Book Review by Mary King (Peace & Change): Bidyut Chakrabarty. Confluence of Thought: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

16 August, 2016

Having worked for four years at the heart of the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement, first in Atlanta and then in Mississippi, as staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), I know firsthand the influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi on Martin Luther King Jr (no relation) and the mass movement in the U.S. South. Staff meetings benefited from Indian examples conveyed by professional trainers in nonviolent resistance, including James M. Lawson Jr and Bayard Rustin, who had journeyed to India and learned from associates of Gandhi. Lessons were imparted in mass meetings in local black churches. Skeptical social scientists may consider exchanges involving the Indian experience as historical comparison, or coincidental contact, yet as the historian Clayborne Carson, editor of King’s papers at Stanford University for the past quarter century, asserts in his foreword to Bidyut Chakrabarty’s book, King cannot be comprehended apart from his intellectual encounter with Gandhian nonviolent struggle. Chakrabarty examines the ideas of Gandhi and King, from a sociopolitical perspective, chiefly analyzing their political thought and the confluence of their streams of thought. Chakrabarty plumbs Gandhi and King’s philosophies, what he calls their respective ideologies.

After an introduction that usefully treats Gandhi detractors M. N. Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, and B. R. Ambedkar, Chapter 1 assesses Gandhi’s intellectual pilgrimage to a creed of nonviolence, enacted through disciplined action, which Gandhi took from eclectic modern thinkers and works that he ardently studied. Comparably, Chakrabarty appraises the intellectual roots of King’s journey to creedal nonviolence and the practice of nonviolent struggle. Chapter 2 intriguingly establishes how both men defended their opposition to the standing systems of governance that each faced by reference to basic values of the Enlightenment and liberalism. In chapter 3, Chakrabarty reviews Gandhi’s major engagements, including two decades in South Africa, where he forged a technique for fighting injustice that he would use after returning to India and mobilizing national movements of noncooperation and civil disobedience. Chapter 4 distills King’s involvement in four major campaigns of nonviolent direct action. Chakrabarty’s perceptive conclusion shows that Gandhi evolved a mode of resistance acceptable even to business interests, while King’s involvement broadened the movement to become an interracial force.

Chakrabarty summarizes key meetings of visiting black leaders with Gandhi before moving on to delineate the intellectual roots for Gandhi’s and King’s sociopolitical thought, emphasizing the thinkers who affected their banks of ideas. To him, Gandhi’s and King’s significance lies in their each assuming responsibility for enacting programs that could transform existing power relationships, and their recognition that the victims of oppression must be the ones to muster self-reliance and take action.

Chakrabarty attributes King’s success to his use of Christian imagery, noting in contrast that Gandhi’s awareness of India’s underlying Hindu–Muslim tensions led him to advance nationalist goals by adroitly sidestepping religious iconography and language. King was animated by his ingrained faith in the guiding criterion of agape love, from the Greek New Testament, meaning understanding and redeeming good will for all humans. This active love granted by God without condition is the essence of Christianity. Hence, for King, white Americans who espoused views of black inferiority were not evil, but misguided.

Most interesting is Chakrabarty’s chapter 2, “Defying Liberals but Deifying Liberalism.” He depicts both figures as fighting within the contours of liberalism, where prejudice based on difference was codified within imagined forms of inferiority and superiority. He examines how each man confronted existing systems of exploitation incontexts shaped by and derivative from the Enlightenment. Such oppressive arrangements were illogical, illiberal, and unjust within the larger canons of liberalism, as endorsed by John Stuart Mill. The ideal of liberal equality for the subjects of the British Empire thus lies behind Gandhi’s targeting “political authority that had lost its legitimacy given its failure to appreciate the basic British liberal ethos” (79). Both were conservative proponents of change based on implementing the liberal principles undergirding British imperialism in the first instance and U.S. constitutionalism in the second.

To Chakrabarty, African Americans “hardly matched the Indians in terms of social progress, given their failure to rise as a collectivity against oppression” (20). Gandhi and King, however, sequentially influenced the sweeping nonviolent movements against colonialism, racism, and for human rights that continue today. The interracial movement in the U.S. South congealed within a much shorter time-frame and tore down legal bars to public accommodations and the right to vote. Functioning within more precise and limited contours than did Gandhi’s transcendent attempts to overhaul Indian social structures, it accelerated the global spread of knowledge on nonviolent strategies.

Along with many of his Indian counterparts, Chakrabarty, a political scientist based at the University of Delhi, shows less than acute absorption from the worldwide outpouring of scholarly works on civil resistance of the past four decades. In restricting himself to Gandhi’s and King’s “ideologies” and rootedness in great texts and philosophical and religious thought, he underemphasizes Gandhi’s intuitive strategic brilliance. Gandhi possessed mastery of nonviolent action as a technique, a term he used, drawing upon India’s past and his study of world news reports. The repertoire of nonviolent methods invented or appropriated by Gandhi (marches, boycotts, strikes) was essential for King. Often standing outside the framework of the abundant qualitative and quantitative studies published since the 1970s, an example of disconnected terminology is Chakrabarty’s calling the Montgomery bus boycott a strike and protest (158–67). Describing “Gandhi and King as leaders of protest movements” (29) is misleading; vastly more is exerted than protest with the social power of civil resistance movements, which often involve tangible shifts of political power.

Mary Elizabeth King
University for Peace