AS I reflect on the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, I see beyond the ultimate irony of history — the bullets of Nathuram Godse penetrating into his frail body, and the prophet of ahimsa experiencing a violent death at the site of a prayer meeting. In fact, a series of disturbing questions begin to haunt me. Was it inevitable? Was Gandhi’s plea for peace, reconciliation and religious harmony becoming too difficult to bear, particularly at a time when the wound of Partition and the virus of the ‘two-nation theory’ were normalising the language of revenge and violence? Or, was Gandhi’s worldview becoming a source of embarrassment in the life of a new nation that sought to modernise itself quickly with a centralised bureaucratic state and techno-scientific/unilinear doctrine of unlimited growth and progress? In a way, on January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse made things easier for many — not just the brigade of Hindu fanatics, but also all sorts of hyper-modernists who were by no means comfortable with his ‘gentle anarchy’. It was not possible for the new India to continue to carry the burden of conscience that Gandhi — the ultimate dissenter — embodied.
Gandhi wanted us not to be intellectually dull and spiritually impoverished, but to ceaselessly ‘experiment with truth’
After 75 years of Gandhi’s assassination, as I find myself in contemporary India, I ask myself yet another disturbing question. Is there any meaning in invoking the spirit of Gandhi in an age heavily shaped by the twin discourses of reckless neoliberal developmentalism and hyper-nationalism? Well, there is an ‘official’ Gandhi: almost fossilised, a ‘brand’, a statue, a discrete chapter in the history of the freedom movement, or a seminar theme in the university circuit on October 2 and January 30. Otherwise, for all practical purposes, the age we live in has killed the spirit of Gandhi. In some way or other, we assassinate Gandhi every day.
Think of the three central components of the Gandhian spirit that the politico-economic and cultural system we have normalised annihilates with absolute ease. First, Gandhi celebrated the principle of what I would regard as humane, sustainable, ecologically sensitive and ethically enriched modernity. It was not a carbon copy of a typical Eurocentric ‘Enlightenment’ modernity characterised by Baconian science, Cartesian rationality, and instrumental orientation to nature. Instead, Gandhi, as his ‘Hind Swaraj’ indicates, was pleading for a largely decentralised ecosystem based on organic needs rather than the principle of unlimited greed that modern industrial capitalism generates. And this alternative modernity, Gandhi felt, would require the nurturing and cultivation of a relational and harmonic self — not a restless, atomised, greedy consumer or a conqueror. In fact, Gandhi’s agenda of decolonisation was integrally related to this civilisational vision. Second, unlike modern rational secularists and simultaneously orthodox religious fundamentalists or zealots, Gandhi embodied the spirit of engaged spirituality. For him, his sadhana or spiritual quest was not just for his own salvation; instead, it was for nurturing the spirit of immense courage in ahimsa and austerity; and it was for empathy, dialogue and communication. No wonder, Gandhi’s engagement with the ‘Bhagavadagita’ was not in conflict with his fascination with the ‘Sermon on the Mount’; never did his ‘Sanatan dharma’ alienate Muslims or any other religious community; his site of sadhana was not a solitary mountain or a forest; and his temple/mosque/church was the site of social movement for love and peace amid the all-pervading violence — say, Noakhali in 1946, or Calcutta in 1947. And third, Gandhi practised and passionately pleaded for a new practice of art of resistance against evil forces or the ideology of oppression and domination. The art of satyagraha or non-violence, he never tired of saying, would require immense courage, patience and moral conviction to free ourselves from the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence.
It was not just Godse; possibly, most of us failed to understand or internalise the spirit of Gandhi. There are moments when I feel that we used him in the freedom struggle, but never did we embrace him honestly and wholeheartedly. We laughed at his utopia; we saw him as just a dreamer; or we wanted to throw him into the dustbin of history because we thought that Gandhi was not in tune with the mood of our times — massive industrialisation, market-driven consumerism and an aura of militarism. And particularly, in contemporary India, militant Hindu nationalists would never feel comfortable with Gandhi’s religiosity (the age is full of Pragya Singh Thakurs); and the techno-managerial corporate elite would see the Gandhian notion of economy, environment and sustainability as a hindrance to the unstoppable invasion of ‘growth’ — more ‘smart cities’, more special economic zones, more deforestation, more expressways, more consumption. This is the time of hyper-masculine aggression. Yes, a bit of Godse, I have no hesitation in saying, exists in many of us.
These are difficult times characterised by war, militarism, authoritarianism, militant nationalism, gross inequality, seductive consumerism and the risk of massive environmental disaster. It is tempting to be a pessimist, or, for that matter, a conformist. I know, on January 30, 2023 — 75 years after Gandhi’s assassination — I will ask myself an existential question. Do I accept what the mood of our times indicates — the inevitability or even desirability of Gandhi’s ‘irrelevance’? Do I exist as a passive spectator of this destruction of the politico-spiritual will to create a better world? Or, do I invoke the Gandhian spirit of civil disobedience, and assert that the present era of techno-capitalism and militant nationalism is filled with evil forces, or what Sigmund Freud would have characterised as the ‘Thanatos’ (death wish or destructiveness), and our collective redemption lies in an alternative and life-affirming civilisational project?
I think that in my own way, I will prefer to opt for the second option. And hence, I cannot escape Gandhi, even though I admit that he, like all mortals, was not perfect. After all, Gandhi wanted us not to be intellectually dull and spiritually impoverished, but to ceaselessly ‘experiment with truth’.
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