jonathan hyslop on gandhi and the dominions


Jonathan Hyslop, ‘An “Eventful” History of Hind Swaraj: Gandhi between the Battle of Tsushima and the Union of South Africa’, Public Culture 23 2 (2012).


[…] Gandhi enters into a reinterpretation of the process of state recon- struction that was occurring within the empire. The second half of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth had seen the emergence of a constellation of new self-governing states in the white-settler-dominated parts of the empire. Canada (especially British Columbia), New Zealand, and, above all, Australia had strongly identified their democracy with their racial identity as white-settler states and the exclusion of Asian labor. These states could draw a sense of strength from the support of the right wing of the British Conservatives, who were advancing the idea of a superstate of the United Kingdom and the white-ruled colonies, based on common defense and imperial tariff protection, with the other colonies in a subordinate role. And of course Hind Swaraj was written in the context of the creation of a South African state on a nearly all-white franchise, which was actually inaugurated on May 31, 1910, just more than two months after the work went to press.

What Gandhi sought to do was to destabilize the connection between self- government and white identity. Boldly, he reconfigured the change in South Africa as a sign of self-rule within the empire, rather than of the rise of racial polities, and inserted India, as a claimant to self-rule, into constitutional debate. In Hind Swaraj, the sensible Editor, although bracketing the question of whether Canadian-style self-government is desirable, finds it positive that the moderates have brought people together around “self-government, similar to what the Canadians and South Africans have” (Gandhi 2006: 27). Paradoxically, Gandhi actually uses the South African Union as a possible model for India, disrupting the discourse of a clear distinction between white-settler-ruled colonies and colonies directly administered from London. And in using the term home rule for the goal of the nationalist movement, Gandhi could only be read as referring to the example of the British Liberal program for self-government in Ireland. Irish home rule was once again on the political agenda in Britain, after a long break since William Ewart Gladstone’s failed attempts to implement it late in the nineteenth century. It implied self-government within the British state, not any departure from the empire. And because color was not an issue in Ireland, as it was in the constitutional formation of the settler colonies, it could be taken as a constitutional model for India in a direct way.

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