Is the Hindu Right’s Appropriation of Gandhi Possible?

If those who completely discredited the ethical considerations of Gandhi’s battle can get away with appropriating him, a host of issues will come under severe question.

Do be my enemyfor friendship’s sake
~ William Blake, On Friends and Foes

Last weekend, Prajna Pravah, the intellectual body of the RSS, held a two-day meeting at the Tagore Hall at Gandhi Darshan. The place is adjacent to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial, set in black marble, at Raj Ghat. He was cremated there on January 31, 1948, a day after he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. Inscribed around the memorial is Gandhi’s favourite song, the ‘Ram Dhun’, “raghupati rāghav rājārām / patit pāvan sītārām”. The song has an interesting genealogy. Said to be originally written by the 17th-century Vaishnava poet Shri Lakshmanacharya, the version sung by Gandhi was, however, different. The culturally significant interpolation in the song is the couplet, “īśvar allāh tero nām / sab ko sanmati de bhagavān.” Set to music by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, no one knows about the author of this improvised version. The double invocation “īśvar allāh” holds our attention, where two names of the divine, in Sanskrit and Arabic, appear side by side. It was appropriate for Gandhi, whose devotional language being Hindu, was constantly looking to include the Muslim. Sharing the names of god was to share a sentiment, an acknowledgement of a simple historical fact: if two communities can be neighbours, so can be their gods. The line “īśvar allāh tero nām”, inviting speculation regarding the mysterious anonymity of its author, echoes a neighbourhood of shared names and beliefs, a neighbourhood more ancient than the idea of a nation.

On January 1, 1940, Gandhi wrote in Harijan: “My belief is unshaken that without communal unity, Swaraj cannot be attained without non-violence. But unity cannot be reached without justice between communities. Muslim or any other friendship cannot be bought with bribery. Bribery would itself mean cowardice, and therefore violence … I can disarm suspicion only by being generous. Justice without generosity may easily be Shylock’s justice.” It is an extraordinary passage that throws light on Gandhi’s ethical concerns, where he espoused an attitude of generosity that alone, he thought, would make the desire for justice meaningful. Justice here needs to be understood in political terms, as political justice. That makes the moving force behind generosity political as much as ethical. We know Gandhi was willing to hear Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s demands and find a way to convince both the Quaid-e-Azam and the Congress to reach an understanding about sharing power. His attempt should be read in context to the above statement, where he rules out buying unity at all costs using cheap means. Gandhi’s failure to negotiate between Jinnah and the Congress may be read purely as a political failure, but it can also be read, in keeping with Gandhi’s own intentions, as a failure of ethics in politics. In other words, Gandhi’s failure can be read as the limitation of ethical sensibilities like generosity in playing a decisive part in the politics of negotiation. Gandhi considers the question of justice through generosity not in any paternalistic sense, but as a condition of unity. He was earnestly placing the question of generosity against an atmosphere tainted with suspicion.

There is need to pause on the question of “friendship”. In Gandhi’s understanding, a host of qualities considered unethical or unmoral – namely bribery, cowardice, violence – are necessary to be rid of, if one has to make a gesture of friendship. But bribery and violence are part of the political, though they don’t belong to an idea of ethics that exceeds politics. So is Gandhi looking for friendship in politics, between Hindus and Muslims, by demanding gestures that lie beyond – or is in excess of – politics? Generosity is an ethical demand at the heart of politics. So is justice. Gandhi holds justice contingent upon generosity. But justice is related to law, and something as precise as law, even though its reception may be imprecise and immense. Generosity is immeasurable and because of this, its relation to law is unaccountable. What kind of justice does generosity bring? Is it infinite justice? Justice beyond (the) calculations (of history)? Justice that is unaccountable by law? Is such a justice possible in politics, within the Bismarckian idea of politics as “the art of the possible”? If justice from generosity is incalculable, isn’t it also impossible in politics? In The Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida wrote: “The friendship of a justice that transcends right [le droit], the law [la loi] of friendship above laws – is this acceptable? Acceptable in the name of what, precisely? In the name of politics? Ethics? Law? Or in the name of a sacred friendship which would no longer answer to any other agency than itself?” From Gandhi’s demands and Derrida’s questions, we may conclude the question of justice between Hindus and Muslims can perhaps only be posed in its own name, a name that stands for another justice, where generosity overwhelms both history and law (and the law of history). Perhaps justice, in the Gandhian sense, lies in the sentiment behind that real yet interrupted neighbourhood, where “īśvar allāh” is chanted side-by-side.

Even way back in 1909, in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote, “There is mutual distrust between the two communities. The Mahomedans, therefore, ask for certain concessions from Lord Morley. Why should the Hindus oppose this? If the Hindus desisted, the English would notice it, the Mahomedans would gradually begin to trust the Hindus, and brotherliness would be the outcome. We should be ashamed to take our quarrels to the English. Everyone can find out for himself that the Hindus can lose nothing by desisting. That man who has inspired confidence in another has never lost anything in this world.” Clearly, the situation hadn’t changed between 1909 and 1940. Lack of trust and rampant suspicion was the order of Hindu-Muslim politics. Even in 1909, Gandhi was telling Hindus to rid themselves of pettiness and not look at certain Muslim demands as detrimental to Hindu aspirations. Gandhi was persuading Hindus to desist from a competitive mindset and making the point that competition in the political realm is the chief cause of rivalry and animosity. The act of non-opposition, Gandhi felt, would go a long way to inspire trust and confidence in the other community, from where a relationship of trust could be imagined.

Godse made no bones about the fact that he stood against all of Gandhi’s considerations. From the available text on Godse’s statement where he gives reasons for killing Gandhi, two instances are of importance here. Godse gave a plain reason why Gandhi was intolerable: “All his experiments were at the expense of the Hindus.” For Godse, Gandhi’s satyagraha did not mean anything except a question of calculability, of communal profit and loss. At one place he said, “The accumulating provocation of thirty-two years, culminating in his last pro-Muslim fast, at last goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhi should be brought to an end immediately.” It is precisely Gandhi’s acts of generosity and sense of justice for Muslims that provoked Godse’s ire. Gandhi betrayed, in the eyes of Godse, a sensibility that was opposed to the demands of a certain history (and not ethics). Godse further drives home his logic when he said, “I bear no ill will towards anyone individually but I do say that I had no respect for the present government owing to their policy which was unfairly favourable towards the Muslims. But at the same time, I could clearly see that the policy was entirely due to the presence of Gandhi.” Once again, Godse repeats his abhorrence towards what Gandhi would consider acts of generosity and the desire for justice. Generosity towards Muslims is “unfair”, to what? To history of course, the kind of history Godse believed in, where the idea of nation overtakes and destroys the idea of neighbourhood.

The RSS denied that Godse was part of their organisation in 1948, during the time of the murder. Members of the Godse family have insisted that Nathuram was a swayamsevak for life since he joined the organisation in 1932. The point however is beyond this technical detail, though the denial by RSS and insistence on the part of the Godse family does suggest a matter of fraternal (and legal) unease. Whether Godse was a member of the RSS or not, his views on Hindu rashtra, his complete rejection of Gandhi’s gestures towards Muslims and his own antipathy towards Muslims and their history, makes him an ideological flagbearer of the Hindu Right. What is crucial is Godse’s antipathy towards Gandhi’s gesture of infinite justice against the finitude of historical violence. It is this finitude that turns the possibilities of friendship into historical enmity. Godse is a symbol, not of an organisation or his relationship with it, but of a thought body that finds its violent solace in history. Gandhi did not regard this historicity of history, as he wrote in Hind Swaraj: “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” It is also an interruption of the neighbourhood. The idea of neighbourhood was part of Gandhi’s social imaginary: “I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbours.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Gandhi's granddaughter, Ela Gandhi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Gandhi’s granddaughter, Ela Gandhi. Credit: PTI

There is however a problem that arises from Gandhi’s reading of The Gita in relation to the epic story it was later made a part of. “The Mahabharata”, Gandhi understood, “was not composed with the aim of describing a battle. The description of the battle serves only as a pretext.” Pretext for what? A pretext, Gandhi believed, to impart a moral lesson from “the eternal duel between forces of evil and good.” The Gita as a later interpolation where a certain idea of detachment in the face of violence and a radical critique of reality may be read allegorically. But to treat the Mahabharata as a pretext is rather farfetched, for it denies the presence of real, historical violence. If violence is to be understood as a fictional or hallucinatory “interruption” in the history of what Gandhi called “soul-force”, the real is being declared unreal. The Hindu Right’s appropriation of Gandhi from a Gandhian perspective may then be interpreted merely in allegorical rather than concrete political terms. Gandhi’s ethical struggle to establish nonviolence at the heart of history comes from the political context of colonialism, Hindu-Muslim rivalry and untouchability. If historical violence as these did not exist, Gandhi’s call for nonviolence would be unnecessary. Godse did not shoot at a spectre, but someone real.

If those who completely discredited the ethical considerations of Gandhi’s battle can get away with appropriating him, a host of issues will come under severe question: Can the law of violence appropriate a law against it, and a figure who tried to establish its critique? Can historical violence be denied its reality by merely advocating the principle of self-detachment? Can a pretext be an excuse to obfuscate the tragic violence of the text? Can The Gita absolve the Mahabharata? Can The Gita’s idea of self-detachment be abstracted from what Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called, its “caste law”? A critique of Gandhi’s reading of The Gita as well as the epic it belongs to will inform us as much in our critique of the Hindu Right’s attempts to appropriate him. It is not merely rescuing the figure of Gandhi that is at stake in this critique, but to also place in a larger historical sense, the politics of friendship apart from the politics of enmity. Blake’s line illuminates the reversibility of the enemy also being a friend, and the friend also being the enemy, in life as much as history. The violence of the Right is to precisely deny this reversibility and justify the violence between friends and enemies.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.