About two weeks ago, the world’s most morally deformed politician anointed a new “father of the nation”. This was the grossest of insults to India – a real-estate-mogul-turned-president of the United States daring to rearrange our national icons. Yet our political establishment and its aggressively noisy cheerleaders, who wear their nationalistic sensitivities on both sleeves, quietly gulped down this disparagement of the Mahatma, the greatest moral voice of the 20th century.
And, horror of horrors, this grotesque man who momentarily occupies the White House was very much visible in the backdrop in Ahmedabad when the prime minister kicked off the 150th birth centenary of the actual ‘father of the nation’.
It would appear that Donald Trump’s rhetorical besmirching was not all that unsynchronised, and this “father of the nation” business is seen, in some quarters, as a licence to explore the possibility of a different kind of canonisation.
If there has to be a new “father of the nation” then the question arises: what are we to do with the old ‘Sabarmati sant’? A strong case will have to be made for banishing Bapu from our national pantheon, to make place for someone else to become our nation’s father. The original ‘father’ will need to be stripped of his high spiritual status.
The Mahatma was the original eyesore for the old Hindu Mahasabha crowd. And the January 30, 1948 assassination has to be seen beyond Nathuram Godse, the man who fired those shots. As we begin a year-long celebration of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, we need to remind ourselves why certain voices and forces were so desperate to physically liquidate this fragile old man. Why did this act of public execution have to be enacted?
There is not much of mystery as to who constituted the dramatis personae. According to M.J. Akbar, a highly respected and valued member of the current ruling establishment: “The RSS kept away from the independence struggle because it had only contempt and hatred for the man leading it: Gandhi.” The quote is from his 1985 book, India: The Siege Within. And, Akbar further tells us, that the “RSS suffered a set-back in 1948: even Sardar Patel could not overlook a crime it had inspired—the assassination of the Mahatma. Home Minister Patel banned the RSS.”
Notwithstanding the current attempts from the very top in the Nagpur establishment to depict the Mahatma as happily at home with the swayamsevaks, contemporary accounts tell a different story. To quote Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India:
“His session that day with the RSS—which has taken in recent decades to mentioning his name in its daily roll call of Hindu heroes—was supposed to be followed by a prayer meeting. But rowdy Hindu hecklers made prayers impossible. “Gandhi murdabad!”—“death to Gandhi” – they cried, after an attempt was made to read verses from the Koran, a standard part of his ecumenical ritual.”
A Gandhi could be killed but the Mahatma survived. Not only did the Mahatma survive but he continues to remind us of the very indispensability of a moral voice in our public affairs. It is this stubborn insistence on kneading ethical considerations into our political thinking and behaviour that our new rulers find so irksome.
Not long ago, an attempt was made to belittle the Mahatma as a “chattur bania”. The idea was to bring him down to the level of amoral practitioners of realpolitik from Gandhinagar. That belittling and “appropriation” has continued apace, but without much success. Something else has to be done to get rid of this troublesome figure.
If he was an eyesore in 1947, the Mahatma remains a bigger irritant 70 years later in our “new India”. After all, here he was on his last birthday, October 2, 1947, admonishing us that he did not look forward to another one. “Ever since I came to India…I have made it my profession to work for communal harmony…Today we seem to have become enemies. We assert that there can never be an honest Muslim. A Muslim always remains a worthless fellow. In such a situation, what place do I have in India and what is the point of my being here.”
These words must be most unpalatable to those who proudly wield the knuckle-duster. Here was a man who, even at the lowest point of his political journey, refused to give in to a brutalisation of our national soul. Yet it is this supreme practitioner of noble politics that we officially seek to remember, with all the familiar razzmatazz, in a manner that event-managers have perfected these last many years.
The farce will continue to grate on our collective nerves. And also on our rulers’ nerve. After all, the Mahatma’s greatest accomplishment was that he did not allow his “enemy” to define him. Instead, he helped the nation rediscover its backbone by invoking the moral force of the multitude. He did not pander to our baser instincts, but lured us away from our violent proclivities, and insisted on a cultivation of a culture of reconciliation and accommodation. The only weapon he had at his command was ethical high-mindedness, and he would not yield to the dehumanising demands of the politics of the street.
How long can such a morally-wired man be revered as ‘father of the nation’ when we are working overtime to build a “new India” and a different India. How can he be deemed to be our guiding force when we no longer care for any ethical scruple? The Mahatma morally uplifted all of us; but, today we are invited to feel petty and vindictive. We are told every night that violence is the only language ‘they’ understand.
Here, then, remains the conundrum. The Mahatma immovably occupies the centre of our national conscience; and, and his continued presence in our imagination is mockingly incongruous with the morals and manners of the impresarios of “New India.” Yet neither can his message be obliterated nor can he be displaced from his saintly perch. His entire life was too noble and too ethical to be even imitated by any pretender. All that the Mahatma would have to say to all these attempts at impersonation is: Hey Ram.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.