10/10/2017 9:04 AM IST | Updated 10/10/2017 9:04 AM IST

What Did Gandhi Stand For, And How Is His Legacy Faring In Today’s India?


On October 2, the 148th birth anniversary of M.K. Gandhi, millions of Indians awoke to visuals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying homage to him at Rajghat. Gandhi's favourite prayers were played on the radio, and black-and-white documentaries were shown across television channels. However, this saccharine and dutiful homage to the Father of the Nation only hides the stark fact that Gandhi is, in fact, dead to India, to 'official' India.

What did Gandhi stand for and how is his legacy faring in today's India? Above all, the Mahatma believed in the power of dialogue. The situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a blood-red blot on India's soul, embodies the absence of dialogue and epitomises the power (and failure) of brute force. What would Gandhi have thought of pellet guns being used by Indian security forces against unarmed protesters that have ended up blinding hundreds? How many hunger strikes would he have undertaken to end this scourge?

Gandhi used religious symbols to unite India's diverse communities, reading from the Bible, the Koran and the Gita in his prayer meetings. Today, only Hindu religious symbols are used.

Gandhi held that the success of any policy should be measured by whether or not it benefited the poor. On September 17th, Prime Minister Modi celebrated his birthday with the 'gift' of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, aspiring to be the world's largest dam. Originally conceived of to benefit the drought-prone districts of four states, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra, the waters of the dam are now being disproportionately directed towards a few chosen corporates and companies like Coca-Cola and the Tata Nano car. The waters will submerge areas inhabited mostly by tribals, the poorest of Indians. Despite decades of promises of rehabilitation packages to the displaced, the ousted tribals continue to be short-changed.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Gandhi believed that the Press had a particularly critical role to play in a democracy, and he founded and edited several regional and English language publications. In India today, subtle and blatant methods are regularly employed to intimidate critics of the government, from the murder of journalists to the forced resignation of independent editors. Gandhi used religious symbols to unite India's diverse communities, reading from the Bible, the Koran and the Gita in his prayer meetings. Today, only Hindu religious symbols are used in the public sphere, with the express purpose of polarising different communities.

Although it is true that Gandhi was devoutly opposed to cow slaughter, he never accepted that his religion could be forced on non-Hindus in India. He was also keenly aware of Hindus who ate beef, and who traded in cow hides for business. He repeatedly pointed out that India was home to multiple religious communities: Muslims, Parsis, and Christians, with different culinary tastes and traditions. Today's India, with its cow vigilantes roaming the streets day and night is a travesty to everything Gandhi represented.

And yet, Gandhi lives

Gandhi lives in Prime Minister Modi's movement for a clean India, the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, which was inaugurated on his birthday in 2014. Gandhi emphasised the dignity of manual labour and in setting a personal example, the ministers in the Modi government are more interested in photo-ops with brooms than in practising rules of sanitation.

Amit Dave / Reuters

Gandhi lives in the desire of Prime Minister Modi to willfully appropriate one of his signature campaigns to empower the poor: the use of homespun cotton, or Khadi. Earlier this year, a photograph of Modi replaced the classic picture of Gandhi spinning cotton in the 2017 calendar and diary published by the Khadi Village Industries Commission, a body created by parliament in 1956 to promote khadi and associated village industries. The attempt to erase Gandhi's association with something so quintessentially Gandhian signifies that the current Indian government wants to be associated with anything iconic, great or small, even if the comparisons are inept.

Unrelated to government propaganda, however, among millions of Indians, Gandhi lives. In the 1970s, he was the inspiration behind the Chipko movement, when forest-dwellers who were adversely affected by commercial logging tied themselves to trees to protest the depredations of contractors and successfully showed the power of peaceful protest. He has been the inspiration behind the numerous water satyagrahas, peaceful protests by tribals who have stood immersed in the waters of the Narmada to protest increasing the height of the dam that would destroy their homes and livelihoods with little-to-no compensation.

Gandhi lives on in the peaceful march of activists to the homes of victims of cow vigilante violence, even if their caravan of love has met with opposition of the sort that Gandhi, too, encountered in his marches to meet victims of communal violence. And Gandhi lives in the silent but powerful protest of journalists who met on October 2 to speak out against the targeting of journalists across India.

Across the world, Gandhi's ideas of peaceful protest have been put to work and given renewed meaning by African-Americans during the civil rights movement in the United States, by Green Party workers in Germany, protesters during the Arab Spring, student protesters, antiwar activists everywhere, and most recently, by women marchers in the United States.

Gandhi's physical death

The renewed and repeated death of Gandhi in, and by, 'official' India is of a piece with the sanitizing of his life, and indeed, his death. In Battle for Peace (2007), the Gandhian educationist Krishna Kumar wonders why busloads of schoolchildren who visit Rajghat, the official memorial to Gandhi, are never taken to Birla House, the place of his carefully planned assassination at the hands of a Hindu right-wing fanatic, Nathuram Godse (whose name is now being obliterated from school textbooks). Indian and foreign dignitaries also never visit Birla House. Kumar concludes that a 'silent agreement... has shaped India's life since Gandhi's assassination,' and that entails not asking difficult questions such as the reasons behind Gandhi's assassination.

Yet this was not always the case. In the immediate aftermath of Gandhi's assassination, the offices of the Hindu Mahasabha, an organisation to which his assassin Godse owed allegiance, were closed and its papers confiscated (later housed in the manuscripts section of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library). Thousands of workers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), another Hindu right-wing organization, were arrested, and the organisation was banned.

The ban on RSS worked only to a limited extent

A year later, RSS workers were released from prison. They now worked in secret to strengthen the Hindu community, and when they collected donations, they learned not to keep written records. Meanwhile, the Gandhi murder trial commenced, and Godse's fiery and unrepentant defence of his actions reportedly brought tears to the eyes of those in the courtroom. Years later, one of the judges who served the death sentence on Godse, Justice G. D. Khosla, would record that, "had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding Godse's appeal, they would have brought in a verdict of 'not guilty' by an overwhelming majority."

Therein lie the clues to why Gandhi's death has been the subject of such deafening silence. Godse's statement to the court was published posthumously and promptly banned by the Indian government led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. There was to be no discussion; the wounds were too raw, the absence of guilt too unsettling.

As the years passed, many roads were named Mahatma Gandhi Marg, and many more Gandhi statues built across India. But the message of the Mahatma for an inclusive India was neglected, especially as the RSS soon found itself in government, in alliance with so-called secular parties, from 1977-79. The ideological question of "dual membership" (to the RSS and the Janata government) would go on to break India's first non-Congress coalition government. In the politicking and horse-trading of these years, there was simply no place for any sustained examination of the ambivalent place of Godse in India.

In his life and practice of politics, Gandhi embodied dialogue, even if he used the hunger strike to occasionally end negotiations. It is also important to underline that Gandhi's own practice of continuous reflection and self-critique, that led to dramatic reversals of opinion on important questions of Hindu social reform and inter-caste marriage, are in sync with the practice of academics who question several of the myths surrounding his status as Mahatma. As other contemporary Indian figures such as the anti-colonial revolutionary Bhagat Singh and constitutionalist B.R. Ambedkar find their space in the nationalist pantheon, Gandhi as Mahatma continues to resonate among diverse groups of people in India, and around the globe. In contemporary India, it is this quality of dialogue and reflection that is sought to be stifled, with ever-renewed vigour.

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