Lessons in alternative histories

Shiv Visvanathan

Shiv Visvanathan  

Around August 15 every year, Indians tend to get more correct and prickly. The 15th is a precious day for us. We demand a salute to our state and status as a great independent nation. Any critique is summarily dismissed, often at the cost to our own understanding of the nation and its possibilities.

Consider a recent event. It was the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan arrival in India. It marked a great moment for India. Jawaharlal Nehru, defying the Chinese, offers refuge to the Dalai Lama and lets him set up his government in exile. It was a moment of hospitality and generosity, a Nehruvian moment which one senses as lacking today in this time of the Rohingya crisis and the National Register of Citizens threatening to extern lakhs of people.

Offered as gratitude

No one has spoken with greater gratitude to India than the Dalai Lama. His rituals of thanks to India as a civilisation and to the Indian regime have been many. By welcoming him to India, we added to the sense of India. Yet, newspapers reported that in the anniversary speech, he said India had missed a moral opportunity — that Mahatma Gandhi, to avoid Partition, offered Muhammad Ali Jinnah the Prime Ministership, and Nehru objected because he wanted to lead India. The newspaper reports came out boldly and literally. A few days later, true to a spirit of correctness, the Dalai Lama withdrew his statement, saying that he had hurt feelings.

At a level of formal correctness, the matter is closed, but India is the loser because our prickly sense of arrogance blinded us to the possibility of the story.

The Dalai Lama was not criticising Nehru. He was merely pointing to glimpses of history beyond Nehru. He was being thoughtful, provocative, in a pedagogic way, because he was confident in himself and the people he was talking about. As a spiritual leader and as an astute politician, he was using the occasion to open us to new possibilities. Anyone living in India knows that our sense of nationalism has blinded us to alternative possibilities. We conceive of history as a fait accompli and with a dose of fatalism.

Yet, what the Dalai Lama is pointing out is that what we saw as a moment of closure had its openings. The greatness of Gandhi recognised it and pursued it with a desperation. Gandhi tried to thwart Partition by offering Jinnah something he would not have dreamed of. Gandhi offered him the possibility of a giant leadership, the possibility of being leader of a ‘joint India-Pakistan’. Instead of Partition we could or could have had a united India. It was an act which required a surreal moral courage. It was an appeal to Jinnah to go beyond divisive politics. It was almost a utopian solution to a communal fissure.

The Dalai Lama suggests that Nehru refuted such a possibility. The historian in him must have seen it as impractical; the politician in him must have read it as insulting, wondering whether Gandhi had lost his sense of the bloody reality facing India. Jinnah, Nehru and Mountbatten were responding at the level of realpolitik. It is the level at which history took place and Partition became inevitable.

A moral imagination

The Dalai Lama understands history. As a political leader, he has an acute sense of it. But as a spiritual leader, he is suggesting decades after the event that history could have been transcended morally. He was suggesting that Gandhi had the moral imagination to gift Jinnah a stunning possibility. He was merely asking Jinnah to move beyond his pettiness. He was asking Nehru for a sacrifice beyond all his calibre and sacrifices. Looking back, one cannot discount the power of this possibility. In a futuristic sense, it might be India’s greatest gift to Pakistan, a vision of a united nation. Nehru sacrifices his future and Jinnah’s immediate greed becomes the glue in a moment of strife-torn politics. Consequently, there is no Partition. Pakistan does not become a military state. There is none of the idiocy of the genocide in Bangladesh.

Possibilities sound stupendous and the thinker is almost giddy. The Dalai Lama is merely invoking Gandhi’s plea, a plea that might have prevented two genocides. He is not condemning Nehru. He is only saying that Gandhi’s moral imagination transcended the conventional grids of history.

The Dalai Lama’s commentary is timely. He is asking a jingoistic nation state to think out of the box and create a situation where the ethical is experimental and theology goes beyond mere patriotic catechism, and looks at playful possibilities to questions which need answers even today.

The Dalai Lama, as a great teacher, is not only referring to a past as a forgotten fragment but he is also referring to the present and suggesting that the Gandhian conundrum has desperate relevance today. It could become the spiritual turning-point for rethinking Kashmir or even Assam. I am sure he knows that history cannot be reversed. I feel that like a Zen monk, he is ironically, tragically, asking if history has to be repeated so that genocide becomes an everyday way of life. Nehru and Gandhi would have grasped the point. I am not quite sure that the current regime peddling patriotism as a commodity would.

One must thank the Dalai Lama for his courage and the sheer relevance of his story. Exile along with spirituality makes his compassion more hard-headed. He is seeking imaginations beyond the current conventions of thought. There is a search for a realism which goes beyond the hard-hearted nationalism of today. He is suggesting that the national security state living on surveillance is too arid a concept. Compassion opens minds and opens us to the mind of the other. His was not a knee-jerk critique of Nehru, but he was imagining a Nehru beyond the current pantheons of Nehru ambushing history instead of being ambushed by it; a Nehru who could have jump-started an unbelievable era of history. We could have had an alternative polity which would have been an experiment in pluralistic federalism. All the Dalai Lama is suggesting is that a playful civilisation like India must not be a blinded nation state. He is opening us to ideas that are futuristic and lifesaving. I think India needs to remaster the art of listening, the acuteness of debate and discourse from our spiritual past. We need to listen to the Dalai Lama. He was not insulting us or our hospitality. In fact, he was repaying it with gratitude, with laughter and humour, with sincerity.

The echoes today

The question is, will India respond? All he is suggesting is the civilisational creativity India showed to Tibetans as honoured refugees now be applied to Assam, the Rohingya. India does not have a Gandhi but his teachings are alive, and one needs to invent a Gandhian solution within a Nehruvian framework. For a spiritual leader, politics is the art of the impossible. The Dalai Lama is explaining that India’s spirituality has the realism to show our humdrum politicians the magical everydayness of an alternative solution. He is telling us India is a civilisation, that its Gandhis, its Nanaks, its Kabirs, its Buddhas can find a solution to the current impasse. It is a wonderful gift at a time when we celebrate freedom.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

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