Festivals, Cultural and City Events

Bringing Academic Research to the Book Festival Bookshelf - with Dr Talat Ahmed

Dr Talat Ahmed is a lecturer in South Asian History in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, co-director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. Talat's latest publication, Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience, asks whether Gandhi’s non-violent approach was as successful as we imagine it to be, and examines how useful this might be in repairing rifts today.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Talat will be appearing at two separate, but interlinking events that put academic research on the Book Festival Bookshelf.  Lessons from a Great Soul on August 23 discusses her own recent publication, whereas the University's event South Asia After the Elections: A Year of Controversy on August 26 looks at the implications of the 2018 elections across Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka upon the world’s larger democracy. This second event is part of the Telling New Stories series and will see Talat appear on a panel alongside Meena Kandasamy and Nitasha Kaul. We spoke to Talat about Mohandas Gandhi’s contradicting historical presence, making history accessible and the relevance of her research to contemporary politics.  

Mohandas Gandhi Book Cover
Your new book, Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience, is a critical biography highlighting the contradictions in Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy. Where did your own critical evaluation of Gandhi first stem from?

As an undergraduate I was quite influenced by Richard Attenborough’s iconic 1982 film Gandhi. This path breaking film is still a first resource for many new comers to Gandhi. I was influenced by pacifism in an era of nuclear weapons and the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Gandhi’s message of non-violence seemed to offer an answer to nuclear Armageddon. However, the arrival of cruise missiles to the UK and further global conflict and war seemed to raise questions about the efficacy of a non-violent strategy - this was the also the case in Gandhi’s own lifetime, where debates had raged over a viable strategy to challenge empire. 

2019 marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi. All these years later, why is the discussion of his life and legacy so contradictory in contemporary narratives?

The persistent image of Gandhi is as a saintly figure and therefore a liberal, hagiographical interpretation still dominates narratives around this individual. In some quarters, there is a tendency to hero worship Gandhi and not probe too deeply into his life and politics. On the other hand some Indian Marxist interpretations have tended to dismiss his role in India’s Freedom struggle. My book is an attempt to mine the nuances and myriad contradictions and complexities at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy for social change. He was neither a saint nor a villain. The purpose is to interrogate the campaigns he initiated and examine his role in the light of what actually happened, what worked and what do not - and of course to ask what were the limitations and weaknesses of his method.

Pluto Press is one of the world’s leading radical publishers, identifying as anti-capitalist, internationalist and politically independent. How did this book deal come about?

As a radical publisher, Pluto Press have a series titled Revolutionary Lives and this book is part of that series. They approached me to suggest Gandhi as the subject matter of such a political/historical biography. They wanted a historian of South Asia and I had started to think about Gandhi’s methods and his wider role and legacy for contemporary audiences. I have taught a special subject on Gandhi for 14 years and therefore it coincided with my own research interests as well. Additionally, Pluto Press deliver a Paperback edition simultaneously with the hardback copy and so the books are designed to be accessible to a wider audience as well as academics. This makes their publication more readily available and affordable for a younger and broader readership.

Your own event, ‘Lessons from a Great Soul’, is then followed in the week by your involvement in the panel ‘South Asia After the Election: A Year of Controversy’. Do you prefer discussion of your own historical research or that of contemporary issues or do you find that the two are often inseparable?

As a historian I understand the importance of how the past and present are related. Gandhi’s non-violent Politics are having a resonance with young activists in environmental politics, such as Extinction Rebellion and therefore the book speaks to contemporary and pressing issues of climate change and non-violence as a strategy to arrest this. Current events are obviously important and their impact upon people, governments and wider political issues is immediate, as the conflict over Kashmir demonstrates. But this cannot be understood without an examination of the historical developments of colonial rule in India and subsequent policies by the Indian and Pakistani states. So history and the contemporary are inextricably connected.

What are you hoping that audience members in Edinburgh will take from this discussion?

I hope audiences will take a deeper understanding of the complexities and nuances that affect issues in South Asia as a region. Both the print and social media do not fully explain or explore the contorted and deeper history behind what is happening between the countries of South Asia. Partisan politicians also provide glib, nationalist answers to conflict. Our panel consists of people from the region and those working on the area and as such we aim to provide a historical, multi-faceted and sophisticated discussion of contemporary and past events.

How important do you view involvement in events such as the Book Festival for sharing and prompting debate around your research?

It is a privilege to be asked to speak at the Book Festival. There is so much important work and research carried out by scholars, but much can be overlooked and only made available in the ivory tower of academia. Therefore it is very nice to be able to speak to a broader public about a world historic figure such as Gandhi and my wider research. Like teaching, this is a two-way process, I look forward to hearing the questions and views of members of the audience and therefore learning something myself.

The EIBF attracts authors and public figures from around the world - such as Fatima Bhutto, Arundhati Roy, Richard Evans and Linton Kwesi-Johnson. As an Edinburgh resident it is great to have the opportunity to hear such fine and eloquent speakers. 


For more information about the available events at the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, you can visit their website:
To find out more about Dr Talat Ahmed's teaching and research, you can visit Talat's staff profile: