In this blighted time of hate, it is worth asking: what would Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, that brilliant organiser of salt marches and instant hartals, have done? Would he have written a tweet, created a meme, modelled in an election campaign centred around “ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” (I am a woman, I can fight)?
Lessons in urgency
In 1947, at a similar moment when hate speeches against Muslims engulfed public discourse, Gandhi had not minced his words. He spoke urgently and repeatedly of communal harmony, friendship, and love, in countless prayer meetings, speeches and articles. A man of action and not mere words, the Mahatma visited riot-torn neighbourhoods, destroyed mosques, and refugee camps, conversed with locals and sought out “all party” agreements to keep the peace in 1947.
In his trademark quiet but firm voice, he demanded that illegally seized mosques be returned to their community owners. Faced with black flags and slogans demanding “Death to Gandhi”, Gandhi Murdabad, at Amritsar railway station, Gandhi did not flinch. He drafted a resolution that was passed in the All India Congress Committee session of November 1947 affirming:
“India has been and is a country with a fundamental unity and the aim of the Congress has been to develop this great country as a whole as a democratic secular state, where all the citizens enjoy full rights and are equally entitled to the protection of the state, irrespective of the religion to which they belong. The Constituent Assembly has accepted this as the basic principle of the constitution. This lays on every Indian the obligation to honour it.”
75 years later, a new kind of manufactured hate
Seventy-five years later, it is 1947 once more, but worse. For, that 1947, however blood-drenched, did bring with it the hope of a clearer dawn. The urgency of building and rebuilding two torn but new nations drove its founders, bureaucrats, refugees to work. The anger and the rage was channelled into building new homes, refugee colonies turned new neighbourhoods, even cities.
But now we have a new kind of manufactured hate, its ugliness blaring on loudspeakers to which so many unemployed young men dance, showcased on social media, and in everyday conduct. The question of whether Muslims belong in India on terms of equality has been reopened — in housing societies, in streets and markets leading up to temples, in educational institutions, in political discourse. And for an answer, Gandhi’s Congress demurs softly lest the Hindu majority vote even more overwhelmingly for the preachers of such hate. Or the rising alternative that is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) invests in a strategic bigotry in the vain hope that they will be able to ‘turn off’ bigotry at will.
Yet Gandhi is here
But forget the petty, petty political class for a moment. A historian studying this era will encounter Gandhi elsewhere. In the social workers who provided oxygen and food to the COVID-afflicted and the migrant worker. In the non-violent women of Shaheen Bagh and the farmers at the Singhu border. In the journalists who fill Kashmiri prisons under the draconian J&K Public Safety Act. In the brave editors who assist even braver reporters to document and add the unending spiel of hate speech at so-called religious assemblies to the historical record.
In the writings of those who oppose the imposition of Hindi, we recognise Gandhi — a diasporic returnee who brought an immigrant’s perceptive eye to the problem of forging unity in India’s diversity, a diversity he had learnt to imbibe and embody in South Africa. In the intrepid lawyers who have taken up the cause of Muslim women fighting the hijab ban in the Supreme Court, we see the spirit of Gandhi the lawyer and educationist who always underlined the right to education to be urgent and fundamental.
For the Gandhians in India, there remains his talisman: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?” The talisman, still hung in dusty town halls and municipal offices, is ignored by those who call for bulldozers against the poor. Gandhi would have applauded those who pointed their sharp fingers at bulldozers last month.
Gandhi as coalition-builder
Gandhi, who reorganised the Congress at the start of the non-cooperation movement in 1920, slashing its membership fees, and espousing the regional vernacular as the medium of communication in provincial Congresses, would have railed at the dysfunction of the Grand Old Party today. That organiser par excellence would have immediately begun the self-effacing, hard work of forging a greater coalition, played the part of kingmaker behind the scenes to perfection, but not sought power for himself, knowing his strength lay elsewhere. He would have articulated his thoughts, sought advice, consulted with like-minded leaders, as attested to in the hundred-plus volumes of his collected works.
Those who claim to be the political inheritors of Gandhi must show his courage, vision, intellect, empathy, his canny sense of strategy and timing, his work ethic and organisational acumen — all his gifts that made the Congress a truly mass party. This is not a tall order; they have so many Gandhian fighters to learn from in India’s civil society, and even among the ranks of the Congress and other opposition parties.
Or, in the words of the rap song, “Apna time aayega.” Our time will come, indeed. When this fire rages, no home will be spared.
Neeti Nair is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. Her book ‘Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia’ is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in the spring of 2023