This year on January 30 will be exactly 75 years to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of those against his message of non-violence and fierce defence of a syncretic India. In a series of articles and videos, The Wire takes stock of Gandhi’s murder, and delves deeper into the forces and ideas behind independent India’s first act of terror. Recent years have seen another attempt to kill Gandhi, his ideas, spirit and message. We hope to help unpack where India stands today and its future, through the lense of how the Father of the Nation’s legacy is being treated.
For many years now, I have shown Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi to high school audiences (as have a great many history and political science teachers down through the years). I show this movie to young teenagers as part of the ‘life skills’ workshops I do with them and use it to underscore virtues like courage, humility, forgiveness and non-violence. It helps students who have little or no idea about Gandhi to see him as an actual person who shaped the course of history through the choices he made, and not just as a photo on a wall or a chapter in a textbook.
Young people born after the turn of the century, I have noticed, have little or no idea about the man or his life, and the movie helps them to appreciate the reality of India’s freedom struggle. It also serves as a good starting point for a longer conversation about the importance of satya and ahimsa in a society that seems to value both less and less.
The response from the students has usually been one of awe. Many of them have not seen the movie before and most are genuinely moved by it.
Students in particular resonate with scenes that show Gandhi’s bravery, such as the time he calmly faces down a group of young bullies while walking down a street with Charlie Andrews in South Africa, or his quiet courage while standing in front of British policemen and judges, or indeed, murderous and bloodthirsty mobs in post-partition Calcutta.
I pause the movie at various points during the screening and ask them questions like, “How would you feel if you were thrown out of a first-class train compartment because of the colour of your skin? What would you have done as a result?” Or “Was Gandhi right to suspend the freedom struggle after the violence at Chauri Chaura that took the lives of Indian policemen?” etc.
In 2022, however, I started noticing a disturbing new trend. Audiences as young as 13 years of age started to laugh out loud during the depiction of Gandhi’s assassination! Every time this has happened, I have stopped the movie and asked why they laughed. Invariably, the audience has looked a little bewildered, and been unable to come up with a satisfying answer.
I recall when my schoolmates and I were taken by our school to see the movie in a hall in 1983. I was 14 at the time but remember the assassination scene at the beginning of the movie well. There was a collective gasp in the hall as Godse pumped three bullets into the Mahatma at close range. No one laughed. We all watched the funeral procession that followed very, very quietly.
Not so many of the current generation of teenagers.
Having discussed this disturbing and ghoulish response with a number of teachers, parents, psychologists, and teenagers themselves, I came up some hypotheses as to why this might be happening:
1. Teenagers tend to laugh during awkward moments, especially when having to process an unexpected emotion as a group.
2. When one person in a class laughs, the rest normally tend to follow suit.
3. During the two-year Covid lockdown, pre-teens ended up playing way more computer games than they should have, some of them quite violent. They also ended up watching too much TV, and now as a result, possibly don’t differentiate between virtual murder and an actual killing and, hence think it is funny to see someone shot down in cold blood without realising its implications. (In video games, blood is simply a splash of red on the screen.)
4. The over-exposure to screen time and lack of actual physical interaction with teachers and peers at a crucial point in their lives has also stunted their socio-emotional growth, and has, in many ways, deadened their natural empathy, and warped their normal responses to human pain, suffering, and death.
5. Teenagers are natural barometers. They pick up what is happening around them in society at large and mirror it.
Recently, at the request of a school in a large metropolitan city, I showed Gandhi to a few hundred students of Class 9. This school is, in fact, very concerned about the erosion of secular values in society and takes pains to sensitise its students to the problems of those less fortunate.
The reaction of the students to the assassination scene, however, left me stunned! Not only did they laugh, they also clapped, cheered and whistled. The laughter continued well into the funeral scene that followed.
To my deep consternation, some kids clapped again during the replay of the assassination at the end of the movie, although this time around, thankfully they were much less in number and were quickly “shush-ed” by the rest.
That evening, I received a mail from one of the students thanking me for showing the movie. He also apologised for his classmates’ behaviour and made it a point to tell me he was not one of those who had clapped.
I decided to write all the students who had watched the movie that day a mail, and asked them:
Would you mind telling me why so many of you clapped and cheered when Gandhi was murdered in the first scene of the movie? As you know, this movie is based on actual events, not fiction. What exactly was so funny about an old man being shot at point-blank range?
I believe that there is always a reason why we do what we do, and so I would like to request you to please take a few minutes to think about why you all clapped and cheered when Gandhi was killed.
I am not coming from a place of anger, but from one of bewilderment and sadness. Because I don’t think you would laugh and clap if someone actually got shot and killed in front of you, would you? Or would you?
Then next day I received close to a hundred responses. The vast majority of students apologised profusely for their peers’ behaviour. They genuinely felt bad for what had happened, and most said they were not amongst those who had cheered the murder. Many of them went on to say how much they had learned from the movie. One or two said they had just gotten swept along with the cheering and were now regretting it.
But a handful of students said that they felt absolutely no remorse in cheering Gandhi’s death, and that he deserved to be killed! Their reasons were based on a litany of half-truths taken out of context, and blatant lies that have been debunked time and again by genuine scholars of Gandhi and Indian history.
What these young people had clearly overlooked in their glee was that, whatever their gripes against Gandhi may have been, they had, in fact, cheered for violence and murder!
As one of the other students who did not condone the applause asked in consternation, “Sure you can disagree with Gandhi, but applauding and cheering his murder? How does that make you different from those who killed him?”
Children and teenagers are often the ‘canary in the mine’. Being the most vulnerable and impressionable, they are often the first to reflect a deep shift in society. When 14 year olds start openly applauding murder, it is time to ask ourselves, is this the India we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in?
And though the incident was deeply disturbing, the reaction of many other students was heartening. It showed there are many who still haven’t been corrupted or polluted by the ecosystem of hate being built around us daily. It also showed there are still many schools and educators who are striving to be true to the spirit of the Constitution.
And while schools – the conscientious ones – can and do play a major role in helping children grow up to become good citizens, the onus ultimately lies on the parents to have regular and meaningful conversations with their kids and model the values and behaviours that will help their children grow up to become rational and compassionate human beings.