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 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 (again) 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, the son of a British Bishop 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 his 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 Gandhi’s exaltation of celibacy, which he thought damaging to everyone.
Elwin’s strictures were mild, even timid, when compared to those of the Marxist intellectuals of Kolkata, whom I encountered in the 1980s, while beginning my academic career. These scholars identified with the Naxalites, a band of insurgents inspired by Mao who decapitated 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. They claimed his non-violence was 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 Mao himself had bestowed upon Sun Yat-sen, the first President of the Chinese Republic, as creating a rudimentary national consciousness on was erected 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 last 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 inter-faith harmony, are anathema to them. While 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 seventy-five years ago. Gandhi was murdered on 30th January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a member of a secretive paramilitary organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Founded in 1925, the RSS believed—and still believes—in the construction of a Hindu theocratic state in India. Their 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 located 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, he worked strenuously to stop violence against the Muslims who remained in India, by going on fast in Calcutta and later in Delhi. Gandhi’s fast in Delhi was conducted in a home opposite the office of the British High Commission. Watching events unfold, the Deputy High Commissioner wrote to London that ‘day in and day out, too, 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 at maintaining religious harmony enraged the head of the RSS, an intense, bearded, man named M. S. 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 an RSS man named Nathuram Godse. The organization was immediately banned, and M. S. Golwalkar himself put in prison. After they agreed to abide by the Indian Constitution, the RSS was unbanned. In the decades that followed they steadily built up their following across India. In deference to the status that Gandhi then enjoyed, they even occasionally praised him, albeit merely as one patriot among many. The gulf between his ideals and their ideology remained vast. In a book of 1966, Golwalkar villified Indian Muslims, portraying them as an ‘internal threat’ to the nation.
The RSS is the mother organization of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 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 vast and 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 modernizing 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, Nathuram Godse, as a true ‘deshbhakt’ (patriot); praise of Godse trends on Twitter every 30th January; there are periodic plans to erect statues to Godse 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 their many decades in power, the Congress invoked Gandhi often, while in practice moving ever further from his ideals. Congress politicians ostentatiously wore home-spun cotton while promoting cronyism and corruption. They centralized power in the state and harassed human rights activists. All this while claiming to be the sole legatee of the Gandhian legacy.
The political rise of the Hindu Right has been accompanied by the construction of a colossal personality cult around the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. While his followers revile Gandhi, Modi himself has adopted a position of strategic ambivalence. On the one hand, he professes veneration for V. D. Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist who detested Gandhi and Muslims with equal vehemence, and whom Nathuram Godse regarded as his ideological mentor. On the other hand, recognizing 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 2nd October 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, the New York Times published an article in praise of Gandhi, authored by Narendra Modi. The article was artfully constructed; it began by speaking of the admiration of Gandhi expressed by one great American, Dr Martin Luther King; and ended by speaking of the admiration of Gandhi expressed by another great American, Albert Einstein. The Prime Minister of India 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 Narendra Modi’s article in the New York Times, 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 was a land that belonged equally to people of all faiths is not something that Narendra 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. In one of his first speeches as Prime Minister, Modi spoke of seeking to free Indians from ‘barah sau saal ki ghulami—twelve hundred years of slavery, at the hands of Muslim and Christian invaders respectively.
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 abiding commitment to religious pluralism. While Modi stays silent, senior BJP leaders taunt and intimidate the two hundred million strong community of Indian Muslims, asking them without reason and provocation to prove their ‘loyalty’ to the Motherland. (Notably, among the 300-odd 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 that that Godse was right in murdering Gandhi, indeed that he should have murdered him earlier, before the Mahatma’s last fast asking Indians to give equal rights to those Muslims who chose to express their own patriotism by staying behind 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. Gandhi had precociously warned against emulating the resource-and-energy intensive model of industrialization 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 industrialize, 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 license to destroy forests, displace villagers, and foul air, water, and soil in search of massive monetary gains, a portion given back to the politicians who, misusing the State’s power of eminent domain, had awarded these mining barons long-term leases at very favourable rates. 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 been distressed by. The British Raj jailed Gandhi (and many other writers) for exciting ‘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, and perhaps nowhere so decisively as in the demonization of Muslims by the Hindu majority.
The lives and legacies of major historical figures are always subject to re-interpretation, and that is how it should be. Consider thus the revaluation of American icons like Washington and Jefferson because of their complicity with slavery; or of the pre-eminent British war hero, Churchill, because of his imperialism and his 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. Gandhi’s political choices and personal idiosyncrasies needed a more critical eye than we were then able or willing to provide. 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 the 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 this demonization of Gandhi was first becoming visible in public discouse, I was speaking with my friend Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a distinguished diplomat and scholar and also incidentally a grandson of the Mahatma. Gopal said that Gandhi’s posthumous fate might come to increasingly 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 where he had never been 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 shall take up and nobly affirm the ideals of those whom we have so cruelly and carelessly discarded.
INDIA AGAINST GANDHI
(published in the Financial Times, Weekend edition, 27/28 January 2023)