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.

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 Solidarity of Oppressed Peoples: A Tribute to E S Reddy, Anti-Apartheid Activist

E S Reddy with Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress from 1967-1991. Tambo passed away in 1993; the Government of South Africa conferred on Reddy the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo in 2013.

On the 1st of this month, Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy passed on.  Not many people have heard of him, outside some circles of Gandhian scholars, anti-apartheid activists, and a smaller number of scholars and students of human rights.  The New York Times noted his passing with a warm and generous obituary, and the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was effusive in his praise of Reddy, whom he lauded as “a man of principle and commitment to human rights; but above all we remember him for epitomizing social solidarity.”  It is characteristic of the shocking insularity into which India has fallen, and the near total disregard in the middle class for what happens in the world outside the US and Pakistan, and to some extent China, that the Indian press took no notice of the passing of this gentle colossus who was born in India in 1925—except, not surprisingly, for an obituary penned by Ramachandra Guha.  The first volume (2013) of Guha’s biography of Gandhi bears this dedication:  “For E. S Reddy — Indian patriot, South African democrat, friend and mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities.”  Guha is generous with his praise, rightfully so, but his judgment that Reddy was the “mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities” is rather erroneous:  the pity of it is that few were even familiar with Reddy, and even fewer used Reddy’s work—those being the ones who had an abiding interest in Gandhi’s South African years and, contrary to the received view, his continuing interest to the end of his life in what was transpiring in South Africa.

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Gandhi, Secularism, and Cultural Democracy

(on the occasion of the birth centenary of Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)

“Gandhiji at Prayer Time, Parnakuti, Poona”, gouache on paper, 1944. The artist is Chittaprosad, the great advocate of the rights of workers and revolutionary artists. Nikhil Chakravarty described in the newspaper People’s War the circumstances under which he painting was done: “Saturday the 6th of May. The papers flashed the news that Gandhiji was going to be released [from the Aga Khan’s Palace, where he had been detained after his call to the nation to “do or die”] at 8. Without a moment’s ado, Chittaprosad and myself took the next train to Poona. Excitement and speculation ran high, but the people as a whole seemed to be as yet too dazed to celebrate it as a day of national jubilation.”

Since the high and the mighty in this ancient land of ours will use the opportunity of Gandhi Jayanti to garland the statues of the Mahatma and spin the usual homilies about the eternal values of truth and nonviolence, values which are being shred to pieces in India, I can turn to the more humble work of attempting to lay out briefly what remains of Gandhi in an India that is increasingly taking the turn towards becoming a Hindu nation.  The attacks on Gandhi are coming fast and furious from every corner.  His assassin, Nathuram Godse, is being hailed by some Indians as a martyr, a true shaheed.  Reportedly, Godse is trending at #1 on Twitter in India. Gandhi’s statues are vandalized and in social media he is accused of the worst atrocities that can be imagined.  Yet Gandhi was in his lifetime synonymous with India.  When Nehru was once asked what is India, he replied with this short sentence:  “Gandhi is India.”

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Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist

In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi.  As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.  In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States.  Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism.  A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).

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The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist: Recollections of Childhood and the Experience of Racism

A Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson—Part I: “Jimmy, What Good Did That Do”

Today, September 22nd, marks the 92nd birthday of the Reverend James M. Lawson, once described by Martin Luther King as the greatest strategist of nonviolence in the US.  I have, on this blog, penned a couple of essays on him over the last 2-3 years, and also included excerpts from our recorded conversations extending to around 26-27 hours which commenced in December 2013 and are now slowly but surely being edited with the aim of creating a compact book on the greatest living practitioner of nonviolence in the United States, one whose experience in training three generations of nonviolent resisters and dissenters extends over 70 years.  Our first conversation took place shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, and was largely on the subject of Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US support of the apartheid regime, and the place of nonviolence in modern politics.  We discussed at length both Mandela’s achievements and what we both saw, though perhaps in different in complementary ways, as some of the shortcomings of the struggle in South Africa—shortcomings which, judging only from the continuing strife and plight of black people in South Africa, may have been considerable.  Excerpts from this discussion will be shared in this blog on the death anniversary of Mandela.

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Just Who Are the Racists? And the Progressives? Excerpts from a conversation with Rev. James Lawson

Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”.  Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson.  John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.  Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.

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A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day

Los Angeles, August 15th

As India marks the 73rd anniversary of its independence, it is once again an opportune moment to reflect on what remains of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that led to India’s deliverance from colonial rule.  The country might seem to have weightier subjects on its mind: the coronavirus continues to cut a blazing trail through much of the country, and whatever actions the state has taken to stem the transmission of the disease have evidently been woefully inadequate.  Tens of millions of people have been thrown into the ranks of the unemployed.  Many people have been cheered, and some startled and dismayed, by the bhoomi pujan conducted by the country’s Prime Minister, who is supposed to represent every citizen without distinction, at Ayodhya in consequence of the 2019 Supreme Court decision that left the path open to Hindu nationalists to raise a grand temple in honor of Rama at his alleged birth place.  That such a ceremony, which seems to be not only about building a temple to augment Hindu pride but also coronating a king, should have taken place at a time when the pandemic is exacting an immense toll says something about the priorities of the present regime.

ModiAtBhoomiPujanAyodhya

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the bhoomi pujan, Ayodhya, 5 August 2020.

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Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

Part II of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident.  Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma.  A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan.  The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.”  There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies:  he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being.  When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.”  Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime.  British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler. Continue reading

What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately of Mohandas Gandhi

First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before.  The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Continue reading