This essay was originally published by UCLA Today on August 16, 2005.
Central London has many beautiful squares and oases of rest, reflection and rumination. Nearly every square has historical associations, but Tavistock Square is uniquely significant. At its center is one of the most serene of the numerous statues of Mohandas Gandhi — a seated figure, ponderous and meditative, not the more familiar Gandhi with a walking stick, leading a protest march against colonial Britain.
In the aftermath of the horrific July 7 bomb attacks in London, Gandhi’s searing image acquires a significance that has largely gone unnoticed: It stands at the site where one of the four bombs blew apart a bus, claiming 13 of the 52 innocent lives lost that day, and turning “The Peace Park,” as Londoners call Tavistock Square, into a veritable graveyard.
Gandhi arrived in London in 1888, shortly after his 19th birthday, to study law. London would begin and end his foreign sojourns. Over the years, he shed a great deal: a top hat, coattails, the native’s awe of the white man and industrial civilization’s addiction to violence. He learned to become an unflinching advocate of nonviolence after coming face to face with the sheer ugliness of racial violence in South Africa.
It is characteristic of Gandhi that, rather than running away from violence or becoming paralyzed by its brutalities or claiming a pacifist sensibility, he entered into the battlefield of violence as a healer, bearing truth (as he saw it) on the stretcher of non-violence. In fact, one of the many reasons why Gandhi held nonviolence to be superior to violence is that the proponents of nonviolence have a long tradition of entering into a dialogue with those who swear by violence.
This relationship made Gandhi aware that some forms of nonviolence are tantamount to violence, that avoidance of violence is not necessarily a form of nonviolent action, and that there may be occasions when the practice of violence is the only way of honoring the spirit of nonviolence.
In Gandhi’s own time and later, he was nearly alone among the principal theorists and practitioners of revolutionary change in arguing for the primacy of nonviolence. He stands ranged against such figures as Lenin, Trotsky, Fanon, Mao, Castro and Che Guevara, who not only glorified violence but dismissed nonviolence as a chimera.
The London bombings are the latest evidence that we have entered into a phase of brutal and unending violence. Terrorists and advocates of the “war on terror” are bound together in a horrifying pact. Indeed, the latter are repulsed by savage acts of violence, but they also breathlessly await such acts as if they are uttered in a language they intimately understand. Violence, with its ravenous maw, countenances no opposition. One wonders whether, once the assassins of nonviolence are finished with their work, any statues of Gandhi will remain.
Vinay Lal is an associate professor of history. Two of his books have been released in new Viking Penguin editions this year. They are Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture and Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy.