Mahatma Gandhi at a prayer meeting in Mumbai, 1944 (Photo: Alamy)
JANUARY 30. THE 75th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Our republic will also be 75 next year, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) 100. A couple of years ago in 2022, we participated in a government-driven nationwide campaign to mark the 75th anniversary of our Independence as Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. That same year was also the sesquicentennial of Sri Aurobindo and the 125th birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose. Earlier, we celebrated both the 150th of Swami Vivekananda in 2013 and, less enthusiastically, the 150th of Gandhi in 2019, and the 100th of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in 2019. We have also been reminded that this year marks the 200th of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj.
But to the anniversary inclined, the 75th murder-martyrdom of the Mahatma may not be as convenient to commemorate. It may, instead, be allowed to pass unobserved except for the usual prayers at the place where he was felled by Nathuram Godse’s bullets. Known then simply as the Birla House, this 12-bedroom colonial bungalow was subsequently converted to a national shrine, the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan.
In my book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, first published in 2014 as part of the Routledge Hindu Studies Series, I argued that the deliberate and planned execution of the “father of the nation” remains an unhealing wound on the nation’s psyche. As does the Partition of India, which Gandhi tried so hard to prevent. These are the twin traumas that mark our nation’s troublesome and blood-soaked birth. My book has survived one of the most transformative decades in the history of our young nation. In fact, its Hindi edition, by no means an easy translation, is just out.
But the persistence of the Mahatma as, indeed, of my own humble attempts to understand him, have brought us no closer to laying his soul to rest. As Sarojini Naidu, in her All India Radio broadcast on February 1, 1948, famously exhorted the just-deceased dear departed Mahatma, “My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest. Keep us to our pledge. Give us strength to fulfil our promise, your heirs, your descendants, your stewards, the guardians of your dreams, the fulfillers of India’s destiny.” True. The problematic and puzzle of Gandhi’s death eludes us. We still have no closure.
There is still the unfinished business of Partition. And behind it is the unresolved conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Despite Partition, engineered primarily by Muslim separatism, Gandhi did not give up his dream of Hindu-Muslim unity. He continued to offer, in a manner of speaking, the other cheek. He not only believed that Partition was reversible but also that Hindus and Muslims were not two nations, but part of the same Indian family. He continued to proclaim that differing religions, being branches of the same tree of faith, could and should not divide us. Ram and Rahim were not antithetical. In fact, he was so bold as to add his own radical line to the age-old Ram Dhun. To ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patit Pawan Sita Ram,’ he superimposed “Iswhwar Allah Tero Naam, Sabko Sanmati De Bhagawan (Ishwar and Allah are your names; may the Divine bring harmony and concord to us all).”
Today, with Hindu religious nationalism not only ascendant but evidently triumphant, what is the nation to do with Gandhi? Or, in keeping with my book’s thrust, what does Gandhi’s afterlife offer to our times? Because a Mahatma is s/he whose afterlife is greater than their life.
Godse killed Gandhi. Has Hindutva eclipsed if not eviscerated everything that Gandhi stood for? Has political Hinduism in its aggressive and expansionist avatar set aside one of the cardinal tenets of our civilisation, ahimsa paramo dharma (non-injury is the highest virtue)? Are we, instead, happily and overtly militant and militaristic in all the public and private manifestations of our faith? Are the Ashokan lions on our national emblem really snarling, menacingly baring their fangs, instead of holding their strength with closed mouths suggestive of quiet composure? Is Modi’s Ram, just consecrated if not coronated in his grand new citadel in Ayodhya Dham, different from Gandhi’s Ram? Which Ram will we worship? Modi’s Ram or Gandhi’s Ram?
These are by no means easy questions to tackle. Moreover, when it comes to difficult questions, these are difficult times. We have so rapidly moved from a criticism-surplus to a criticism-deficient society. Criticism is the cornerstone of modernity. Without criticism no improvement, no progress is possible. Today, even constructive criticism is not appreciated. Rather, it is viewed with suspicion. Social media is heavily patrolled by the narrative police who move quickly to cancel or condemn any deviation let alone dissent. But despite all these changes, an intellectual’s dharma remains unchanged: speak truth to power. For what is Sanatana Dharma without truth? It would not be dharma at all but anritam, the absence of righteousness.
Remembering Gandhi would imply adhering to cleanliness, rooting out corruption, and maintaining the highest standards of probity and ethics
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So here it is—both the good news and the bad. Let us start with the latter first. The Hindu-Muslim problem is far from resolved. Hinduism as a dominant political force or the enshrining of Hindutva as our national ideology, which we are still quite a distance from executing, is not likely to overcome this historic challenge. Not just in India, but in the subcontinent. How are Hindus and Muslims to coexist, let alone cooperate? We still do not have a clear plan to address this dilemma.
Gandhi has been accused of weakening Hindus and Hinduism and favouring Muslims and Islam. Actually, he believed that violence destroys not only the victim but also the perpetrator. He wanted Hindus to be strong, but not through violence. He certainly did not want Muslims to be aggressive or belligerent. He wanted Islam also to be liberal, plural, tolerant, accommodative, and yes, nonviolent. It is totally incorrect to proclaim, as some of his bitterest critics are wont to by quoting snippets out of context, that Gandhi endorsed a violent Islam but insisted on a non-violent Hinduism.
Taking a leaf from Gandhi’s book, softer, culturally aligned Indian Muslims would be very helpful to national reconciliation. They would pave the path to subcontinental unity. In our larger neighbourhood, too, there is little doubt that the retreat of Islamist radicalism and jihadism has contributed to peace and prosperity. The Hindu-Muslim problem is not intractable. But Muslims, more than Hindus, need to follow the Gandhian path of truth to harmony. That is the good news.
What about Hindutva and Hind Swaraj? Are they incommensurable and incompatible opposites? Or part of the unfolding dialectic of an evolving Hindu polity and Hindu samaj? I want to take the risk of stating that Gandhi and Godse are not impossible to reconcile. Not only theologically, but even politically. Because just as Hinduism accepts, even endorses, the ultimacy of non-violence, it does not reject the expediency, even necessity, of violence. Both Gandhi and Godse swore by the Gita, however different their interpretations. This does not mean that both are equally valid. On the contrary. On the 75th anniversary of Gandhi’s self-scripted balidaan or sacrifice, we can unequivocally assert that as far as Hindu India is concerned, Gandhi is the norm, Godse the aberration. Both are not on par.
Many Congressmen and women, as I have shown in my book, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, our first prime minister and home minister respectively, disagreed with Gandhi. But they did not have the courage or stomach to oppose and overrule him openly. Except when it came to the Partition resolution of August 1946. Gandhi walked out of that meeting thus officially abdicating his role as the guide and mentor, if not “virtual dictator”, of Congress.
Today, Gandhi is abused left, right, and centre, but when G20 leaders come visiting, the only precinct where they all bow their heads is the Gandhi Samadhi at Raj Ghat. But Gandhi cannot be reduced to a spectacle, even on such spectacular occasions. His metonymic substitution by a pair of spectacles, akin to the lotus feet or dharma chakra for the full figure of the Buddha, will only challenge us to see more clearly and be more truthful in both our public and private lives.
Hindus and Muslims need Gandhi. Akhand Bharat needs Gandhi. Hindutva needs Gandhi. Unapologetic Hinduism also needs Gandhi.
Remembering the Mahatma on January 30 means trying to put back his dismembered body in the hearts and minds of the nation and its denizens. By reinstating truth and, yes, non-injury in our public life. Without compromising our strength and security when it comes to our local and global interests. Remembering Gandhi would also imply adhering to cleanliness, rooting out corruption, and maintaining the highest standards of probity and ethics, whether in the three arms of the government or in business, media, or other walks of life.
Who in the Hindutva camp would reject such a Mahatma? Who would deny that such enduring Gandhian values are essential to Ram Rajya, which is another name for Swaraj?