Bande mein hain dum, aur rahega
Gandhis idea of India is still alive despite the Modi camps attempts to glorify Nathuram Godse the man who killed him
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely be unhappy on Wednesday, the anniversary of the assassination of 'Mahatma' MK Gandhi, the Father of the Nation - a term first used by 'Netaji' Subhas Chandra Bose on Azad Hind Radio, according to the magnificent second-part biography by Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World 1914-1948 (Penguin Allen Lane, 1,129 pages).
He was killed by Nathuram Godse, a hero to many of Modi's supporters and fellow Hindutvawadis. The two cannot be spoken of in the same breath, much less compared; it would be ignorant and farcical to measure both by the same historical yardstick. Yet, since May 2014, some have tried. Some have even spoken of erecting a statue or two in Godse's honour. Even if Modi is thrown out this May, we are likely to continue hearing such nonsense in the future.
Which is why reading Guha's Gandhi is an imperative. I don't have enough adjectives for this magisterial work. Guha is a Gandhi scholar whose life has been devoted to extensive and deep research: this volume is illuminated not just by past archival material but also by papers that came into the public domain in two instalments (in 2007 and in 2012): Gandhiji's papers that were in the possession of Pyarelal Nayar, elder brother of Dr Sushila Nayar and secretary to the Mahatma after Mahadev Desai's death in 1942. Guha's biography is the first to use this material, and he has more than done justice to it.
Every Indian intellectual needs to come to terms with Gandhi during their lifetime. IMHO, each serious writer must consider Gandhiji at some point, regardless of whether you think him weird for sleeping alongside his grand-niece, or you call him a racist - as Guha points out, Gandhiji had the common racialist views of his era when he arrived in Africa in 1893, but 21 years later when he left (he arrived in India on January 9, 1915, the anniversary of which was observed as Pravasi Diwas till this year, another example of Modi's efforts to undermine Gandhiji), he had radically revised his view to one of empathy and even admiration for the moral courage of black Africans. More than that, many fault him for his quarrel with Dr BR Ambedkar and the latter's efforts against casteism.
Guha puts things in perspective. Gandhiji's experiment with sleeping alongside a young woman was part of his worldview in which his asceticism, his morality and his politics were intertwined. When, during the 1940s, his politics was less effective than its peak - the Dandi march of 1930 - he agonised that the shortcomings in his politics was linked to shortcomings in his abstinence. The experiment was a test of this and it left his close associates horrified. He dropped it.
A more interesting phase in his life was his 'spiritual marriage' to Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's niece, Saraladevi Chaudhurani. She was Lahore-based and they became intimate during his involvement in the Punjab, both following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, as well as his efforts for Hindu-Muslim unity with his ill-fated Khilafat movement in the 1920s (which was overtaken by a movement for Pakistan). Gandhiji almost publicly announced a 'spiritual marriage', but was dissuaded from this historic blunder by 'Rajaji' C Rajagopalachari.
Religious unity failed for the same reason that inter-caste unity failed - trying to take everyone along, he alienated both sides. The upper castes that ran the Congress party machine (Gandhiji was the ultimate authority but maintained a facade of consensus) thought his ideas too radical, while Ambedkar (like the Muslim leadership) found him too conservative. Gandhiji himself waffled by saying the varna system originally served a purpose, though he disapproved of inter-dining and inter-marriage restrictions. That he walked a tightrope is evident even today, in 2019, as casteism still bedevils India.
Yet Gandhiji's political astuteness, his 'conservative' image of being a sanyasi, enabled him to mobilise Indians on a scale never before achieved - and not matched since. With it, he won us our freedom.
Guha's book is important for its top-notch scholarship and also because each generation needs a doorway to Gandhiji as he recedes deeper into memory. This is particularly so at a time when a political agenda exists to rob him of his legacy, by glorification of Godse, a devotee of VD Savarkar (whom Modi publicly worships) and a one-time RSS member.
So why will Modi feel sad on Wednesday? Before the 2014 elections, a friend, now in government, confided to me that Modi's ambition was to be known to history of surpassing even Gandhiji in greatness. Wednesday, though, will be a reminder that he is not even close. Gandhiji might have been physically eradicated, but thanks to scholars like Guha, his struggle remains alive, and his idea of India lives on.
Aditya Sinha is a writer and columnist. His latest book 'India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy', with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to email@example.com
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