|The Mahatma that failed?
BEVERLEY NICHOLOS, a trenchant critic of our freedom struggle, had written in 1944 that the incense will continue to drift around Mahatma Gandhi, the halo will be polished brighter and brighter by millions of adorning hands, and when eventually he departs from this world, it is a safe bet that he will be canonised and sit for ever enshrined among the myriad gods of the Hindu pantheon.
Nothing of the kind has happened. Tokenism apart, the nation has failed to pay respect to its chief benefactor. History textbooks that have been `rewritten under the BJP dispensation do not detail his extraordinary role. Nor do they mention his assassination at the hands of a religious fanatic. The HRD Ministry doles out huge sums of money to support and sustain obsolete ideas and institutions, but there is no serious effort to popularise Gandhian studies that would also, in turn, illuminate facets of our nationalist struggle. In short, Gandhi is either despised or wilfully ignored. This neglect, for which all previous Governments are equally responsible, has meant that Gandhi has ceased to appeal to the young, who are blissfully unaware of his role, or to the Congress, the party he galvanised in the 1920s.
There are several ways of forming an opinion of a man. One way is to place oneself in the position of the person one is trying to judge; the other is to weigh up statements of importance made by the person one is judging - statements made when the person, speaking or writing, had every opportunity of himself judging the gravity of the occasion. K.S. Sudarshan, RSS high priest, does neither. While Nathuram Godse, the Mahatmas assassin, is dismissed as a mere `insane person and not as a criminal monster, the RSS chief lists his litany of complaints against Mahatma Gandhi and his political heir, Jawaharlal Nehru. His observations, just a day before January 30, the traditional day of mourning for the `Father of the Nation, must trigger a serious discussion.
In some ways, Mr. Sudarshans position is consistent with his predecessors long-standing hostility towards Gandhi and Nehru. They were anathema because of their stout opposition to Hindutva and the RSS mission to create a Hindu Rashtra. They were protagonists of a unified India, even though they agreed to the countrys Partition, whereas the RSS mobilisation campaigns in the 1940s led, inevitably, to the creation of a `Hindu India and a `Muslim India. Democracy and secularism, though interpreted differently by Gandhi and Nehru, were the cornerstone of their philosophy; the RSS worldview ran contrary to these principles. Economic and social justice was central to the concerns of Gandhi and Nehru, whereas the RSS was wedded to a hierarchical Hindu society. Finally, in the aftermath of Partition, the Hindu right strongly objected to the sledgehammer efforts of the Mahatma and Nehru to change the social fabric of Hindu society, their lenient policy towards Pakistan and their undue tenderness for the minorities.
These factors may have contributed to Gandhis assassination. He had a premonition that it was coming, especially after the January 20, 1948, bomb explosion at his prayer meeting in New Delhi. He told Manubehn: "If I am to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling, God must be in my heart and on my lips. And if anything happens, you are not to shed a single tear." On the morning of the 30th, as Manu was preparing some throat lozenges for the night, Gandhi chided her, "Who knows what is going to happen before nightfall or even whether I shall be alive? If at night I am still alive you can easily prepare some then."
Given the climate of hostility created by Gandhis detractors, particularly in the rank and file of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, assassination was the death that Gandhi expected. Indeed, he believed, as some writers have argued, that death at the hands of an assassin would validate his lifes work. Nirmal Kumar Bose explores this idea in "My Days with Gandhi". This is what he writes: "But that martyrdom which brought his life to a finale which is comparable to the Greek tragedies acted as the touchstone which gave new meaning and new significance to the words which had so long sounded commonplace or strange in our heedless ears... India is blessed because she gave birth to one who became Gandhi, and perhaps, blessed again that, by dealing him the blow of death, we endowed his life with an added radiance which shall enrich the heritage of humankind in all ages to come."
Gandhi, the stormy petrel, was no Prophet. He erred in his judgments in the complicated puzzle of India. Yes, he often made wrong choices. Yes, his ideas on social reforms and economic justice were out of tune with his own party, as also with other political formations that shared his passion for freedom from colonial rule. Yes, his support to the Khilafat cause was based on misplaced assumption, and his views on Hindu-Muslim unity failed to understand the dynamics of the politics of representation. Impatient with constitutionalism, he could not comprehend that the Muslim League movement ultimately derived its appeal and strength by raising the spectre of `Hindu domination in the power structures. Cultural fears and religious anxieties were, in fact, secondary to the ideology of Muslim nationalism.
Yet, Gandhi, or for that matter any individual or a single group, cannot be held responsible for the countrys `vivisection. For one, Gandhi could not single-handedly negotiate an agreement with an obdurate and ill-advised Muslim leadership without incurring the hostility of his Congress colleagues, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. They ensured, as G.B. Pant told Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy, that Gandhi did not yield to M.A. Jinnahs demands. Aided by G.D. Birla, industrialist, their pressure on Gandhi not to negotiate with the Muslim League had increased from the mid-1940s.
Second, we must reckon with Gandhis diminishing influence in the Congress. He became `a spent bullet, and `a back number. No one listened to him, he told a prayer meeting on April 1, 1947. "Where is the Congress today? It is disintegrating. I am crying in the wilderness." When Pyarelal joined Gandhi in December 1947, he found him isolated from the surroundings and from every one of his colleagues.
How, then, could the Mahatma prevent Partition and the catastrophe that followed? What he could do best was to pacify enraged mobs. Never before had a political leader taken so bold an initiative to provide the healing touch not just to the people in Noakhali but to the warring groups across the vast subcontinent as well. And yet, never before did so earnest an effort achieve so little. After Noakhali, Gandhi continued to be caught up in the whirlpool of hatred, anger and violence.
Partition occurred for a variety of reasons, mostly flowing from the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and the ensuing complex but predictable realignment of forces. At the crossroads of polarisation, India became a fertile ground for the idea of a divided India to nurture. Most found, willy-nilly, Partition as a way out of the impasse. Vallabhbhai Patel had said: "Frankly speaking, we all hate it, but at the same time we see no way out of it."
It will take time for the scars of Partition to heal. But the agony this tragic human event caused could be lessened by salvaging the pre-Partition composite traditions that have played such a large part in keeping India united. Existing divisions must not be accentuated by invoking Partition; if anything, one of the lessons we must learn from Partition is to eschew religious mobilisation, and, instead, create spaces for mixed secular symbols to gain roots in our society. Finding scapegoats in history will deepen fissures, and, in the long run, weaken the India that belongs to all of us. A secular state and society are, therefore, the sole guarantors of the nations peace, strength and progress.
To Mr. Sudarshan I can only say that, both as an event and memory, Partition has to be
interpreted and explained afresh in order to remove widely held misconceptions. This is
both a challenge and a necessity, and it is indeed a theme where the historians
craft must be used deftly.
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