Appalled and outraged by the Amritsar massacre of 1919, Gandhi wrote a letter to the government renouncing three medals he had received for his humanitarian work and military service. He underscored his dissent with a speech act of noncooperation: “The attitude of the Imperial and Your Excellency’s Government on the Punjab question has given me additional cause for grave dissatisfaction. . . . Your Excellency’s light-hearted treatment of the official crime . . . and callous disregard for the feelings of Indians betrayed by the House of Lords, have filled me with the gravest misgivings regarding the future of the Empire, have estranged me completely from the present Government and have disabled me from tendering, as I have hitherto tendered my loyal Cooperation ” (my emphasis). The letter, like the sedition trial that was to follow two years later, demonstrates Gandhi’s adeptness at enacting resistance not only politically but at the level of the sentence: “estranged,” “disabled,” and “filled . . . with the gravest misgivings,” he is no longer able to provide cooperation, not because of his own feelings but because of those imposed upon him by the actions of “the present Government.” Through this deft logic, Gandhi associates bad affect with the colonizers (not only those they have generated in him, but also their own “callous disregard” and “light-hearted treatment” of an egregious crime) and civility with the colonized (exemplified here by his polite yet unwavering renunciation of the regime—a particular version of civility that combined firm resistance with moral request that played a central role in the philosophy and praxis of nonviolent resistance he developed in this period).
The 1922 trial of Gandhi for articles in his newspaper Young India gave him the opportunity to perform this reversal on a global stage and thus to transform the imperial public sphere more broadly. A turning point in the nationalist movement from the standpoint of public culture and sedition legislation, the trial represents a departure from the print mimicry and double-coding upon which this book is focused because of the way Gandhi used the occasion, to brilliantly appropriate the discourse of disaffection for the nationalist cause, draw it out into the open, and reconfigure it as the very grounds of resistance.
As in the Bangavasi and Tilak cases, the government sought to make an example of the popular leader and turn the courtroom into a disciplinary spectacle, but Gandhi managed to steal the show by using the trial to stage a rousing critique of the depravities of British colonialism. While he nominally addressed this critique to those in the courtroom, his speech was also calculated to expose those depravities to the global audience who were following the trial in the press—in particular those in Britain who were already uneasy about colonialism’s moral standing and its long-term viability.
Rather than denying his disaffection, Gandhi proudly laid claim to it, using a quietly ironic mode to hold the British position up to ridicule and underscore the justice of his cause; after the charges against him were read to the court, for instance, he asked if he could make a statement and, when asked for a record of this statement, said “I shall give it as soon as I finish reading it.” This understated resistance to the bureaucratic disciplines of the state exemplifies his stance throughout the trial and his philosophy of passive resistance. The statement that he read explained why he had become an “uncompromising disaffectionist and non-cooperator.” He not only refused to contest the charges against him regarding the “preaching of disaffection” but wryly confessed that it was his “painful duty to admit before this Court that it commenced much earlier than the period stated by the Advocate-General.” In other words, he openly admitted to disaffection; made his accusers look weak by laying claim to greater amounts of it; and rearticulated it as loyalty and duty to his fellow Indians rather than to the British. He was forced to risk promoting violence, he argued, in the interests of speaking the truth: “I knew that I was playing with fire. . . . I know that I was feeling it so every day and I have felt it also this morning that I would have failed in my duty if I did not say what I said here just now. . . . I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips.” In listing the “irreparable harms” done to his people, Gandhi honed in on the injustice of the legal system: “My experience of political cases in India leads one to the conclusion that in nine out of every ten cases the condemned men were totally innocent. Their crime consisted in the love of their country. In ninety-nine cases out of hundred, justice has been denied to Indians as against Europeans in the Courts of India. . . . In my opinion, the administration of the law is thus prostituted consciously or unconsciously for the benefit of the exploiter.”
Gandhi uses affect here in two key ways: first, he underscores his righteousness by suggesting that his sense of duty is something he feels “every day” and is compelled to respond to. Later in the trial, he also spoke of giving the judge “a glimpse of what is raging within my breast to run this maddest risk that a sane man can run.” In drawing feeling, duty, and action together in his account of his behavior, Gandhi seeks to exemplify his integrity. Second, he conveys a not-so-subtle threat about the dangerous affective consequences of colonial exploitation by suggesting that “the mad fury” of his people, and the ensuing civil unrest that prompted the trial, was an inevitable consequence of their “learning the truth” about imperialism.
Employing the logic of the law against itself by arguing that if loyalty or affection was what was at stake, Indians were innocent because they had plenty of both, Gandhi suggested that disaffection for British rule was in fact evidence of the genuine, uncoerced affection one had for one’s country. In one of the Young India articles used to accuse him of disaffection (“Tampering with Loyalty,” September 29, 1921), he had urged his followers to “spread disaffection openly and systematically till it please the government to arrest us. And this we do, not by way of angry retaliation, but because it is our Dharma.” In this article, as in the trial, he suggested that the cause of justice—in this case, speaking the truth about the evils of imperialism—was incompatible with the colonial rule of law, which he firmly resituated on the wrong side of history. That the judge was moved to commend him for his ethics and leadership at the end of the trial was a testament to the success of his strategy.
Gandhi’s speech also tacitly addressed British people in Britain and India in order to provide them with face-saving language that might help them withdraw support for empire. After enumerating different ways imperialism had negatively affected India, such as famine, immiseration, and demoralization, he stated that “the greatest misfortune is that Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration of the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime I have attempted to describe. . . . They do not know that a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defense on the other, have emasculated the people and induced in them the habit of simulation. This awful habit has added to the ignorance and the self-deception of the administrators.” In this part of his statement, the law-and-order arm of the British government and its “terrorism” is sectioned off from the rest of the polity, which thus remains blameless. Gandhi notes that the state’s disciplinary apparatus produces the culture of duplicity that allows Indians to escape charges of disaffection, while the Indian people, the “associates” he mentions (either Anglo-Indians or Indians who had government jobs, or both), and those in Britain are all simply victims of this duplicity. In depriving the people “of all powers of retaliation or self-defense,” the disaffection law produces the emasculated, simulating babu who must hide his dissent—this figure in turn produces the ignorant, misguided administrator by masking the true disaffected nature of the colonized subject.
Gandhi’s performance in the trial was designed to undo this vicious cycle of duplicity once and for all. Stating that “affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law,” he pointed to the coercion and violence that underlay Section 124a and flouted it, not only by embracing the role of seditionist, but by turning the trial itself into a large-scale act of sedition, in which the rousing nationalist rhetoric for which he was being tried was reenacted and guaranteed wider circulation, thanks to the international media coverage of the trial. He also reoriented the affection for the government required by law to the Indian people by demonstrating their allegiance to him (in responding affectively, or “with mad fury,” to his leadership), his for them (by potentially sacrificing his freedom on their behalf), and theirs for each other (in acting out of love of country).
At the beginning of the trial, when nationalist leaders and other supporters rose to greet him, he announced that “this is like a family gathering and not a law court,” thereby elevating volitional community over the nonconsensual imperial community that Section 124a was meant to suture together. His statement toward the end of the trial—“non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good”—with its notable emphasis on negation, accentuates the way disaffection with empire is at once a moral imperative and, according to the structure of the sentence, a precondition for good cooperation: the volitional community of the postcolony to come. At least as rhetorical performance, Gandhi’s trial marked the end of the tactics of evasion and transferred affect from coercive to consensual community. It also demonstrates the extent to which the law against disaffection galvanized the nationalist movement, shaped its rhetoric, and helped it gain an international profile.
My story of how the law against disaffection created a culture of subterfuge and print mimicry ends here, then, but some of its negative effects, as the preface notes, continue to play out in dispiriting and violent ways in contemporary India. While somewhat defanged in the postcolonial era, Section 124a continues to be used to quell dissent. More disturbing, though, is the way the law against disaffection helped shape the nationalist imagination. Framing community in affective and filial terms, as the law encouraged subjects, and then nationalists, to do, can contribute to solidarity, as Gandhi demonstrated. But it has also contributed to communal and gender-based violence and caste oppression because the filial community was from the start imagined and instantiated largely in Hindu, upper caste, and patriarchal terms. Meanwhile, as it did during British rule, Section 124a shapes the contours of the public sphere in restrictive ways. Because of the enduring practice of state censorship, Deepak Mehta maintains, Hindu and Muslim groups respond to various cultural texts by arguing “that religious sensibilities have been hurt. The group demands that state authorities censor the publication or performance. In the process a particular kind of seeing or viewing public is created, defined primarily through affect.” Censorship thus circumscribes what can be said by “establishing in advance what will and will not be acceptable public discourse.”
In the United Kingdom and the United States, debates about free speech and censorship also flare up continually, reflecting deep anxieties about the breakdown of public discourse that recall those that shaped the period this book analyzes. At the end of 2017, a professor of theology at Oxford University, Nigel Biggar, published an article in the Times entitled “Don’t Feel Guilty about Our Colonial Past,” which riffed on Bruce Gilley’s now-infamous article on the benefits of colonialism in Third World Quarterly. Arguing that “shame can stop us tackling the world’s problems,” Biggar insisted that Britain and its ex-colonies should recognize the benefits as well as evils of colonialism so that “pride can temper shame.” Far from being the isolated opinion of a revisionist crank, Biggar’s op-ed was attached to a larger project and bolstered by funding, in the form of a five-year interdisciplinary study of “Empire and Ethics” at the McDonald Centre at Oxford, with the goal of countering postcolonial critiques of empire via an exploration of its purported good deeds. Biggar’s intervention prompted an immediate response from postcolonial scholars at the university in the form of an open letter asserting that many at Oxford did not support his project and found it intellectually bankrupt: “Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians. They are useless to historians. . . . There is no sense in which neutral ‘historical data,’ from any historical context, can simply be used to ‘measure’ the ethical appropriateness of either critiques of or apologia for empire, let alone sustain an ‘ethic of empire’ for today’s world.”
In uncanny ways, Biggar’s stance recapitulates the way the colonial government in India sought to consolidate power and defang political opposition by recasting critique in affective terms. He imagines himself the subject of injury and the target of anticolonial disaffection that “shames” him by making him feel evil as opposed to ethical. Just as the British required that Indian subjects admire their rulers by being affectionate, Biggar wants to create a public sphere—via op-eds and think tanks—in which a debate that considers “both sides” might restore his dignity by leveraging the kind of supposedly rational neutrality that prevailed in the British colonial press—a neutrality that refuses to hear critique that might undermine political and moral authority and turns it instead into emotion that wounds, thereby corralling it outside the pale. In their open letter, the Oxford postcolonialists noted that “neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history will be engaging with the ‘Ethics and Empire’ programme, since it consists of closed, invitation-only seminars”: in other words, Biggar’s debate seeks “neutrality”—or positive affect (pride) as opposed to critique (shame)—through exclusion, just as the imperial public sphere did.
The way the term “ethics” is used in this debate is similar to the invocation of civility and incivility in political contexts in the contemporary United States. Like disaffection, “incivility” is a word loaded with underacknowledged historical baggage that makes it an unwieldy and double-edged rhetorical sword. On the one hand, it has been used to describe the uncensored racist, misogynist, and ad hominem attack politics of Trumpism that refuse the idea of shared norms and a common humanity; more frequently, however, it has been used to discredit politics and social justice movements that aim at radical inclusion rather than exclusion. Despite their profoundly antithetical motivations and ethical validity, both of these extremes are characterized as such from the perspective of the Enlightenment public sphere norms of reason, suspended judgment, and intercultural exchange that still, in theory, guide public debate. Yet together they make up the contradiction at the heart of these norms—the tension between the exclusion that has always existed in practice and the attempts to overturn it that must be made in the name of ideals supposedly already achieved (equality, free speech), and that are thus easy to brand as wrongheaded.
For example, in July 2020, following the explosive response to the murder of George Floyd, a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” was published in Harper’s Magazine that called for a return to civility and complained that the free exchange of ideas was being eroded by “cancel culture.” The letter quickly elicited a response, “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” that pointed out the myopism of the largely white and elite writers of the first letter: “the irony . . . is that nowhere . . . do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing . . . in truth, Black, brown and LGBTQ+ people—particularly Black and trans people—can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern.” As the colonial history outlined here demonstrates, the use of fictions of civilizational difference, or incivility, to exclude nonwhite people demanding equality from public discourse in order to prolong their marginality was part and parcel of how civility worked as a norm, and how it continues to be leveraged.
In their “Eleven Theses on Civility,” Tavia Nyong’o and Kyla Wazana Tompkins argue that “civility is the affective shape of administrative violence. . . . Civility discourse enforces a false equation between incivility and violence that works to mask everyday violence as a civic norm.” Charges of incivility, as they suggest, have been used more effectively and for far longer to silence those who seek to oppose state violence and racism (such as the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement) than those who support it (such as the many high-profile racists, including Anne Coulter, Milo Yiannopolis, Steve Bannon, and Charles Murray, invited to speak on college campuses and at other prestigious cultural venues in the wake of Trump’s election despite their lack of intellectual credibility). If the way in which Section 124a aligned political critique with excessive affect during the colonial period informs the evocation of civility in contemporary political debates, its brand of exclusion also informs the correlative attempt, in writing from Franz Fanon to Nyong’o and Tompkins, to combat imperialism and its legacies by reclaiming anger as a spur to political change.
One way of identifying writerly critique with transformative affect that draws positively on the legacy of sedition law is suggested by Arundhati Roy, in the preface to her 2019 collection of nonfiction prose, My Seditious Heart. Roy’s linking of sedition with the organ of feeling is based on her personal experience with Section 124a; as mentioned earlier, the law has been used in contemporary India by the conservative government against dissenting authors, politicians, students, and activists such as Roy, who was indicted for “anti-Indian” remarks in 2010. Though wearied by the constant public attacks she faces, Roy, like Gandhi, draws inspiration from the relationship between critique and affect articulated by colonial sedition law and uses it to reimagine critical writing as a collective enterprise in which everything, emotionally and politically, is at stake. Her essays, she writes in her preface, “opened doors for me to secret places where few are trusted, led me into the very heart of insurrections, into places of pain, rage, and ferocious irreverence. On these journeys, I found my dearest friends and my truest loves. . . . Although writers usually walk alone, most of what I wrote rose from the heart of a crowd. . . . It was never meant as neutral commentary. . . . It was just another stream that flowed into the quick, immense, rushing currents that I was writing about. My contribution to our collective refusal to obediently fade away.” Like Gandhi’s speech in his trial, part of the force of this passage comes from negation, but also from a negation of that negation imagined in collective terms—a “refusal” to be obliterated that is also a movement, “quick, immense, rushing.” This ardent and imperative dialectical vision, radically unfinished, is the legacy of colonial sedition law too.
1. Mahatma Gandhi, “Letter to Viceroy,” August 4, 1920, in Young India (1922).
2. On the role of civility in Gandhi’s philosophy and in his disagreements with Ambedkar, see Aishwary Kumar, Radical Equality: Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Risks of Democracy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).
3. Cited in Noorani, Indian Political Trials, 232.
4. Noorani, Indian Political Trials, 232.
5. Noorani, Indian Political Trials, 232.
6. Noorani, Indian Political Trials, 234.
7. Noorani, Indian Political Trials, 234.
8. This quote is taken from Sarojini Naidu’s account of the trial in her foreword to The Great Trial of Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Sankarlal Banker, ed. Ke Pi Kēśavamēnōn (Madras: Ganesh, 1922), ix.
9. Noorani, Indian Political Trials, 235.
10. Deepak Mehta, “Words That Wound: Archiving Hate in the Making of Hindu and Muslim Publics in Bombay,” in Beyond Crisis: Re-Evaluating Pakistan, ed. Naveeda Khan (New Delhi: Routledge, 2010), 316.
11. Nigel Biggar, “Don’t Feel Guilty about Our Colonial Past,” Sunday Times, November 30, 2007; Bruce Gilley, “The Case for Colonialism.” Gilley’s article was eventually withdrawn from Third World Quarterly and was republished in Academic Questions 31, no. 2 (2018): 167–85.
12. “Ethics and Empire: An Open Letter from Oxford Scholars,” Conversation, n.d., http://theconversation.com/ethics-and-empire-an-open-letter-from-oxford-scholars-89333.
13. “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” Objective, July 10, 2020, https://theobjective.substack.com/p/a-more-specific-letter-on-justice.
14. Tavia Nyong’o and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Social Text Online, July 11, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/eleven-theses-on-civility/.
15. Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart, 5.