Porbandar: It’s a bit surreal, staying in a small, rather seedy, very dirty little hotel surrounded by members of the Sangh Parivar. Around mid day, the president of India, with Amit Shah, will do the usual – start the honours for commemorating Gandhi Jayanti in Porbandar.
I’m here for the final day of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, brainchild of activist Harsh Mander, to pledge support to victims of lynching and murder all over the country and to send a wake up call to every Indian, saying ‘silence can be taken for complicity’. It’s KeM activist-writer John Dayal’s 70th birthday. He woke up and unwittingly wandered off to a sumptuous breakfast laid out for the BJP workers. Ours was a somewhat simpler plateful of poha in the basement below. We all tease a bemused John about his breakfast with the BJP.
I am surprised at the caterers. With all the ‘Make in India’ talk, these girls, waitressing, mostly from Maharashtra are turned out in western style black pants and suit-like jackets, black high heels. Not even a semblance of ‘look like India’ to serve the Sangh parivar crowd. BJP flags and symbols everywhere.
Dimple Mander says, “Oh no, I’m wearing the wrong colour today.”
I remember Mallika Sarabhai’s beautiful piece, ‘Take back the colour saffron, it’s our heritage, it belongs to all of us.’
I manage to corner Harsh who is hugely in demand all the time for a short interview. The KeM was inspired by Gandhiji’s steadfast decision that love would conquer hate. Gandhiji died for his belief in the idea of India.
To me it’s sad that Gandhiji is today a contested figure, being co-opted by everyone. His radical political and moral content is being emptied out by those who use his name. To me, the BJP and Sangh Parivar trying to make Gandhi their own is like trying to call Martin Luther King, a white supremacist. Because there is no doubt Gandhi died for the idea of India. There is debate about whether the Sangh killed him. But there is no doubt whatsoever that their hatred of all that Gandhi stood for is what killed him. To remember what Gandhi stood for and died for, is as important 70 years after Independence as it was, the day he was murdered.
His tremendous courage and belief that love could conquer, in the last years of his life, is what made it fitting to end the Karwan here today.
Every Indian today, owes everything, the India we have, to Gandhi, to what he lived for, fought for and died for. One million Muslims died violently, since independence. My own family lost everything, lost lives. They fled to Delhi from Rawalpindi. Hindus and Sikhs will say, ‘this is what Muslims did to us’. Muslims will say, ‘this is what Hindus did to us.’ Trains arrived into India with every single person slaughtered. It was a two way traffic. Hindus from the camps in Delhi took over Muslim homes and mosques. Everyone was seething with anger. Gandhi ordered every mosque and Muslim home to be evacuated and returned to the Muslims in camps. ‘You are taking the Muslims’ side?’ angry Hindus screamed. Gandhi was not in Delhi on our first independence day. He went instead to Kolkata where the killing and rioting was frightening. His fast silenced everyone. Calmed everyone. The riots stopped. Legend has it, ordinary housewives refused to light their chulas to cook food for their families. ‘How can we eat, while he starves,’ they protested.
Till that point, The Statesman, Calcutta, referred to him as ‘Mr. Gandhi’. When the rioting stopped, they changed the epithet to the Mahatma. Lord Mountbatten said, ‘What 55,000 armed soldiers could not do to quell the riots in Punjab, one man, single handedly, armed merely with his belief and moral courage achieved.’
Gandhi’s last fast was on January 12, less than three weeks before he was assassinated. Nehru and Sardar Patel, as part of the cabinet, had decided not to send the promised Rs 55 crores to Pakistan. The Pakistani government was financially bankrupt without money to pay salaries to its staff. Gandhi told Patel, you cannot call yourself a sardar and not honour your promise.
His second demand was that Hindus and Sikhs should vacate every mosque and Muslim home and invite them back from the camps. On the third day of his fast, an unprecedented one lakh people, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, everyone, joined together. Politicians who opposed him, like socialists and communists, came to plead. All except a small group of Congresswallahs sympthetic to the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha.
The cabinet relented and sent the promised money to Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs vacated the mosques and Muslim homes and invited the frightened people back.
Gandhi’s moral courage and resolve when Hindu Muslim rage was at its peak, when the murders and rapes of over a million Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had set the country aflame, is a lesson to us all.
People say ‘why are you taking this Karwan to all these Muslim homes?’ I reply, ‘86% of those lynched and killed are Muslim. 8% are Dalit. Of the remaining 6% many murders were not religion based. A permissive, enabling atmosphere prevails where minorities can be targeted with impunity.
Gandhi stood up for Muslims though half a million Hindus and Sikhs died. He had the moral courage to stand up and speak for Muslims. ‘We will not hate’ he repeated. ‘We are not them’.
No one reached out to Muslims in 2002. Our prime minister refuses to speak out. The Congress and communist parties should have taken out this Karwan. They should have undertaken this journey. They have to say we are all equal irrespective of caste, religion or gender. That is why we must end the journey of hate and recall what Gandhi truly stood for. If Gandhi had lived, India would have been a country where Muslims and minorities could have lived with their heads held high. He’d said, if he’d lived post independence, he planned to take a jatha of displaced Hindus and Sikhs back to Pakistan without visas, and cross the border.
Each of us must find the Gandhi within ourselves and have the courage and the conviction to speak up against injustice and hate. We must say ‘hum sab Gandhi hai’.”
Or celebrating Gandhi Jayanti with pomp and splendour is a farce. A contradiction in terms.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is an activist who writes on social issues.