The second half of Kanthapura stages a different conflict: the Gandhian nationalist villagers, who have largely ceased worrying about caste, nonviolently resist the British colonial government in the name of the Indian nation. Gandhism inspires Kanthapura’s residents to fight against the oppression of the British colonial government in the name of India, a mythical nation to come, out of a sense of loyalty to a leader and population that they have never encountered and likely never will. However, the way that Gandhism exerts power over them largely resembles the way colonial governors rule from without. For the Indian people, resisting an oppressive and far-reaching colonial government requires large-scale political organizing of their own. Thus, the villagers overcome colonialism by strategically assimilating elements of it. Like the nationalist movement in India, the novel itself—one of the first prominent English-language works by an Indian author—appropriates elements of colonial culture in order to resist colonial power.
The India for which the villagers fight is a largely intangible idea, rather than a concrete political alternative to colonialism; similarly, Gandhi's ideas animate the villagers’ fight against colonialism, but he is as much a myth to them as the idea of India. At the beginning of the novel, Moorthy invites the famous performer Jayaramchar to give a discourse describing how Brahma (the supreme creator in Hinduism) has abandoned his daughter Bharatha (the traditional Sanskrit word for the land of India) to foreign invaders. This is the first time the idea of the Indian people as a unified nation enters the book and the villagers’ minds, and Jayaramchar presents Gandhi as a divine figure—the reincarnation of the god Siva—whose duty is to bring about that unity. Even Moorthy, who leads the resistance movement, never actually sees Gandhi but rather pledges allegiance to the Mahatma based on a vision. Similarly, Gandhi is a distant figure for the village, more myth than human—the pariah women joke about whether Gandhi will get mad at them for spinning too little yarn because they all understand that the Mahatma they fight for will likely never even hear about their allegiance. The villagers shout “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” when the police assault them throughout their resistance campaign, and the final conflict that dissolves Kanthapura is also one over national symbols: the colonists’ attack on the villagers succeeds in part because they rush to hoist the national flag on Bebbur Mound outside the village and refuse to honor the British one. Throughout their resistance campaign, the villagers act for the sake of a sacred leader they will never meet and a sacred land as nation even though most have never traveled outside Kanthapura. The scale of their political will is radically out of line with the scale of their political experience.
Even though Gandhian nationalism poses a challenge to colonialism, it also borrows elements from colonial rule, exerting external control over Kanthapura in a way that ultimately looks similar to colonialism; its power is distant and its demands seem ridiculous to many of the villagers who end up dying in its name. This parallel between Gandhism and colonialism demonstrates that resisting large, oppressive regimes requires political organization on a similarly large scale, which often places the greatest burden on those at the lowest ranks, like the inhabitants of Kanthapura. Like the colonial government, which initially encourages the villagers to oppose Gandhism because they fear being "polluted," Gandhism uses fear to win allegiance—Patel Rangè Gowda, the powerful landholder, fears the disapproval of Gandhi as a spiritual guide; many of the villagers later join the Village Congress that Moorthy sets up because they in turn fear the wrath of Patel Rangè Gowda. Although the townspeople have their own village Congress, which makes them feel that they are participating in this national movement, they they never interact with the national Congress of All India except when they receive its orders from the city—the relationship is thoroughly one-sided. Just as Kanthapura’s residents are nameless peasants and laborers to the colonial state, they become nameless peasants and laborers within the Gandhian movement that never truly acknowledges their sacrifices.
Yet the Gandhian movement would never have succeeded without the cooperation of so many nameless, everyday Indians in small villages, who were imprisoned and killed in the name of a nation whose expansiveness and diversity they could hardly imagine. Rao points to this paradox at the heart of anti colonial nationalism: previously self-sufficient communities who become oppressed by a powerful government can only win their freedom by appealing to another powerful government that operates in many of the same ways as the oppressive one.
The style of Rao’s novel reflects this difficult truth throughout: responding to colonialism requires incorporating and assimilating its elements. Rao decided to write the novel in the colonial language, English, which is equally common (and equally alien) to all Indians. He chose this rather than Kannada, the Kanthapura villagers’ local language, or Hindi, which is now India’s national political language but is only indigenous to part of the country. Indeed, when one character and Congress Committee member in the novel, Sankar, decides to begin speaking Hindi, the rest of the villagers find him ridiculous because nobody for miles around can understand. Practically speaking, writing in English allowed Rao’s novel to be accessible to people across India. It is a novel for the nation, rather than any specific region or group within it. One of his goals was to develop a distinctive Indian voice in English, an anticolonial way of using the colonial language. This is why he aimed to make Achakka’s narration reflect the “tempo of Indian life.”
Gandhist nationalism is both a success and a failure for the inhabitants of Kanthapura: it helps them develop an identity as Indians who fight for freedom from colonial rule, but it also—much like colonialism—exploits them economically, leads them to slaughter, and causes them to lose their village for the sake of an imagined nation whose supposed leaders never acknowledge them and whom they never meet. Rao realizes that nationhood’s promise of freedom is bittersweet, since it entails the consolidation of power and marginalization of poor rural dwellers like Kanthapura’s inhabitants. Clearly, he thinks that the benefits of Gandhi’s independence movement outweighed its costs to Indian people, particularly since they were already suffering so severely under colonialism. However, he has no illusion that nationalism will suddenly make everyone self-governing all at once—indeed, although Gandhi wanted village-level government across the new nation, the events of the book demonstrate that Kanthapura’s village Congress was still controlled by a national body, and in fact Gandhi’s proposal never came about. Rather, Rao points out that a national government necessarily perpetuates many of the colonial government’s evils, and particularly its concentration of power. But it can nevertheless be a distinctly Indian government while still employing the colonizer’s tools, just as Rao creates a distinctly Indian version of the colonial language.
Nationalism and Colonialism ThemeTracker
Nationalism and Colonialism Quotes in Kanthapura
We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or American. Time alone will justify it.
We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous “ats” and “ons” to bother us—we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story-telling. I have tried to follow it myself in this story.
“Free spinning-wheels in the name of the Mahatma!”
“May I ask one thing, Moorthy? How much has one to pay?”
“Nothing, sister. I tell you the Congress gives it free.”
“And why should the Congress give it free?”
“Because millions and millions of yards of foreign cloth come to this country, and everything foreign makes us poor and pollutes us. To wear cloth spun and woven with your own God-given hands is sacred, says the Mahatma. And it gives work to the workless, and work to the lazy. And if you don’t need the cloth, sister—well, you can say, ‘Give it away to the poor,’ and we will give it to the poor. Our country is being bled to death by foreigners. We have to protect our mother.”
Every fellow with Matric or Inter asks, “What dowry do you offer? How far will you finance my studies?—I want to have this degree and that degree.” Degrees. Degrees. Nothing but degrees or this Gandhi vagabondage. When there are boys like Moorthy, who should safely get married and settle down, they begin this Gandhi business.
“There is but one force in life and that is Truth, and there is but one love in life and that is the love of mankind, and there is but one God in life and that is the god of all.”
[Pariah Siddayya] tells you about the dasara havu that is so clever that he got into the Sahib’s drawer and lay there curled up, and how, the other day, when the sahib goes to the bathroom, a lamp in his hand, and opens the drawer to take out some soap, what does he see but our Maharaja, nice and clean and shining with his eyes glittering in the lamplight, and the Sahib, he closes the drawer as calmly as a prince; but by the time he is back with his pistol, our Maharaja has given him the slip. And the Sahib opens towel after towel to greet the Maharaja, but the Maharaja has gone on his nuptial ceremony and he will never be found.
“Brothers, in the name of the Mahatma, let there be peace and love and order. As long as there is a God in Heaven and purity in our hearts evil cannot touch us. We hide nothing. We hurt none. And if these gentlemen want to arrest us, let them. Give yourself up to them. That is the true spirit of the Satyagrahi.”
We are out for action. A cock does not make a morning, nor a single man a revolution, but we’ll build a thousand-pillared temple, a temple more irm than any that hath yet been builded, and each one of you be ye pillars in it, and when the temple is built, stone by stone, and man by man, and the bell hung to the roof and the Eagle-tower shaped and planted, we shall invoke the Mother to reside with us in dream and in life. India then will live in a temple of our making.
The whole world seems a jungle in battle, trees rumbling, lions roaring, jackals wailing, parrots piping, panthers screeching, monkeys jabbering, jeering, chatter-chattering, black monkeys and white monkeys and the long-tailed ones, and the flame of forest angry around us, and if Mother Earth had opened herself and said, “Come in, children,” we should have walked down the steps and the great rock would have closed itself upon us—and yet the sun was frying-hot.
“Satyanarayan Maharaj ki jai!”
“Vandé Mataram! Inquilab Zindabad! Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!”
It is the way of the masters that is wrong. And I have come to realize bit by bit, and bit by bit, when I was in prison, that as long as there will be iron gates and barbed wires round the Skeffington Coffee Estate, and city cars that can roll up the Bebbur Mound, and gas-lights and coolie cars, there will always be pariahs and poverty.