It is that time of the year when reverence will be paid to Bapu, the ‘Father of the Nation’. There will be prayer meetings at Rajghat, the national memorial to Gandhi and, in a manner of speaking, his final resting place. The prayer meetings will be led by the President, Prime Minister, and other dignitaries of the state. October 2 is Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday, and the politicians, leaders of society, and other well-wishers and do-gooders in India will be lined up to garland statues of Gandhi, utter a few homilies to the great man, and proclaim his (ever-increasing, it will be affirmed) ‘relevance’ to the world. And then some of these leaders and politicians will head home – home being one place where the laws of prohibition, a cause dear to Gandhi, cannot be enforced on Gandhi Jayanti – to chat on their cell phones, strike a few business deals, and cook up a few new ways of screwing the much-celebrated ‘common man’.
According to some of Gandhi’s detractors, the old man ought more appropriately to have been designated as the ‘Father of Pakistan’. His assassin was unquestionably of that view, and many others in India have thought the same though in Pakistan it will be impossible to dislodge the Qaid-e-Azam from his pedestal. Whatever similarities and differences there may be between Pakistan and India, the laudatory and hagiographic view of Jinnah has not yet taken the kind of beating to which Gandhi has been subjected in India, notwithstanding the halo of divinity which surrounds Gandhi in official pronouncements.
The characterization of Gandhi as ‘Father’ of the ‘Nation’ hides much more than it reveals in many other respects. It has been argued that Gandhi could be ‘father’ to the nation, but found it difficult to be a father, or at least a good one, to his own sons; but perhaps the more interesting way of putting the designation of father into question is to probe whether he was not also a mother to many. His assassin, and Nathuram Godse’s admirers among some who serve in high office in Gujarat, never doubted that the effeminate Gandhi was not fit to lead an emergent nation-state in a world that shows no mercy to those who are soft. Gandhi just didn’t have enough manliness about him, a point that Narendra Modi, who fancies himself a ‘Chota Sardar’, seeks to make by flaunting his masculinity and flashing a sword. There was, as I argued many years ago in the pages of Manushi, too much of the ‘mother’ in the ‘father’ to make Gandhi palatable to the restless modernizing elements in Indian society, and we are not surprised that one of his constant companions in the last years of his life wrote a book entitled, Bapu, My Mother.
In 1998, when India went nuclear, some stalwarts of the Shiv Sena were heard stating with euphoria, ‘We have shown them [Pakistanis and enemies of other varieties, including, one should assume, secular and ‘pseudo-secular’ Hindu liberals] that we are not eunuchs.’ Assuming, then, that the use of nonviolence did not render him into a eunuch, and that Gandhi did not fail his sons at every moment, did Gandhi abide very much by the idea of the ‘nation’? Architect of the independence struggle that he was, Gandhi continued to harbor much ambivalence about the nation, or certainly about the nation-state. His presence in Delhi on 15 August 1947 might have sanctified the idea of the nation-state, but Gandhi chose to be in Calcutta where he was attempting to broker the peace between Hindus and Muslims – more ammunition, of course, for those who always thought of Gandhi as too attentive to the needs of the Muslims. Gandhi presents an extraordinary anomaly of a political figure who, though having led a country to freedom, had almost no emotional, cultural, intellectual, or spiritual investment in the idea of the nation-state.
So, when the prayers are sung and platitudes fill the air at Rajghat, it also becomes necessary to inquire what it means for the samadhi of the ‘Father of the Nation’ to be at Rajghat, the Ghat of Kings. There is a civilizational touch, no doubt, in the idea that a commoner – for, in the last analysis, Gandhi held no office and was singularly devoid of possessions – alone commands the place of King of Kings. At least in principle the idea of celebrating Gandhi’s life by inscribing his presence at Rajghat is congruent with the notion that Indian civilization has honored renunciants, and men and women of wisdom, more than kings. But Rajghat has become a crowded place, and its other occupants are, with one exception, all previous office-bearers, Prime Ministers and President of India, distinguished and otherwise. That exception is the wannabe King of Kings, Sanjay Gandhi. One does really begin to wonder how Mohandas Gandhi landed up in Rajghat.