How to dissent like the MahatmaAt 150, Gandhi is becoming ever more relevant to India and the world.
Last month in Delhi, I ran into one Goldie Singh, a truck artist and amateur singer, who said he would have killed Gandhi if he were alive today. He said Nathuram Godse had done the right thing by killing Gandhi because it was he who had partitioned India and given a whole new country to Muslims.
By his own admission, Goldie is no right-wing Hindutva zealot. He is an ardent fan of Bhagat Singh. But he sees no contradiction in being a fan of both Godse and Bhagat Singh.
Gandhi would have turned 150 this year. So he couldn’t have been alive today to be killed by a misinformed 25-year old artist even if Godse’s bullets had been spared. But even if he were alive, he would most likely want to commit hara-kiri seeing the country he helped gain independence from the British Raj leaving his path and veering towards Godse’s.
Historiography has more often than not been a communal enterprise in India. But the availability of cheap smartphones and cellular data has taken it to newer heights. History lessons are now delivered every morning in the form of WhatsApp forwards, serving as silver bullets for the communally minded, and as ‘eye-openers’ for the ill-informed. It took many such forwards for an otherwise pacifist Goldie Singh to accept the assassination of the ‘father of the nation’ as a historical necessity. And with thousands of unwitting victims such as Singh acting as cogs in the propaganda machinery, forwarding the WhatsApp ‘history’ snippets to more unwitting audiences, the truth about Gandhi is fast turning into the clichéd needle in a haystack.
The misrepresentation of Gandhi isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. It began right when he was alive when he was branded an Islam apologist and Hinduism baiter for attempting to maintain harmony between the two communities. But the fact is, by 1947, when the end of British colonialism and the partition of India were simultaneously imminent, he had been reduced to a figurehead. The Indian National Movement had been usurped by the communally minded and the power-hungry alike, and he had been shunted out by the Congress Party itself. The horror of the 1946 Calcutta and Bihar riots had led Gandhi to resign to the intransigence of communalists. He had valiantly fought the external enemies but had lost to his bloodlust compatriots.
Gandhi’s last-minute assent to partition was thus a resignation to an ‘unavoidable necessity’ and not an active choice. In fact, even after partition, Gandhi walked barefoot across North India, exhorting fellow Indians—Hindus and Muslims alike—to not take the division of the country to heart and believe in the healing power of time. But this fact has now been lost on the new generation of Indians, with a co-ordinated subterfuge underway to discredit Gandhi’s legacy. So deranged is the new generation that #GodseAmarRahe was a top trend on Twitter on October 2, Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
Gandhi has now been dead for 71 years. But is he still relevant? If he himself had lost the plot in his final days, unable to stop the communal carnage leading up to and following the partition, who will take the responsibility of bringing Gandhi from the dead? With the government erecting formidable infrastructures of surveillance to curb dissent, even branding truth-seekers as anti-nationals and incarcerating them, would Gandhi have survived the political climate of India today?
What with masochistic leaders spewing communal tirade each passing day, cherishing Gandhian ideals—pacifism, non-violence, truth, justice, and harmony—is increasingly been seen as the refuge of the coward. India today is debating the building of a Ram Temple at the fictional ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ in Ayodhya, the site of the desecrated Babri Masjid, a far cry from Gandhi’s utopian Ram-rajya, the building of self-sufficient and self-governing village communities. In the face of the establishment championing a false equivalence between him and Godse, Gandhi would have not only survived but also thrived.
For one, Gandhi thrived in adversities. When he was thrown out of a train to Pretoria despite holding a first-class ticket, he picked himself up, dusted his pants and launched a movement that would change the fate of Indian indentured workers in South Africa. Back in India, his popularity and leverage grew each time the British Raj threw him into a jail. This, because he never faltered from his ideal of non-violence despite the many provocations by his adversaries. Deeply influenced by Rabindranath Tagore’s song Ekla Chalo Re, he knew he would have to walk alone if no one heard his call rather than submit to the temptations of populism or violent retaliation. He knew all too well that satyagraha the art of holding fast onto truth—was the only weapon with which he could defeat the empire.
Gandhi’s image as a ‘mahatma’ has rightly been questioned by his adversaries and acolytes alike, most vociferously by Dalit and Muslim leaders who found his stance on religion and caste hypocritical. But true to the spirit of the argumentative Indian, he cherished criticism, which is evident in his passionate debate with his dissenters MA Jinnah, BR Ambedkar and Ramasamy Periyar apart from his acolytes Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In 1946, when nationalists attempted to make people on the street shout ‘Jai Hind’, he objected saying, ‘In as much as a single person is compelled to shout ‘Jai Hind’ or any popular slogan, a nail is driven into the coffin of Swaraj, in terms of the dumb millions of Indians.’ When Muslims and Dalits are lynched on Indian streets today for purportedly eating beef and not shouting Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Gandhi’s vision cannot be expected to go out of fashion.
The Indian ruling dispensation today, obsessed with mainstreaming right-wing nationalist VD Savarkar—Godse's ideological mentor—is hell-bent on desecrating Gandhi’s image. Doing exactly what Gandhi asked fellow Indians not to do—oppress minorities, penalise dissent, resort to violence, and foster militant nationalism—India has now reduced his image to just a pair of glasses that form the logo of the Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). That certainly is India’s loss. But he was not India’s alone. He was a quintessential humanist who cared for the oppressed people of the world. No wonder that leaders from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr, Vaclav Havel to BP Koirala took a page out of Gandhi’s rulebook to wage movements to emancipate their own people.
Regardless of what India is doing to discredit Gandhi, his politics has become all the more relevant globally in the face of the alternative facts, populism, and nationalism deteriorating the human condition. Notwithstanding the irony that he was put to death not by a foreign adversary but his fellow compatriot whom he helped become a free citizen of India, Gandhi’s ideals are worth championing. A fitting tribute to the greatest dissenter of the 20th century would, therefore, be to keep his indomitable spirit of dissenting, truth-seeking and non-violent resistance alive.
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