What are your first thoughts as we enter the 75th year of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom?
I don’t see Mahatma Gandhi’s death as a death. I think he has a new life not only in India and this part of the world, but globally. He is, apart from Lord Buddha, the only other Indian who has a universal presence. Gandhi’s death was planned beautifully not by his killers, but Gandhi himself. He had given up the idea of living for long. Towards the end of his life, he was having nightmares and problems sleeping. As a clinical psychologist, I could identify signs of depression in Gandhi. On the whole, he knew that his death might make a difference to rioting and bloodletting rampant at the time. He looked at his own death as a necessary sacrifice for the kind of India he sensed would emerge and indeed his death did have an impact. It had much more impact than Gandhi himself had in his life.
Exactly as Nathuram Godse’s or VD Savarkar’s vision of India is there in every Indian, it has as its competitor a presence of a deep inner respect for Gandhi. These visions compete. Gandhi and his killer exist as two contesting streams in the personality of every Indian.
Ashis Nandy | Political psychologist
You say ‘Gandhi’s martyrdom had more impact than Gandhi himself had in his life’. Can you elaborate?
As a result of Gandhi’s martyrdom, you see anybody who non-violently resists an authoritarian regime invariably being called “our Gandhi” by people. This happened in Poland when Lech Walesa, a cigar-smoking, vodka-drinking trade union leader, emerged and displaced the mighty Soviet empire. He was called “Our Gandhi”. Likewise, when Czech poet Vaclav Havel emerged, not only others called him Gandhi, he himself said he was inspired by Gandhi. In fact, a permanent fixture in Havel’s office was a bust of Gandhi. Benigno Aquino, a former Philippine senator, was assassinated. There too people called him Gandhi because he was non-violent in trying to overthrow the controversial rule of Ferdinand Marcos.
How has Gandhi’s martyrdom impacted Indian politics?
Gandhi’s hope was that his death would make a difference and lead India. But India has not gone by Gandhi. Gandhi’s presence has terribly diminished in our public life. There is not even anymore the symbolic acceptance of him. There is no doubt that Gandhi is irrelevant to modern India. And yet he is immortal in a sense that those people who do not think much of him, I am pretty sure their following generations, their grandchildren will think otherwise. Because Gandhi in that sense is immortal, his martyrdom is immortal.
Are we living in a Gandhian Republic?
Not at all. My book on the collected works of Gandhi is coming out soon and I have titled it ‘As Gandhi resigns from India’. Gandhi was a brilliant thinker who anticipated many things which we don’t associate with him now. Persons who pursued the Gandhian causes did recognise him but the rest of the public life is more or less distant from him. Gandhi has become a ritual now. Everyone talks about him. People go and give lectures on October 2 and January 30. The more I see this, the more I feel Gandhi is being marginalised.
Yet you say Gandhi is immortal. How do the two thoughts reconcile?
Gandhi is alive, his thoughts are alive. That cannot be killed. Even today researchers continue to revisit his assassination. American author James W Douglass has shown in his book how the police and security forces were complicit in the assassination of Gandhi and how by assassinating him, it was hoped that his message of peace and non-violence would be eliminated. But they failed. The Indian state could have done more to protect Gandhi. Security personnel could have been posted in civil dress. So yes, there was laxity in his security. Though that’s not the important part. I think Gandhi in one sense chose it. He planned it. He kept refusing security.
What about the purpose of Gandhi’s martyrdom since you say he chose it? Does it appear defeated?
In one sense yes, but a thing like that cannot really be defeated. It goes and raises its head somewhere else. Even Gandhi’s style of agitation and movement, for instance the 1942 Quit India Movement template, was followed during Emergency. The 1942 movement was not organised centrally, nor were protests against Emergency. That is part of the Gandhian strategy. That lives. Gandhi is marginalised in Indian public life because people feel in practice it is very difficult to follow Gandhi. But have people who followed the Gandhian thought always failed? I doubt it.
How would you describe the current state of the Indian Republic?
As a very standard model of quick modernisation and development. This is the way the so-called East Asian tigers became economically rich.
Is the Republic now closer to Savarkarite thought?
Of course yes. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is now increasingly the father of the Indian nation and Mahatma Gandhi the stepfather.
But the fact remains that the Jawaharlal Nehru government never challenged Savarkar’s acquittal in the Gandhi assassination conspiracy case.
The proof against Savarkar was insufficient because the main witness could not be found at that time. When the Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission findings came, it was proved but by then it was too late and nothing happened. Another reason was that Sardar Patel, who was very harsh with the RSS and banned it for many years, feared that the government had antagonised the Muslims and now they should not antagonise the Hindus.
Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister issued a postal stamp in Savarkar’s memory after he died in 1966.
Yes, they played soft.
Did Gandhi’s political legatees fail him since communal and caste politics became the order of the day as times went by?
I would not say the Congress was promoting communalism. The Congress also was divided. Nehru himself did not believe wholly in Gandhi and once told Gandhi that ‘your work is much more important than your little books’, like Hind Swaraj. Nehru wanted India to be a western state, distinct from Gandhi’s thought of India. Gandhian vision was different — you start with the poor and in the process build a social welfare state. But Nehru pursued a different model. Nehru was a Fabian socialist.
In fact, Savarkar and RSS’ vision of India was no different than the present-day rulers of India. Even the Congress wanted modernisation. There was a stream in the Congress that wanted to stick to the Gandhian idea of India, there were Gandhian economists, Gandhian art critics, Gandhian philosophers but basically the Congress opted for western style modernisation. The idea that the West has progressed and we have not, that we are backward had gone deep into people.
Is the message inherent in Gandhi's martyrdom relevant today?
Gandhi’s martyrdom cannot be irrelevant. India has always had dissenters. India has never been unified in thought. We want to believe we are unified but we not only survive, we flourish in multiplicity and you can see it even today. The highest vote share the BJP got was 37.4 per cent in 2019. Except Congress’ over 50 per cent votes in 1984, no party has ever got the majority vote. But that has not hampered India’s political style. So yes, riots did multiply after Gandhi’s assassination once politics became competitive. But communal riots were never an all-India feature. Of present-day states, only about 10 ever saw serious communal riots. Likewise, 10 to 12 cities.
If Gandhi had escaped assassination, could he have united Hindus and Muslims, ensured a greater India?
I can’t say a greater India because most people, unlike Gandhi, wanted Partition. They were afraid that the riots would otherwise go on. India had never seen genocide of that order. But as far as cementing people goes, wherever Gandhi went, he succeeded in stopping the riots — in Calcutta where he was on a fast for 73 hours before rioters laid down their weapons; in Noakhali where he only stayed at Muslim houses and there was no report of any protest against him. I think Pakistanis would have accepted him just like the Muslims of Bangladesh did.
Had Gandhi lived, India-Pakistan relations would have been different?
Yes, that is right. In his death, Gandhi healed the raging communal divide of his times. Even Mountbatten called him a one-man boundary force.
How do you see the current interplay of Gandhi’s and Savarkar’s vision of India?
I would say this — exactly as Nathuram Godse’s or VD Savarkar’s vision of India is there in every Indian, it has as its competitor a presence of a deep inner respect for Gandhi. These visions compete. Do not forget that Godse himself participated in Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. I interviewed Madan Lal Pahwa, the youngest member of Gandhi’s assassination team. Pahwa said to me — this (Gandhi’s assassination) was what I did in my youth. I am now a humanist. So Gandhi and his killer exist as two contesting streams in the personality of every Indian.
Who will win in the end?
That depends on the individual. Prasanna Ramaswamy’s play ‘This is My Name’ is important in that context. Each member of the acting team in turn becomes Godse and Gandhi.
How should we remember Gandhi?
I think by displaying a certain kind of commitment against violence of any form and by not glorifying violence as a heroic act. That is the least we can do.
Is it fair to conclude that Gandhi’s martyrdom is no longer central to Indian polity?
That is probably right. But the sense of guilt over his martyrdom is not dead. It has gone private. Let me put it like this — Gandhi’s martyrdom is no longer central to Indian public life but privately, he lives with us. It stays with the person privately and raises its head at some points of time. For example, even Nehru made light of Gandhi’s books not knowing that these would become textbooks for dissenters and practitioners of non-violence all over the world. So, Gandhi lives. When I interviewed Pahwa, he remembered his village in Pakistan and also the mausoleum of Baba Farid. Pahwa even sang some Sufi portions the qawwals of yesteryears used to sing. He said he was now a humanist. If Gandhi’s assassin Pahwa could not forget him, who can? But that said, the public presence of Gandhi has become a ritual.
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