This year marks the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination (January 30, 1948) by a Hindu fanatic who thought the Mahatma was too soft on Muslims. The momentous anniversary comes at a time when his legacy, the very idea of Gandhi, stands challenged by the prevailing ideological currents. At a time when the standing of his historic detractors, whose descendants now form the ruling dispensation in the country, is at an all-time high, Gandhiji has been criticised for weakness, for having bent over too far to accommodate Muslim interests, and for his pacifism, which is seen by the jingoistic Hindutva movement as unmanly.
The Mahatma was killed, with the name of Rama on his lips, for being too pro-Muslim; indeed, he had just come out of a fast he had conducted to coerce his own followers, the Ministers of the new Indian government, to transfer a larger share than they had intended of the assets of undivided India to the new state of Pakistan. Gandhiji had also announced his intention to spurn the country he had failed to keep united and to spend the rest of his years in Pakistan, a prospect that had made the government of Pakistan collectively choke.
But that was the enigma of Gandhiji in a nutshell: idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined, a man who answered to the beat of no other drummer, but got everyone else to march to his tune. Someone once called him a cross between a saint and a Tammany Hall politician; like the best crossbreeds, he managed to distil all the qualities of both and yet transcend their contradictions.
Explaining a contradiction now
The contradiction is mirrored in the attitude of the Hindutva-inspired Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Modi was schooled, like other Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharaks, in an intense dislike of Mahatma Gandhi, whose message of tolerance and pluralism was emphatically rejected as minority appeasement by the Sangh Parivar, and whose credo of non-violence, or ahimsa, was seen as an admission of weakness unworthy of manly Hindus. Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar, whom Mr. Modi has described as one of his heroes, had expressed contempt for Gandhiji’s ‘perverse doctrine of non-violence and truth’ and claimed it ‘was bound to destroy the power of the country’. But Prime Minister Modi, for all his Hindutva mindset, his admiration of Savarkar and his lifetime affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, has embraced Gandhiji, hailing the Mahatma and even using his glasses as a symbol of the Swachh Bharat campaign, linking it to a call to revive Gandhiji’s idea of seva through the recent ‘Swachhata Hi Seva’ campaign.
This may, or may not, represent a sincere conversion to Gandhism. The Prime Minister is hardly unaware of the tremendous worldwide reputation that Mahatma Gandhi enjoys, and is too savvy a marketing genius not to recognise the soft-power opportunity evoking Gandhiji provides, not to mention the global public relations disaster that would ensue if he were to denounce an Indian so universally admired. There may, therefore, be an element of insincerity to his newfound love for the Mahatma, as well as a shrewd domestic political calculation.
But the ambivalence speaks volumes: when many members of Mr. Modi’s BJP call for replacing Gandhiji’s statues across the country with those of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, the Prime Minister seeks to lay claim to the mantle of his fellow Gujarati for his own political benefit. At the same time, there is also a tangible dissonance between the official governmental embrace of Gandhiji and the unofficial ideological distaste for this icon, that is privately promoted by members and supporters of the present ruling dispensation, some of whose members have not hidden their view that his assassination was, in their eyes, a patriotic act.
The vision of the Mahatma
It is a well understood reality that the vision of Gandhiji, an openly practising Hindu, differed greatly from that of Veer Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, the principal ideologues of the Hindu Mahasabha and its more militarised alter ego in the post-Independence era, the R SS and eventually, the BJP (formerly the Jana Sangh).
Gandhiji embodied the central approach of Advaita Vedanta, which preached an inclusive universal religion. Gandhiji saw Hinduism as a faith that respected and embraced all other faiths. He was profoundly influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause. He was a synthesiser of cultural belief systems: his signature bhajan of ‘Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram’ had another line, ‘Ishwara Allah Tero naam’. This practice emerged from his Vedantic belief in the oneness of all human beings, who share the same atman and, therefore, should be treated equally.
Such behaviour did not endear him to every Hindu. In his treatise on ‘Gandhi’s Hinduism and Savarkar’s Hindutva’, the social scientist Rudolf C. Heredia places his two protagonists within an ongoing debate between heterogeneity versus homogeneity in the Hindu faith, pointing out that while Gandhi’s response is inclusive and ethical, Savarkar politicises Hinduism as a majoritarian creed.
But Gandhiji’s own understanding of religion, in Heredia’s words, “transcended religiosity, Hindu as well as that of any other tradition. It is essentially a spiritual quest for moksha but one rooted in the reality of service to the last and least in the world”. Unlike Savarkar, who believed in conformity, Gandhiji was a synthesiser like no other who took care to include Indians of other faiths in his capacious and agglomerative understanding of religion. He took inspiration from not just Advaita Vedanta but also the Jain concept of ‘Anekantavada’ — the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently by different people from their own different points of view, and that, therefore, no single perception can constitute the complete truth. This led him to once declare that ‘I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi, a Jew’.
Hinduism and Hindutva, as I have argued in my book Why I Am a Hindu, represent two very distinct and contrasting ideas, with vitally different implications for nationalism and the role of the Hindu faith. The principles Gandhiji stood for and the way in which he asserted them are easier to admire than to follow. But they represented an ideal that is betrayed every day by those who distort Hinduism to promote a narrow, exclusionary bigotry.