Gandhi’s new spinning wheel: A Review Article

The author’s assumption that the Internet can be likened to Gandhi’s spinning wheel as an agent of change seems premature. The Mahatma would have waited for some more time to reach any such conclusion, writes RAJIV VORA

Book: MUSIC of the Spinning Wheel:

Mahatma Gandhi’s manifesto for Internet Age

A book on Mahatma Gandhi from an unlikely quarter, with equally unlikely assumptions, must be welcomed. For, such books take the Gandhian discourse to new, alien terrains amid sweeping and popular technological changes. Sudheendra Kulkarni’s discovery of Gandhi, in his personal intellectual journey as he puts it, seems to be driven not by a rationalist’s criticality, but by fascination merging into devotion for both Gandhi and the Internet.

In the first four parts of the book — Pathways to Satyagraha, Romance with Science, Harmony Seeker, Beacon for the Present and the Future — the author explores and discovers Gandhi in an honest way. A journey with right mind for a seeker is more important than where he/she reaches. In the fifth part the author presents the ‘Promise of the Internet’. He finds the symbol of the Mahatma’s struggle for swaraj, the spinning wheel, irrelevant. Spinning wheel, says the author, was a “powerful symbol for the advocacy of a new global order based on the ideals of truth, non-violence, morally-guided self-governance, justice, universal brotherhood and sustainable development… It is reincarnated in the form of Internet”. The book argues that “the Internet and the many digital technologies spawned by it have the potential to actualise the Mahatma’s ideals”. In support of his advocacy, Kulkarni strenuously argues that Gandhi was not against modern science and technology.

The author states, “The marriage of modern technology with swaraj and satyagraha… will shape the just and non-violent world.” It should, he hopes, help ease the path of journey to culminate into the discovery of the essential Gandhi, the Gandhi of swaraj. But then, the author should have explained the meaning of his advocacy of Internet within the meaning of swaraj. Does Internet fulfil the primary attribute of swaraj? Does it put the final reigns of control of the Internet in the hands of its user? And, does it add into the moral development of it user, whosoever he/she is? If the answer is emphatic “Yes”, then one can appreciate the unusually enthusiastic advocacy of Internet, which this book is all about. But if it is otherwise, then it does not qualify as the livery of swaraj, which khadi was called. But Kulkarni’s rejection of one and advocacy of the other is based not on the inquiry into its principles, but on observation of its practice and popularity.

When Kulkarni says that the Mahatma “was not against modern science and technology”, because science is based on reason and seeking for the truth, which is what Gandhi stands for, he commits fundamental fallacy of presenting ‘science’ and ‘modern science and technology’ as one. Gandhi uses ‘science’ as generic term for reasoned inquiry, but for him ‘modern science’ as a specific term was that particular enterprise wherein the human reason is enslaved to human greed under the spell of materialist vision of life. ‘Modern science’ is science which has lost its freedom. It is a science subservient to modern civilisation. Does the author wish to suggest that in the Internet and digital technology it has regained its freedom? It will require a different type of philosophical inquiry to establish such a proposition, upon which the very subject of the book (advocacy for Internet) is built. Such a courageous advocacy would have been credible had it not taken the style of a salesman. On page 374, after raising three questions about what must go into a substitute for spinning wheel, the author declares: “Three questions, but only one answer: Internet!”

As one who upholds Hind Swaraj in its totality, which is the test of one’s intellectual, rational, appreciation and acceptance of Gandhi’s vision, thought and methods, the author would have done better had he explored deeper into the meaning of science and technology rather than making comparable examples like Gandhi’s liking for things like Telegraph or the Suez Canal the basis for building an argument for establishing Internet’s Gandhian-ness. Similarly, how does Steve Jobs’ admiration for Gandhi prove Gandhian-ness of Internet?

With regard to science, technology and industrialism is the question of the very civilisational, cultural and societal womb in which an invention is conceived. This is what primarily determines the nature of its application, usage and outcome — whether it will promote swaraj, welfare of all, or be anti-civilisation, which the so-called modern civilisation is today. A serious philosophical fallacy lies in subscribing to the popular myth that the good or bad use of a machine, a technology, depends on its user. A stereotype, example of knife in the hands of a murderer or a doctor is presented in support, without taking into account the fact that the metamorphosis of the killer knife into a war industry far outmatches any possible metamorphosis of the saviour-knife for the purpose of human good. Modern civilisation requires the services of its science for the former rather than the later. Can a spin-off function of a technology ever overtake the primary function of that technology? Had the author inquired into the meaning of ‘modern’ science and technology within the realm of its mother culture, the author’s argument would have been on a sounder ground.

The author explains that the Internet’s potential to inaugurate a new phase in human evolution in line with Gandhi’s vision is conditional to a radical re-ordering of our individual lives and of world affairs along a strong ethical axis. Internet satyagrahi is the author’s answer to this fundamental human problem of all problems. Would the author and readers deny the fact that the very dominant vision of life determines who would be powerful to dominate the use of the fruits of modern science and technology — the un-ethical or the ethical.

Finally, one cannot say what Gandhi would have said about the Internet, which according to the author, is no more than 20 years old in its present form. But, one can certainly say that the Mahatma would have definitely advised him to wait for a few more decades to be able to give it a reasoned thought, as he did when Left-leaning enthusiasts asked why he did not say anything about socialism. He asked them to wait for 50 years; if it lasts for that long, then one must give it a thought.

The reviewer is a prominent Gandhian and former editor of Gandhi Marg