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 Rhetoric of Relevance and the Graveyard of Gandhi

(Also published on the website of HIMAL Magazine)

As India prepares to mark the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, the tired old question of Gandhi’s ‘relevance’ will be rehearsed in the press.  Once we are past the common rituals, we are certain to hear that the spiral of violence in which much of the world seems to be caught demonstrates Gandhi’s continuing ‘relevance’.  Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the Presidency of the United States furnishes one of the latest iterations of the globalizing tendencies of the Gandhian narrative.  Unlike his predecessor, who flaunted his disdain for reading, Obama is said to have a passion for books; and Gandhi’s autobiography has been described as occupying a prominent place in the reading that has shaped the country’s first African American President. Obama gravitated from “Change We Can Believe In” to “Change We Need”, but in either case the slogan is reminiscent of the saying with which Gandhi’s name is firmly, indeed irrevocably, attached:  “We Must Become the Change We Want To See In the World.”  Obama’s Nobel Prize Lecture twice invoked Gandhi, if only to rehearse some familiar clichés – among them, the argument, which has seldom been scrutinized, so infallible it seems, that Gandhian nonviolence only succeeded because his foes were the gentlemanly English rather than Nazi brutes or Stalinist thugs.

Let me, however, leave aside for the present both the question of Obama’s Gandhi and the liberal’s Gandhi, and turn rather briefly to some more general problems in the consideration of Gandhi’s place in world history.  The Gandhi that is known around the world, and to a substantial degree even in India, is principally the architect and supreme practitioner of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and the prime example of the ‘man of peace’.  The general sentiment underlying this view is clear enough, even if one thought of bringing to the fore evident objections to such a characterization of Gandhi.  One might argue, as some historians have, that the role of Gandhian nonviolence in the achievement of Indian independence has been overstated, or one could adopt the view, a more nuanced and interesting one, that ‘peace’ was not particularly part of the vocabulary with which he operated.  The centrality of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truth) to Gandhi’s way of thinking aside, if one had to add another set of terms that might signify his practices and thought alike, then one would perforce think of brahmacharya (celibacy, closeness to God), tapasya (sacrifice, self-suffering), aparigraha (non-possession), and so on.   Though silence was an integral part of his spiritual and political discipline, Gandhi studiously avoided speaking of shanti (peace).  One of the many reasons he did so is that peace has all too often been used as the pretext to wage war.  Describing the barbarous conduct of the Romans some 2,000 years ago, the historian Caius Tacitus put it rather aptly: ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  I suspect, moreover, that if Gandhi had been alive to see how he has been packaged, sold, and denuded of all insights and vitality by the practitioners of what are called ‘peace studies’, he would have been rather pleased at his insistence on nonviolent resistance rather than on peace.

Supposing that Gandhi is a supremely world historical figure, what is being invoked is the principal figure in the twentieth century associated with peace and nonviolence.  But this Gandhi, many will be surprised to hear, is a somewhat impoverished figure, one who cannot easily be reconciled with the Gandhi who was an emphatic critic of nearly all the critical categories of modern political and humanist thought.  Let me, by way of illustration, take up very briefly two ideas that have reigned supreme in our times.  Most political thinking in the West over the course of the last century has been riveted on the question of ‘rights’, and recent political movements in the West have, in addition to the rights of the individual, vigorously asserted the rights of groups, whether defined with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or some other marker of identity.  Gandhi, at least in the received view, might reasonably be seen as falling entirely within this framework.  One can surely describe Gandhi as someone who initiated the modern campaigns against colonialism, racism, and xenophobia, and in this respect he can be viewed as an advocate of the right of people to live an unfettered life of dignity.

And, yet, if one should thus be tempted to assimilate Gandhi into a pantheon of the champions of human rights, one would doubtless be obscuring his profound skepticism towards the discourse of rights.  Rights are ordinarily claimed against the state, and those desirous of staking claims look up to the state to safeguard their rights. Gandhi recognized the state as, not infrequently, the most egregious violator of rights, and generally had little if any enthusiasm for the modern nation-state.  Indeed, Gandhi is distinct among modern political figures in decisively rejecting the narrow association that the idea of citizenship has come to have with the demand for rights, and in reinstating the concept of duty.  At the height of a struggle with the ruler of his native Rajkot late in his life, Gandhi averred that “in swaraj based on ahimsa, people need not know their rights, but it is necessary for them to know their duties.  There is no duty but creates a corresponding right, and those are true rights which flow from a due performance of one’s duties.”

We can also, in a similar vein, turn to Gandhi’s unflinching skepticism towards ‘history’ as a dramatic example of his repudiation of the liberal traditions of learning of the modern West and of the categories of thought marshaled by modern knowledge systems.  The story of how Indian nationalists responded to the colonial charge that Indians were deficient in the historical sensibility has been told often enough and need scarcely be repeated here, but suffice to note that nationalist thought was heavily invested in the idea of history and the commitment to history took many forms.  Whatever the ideological differences between armed revolutionaries, liberals, constitutionalists, Indian Tories, and Hindu supremacists, they were all agreed that that an Indian history, for and by Indians, was the supreme requirement of the day.  Here, as in so many matters, Gandhi struck a lonely path, departing from the main strands of nationalist thought.   It would be trivial to suggest that Gandhi did not lack an awareness of the past; but had he lacked such awareness, it is far from certain that he would have viewed his ignorance as a shortcoming.  Gandhi’s indisposition towards viewing the Mahabharatra, Ramayana or the puranic material as a historical record is pronounced; but he went much further, as in this pronouncement from 1924: “I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history.  It is my pet theory that our Hindu ancestors solved the question for us by ignoring history as it is understood today and by building on slight events their philosophical structure.”  Though I myself am a teacher of history, Gandhi’s profound misgivings about the enterprise of history strike me as just and even prescient.  Among other considerations, such as his manifest concern about the pernicious attempts to transform Hinduism from a religion predominantly of mythos to one of history, he was also fully aware that nineteenth century ideas about history, and the inevitability of human progress, were but forms of social evolutionism.  Gandhi resisted the idea that the only history that India could live out was someone else’s history.

My point here may be encapsulated in the following way:  Gandhi has an inescapable presence in intellectual and public spheres, and in the knowledge industry, but in the most predictable ways.  The shapers of opinion and the framers of knowledge have entirely neutralized him, or, in the provocative language of Hind Swaraj, for which ‘world history’ has absolutely no use, rendered him effete.  (Elsewhere, I have written extensively on the cultural politics of sexuality surrounding Gandhi’s life, and my use of ‘effete’ is quite deliberate and self-reflexive.)  There is room for him as an Indian nationalist who articulated some unusual ideas of nonviolent resistance, forged a mass anti-colonial struggle against the British, fought to bring peace to communities torn apart by violence, and agitated for various social reforms.  It is unnecessary, for the purposes of this argument, to point to those critics who would describe him as a reactionary, a friend of the industrialists, an enemy of Dalits, an opponent of class warfare, and so on.   Recently, Mayawati and the Slovenian philosopher-clown Slavok Zizek have found common cause in describing him as more violent than Hitler.  Gandhi’s admirers have, it appear to me, sanitized him enough, and evidently have little patience for his withering critique of modernity, his strictures against Western systems of education, his sexual Puritanism, or his indifference to what I could describe as the regime of modern aesthetics.

Thus, on the eve of the anniversary of his assassination, the question of his ‘relevance’ strikes me as supremely irrelevant.  We should think rather of liberating Gandhi from everything that has beautifully conspired to constrain him.  First there were the Gandhians, a largely unattractive and insipid if well-intentioned lot who, like many practitioners of formal religions, followed all the external signs but showed little of the creativity of Gandhi.  Then there have been the infernal statues, towards which the pigeons have shown an admirable irreverence that would have made Gandhi laugh.   As the Gandhians aged and the statues had normalized Gandhi, the peace studies practitioners came forward with their institutionalized programs of study for peace administrators and conflict managers.  This narrative has many other chapters, but it should by now be transparent that the rhetoric of relevance has been the graveyard of Gandhi.