MAHATMA Gandhi, whose 154th birth anniversary falls today, holds significant relevance for India and its billion-plus citizens, especially for the younger generation that may have only a hazy idea of what the ‘Father of the Nation’ embodied during his lifetime and the price he paid for his deep convictions, particularly concerning Hindu-Muslim amity. The complex socio-political transformation that India has undergone since the advent of the BJP-led government in 2014 has led to a malicious reinterpretation of the Mahatma, giving rise to a new narrative that frequently contradicts the essence of Gandhian thought and practice.
BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur, who represents a faction of the dominant political ideology, had triggered a controversy by justifying the Mahatma’s assassination. PM Narendra Modi had expressed his displeasure, but there was no firm rejection of what had been said. Thakur recently seemed to again justify Nathuram Godse’s diabolical action by stating in an interview (September 18) to a TV channel in Bhopal that “there must be a reason why Godse killed Gandhi”. She said, “In my opinion, neither Godse nor Gandhiji was wrong. Godse was a deshbhakt (patriot) since the beginning; he only went wrong when he killed Gandhiji. But it is worth giving a thought why he committed such a step.”
This invalid and reprehensible attempt to rationalise a murder and draw an equivalence between Gandhi and his assassin is symptomatic of a deeper revisionist thought process that is gaining adherents in India, leading to intense societal polarisation. This trend is deeply disturbing due to its long-term implications for India’s internal security and merits an objective review.
Gandhiji and his cardinal principles of truth and ahimsa (non-violence), linked with equitable justice and fraternity, were venerated by independent India, even if it was acknowledged remorsefully that these values were a kind of a Holy Grail — elusive and receding, but worth striving for. The idea of a cohesive and tolerant India that was proud of its pedigree and diversity, as envisioned by Gandhi, was symbolised in his favourite hymn: “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram... Ishwar Allah tero naam...”
Alas, it is amply evident that the corrosive seed planted during the 1990 ‘rath yatra’, led by senior BJP leader LK Advani, has borne a deeply divisive fruit in the garb of the canard ‘Hinduism under threat’, which has paid rich electoral dividends. While the NDA led by late Atal Bihari Vajpayee is now deemed to have been relatively moderate and accommodating of ideological dissent, the NDA under the muscular Modi (tipped to be PM for a third term) has with brazen confidence recast the Indian socio-political template. Successfully tapping into an irrational but deeply embedded dislike for fellow citizens from the minority community among a large cross-section of the Hindu majority, the BJP was surprised by the scale of the support it received in 2019 (when the Muslim vote, for instance, was rendered irrelevant) and is perfecting this strategy in the run-up to the 2024 poll.
While there is a rhetorical deference to the Mahatma and his ideals, the non-Hindu demography of India is unsure about its locus in the Indian ecosystem. In some states, it has been dismissively made aware that where there is a perceived or fabricated transgression, the ‘bulldozer option’ can be exercised — sans due process or judicial sanction — by a callous state machinery.
The gradual erasure of the many symbols associated with the Mahatma is gaining momentum and both truth and non-violence are no longer sacrosanct. And this is a larger global phenomenon. The rampant proliferation of fake news as an industry that receives the support of big businesses, on many occasions with the tacit nod of the political leadership, is illustrative.
Does the Mahatma resonate globally? Yes. His influence on US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr and former South African President Nelson Mandela is well known. On Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “Gandhi’s enduring legacy is his continued relevance to our thinking and action on a broad sweep of issues, from protecting the environment to promoting justice, from education to inequality. His teaching remains fresh and thought-provoking, including his emphasis on the importance of facing up to the truth with courage.”
Promoting justice and confronting the truth with courage are the normative basis for equitable democratic governance and individual conduct. This is a universal principle. And as Gandhiji often observed, many of his tenets were ‘as old as the hills’ and he only brought them into focus in the Indian context by rigorously practising what he preached.
Political compulsions and cynical electoral considerations have led to a dilution of the fidelity to the Gandhian mould. If Parliament is the distillation of the aspirations of a billion-plus citizenry, the deplorable and hate-filled abuse hurled at Muslim MP Danish Ali by the BJP’s Ramesh Bidhuri during a special session of Parliament is a case in point. As in the Pragya Thakur case, the BJP’s response has been mild; in what may be interpreted as a ‘reward’, Bidhuri has been assigned pre-election poll responsibility in Tonk district of Rajasthan.
Disparaging Mahatma Gandhi may lead to short-term electoral advantage but this repudiation will irreparably contaminate the Indian body politic, which is being increasingly seduced by falsehood and hatred for the ‘other’ — often the minority constituency of India.
Confronting this ugly truth is the first step. Whether Gandhi and his values are allowed to cleanse the country of growing divisiveness and intolerance, or ‘deshbhakt’ Godse is venerated will define India over the next 10 years or so.
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