Modi's hidden fear of Gandhi
India's prime minister seems to have conveniently repurposed the memory of a leader whose advocacy of inclusivity and non-violence finds no resonance in the country's current governance
The Modi government's increasingly un-Gandhian style of governance is matched by its fervour for Gandhi turning tidal in its intensity, which was on display during his 150th birth anniversary celebrations. At the root of this contradictory behaviour is the Modi government's hidden fears of Gandhi, who must therefore be re-imagined and turned benign.
This strategy is discernible in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's New York Times piece of October 2. In it, he lists three leaders whom Gandhi inspired – Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela. All three are dead. It is as if Gandhi had resonance only in a certain historical context; he must be boxed in the past. Modi quotes Mandela as saying Gandhi's "non-violent resistance inspired anti-colonial and anti-racist movements internationally in our century".
Gandhi, however, opposed the British Indian state not just because it was colonial and racist, but because its principal instrument of commanding the allegiance of people was fear. At a prayer meeting on July 29, 1947, Gandhi explained: "I am not going to suggest to the Maharaja [of Jammu and Kashmir] to accede to India and not to Pakistan. The real sovereign of the State are the people of the State… This is my belief and that is why I became a rebel because the British claimed to be the rulers of India and I refused to recognise them as rulers."
The Modi government's conduct in Kashmir is typical of the imperious, coercive ruler who, in the Gandhian paradigm, must be opposed. Gandhi, obviously, would have been disapproving of armed resistance. However, the government has also incarcerated leaders who have never espoused or engaged in violence against the state. This is because they could discover the Gandhian anti-state spirit and overcome their fear to assert their sovereignty.
It was certainly un-Gandhian of Home Minister Amit Shah to suggest in Kolkata that no religious group other than Muslims has to fear the exercise of preparing the National Register of Citizens. It was a shocking example of the state scaring a social group with threats of discrimination. In the same city, on August 17, 1947, Gandhi was reported as saying: "If a minority in India, minority on the score of its religious profession, was made to feel small on that account, he [Gandhi] could only say that this India was not the India of his dreams. The state was bound to be wholly secular."
It is no surprise that Modi's New York Times piece did not articulate ideas of secularism or religious co-existence, which defined Gandhi and for which he paid with his life. Telling the world about it would have implied Modi tacitly accepting that lynching in the name of the cow violates the Gandhian principle of religious pluralism. On August 20, 1947, Gandhi said, "In India no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter. I have long pledged to serve the cow but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus."
Modi celebrated India testing an anti-satellite weapon with a speech to the nation on March 27. Compare this to what Gandhi said to scientists who wanted to know what their response should be to the government asking them to undertake research in furtherance of war: "Scientists to be worth the name should resist such a state unto death."
It might be an education for Modi, who's perceived to hound rivals, to learn from Gandhi the wisdom of forgetting past hurts. In 1942, Gandhi and his wife Kasturba were imprisoned in Agha Khan Palace, Pune, where the latter fell seriously ill. Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, who was British India's agent in the United States, told the American public that the government wanted to release Kasturba, but she wished to remain with her husband. Gandhi alluded to this incident in a 1947 letter to a senior Home Ministry official: "What poisonous falsehoods he [Bajpai] spread at the time Ba [Kasturba] died! Should we spurn him if he wants to help us now? The loss shall be ours… So we will have to forget our old prejudices and work in unity."
Modi glosses over these compelling aspects of Gandhi's life in his New York Times piece, which ends with a plea: "Let us work shoulder to shoulder to make our world prosperous and free from hate, violence and suffering." Modi invokes this Gandhi abroad as his legacy constitutes India's soft power that can be tapped to promote its interests. He does not at home as Gandhi's morality would indict the Indian state's captains for fomenting hate. So much safer to appropriate Gandhi, reconstitute public memory of him as India's sanitary and environment inspector, and reduce the risk of Hindutva facing popular resistance.
The writer is a journalist
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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