At 5:17pm on 30 January 1948, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a boudhik karyawah (worker) of RSS, emerged from a small crowd around Birla House and fired three shots into the frail chest of a 79-year-old man world had venerated as “Mahatma” – thus ending a life that had dominated and transformed Indian politics for the past three decades.
Godse, Narayan Apte, Gopal and other RSS conspirators believed that Gandhi was responsible for partition, had betrayed the principles of the Indian movement for independence and was appeasing Muslims. Gandhi’s assassination had led to a ban on RSS. But today, 72 years later, RSS is in full control of Indian politics. From 1980’s onwards, its progeny, BJP, utilized and manufactured fault lines of Indian politics and society to empower itself.
Ram Rath Yatra, Mandal Commission, Ram Janma Bhoni movement, Attack on Babri Mosque, Demolition of Babri Mosque, Bombay riots, Nuclear Explosions of 1997, Kargil Conflict, Attack on Indian Parliament, Mobilization against Pakistan, Gujrat Pogroms, Mumbai terrorism everything in one or the other was skilfully utilized in redefining Indian narrative and politics moving it ever closer to the realization of a Hindu Rashtra which now exists in reality though it still needs a legal and constitutional cover.
Last few weeks of 2019, have seen hundreds and thousands of Indian Muslims demonstrating against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register for Citizens (NRC) – laws made by RSS controlled BJP government that have in many ways excluded Muslims from the basic definition of equal Indian citizen. Many have died on streets and hundreds have been injured.
Einstein, on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 70th birthday had exclaimed: “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.”
WhatsApp is full of videos of police brutality on streets and homes, Muslims being dragged by Hindu vigilantes and RSS militias parading on streets to show their own muscle power. While it all looks troubling, there is evidence to believe that the RSS/BJP duo will again benefit from this mayhem politically – for a starter, it has diverted attention from a massive economic slowdown.
On 5 August, RSS controlled government in Delhi unilaterally abrogated Art. 370 and 35-A ending “Special Status” of Jammu & Kashmir at a time when the only Muslim majority state in India had no elected government or legislature.
Five months later, Kashmir valley – now turned into a Union territory – is still literally cut off from the world; thousands arrested are languishing in jails across India, internet and cellular networks are still suspended, government employees have been forced to sign affidavits affirming acceptance of Kashmir’s new constitutional position and RSS committees are now active across Kashmir’s rural areas. What exactly is happening in Kashmir is not known – media crackdown has created a veil of secrecy.
This is frightening in a state where a few years ago, thousands of mass graves were discovered – where young men were killed and dumped by the Indian army. So, it’s time to ask: Has Gandhi’s professed vision of “religious pluralism” finally collapsed forever? Was it ever real? Was Mahatma mislead; had based his politics on flawed assumptions about the history of Hindustan, about the nature of British India?
Or his opponents who considered him a shrewd wily politician masquerading like a saint to advance his political interests right? With history’s tyranny, unfolding in front of our eyes, these questions have assumed a new meaning. These questions become significant because, throughout the 20th century, the world had understood modern India through the lens of Mahatma
Popularized Gandhi vs Historic Gandhi?
Einstein, on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 70th birthday had exclaimed: “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” This was the theme faithfully picked up and echoed by scores of biographers, historians, academics, filmmakers and social activists across the world.
On 26 December 1999, Time Magazine declared Albert Einstein as “Person of the Century”. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the Time’s two runners up, for the coveted slot because, according to Time Magazine, he symbolized the ability of individuals to resist authority to secure civil rights and personal liberties.
Reflecting back on this pristine image, Col. GB Singh, a revisionist political analyst, in his 2005 book, “Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity” wrote, “To see highly educated, supposedly rational-minded people in the West following Gandhi has often left me in an awkward predicament and forced me to pause and reassess my initial impressions of the Western world”.
To Singh’s mind, this is the result of pervasive propaganda material that has flooded libraries and bookstores and his 2005 book is an attempt to close the gap between the “popularized Gandhi” and the “historical Gandhi”.
For instance, Gopal Godsey, brother of Nathuram Godsey, insists that when Gandhi was shot he never said, “Hai Ram”, it was actor Ben Kingsley in 1982 film “Gandhi” who said that (Film directed and produced by Richard Attenborough was half financed by Indian government) Gandhi even in his life had been an enigma.
Even a cursory look reveals how he was often pulled in different directions to satisfy different constituencies and interest groups. He launched a non-violent struggle (Ahimsa) for rights in South Africa in the early 1890’s and has been known ever since for his non-violent struggle, Satyagraha, against the British empire, but he had also indirectly supported the British war effort in Boer Wars.
In April 1918, during the latter part of World War I, the British Viceroy invited Gandhi to a War Conference in Delhi. Gandhi, on Viceroy’s urging, agreed to actively recruit Indians for the war effort. This was in sharp contrast to the Zulu War of 1906 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when he merely recruited volunteers for the Ambulance Corps.
All these developments within 5-6 decades of direct British rule created the impression of the existence of a nation state. But in reality, it was not; it was an imperial order that relied upon the presence of British as a “catalytic third force” – for this order to continue after the departure of British, it needed a new constitutional framework,
Now this time around, Gandhi attempted to recruit real combatants. But between 1939 and 1944 when British civilization actually faced the existential threat, when London was being obliterated by Nazi bombing, Gandhi advocating “Non Violence”, advised British to “invite Hitler and Mussolini to take their beautiful island with its beautiful buildings” and demanded British to “Quit India” – persuading one to believe that his political instincts often dominated his humanitarian urges.
Gandhi stood for the rights of the suppressed, but when British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald granted “separate electorate” to the depressed classes (Dalits), Gandhi kept a “fast unto death” to force Ambedkar, leader of the Dalits, to back out from his demands leading to Patna Pact of 1932 – a surrender which Ambedkar regretted till his death in 1956.
Dalits constitute 25% of what is called “80% Hindu vote bank” and historically -as Arundhati Roy points out in her lectures – before the arrival of the British concept of “one man one vote” Dalits were not considered Hindus. But the separate electorate for Dalits in 1932 could have broken the domination of Hindu vote bank and Congress’s huge bargaining power in British India – it would have changed India’s political history.
My Experiments with Truth?
Gandhi’s contradictions went much beyond politics. Jad Adams, author of “Gandhi: Naked Ambition” (published 2010) reminds us of some of the most controversial aspects of his complex personality. At the age of 38, in 1906, Gandhi took a vow of “brahmacharya”, which meant living a “spiritual life” that is normally referred to as chastity.
So, he worked out a series of complex rules which meant he could say he was chaste while still engaging in the most explicit sexual conversation, letters and behaviour. Within a year of his vow, Gandhi was telling his readers of his newspaper Indian Opinion: “It is the duty of every thoughtful Indian not to marry.
In case he is helpless in regard to marriage, he should abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife.” But Jad Adam recounts that Gandhi was challenging that abstinence in his own way. Mahatma set up ashrams in which he began his first “experiments” with sex; boys and girls were to bathe and sleep together, chastely, but were punished for any sexual talk.
Men and women were segregated, and Gandhi’s advice was that husbands should not be alone with their wives, and, when they felt passion, should take a cold bath. These ridiculous rules did not, however, apply to Mahatma. Sushila Nayar, the attractive sister of Gandhi’s secretary, also his personal physician, attended Gandhi from girlhood.
She used to sleep and bathe with Gandhi. When challenged, he explained how he ensured decency was not offended. “While she is bathing, I keep my eyes tightly shut,” he said, “I do not know … whether she bathes naked or with her underwear on. I can tell from the sound that she uses soap.”
As he grew older (and following wife Kasturba’s death) he was to have more women around him and would oblige women to sleep with him whom – according to his segregated ashram rules – were forbidden to sleep with their own husbands.
Gandhi would have women in his bed, engaging in his “experiments” which seem to have been, from a reading of his letters, an exercise in strip-tease or other non-contact sexual activity. By 1947, a 33-year-old Sushila Nayar was replaced by 18-year-olds – Manu and Abha – who were with him till his death.
While much of this odd behaviour was known to his family and close political circle in the last years of his life – and some of them were reacting badly. But the world at large started to know about it only after his assassination in 1948.
However, amazing as it may sound, this has not dimmed the fondness of academics, political analysts and civil libertarians who continue to see him as the moving spirit that defined the Indian struggle against the British imperialism.
His experiments with truth and sexuality have been considered just one aspect of the complex person he was. The argument, with some credibility, is that any great life when placed under a microscope will reveal such contradictions. Gandhi despite his many ferocious critics and detractors in India and abroad still looms large on the South Asian historical map.
Though Gandhi – the man and phenomenon – with his unmistakable imprints on British Theosophical ideas and civil libertarian movement of the 20th century is definitely far more complex, bigger and intriguing than his politics – but it is his politics that defines him in in Pakistani minds and memories. Could his politics be based on flawed assumptions just like his strange understanding of human sexuality?
Gandhi’s India: Real or Imaginative Construct?
Gandhi was part of my growing experience as a child in a family of Kashmiri immigrants from Srinagar. It was not only through his books – An Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth – and books written about him – like “The Life of Mahatma Gandhi” by Louis Fischer and “Gandhi: A Memoir” by William Shirer- but through the intense debates between my father and my grandfather.
My father, a medical doctor, a fanatic believer in Jinnah would took great comfort in Churchill’s diagnosis of Gandhi as the “seditious naked fakir” who, according to my father had used “sainthood” and “humanity” as covers to extend his shrewd politics that only favoured rising Indian bourgeoisie that was financing Indian National Congress – and thus acted against the Muslims.
To my maternal grandfather, Gandhi was an embodiment of humanity someone who genuinely believed in the indivisible nature of Indian people, their “religious plurality” and their existence as one multireligious nation defined by history and geography and connected by bonds of rivers, hills, mountains, love ballads and art forms.
“While she is bathing, I keep my eyes tightly shut,” he said, “I do not know … whether she bathes naked or with her underwear on. I can tell from the sound that she uses soap.”
Gandhi to my maternal grandfather was a soul above religion, someone who kept ‘fast unto death’ to compel Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister, to release Pakistan’s funds and supplies – and this is what earned him Godsey’s bullets.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – like Jinnah, Nehru and ZA Bhutto – was present on my breakfast table, he was part of my lunch and dinner as I was growing in a sleepy town of Mirpur Azad Kashmir overlooking the placid blue waters of Mangla lake.
Coming back to his politics, the fundamental question is: could his vision be based on flawed assumptions? Let’s look at the discussions between Gandhi and the British government during the 1931–32 Round Table Conferences in London.
Gandhi vehemently opposed any form of a constitutional package that enshrined rights or representations based on religious identities. He argued that it would not bring people together but divide them, perpetuate their status and divert the attention from India’s struggle to end the colonial rule.
The British were offering reforms that would keep the Indian subcontinent as a dominion short of full independence, like Australia and New Zealand. The British negotiators thus proposed constitutional reforms on a British Dominion model that established separate electorates based on religious and social divisions.
The British questioned the Congress party and Gandhi’s authority to speak for all of India. They invited Indian religious leaders, from Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits to press their demands along religious lines. B. R. Ambedkar was invited as the representative leader of the untouchables.
These were the initial political ideas that remained on the table with different modifications till the final rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan by Congress in 1946. Muslims by that time – though still without effective leadership – were getting clear that they have a separate distinct identity and that they need “constitutional safeguards” to protect their economic and social interests – especially if British leave.
Without these constitutional safeguards they will be forced to become part of a hypothetical Indian nation, but they had realized that this “Indian Nation” will exist only on paper and in reality, it would be a Hindu dominated political order, a Hindu Rashtra, in which they feared that they will be compelled to lose themselves, their distinct history and identity.
It was principally Gandhi’s intransigence during the Round Table Conferences in 1931/32 – on behalf of Congress – that blocked all progress. On a tactical level, Gandhi was then jostling to obtain greater leverage for Congress, but on a strategic level, his argument was that Indians were one nation.
This is where his assumptions may have been flawed. At the beginning of the 20th century, British India may have started to look like a “nation state,” but in reality, it was an imperial order stitched together by an external force: English.
Throughout the past two thousand years, Hindustan had seen powerful empires in north or south or east and west of that large sub-continent and British themselves had stitched more than 560 princely states with varying levels of autonomy with British India through various legal instruments.
From the battle of Plassey, in 1757 till 1947, Britain had ruled East and South of India for altogether around 190 years; but this was a very uneven rule that varied in its depth and control.
English conquered Punjab only in 1842, Sindh in 1849 and Balochistan in 1881. British India started to look like an “Indian nation” because of so many things that suddenly happened, in rapid succession, after 1858 when the British crown took direct control of Delhi.
These included: the emergence of a common judicature, cantonments of British Indian army, Indian railways, the advent of the telegraph, India Radio, press, rise of Congress and other political parties and a process of political struggle and reforms.
All these developments within 5-6 decades of direct British rule created the impression of the existence of a nation state. But in reality, it was not; it was an imperial order that relied upon the presence of British as a “catalytic third force” – for this order to continue after the departure of British, it needed a new constitutional framework.
So, it’s time to ask: Has Gandhi’s professed vision of “religious pluralism” finally collapsed forever? Was it ever real? Was Mahatma mislead; had based his politics on flawed assumptions about the history of Hindustan, about the nature of British India? Or his opponents who considered him a shrewd wily politician masquerading like a saint to advance his political interests right?
Today the ubiquitous presence of a single sentence “Muslims demanded a separate homeland” misleads young and unaware readers and negates the Indian political process that continued for a quarter-century from 1920 till 1946.
It could have resulted in a loose federation or confederation replacing British imperial order. In time, even a confederation, with a common market, could have matured into a federation.
But all of this needed robust political work and continuing dialogue. Gandhi’s fixation (along with Nehru and others) on the pre-existence of an Indian nation or the “idea of India” actually derailed the “idea of India” – it was a work in making; it needed an out of box constitutional framework.
What is now happening on Indian streets – after CAA and NCR – and what is happening in Kashmir, what happened in Gujarat in 2002 pogroms under Modi, what happened to Babri Mosque in 1991, how an Indian Supreme Court ultimately decided the fate of Babri mosque and how Indian Muslims have fared educationally and financially over the past 70 years are the developments that manifest a reality of South Asia.
And this unfolding of reality, this expression of the genotype of Hindu Rashtra, persuades us to believe that either Gandhi’s vision was flawed or he was a shrewd politician who masqueraded as a “Mahatma” to advance and protect the narrow interest of his own side. Perhaps the cerebrally challenged Nathuram Godsey could not understand this “fine point,” and maybe my father was right and my grandfather was just an idealist.