About Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal teaches in the History Department at the University of California at Los Angeles. He writes widely on the History, Politics and Culture of India.

The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

Vinay Lal

The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today.  They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian Parliament complex, New Delhi.

Yet, it is the time of the year when the “Father of the Nation” has to be brought out from cold storage and the rituals of veneration have to be carried out, if only to show the world that prophets are not without honor in their own country.  The anniversary of his assassination on January 30 is upon the country.  On this day, year after year, powerful politicians lead the country in observing two minutes of silence on what is officially designated as “Martyr’s Day”.  There are shows of piety, visits to Rajghat by dignitaries, and some utterly forgettable homilies on peace (shanti) come forth from the mouths of those described as leaders.  Then the government promptly goes back to the task of silencing dissenters and jailing human rights activists.

In recent years, the assault on Gandhi and, correspondingly, the revival of the reputation of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, have become the new commonsense of India, where perhaps two millennia ago the Mahabharata announced ‘ahimsa paramo dharma’ (nonviolence is the greatest dharma or duty).  Just two weeks ago, a large crowd of Hindu nationalists gathered in the city of Gwalior, which sits around 200 miles south of Delhi in central India, to celebrate the inauguration of Godse Gyan Shala, a memorial library created with the intent of offering the citizens of this city ‘knowledge’ of a man now being lauded as a great Indian patriot.  The glorification of Godse, who was sent to the gallows in 1949, was for some decades confined to fringe elements who largely met in secret in the Maharashtrian city of Pune where he was born to celebrate his martyrdom.  In 1964, Gopal Godse (the assassin’s brother) and Vishnu Karkare, both of whom had been sentenced to terms of life imprisonment for their role in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi, were released from prison. A reception attended by some 200 people was held by Hindu nationalists to honor the two men where Nathuram Godse was described as a ‘desh bhakt’ (patriot).  When this matter was brought to the attention of the Indian Parliament, it created an uproar.

The resurgence of Hindu nationalism in the late 1980s, however, emboldened some to speak up on his behalf, and the number of Godse’s devotees has grown enormously since the present Hindu nationalist government came to power nearly seven years ago. In the last general election in May 2019, Pragya Thakur, a woman confined in prison on terrorism charges for several years who however poses as a Hindu holy woman, was forthright in stating that ‘Nathuram Godse desh bhakt thhe, hain, or rahenge’ (Godse ‘was, remains, and will continue to be a lover of the motherland’).  As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for a Parliamentary seat in Bhopal, Thakur went on to win her seat handily. 

The glorification of Gandhi’s assassin evidently is a passport to political success in India.  Some may argue that Godse’s following is exaggerated:  the memorial library in Gwalior was open for but two days before public outrage compelled its closure.  But the opposite could be argued just as easily.  Pragya Thakur has a following of over 200,000 on her Twitter account, a number which would grow ten-fold overnight but for the fact that the BJP leadership must perforce, given the official view of Gandhi as the “Father of the Nation”, disavow her views on Godse as a great patriot. The indisputable fact is that the assassin’s acolytes have a large and rapidly growing social media presence.

One cannot, however, gauge how far the pendulum has swung in the direction of Gandhi’s assassin only by simple metrics or the loud noise made by his admirers.  By far the most critical consideration is that the very language of nonviolence of which Gandhi was the supreme exponent at least in modern history, has disappeared from the lexicon of everyday Indians.  Nonviolence is no longer, to use a colloquialism, part of the conversation.  The state almost everywhere is a purveyor of violence; but in India the state had come to the realization that it can outsource violence to large segments of civil society.  Thus, as many have observed, the trolls in India are especially abusive, obscene, and alarmingly violent, just as thugs who have appointed themselves vigilantes dole out violence on the streets nearly at will.  In the land of ahimsa, violence is in the air.

In his own lifetime, Gandhi had achieved such stature that his close associate and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could simply say to foreigners:  ‘India is Gandhi.’ The supposition was that, in having wrought India’s independence largely through nonviolent resistance, Gandhi had given something that Indians could proudly claim as their achievement and that the world would be well advised to emulate.  Gandhi had to struggle valiantly to liberate the notion of nonviolence from the triple yoke of weakness, womanliness, and other worldliness to which it had been tethered.  Perhaps it should not surprise that Hindu nationalism, which offers the manna of resurgent militant masculinity to its followers, has become wholly susceptible to the idea that nonviolence is merely the weapon of the weak.

Still, as recent events have shown, the assassins of Gandhi’s memory still have some work to do in a country where the spectre of the Mahatma remains.  In December 2019, predominantly Muslim women, many of them quite elderly and some without any education, forged an extraordinary movement of nonviolent resistance to signal their opposition to multiple state measures, including the passage of legislation known as the Citizenship Amendment Act, which they construe as calculated to disenfranchise and disempower them.  The Delhi neighborhood where this resistance commenced, Shaheen Bagh, would give rise to dozens of Shaheen Baghs throughout the country.  The government found in the coronavirus pandemic three months later a pretext to shut down a movement that they were barely able to control.  Now the farmers’ movement has opened yet another and utterly absorbing chapter in India’s tryst with ahimsa.  One way to circumvent the assassins of Gandhi’s memory is, in keeping with his own thinking, to reinvent and reimagine the idea of nonviolence for our own times. There can be no greater task than this at this juncture of history.

First published by ABP at abplive.in under the same title on 30 January 2021.

Also published in these Indian languages:

in Hindi as कैसे लड़ें गांधी की स्मृतियों के हत्यारों से?

in Bengali as ব্লগ: মহাত্মা গাঁধীর ঘাতকদের স্মৃতিতে

in Marathi as गांधींच्या स्मृतींची हत्या

in Punjabi as ਕੌਣ ਹੈ ਗਾਂਧੀ ਦੀਆਂ ਯਾਦਾਂ ਦਾ ਕਾਤਲ, ਕਿਵੇਂ ਕੀਤਾ ਜਾਵੇ ਨਾਕਾਮ?

Translated into Ukranian by Anna Matesh as Убивці пам’яті Ганді

Translated into Polish by Marek Murawski and available here.

Translated into Uzbek by Sherali Niyazova and available here.

The Impunity of White Terrorists

Vinay Lal

What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.  He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view.  Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy.  Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.

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Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic:  is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power? 

In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”.  America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well:  though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives.  In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos.  The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either.  And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel.  Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally:  democracy in the United States itself become imperiled.  On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world.  It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.

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Imagining Beethoven in India

This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.  In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations:  as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.”  However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir.  Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music.  Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor.  But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music.  A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”.  This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Ludwig van Beethoven: undoubtedly the most famous portrait of him, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.
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The Year that America Unraveled

It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”.  The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”.  Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom.  “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.

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Politics, National Interest, and Legal Cultures at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial

A review essay on Transcultural Justice at the Tokyo TribunalThe Allied Struggle for Justice, 1946-48, ed. Kerstin von Lingen (Leiden:  Brill, 2018).

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), or the Tokyo Trial as it is more widely known, has since its very inception in May 1946 been the country cousin to the more famous, and most scholars would argue more consequential, Nuremburg Trial.  Writing in Foreign Affairs in January 1947, Henry L. Stimson, who had served as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of War between 1940-45, was unequivocal in his assessment of the Nuremberg Trial as “a landmark in the history of international law.”  Sitting in judgment on the war criminals who had taken Nazi Germany and indeed the world to the brink of destruction, the judges representing the US, USSR, Britain, and France succeeded in advancing a number of principles that would become critical in shaping the international law around war crimes, wars of aggression, crimes against humanity, and genocide.  The movement that would in time lead to the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court arose out of the deliberations at Nuremberg.

Maj.Ben Bruce Blakenley, defense counsel, addresses the court at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Far East, Tokyo, on 14 May 1946. Source: http://mylib.nlc.cn/web/guest/djsp/picturelibrary?pictureLibrary.id=47433800F29E4EC9A363C8D2CBC23CA0
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In-Betweenness and Migrancy: A Tribute to Manglesh Dabral–Migrant, Poet, and a Quiet Rebel

Vinay Lal

The Hindi poet, Manglesh Dabral, died in New Delhi last week, felled as many others have been by COVID-19.  Dabral was a quiet, unassuming man, and, according to those who are truly conversant in Hindi poetry, quite likely among the two or three of the greatest Hindi poets of his generation.  He had a long career as a journalist, having been associated with many leading Hindi newspapers and magazines—in Bhopal, Allahabad, and Delhi—over the course of several decades, and his stewardship of the Sunday literary magazine of the newspaper Jansatta, known as Ravivari, was quite legendary.  His obituaries make note of his many distinguished contributions to Indian literature and journalism and all those need not be rehearsed here at length. Though Dabral’s poetry was translated into English and nearly a dozen other European languages, he was himself an accomplished translator into Hindi of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert among others. 

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Yeh Inquilab Hai, Sir: Indian Farmers and the Architecture of Protest

Farmers gathered in protest at the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu on 4 December 2020. Photograph: Agence France-Presse.

Almost to the day, one year ago, the Dadis (or grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh stood up to the Indian state while most of the Indian middle class, which capitulated to the Modi government when it first assumed power in 2014, looked on silently as one of the most remarkable nonviolent protests anywhere in the world was carried out with discipline over several months before the pandemic took over the lives of everyone and furnished the state with the pretext to send the Dadis back to their homes.  Now, with the rebellion of the farmers, a new front has been opened in the battle of the country’s ordinary citizens against a wholly authoritarian government that is frighteningly intolerant of dissent and reeks of the arrogance of power.  “Power tends to corrupts”, the English politician and writer Lord Acton famously declared, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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Secession in Ethiopia: Pluralism in a Modern Nation-State

Ethiopia, a country of around 115 million people, has been over the last few weeks in the thick of a civil war that, the Ethiopian government submits, is now drawing to a close.  The attempted secession of the Tigray region has apparently been thwarted by decisive military action.  It remains to be seen whether the proclamation of victory is justified or premature, but what has been unfolding there should be of special interest to multiethnic states and particularly democracies which are struggling to contain the rising tide of ethnic particularism and xenophobia which is sweeping the world.  For most of the 20th century, the Amhara, with 27 percent of the population, held sway over a country with seventy ethnic groups, among them the Oromo (34%), the Tigray (6%), and Somalis (6%).  The more than four decades long rule of Haile Selassie was brought to an end in September 1974 when the 82-year old Emperor was deposed and a military junta known as the Derg assumed power.  Ethiopia was transformed into a single party Marxist-Leninist state.  For much of that period, the country became indelibly linked, in the worldview of the outsider, with the image of famine; internally, the “Red Terror”, the campaign of repression unleashed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg’s point man, made short work of the regime’s political opponents.

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Reveries of One’s Childhood: A Brief Eulogy for Soumitra Chatterjee

Soumitra as the grief-stricken Apu contemplating a future without his deceased wife, Aparna: a still from Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”)

When Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on November 15, I felt, quite likely in common with many others in India and especially West Bengal who had followed his career, or who had at least more than a passing familiarity with the cinematic oeuvre of Satyajit Ray, as though some part of my own childhood had been yanked from me.  Soumitrada came to fame as the young man Apu who, in the third part of Ray’s trilogy, Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”), has abandoned the village and the life of a family priest for the thrills and hazards of life in the big city:  Calcutta.  It is said that Ray had wanted to cast him as Apu in the second part of the trilogy, Aparajito, but he was too old for the part of the young Apu.  Yet, such was the spell cast by Soumitra Chatterjee, it seems as if even the child and adolescent Apu were played by him.  The trilogy closes out Apu’s life, but so many lives of the young were set in motion with Apu’s life.  Soumitra Chatterjee, one felt, had been Apu throughout; and Apu’s life became one’s own.

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