India against Gandhi — a legacy rewritten
Born in 1958, a decade after Gandhi’s death, I grew up in an atmosphere of veneration towards the Mahatma. One of my great-uncles helped to edit Gandhi’s Collected Works; another founded a pioneering initiative in community health inspired by Gandhi.
These familial influences were consolidated and deepened by the public culture of the time. Gandhi was the father of the nation, the leader of the struggle for freedom against British rule, whose techniques of non-violent resistance had won admirers and imitators across the world.
It was largely because of him that we were free and proudly independent, and it was largely because of him that — unlike neighbouring Pakistan — we gloried in the religious and linguistic diversity of our land. In our school assembly we sang a 17th-century hymn that Gandhi was particularly fond of, which he had rewritten to reflect his vision of the India he wished to leave behind. Hindus saw God as Ishwar; Gandhi’s adaptation asked us to see him as Allah too. And it was to these lines that our teachers drew our particular attention.
The first criticisms of Gandhi that I remember encountering were in a book I read as a student at Delhi University. This was the autobiography of Verrier Elwin, an Oxford scholar who became a leading ethnographer of the tribes of central India. Elwin knew Gandhi well, and at one time considered himself a disciple. In later years, while he retained his admiration for the Mahatma’s moral courage and religious pluralism, Elwin became sharply critical of Gandhi’s advocacy of prohibition, which he thought damaging to tribal culture (where home-brewed alcohol was both a source of nutrition and an aid to dance and music), and of his exaltation of celibacy, which Elwin thought damaging to everyone.
Elwin’s strictures were mild, even timid, when compared with those of the Marxist intellectuals of Kolkata, whom I encountered in the 1980s when beginning my academic career. These scholars identified with the Naxalites, a band of insurgents who were inspired by Mao Zedong and who vandalised and destroyed Gandhi statues wherever they found them. Books were written arguing that Gandhi was an agent simultaneously of the British colonial state and of the Indian capitalist class; non-violence was presented as a cunning device to wean the masses away from the revolutionary path.
I had many arguments with my Marxist friends about Gandhi. I sought to persuade them that his adherence to non-violence arose out of a disinclination to take human life. I asked them to give Gandhi at least the qualified praise that Mao himself had bestowed on Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese republic, as creating a rudimentary national consciousness on which was built a superior socialist consciousness.
On these subjects my interlocutors at least talked back, but our relations came to breaking point when I chose to focus my own research on a forest protection movement led by Gandhians, which the Marxists dismissed as a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle.
Those debates with Marxists shaped me profoundly, personally as well as intellectually. Yet recalling them here perhaps conveys a whiff of antiquarianism. For now, in the 2020s, the main attacks on Gandhi in India come from the other end of the ideological spectrum. For the past eight and a half years, the Hindu right has been in power in India, and Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and his commitment to interfaith harmony are anathema to it. While he is still officially the “father of the nation”, with his birthday a national holiday and his face on the currency notes, the public mood has turned hostile to Gandhi.
To understand why Gandhi is increasingly unpopular in his homeland, one must go back to the circumstances of his death 75 years ago. Gandhi was murdered on January 30 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a member of a secretive paramilitary organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Founded in 1925, the RSS believed — and still believes — in the construction of a Hindu theocratic state in India. Its leaders and cadres insist that demographic superiority and the Indic origin of their faith makes Hindus natural and permanent rulers of the land. They have a particular suspicion of Muslims and Christians, on account of the fact that their religions originated outside India and their sacred shrines are outside India too.
Gandhi, on the other hand, held the view that India belonged equally to all its citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. After the subcontinent was partitioned in August 1947, separating Hindu-majority India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan, he worked strenuously to stop violence against those Muslims who remained in India, going on a fast in Kolkata and later in Delhi. Gandhi’s fast in Delhi was conducted in a home opposite the office of the British High Commission.
Having watched events unfold, the deputy high commissioner wrote in a report to London that “day in and day out, Muslims of all classes of society, many of whom had also suffered personal bereavements in the recent disturbances, came to invoke his [Gandhi’s] help. Normally too fearful even to leave their homes, they came to him because they had learned and believed that he had their interests at heart and was the only real force in the Indian Union capable of preserving them from destruction.”
Gandhi’s efforts to maintain religious harmony enraged the head of the RSS, an intense bearded man named MS Golwalkar. A police report of an RSS meeting in Delhi in December 1947 tells us that, “referring to Muslims”, Golwalkar remarked that “no power on earth could keep them in Hindustan. They would have to quit the country. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of election. But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India . . . Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.”
A few weeks later, Gandhi was murdered in Delhi by the RSS’s Godse. The organisation was immediately banned, and Golwalkar himself put in prison. After it agreed to abide by the Indian constitution, the RSS was unbanned. In the decades that followed, it steadily built up its following across India. In deference to the status that Gandhi then enjoyed, its members even occasionally praised him, albeit merely as one patriot among many. The gulf between his ideals and their ideology remained vast.
The RSS is the mother organisation of the Bharatiya Janata party, which has been in power in India since May 2014. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, joined the RSS as a young man, as did many of his ministers. In control of the state, of education and propaganda, and with a very efficient social media machine, the BJP and the RSS have assiduously attempted to rewrite the historical narrative. Past Muslim rulers of India are portrayed as cruel marauders, and Muslims today made to answer for their (mis)deeds. The leadership of Gandhi and his Congress party in the freedom struggle is denied, and those who advocated armed revolution against the British extolled as the true patriots. The formative role of the progressive and secular constitution of 1950 in shaping the democratic republic is ignored. Instead, Indians are told that they have been a Hindu nation from time immemorial.
Professional historians derisively refer to these claims as “WhatsApp history”, but the tragic truth is that they are gaining ever wider currency. In this new narrative, Gandhi is the major hate figure. He is blamed for emasculating Indians by preaching non-violence; blamed for choosing the modernising Jawaharlal Nehru as his political heir instead of a more authentically “Hindu” figure; blamed for not stopping the creation of Pakistan; blamed for insisting that Muslims who stayed behind in India be given the rights of equal citizenship. BJP members of parliament hail Gandhi’s assassin Godse as a true “deshbhakt” (patriot); praise for him trends on Twitter every January 30; there are periodic plans to erect statues to him and temples in his memory. YouTube videos mocking Gandhi and charging him with betraying Hindus garner millions of views.
This decertification of Gandhi has been aided by the hypocrisy and misconduct of the Congress party. In its many decades in power, the Congress invoked Gandhi often, while in practice moving ever further from his ideals. Congress politicians ostentatiously wore homespun cotton while promoting cronyism and corruption. They centralised power in the state and harassed human rights activists.
The political rise of the Hindu right has been accompanied by the construction of a colossal personality cult around Modi. While his followers revile Gandhi, Modi himself has adopted a position of strategic ambivalence. On the one hand, he professes veneration for VD Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist who detested Gandhi and Muslims with equal vehemence, and whom Godse regarded as his ideological mentor. On the other hand, recognising that Gandhi is the best-known Indian globally, Modi has instrumentally used him to advance his own profile by taking visiting presidents and prime ministers on tours of Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad.
On October 2 2019, the 150th anniversary of the Mahatma’s birth, the New York Times published an article in praise of Gandhi, written by Modi. The piece was artfully constructed; it began by speaking of the admiration for Gandhi expressed by one great American, Martin Luther King Jr, and ended by speaking of the admiration for him expressed by another great American, Albert Einstein. Modi proclaimed: “In Gandhi, we have the best teacher to guide us. From uniting those who believe in humanity to furthering sustainable development and ensuring economic self-reliance, Gandhi offers solutions to every problem.”
What was most striking about the article, however, was what it did not say. There was not a word about the cause for which Gandhi lived his life, indeed for which he gave his life — that of inter-religious harmony. The omission was not accidental. For the idea that India is a land that belongs equally to people of all faiths is not something that Modi shares with Gandhi. Modi sees himself as a Hindu first and foremost; indeed, even as a redeemer sent to avenge the insults and injustices, real and imagined, heaped on his co-religionists down the centuries.
Such is the broader context for the now widespread animosity towards Gandhi in the land of his birth. It has principally to do with his commitment to religious pluralism. While Modi stays silent, BJP leaders taunt and intimidate the 200mn-strong community of Indian Muslims, asking them without reason and provocation to prove their “loyalty” to the motherland. (Notably, among the 300 or so BJP members of parliament elected in May 2019, there was not a single Muslim.) While Modi praises Gandhi — selectively — many of those who support and vote for him believe Godse was right in murdering Gandhi; indeed, that he should have murdered him earlier, before the Mahatma’s last fast in support of equal rights for those Muslims who chose to express their own patriotism by staying in our country, which was also theirs.
There are other ways in which the India of today bears little resemblance to the India that Gandhi had struggled to build. He would have been appalled, for instance, by the rapacious pillaging of the natural environment encouraged by successive governments since independence. He had precociously warned against emulating the resource- and energy-intensive model of industrialisation favoured by the west, writing in 1926 that to “make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation”.
Without the access to resources and markets enjoyed by those two nations when they began to industrialise, India has had to rely on the exploitation of its own people and environment. Under both Congress and BJP regimes, the most brutal assault has been by large mining companies, to whom successive governments have given free licence to destroy forests, displace villagers and foul air, water and soil in search of massive monetary gains. Many of the most polluted cities in the world are in India; our great and supposedly sacred rivers are biologically dead through untreated industrial and domestic waste; our aquifers are rapidly declining.
Writing for an international audience, our prime minister might laud Gandhian prescriptions for “sustainable development”, even as these prescriptions are being violated most thoroughly in his — and Gandhi’s — homeland. Even without the threat of climate change, India is an environmental basket case.
Consider next the perilous state of press freedom in India, which, as an independent-minded editor himself, Gandhi would surely have found distressing. The British Raj jailed Gandhi (and many other writers) for inciting “disaffection” merely through their words in print. Gandhi hoped that the clause allowing such arbitrary arrest would be repealed when India became free. It remains on the statute book, increasingly used to imprison journalists, student leaders and social activists.
Gandhi, were he around today, would also have been dismayed by the deceit and dissembling of the political class, saddened by the growing gulf between rich and poor, and distressed by the continuing attacks on low castes and women. His country has turned its back on its greatest modern figure in many respects.
The lives and legacies of major historical figures are always subject to reinterpretation, and that is how it should be. Consider thus the revaluation of American icons such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because of their complicity with slavery; or of the pre-eminent British war hero Winston Churchill, because of his imperialism and indifference to the deaths of Indians through famine.
Revisionism and iconoclasm are infinitely preferable to idolatry. The unthinking adulation of Gandhi in the early years of Indian independence may have been extreme. Yet what we now have is not revisionism or iconoclasm but parricide, the outright repudiation of the person who perhaps did more than anyone else to nurture this nation into being. India surely needs Gandhi’s ideas still, to check the slide of the republic into a Hindu Pakistan, to stall the destruction of the environment and the economic and social costs it imposes, to restore a semblance of civility in public discourse, to renew the institutions of civil society currently being crushed by an overbearing state.
Many years ago, when the demonisation of Gandhi was first becoming apparent, I was speaking with my friend Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a diplomat and scholar and also, incidentally, a grandson of the Mahatma. Gopal said that Gandhi’s posthumous fate might increasingly come to resemble that of the Buddha, scorned by the land where he forged his moral and social philosophy, yet with followers and admirers in distant parts of the globe that he had never visited and possibly did not even know about.
As that prediction comes starkly true, I find it simultaneously depressing and comforting. We Indians seem to have rejected Gandhi, as we once rejected the Buddha; no matter, humans elsewhere will take up and nobly affirm the ideals of those we have so cruelly and carelessly discarded.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include ‘Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World’. He lives in Bengaluru
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