Seventy Years Later, Where Do We Look for Gandhi?

Did Gandhi’s death free the nation from the moral constraints that his presence seemed to have imposed on the national conscience?

Would the architecture of the nation have been different, had Gandhi been alive? Credit: Wikimedia

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948. The date this year marks the seventieth anniversary of that traumatic moment. People old enough to remember it speak of it as a moral sin that visited the new nation. A hushed silence descended over the land. We still have not been able to devise a ‘rite of passage’ to free us of the collective guilt of the moment.

Ten years ago to the date, I was part of a fascinating group of scholars from different parts of India who assembled at the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, on January 30, 2008, to interrogate the meaning of that wedge in history.

Jointly hosted by the Ashram and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, the meeting brought together, among others, Ashis Nandy, Mushirul Hasan, Partha Chatterjee, D.L. Sheth, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Rajeev Bhargava, Sudhir Chandra, Thomas Pantham, Ganesh Devy, Sujata Patel, Peter Ronald deSouza and Tridip Suhrud. The deliberations have been compiled into a wonderful volume, Speaking of Gandhi’s Death, edited by Suhrud & deSouza, IIAS and Orient BlackSwan, 2010.

The meeting was organised around two distinct streams of reflection. One was to explore the symbolic meaning of the assassination. Was it a moment of moral orphaning of the nation which, even as it was born, killed the ‘father’ who conceived it? Did the nation, then, slip into a zone of Oedipal guilt and withdraw into a liminal area of self-flagellation and self-hatred? It is an act inviting interpretation.

The other vector of reflection was along the line of exploring the significance of his absence. Did the Mahatma’s death free the nation from the moral constraints that his presence seemed to have imposed on the national conscience? Did his death enable the setting up of a more pragmatic legal-rational state? Would the architecture of the nation have been different, had Gandhiji been alive?

Also read: ‘The Light Has Gone Out of Our Lives’: Nehru’s Words on Gandhi’s Assassination

It is an interesting historic irony that the boundary line of Gandhi’s death almost overlaps the birth of the Indian nation. He was eliminated hardly five months into the new national project. In one sense, this enables us to think freely without being burdened by the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of historical practice. Contemporary counter-factual exercises regarding the course history would have taken had events been different is, more and more, a futile if playfully smart exercise.

Gandhi had himself stated in a prayer meeting in Pune once, “By the grace of God, I have escaped from the jaws of death seven times… I will not die just yet. I aim to live till the age of 125.” Had he lived to that age, it would have been 1994. It is tempting to reflect on what the shape of the nation would have been had Gandhi lived till then? How would he have engaged with an entire range of issues relating to sub-nationality movements, linguistic re-division of states, issues of secularism and communalism, the caste and Dalit question, the continuing exclusion of minorities, the agrarian crisis, compulsory mass education, gender and feminist issues, technology and globalisation, ecological issues including the nuclear question, issues relating to Kashmir and the Northeast and so on.

While all this is fodder for the speculation mills, it hardly contributes anything of reflective value to contemporary understanding. The wonderful British historian E.H. Carr had warned us, in his classic ‘What is History’, against the tendentious nature of speculation in history writing. He called it the ‘Cleopatra’s nose’ syndrome. You know, ‘If Cleopatra’s nose had been longer, the history of the world would have been different’, school of history. It can be a thoroughly pointless exercise indulging in the ‘Had Gandhi been alive’ kind of speculative discourse.

Science believes in entropy. Everything has a birth and a death. In fact, in most of our traditional temple architectures and iconography, anything that is installed, has its moment of ‘death’ inscribed in it. Gandhi too, from the time he was consecrated as ‘Bapu’, had written out his own script of death. He himself knew that he was destined for a violent death. If it was not assassination attempts, he himself was constantly threatening suicide through all his ‘fast-unto-death’ strategies. It was inevitable that he would be sacrificed at the moment of the nation’s liberation. That the new nation would be baptised in his blood.

The point is, Gandhi himself represented a certain repression of dominant political tendencies in the formative phase of the Indian State. The national movement was accompanied by several imaginaries of the nation. By the 1920s, the first OBC Dravidian movement had begun in the South, which would lead on to the demand for a Dravidasthan. The Communist Party had been formed and galvanised into a grand politico-cultural movement by the 1940s. The Dalit movement was galvanising into the demand for a Dalitsthan. The tribal movements were projecting a unified Gondwanaland. The religious majoritarian tendencies were converging around the idea of ‘Hindu Rashtram’. A theocratic Islamic state and a Sikh Khalistan too had been proposed.

All these tendencies were contained by force of the Gandhian idea of ‘swaraj’ and ‘Ram Rajya’. Gandhi’s ideas on all these questions too changed as he was impacted by developments in each of these areas. But as soon as Gandhi died, all of them erupted with a new force. Telangana happened almost immediately. Then followed Constitution making, founding of the DMK and anti-Hindi agitations, the linguistic reorganisation of states, the first elected Communist Ministry in Kerala, atrocities on Dalits and so on. The Hindutva factions went underground and slowly worked their subterranean way upwards in forty years.

The new nation state also launched a particular model of military-industrial development which would impact the agrarian society in significant ways. It would set itself on the path to economic globalisation of a kind that Gandhi would only have been compelled to oppose.

Also read: ‘Reading as a Sadhana: Gandhi’s Experiments With Books

Among the many aphoristic and spiritual sounding mantras that Gandhi devised as tools for national liberation, the most interesting were what he called the ‘Eight ‘A’s’ – ahimsa, abhaya, asprushyatanivaran, aparigraha, asteya, aswada, asmita and anasakti. Every one of these has been violated and abandoned as useless and archaic values in a society looking for a geostationary location on an imperialistic map.

When Gandhi went to London, a journalist asked him why he was adamant about wanting a constitution. “Why do you need an Indian constitution?” he was asked. He responded, we need it to decide for ourselves what we will do with our country; we need the constitution “even if to give ourselves the right to sin”. We, perhaps, took him literally and have been sinning away merrily. It is almost as if we wrenched freedom for ourselves just for that.

Yet, there is a lurking suspicion that the political, economic, cultural alternative the country so desperately needs can come by reconnecting with Gandhian premises which need to be re-radicalised. The myth of Gandhi will continue to interrogate current political discourse. It will remind us of that seed which needs to be implanted into the multiple resistance projects blossoming around us. In that sense, Gandhi is a sarcophagus with a powerful after-image. This sarcophagus might yet be the new talisman of the nation in days to come.

Chennai-based Sadanand Menon explores the charged space linking politics and culture through his work in media, pedagogy and the arts.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Business Standard in 2008.