vision, moral and intellectual energy and creative originality who reinvented modes of thought and action. The book is earnest and well-meaning. One only wishes that the writing, which is invariably dull and turgid, had done justice to the two inventive and dynamic leaders who reshaped democratic practice. It needed prose that was emotive, imaginative and insightful. This reviewer was disappointed.
Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, is the author of On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela (Altamira Press, 2005 and The Book Review Literary Trust, 2002), Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon (Manohar, 2005) co-edited with Eleanor Zelliot, and Vikram Seth: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008). She is currently engaged in translating medieval Varkari poetry from the Marathi, an anthology of which will be published by Penguin in their Black Classics series.