Note: This article was originally published on January 30, 2019 and republished on January 30, 2022.
As is their wont, our new rulers can be relied upon to convert Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary into an event on a staggering scale; but it is important not to be taken in by this grand lip-service.
Rather, it is imperative for every Indian to remember that the greatest Indian of the 20th century was killed in cold blood when he was on his way to his customary evening prayers, and that this saint’s murder was not the handiwork of an isolated mad man but part of a collective enterprise of cold-hearted, brutal and evil men.
Above all, it is necessary to ask the question: what kind of ideology of hate had driven the masterminds behind the assassination? It is important this January 30 for us to try to find an answer to this question, because the ideological heirs of those who had planned Gandhi’s murder have managed to capture the commanding heights of Indian politics.
Of course, the immediate provocation for killing the Mahatma was his principled unwillingness to give in to a hatred of Muslims in the wake of the post-Partition turmoil. His refusal to concede to “the Hindus” a right to “settle score” with “the Muslims” was deeply resented by the proponents of Hindu assertiveness. And these proponents found it infuriatingly unacceptable that the Mahatma should invoke his moral authority to want to call a halt to the butchery at work right in the capital of independent India.
On January 12, 1948, a day before he started his last fast to bring sanity and peace, a very sad Mahatma had observed at the evening prayer congregation:
“I see the Muslims of Delhi being killed before my very eyes. This is done while my own Vallabhbhai is the Home Minister of the Government of India and is responsible for maintaining law and order in the Capital. Vallabhbhai has not only failed to give protection to the Muslims, he light-heartedly dismisses any complaint made on this count. I have no option but to use my last weapon, namely to fast until the situation changes.”
That fast and its moral rebuke were deeply provocative to the Hindu rashtra fringe. Something had to be done about this “turbulent priest”, preaching tolerance and forbearance. And, so a ‘hit’ was ordered. A crime was committed in the name of the Hindu community, though there has never been an answer to the question posed by Rajendra Prasad: “May I ask how Gandhiji’s assassination has saved Hindu religion or Hindu society?”
More than his principled rejection of the Hindu Raj and even more than his single-minded pursuit of a Hindu-Muslim rapport, it was the Mahatma’s propagation of ahimsa (non-violence) as a political instrument that invited the righteous wrath of the Mahasabhites/RSS. For Gandhi’s opponents, violence was not only inevitable but also necessary if “Hindu society” was to rediscover its glorious past.
It was a time, remember, when Europe was passionately enamoured of fascism and its eager embrace of violence as the currency of political mobilisation. In the context of the violent 20th century, Gandhi’s greatest service to India was to wean us away from this fascist allure of violence and coercion. On the other hand, the Hindu rashtra ideologues, as has been argued, were inspired and emboldened by the rampant success the fascists had achieved in Germany and Italy.
It is this infatuation with violence that refuses to fade away, despite more than six decades of a constitutional order in independent India. The argument has been joined vigorously. The Nehruvian consensus is to be dismantled precisely because its preferred mode of political exchange is argument and persuasion. Today we have a ruling clique that is in thrall of violence and its presumed curative influence in the society. New enemies are being invented and these have to be dealt with sternly, violently and coercively.
Today, majoritarian politics is being pushed ahead by a preference for violence in words and deeds. Indeed a strange fascination with violence has seeped into our collective functioning. On social media platforms, in television studios and newspaper columns, the use of intimidation and violence is sought to be rationalised as the inevitable manifestation of social churning. The gau rakshak crowd’s aggression, roughness and murderous impulses are explained away as the much-needed expression of anger and animosities of a long-suppressed “Hindu Samaj.”
An aggressive nationalism has been chiselled out of contrived resentments and deprivations. Almost all sections of society have fallen for a meretricious nationalism, as violence has always lingered on just beneath the surface. It was Gandhi’s eternal accomplishment that he succeeded in rolling back this engagement with violence by inviting Indians to experience the noble and spiritual joys of ahmisa.
And it is this Gandhian accent on ahmisa that the Sangh parivar finds most galling. Instead, violence is applauded as a necessary and unavoidable antidote to the traditional “Hindu cowardice.” The long centuries of domination of “outsiders” have been put down to our inadequate mastery over instruments of violence.
The NRI has perhaps become the most dangerous, if only a long-distance, partner in this infatuation with violence in India. From the safety of their North American perch, the NRIs are only too happy to applaud and finance the politics of resentment back in India; indeed, they are working out their own prejudices and anxieties in an increasingly uncertain global order.
In this age of angry nationalism, the NRI is all too willing to position himself unapologetically as a partisan in the violent clashes unleashed in India in the name of this or that Hindu cause or sentiment. The juggalbandi across the seven seas is being touted as the finest expression of “new India”. In this “new India”, violence and aggression on the part of the majority community is seen as a prerequisite for new energy and new vitality.
So in this year of Gandhi’s 150th anniversary, we will stage elaborate ceremonies, spectacles and events, but there will be no slackening in the war against the Mahatma and his message. After all, his murder cannot be allowed to go in vain.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.