Mahatma Gandhi’s Legacy
Less well known is the fact that in the year 2000 global readers of the BBC website were asked to comment on who they thought was the greatest man of the millennium. And it was Mahatma Gandhi
Dilip Simeon Delhi
Recently I was asked to write a couple of lectures for students, undergraduates – on the significance of Gandhi, and on communalism. When I began writing the lectures, which were supposed to be written very simply, I realized that I was not being true to the task of trying to bring across something important about that great man to the younger generation, many of whom may have forgotten. And then I decided to tell his story, and I myself began to research something which I had not done for a very long time which is, I simply began to read through Gandhi’s last utterances over the last weeks of his life.
When I did that, I realized that Gandhi was speaking to us across time, the way his ideas are put together, it’s very clear that it’s a conversation. Everything in Gandhi’s Collected Works also, which is available for all of you who take an interest in it…it’s in the form of a conversation, the discourses and dialogues. And I realized that at the tail end of his life he had undertaken a gigantic task and that if we only cared to listen to him, we would see that he said something so important that it resonates even today, and that it would be of great value to us to pay attention.
I realized in short that his last utterances over his last few weeks especially the one particular week I am going to talk about, were in effect his last testament to the people of India and Pakistan. Let me at this stage point out that he said ‘both India and Pakistan are my countries. I am not going to take a passport for going to Pakistan’. So he died at a moment when he was very lonely, and he was a citizen of both countries or of neither country, and there was a lot of ambivalence and ambiguity regarding his life.
Ashish Nandy has written a whole essay on the assassination of Gandhi indicating somewhere that people were fed up of him, large numbers of people maybe wanted him to die. And we are speaking now on the anniversary of his death, or tomorrow will be the anniversary of his death. Until the time when I was a schoolboy, or even later, I remember that on Gandhi Shahadat Divas there would always be a moment’s silence. We would stand up, there would be a siren blown over the city, and we would know this is the time that Gandhi was assassinated. Now we do not know. Perhaps many people do not even know the significance of January the 30th.
Anyway I will try to sum up a few salient events and utterances of Gandhi in the first half of what I am going to say, and then I will try to give you some kind of interpretation of why I see this as his last will and testament in the second part.
He went on fast on the 13th of January 1948. Now this is very very important, this was his last fast: January the 13th 1948 till January the 18th. It was to be his fifteenth fast in public life, but some people have a different calculation about the number of fasts he undertook. But be that as it may, this fast… Many people say that Gandhi went on fast to get 55 crores transferred from India to Pakistan…see he was betraying the country, and so on and so forth…
Actually the immediate reason for this fast was his demand that the mosque in Mehrauli, [the shrine of Qutubuddin] Bakhtiyar Chishti, be returned to Muslims. It had been seized. I want to have you listen to his own words on this, but I’ll proceed step by step.
This is 1947. September is when Gandhi arrived in Delhi, 9th of September, and he arrived just after coming back from Calcutta. He was en route. He wanted to travel to what became Pakistan, but en route he stopped in Delhi. So the last few months of his life was all spent in trying to grapple with the consequences of partition and the terrible communal outrage and upsurge that was taking place in those days. It started with the so-called Great Calcutta Killing of 1946 which some of you may have heard of which was in August 1946. And after that there was a series of riots and all going on in Bihar, and soon after that Gandhi departed for Noakhali in Bengal and he spent several months in Noakhali trying to bring about some kind of communal peace. Now, this was the time when India was also becoming independent, and Gandhi was isolated. He was isolated from high politics but he was very close to his people. This is the most astonishing thing, when all his lieutenants were all engaged in high political activities, Gandhi was actually spending most of his time with the most ordinary and humble people of India.
At this time in September 1947, there were riots which took place and then Gandhi decided that he had to move to the area where rioting was going on that is in Punjab. And he came in a train, he came to Delhi with the idea of proceeding further. But when he came to Delhi he realized that he could not leave. There were large numbers of Muslims who had been killed in Delhi. On the other hand, there were thousands and thousands of Hindus and Sikhs who were refugees, who had suffered in communal massacres and riots in Punjab and who were coming in to Delhi. Delhi was a gigantic armed camp and a refugee camp. In Diwan Hall, Chandni Chowk, Kingsway Camp, there were the Hindu and Sikh refugees from Punjab, but in Purana Qila, Jamia Milia, there were large numbers of Muslim refugees from inside Delhi itself and from the outskirts – Mewatis had come from Mewat region, they had taken refuge. There were riots against Mewatis. And so Delhi was full of refugees of all kinds.
And Gandhi started working amongst them, he travelled to Panipat, he travelled to Gurgaon, he lived in Delhi, he was told that he could not live in the Bhangi Basti where he always used to live. He used to live in the sweepers’ colony whenever he was in Delhi but he was disallowed from doing so by the Home Minister who feared for his safety and he was then put up in what is now Gandhi Smriti, that is the Birla House. From there he was constantly in communication with hordes of people ranging from politicians to very very humble people who came and visited him.
Now these were the days when he was engaged in some of the thoughts and his dialogues and utterances on what was going on around him. He would also hold regular prayer meetings. In these prayer meetings for instance he would read out passages from the Quran, he would read out passages from the Gita, from the Bible, and in those days you find more and more people objecting.
People would object to him reading anything from the Quran and then he would keep silence. This happened towards the end of his life also.It happened in 1948 also that people would object because they would be full of hatred and then he would say that there is nothing contained here which you could possibly object to. And repeatedly there would be objections and…on one occasion there were three days in a row where he was prevented from reading out from the Quran. And then finally on the appeal of people, other people in the hall [?] he was allowed to do that.
Now I would just like to, just as a reminder of some of the salient aspects of his life, I would simply like to remind you of a very very interesting fact, that two of the most staunchly militant so-called communities in India, the Sikhs and the Pathans, were also the most staunch Gandhians in the course of the national movement. There is no time to go into the details of this, but I will just point out to you that in 1922 there was… the origins of the Akali movement go back to the movement to recapture the Gurudwaras from the control of the pro-British Mahants. And this happened in the aftermath of Jallianwala Bagh which you may have heard of. And the fact that the head Granthi of Darbar Sahib, the Golden Temple, had invited General Dyer to the Golden Temple and presented him with a Saropa. And this outraged the Sikhs who then launched a campaign for getting the Gurudwaras back into their control. So this was a movement which was of a community but it was also an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movement.
One of their agitations of this was called the Guru Ka Bagh Satyagraha to get control of Nanak’s birthplace from the pro-British Mahants and in this satyagraha… it was witnessed by a man called C.F. Andrews…this is just…I want to read it out to you because this is a very very moving eye-witness account. C. F. Andrews, as you know, was Gandhi’s close associate and friend and he was a Christian missionary and he was a sympathizer of the Indian national movement.
He said ‘when I stood face to face with the ultimate moral contest’ – this is ‘September 12, 1922, an eyewitness account – ‘I could understand the strained look and the lips which silently prayed. It is a sight I never wish to see again, a sight incredible to an Englishman. There were four Akali Sikhs with their black turbans facing a band of a dozen police including two English officers. They walked slowly up to the line of the police and were standing silently in front of them. Their hands were placed together in prayer. Then without the slightest provocation on their part the Englishman lunged forward with the head of his laathi which was bound with brass. The blow which I saw was sufficient to fell the Akali Sikh and send him to the ground. He rolled over and slowly got up once more and faced the same punishment over and over again. Time and again one of the four was laid prostrate by repeated blows now from the English officer, now from the police. The police committed acts which were brutal and extreme’. He describes some of these.
And ‘many of these people had served in many campaigns in France and Flanders in the First World War in the British army. The were now felled to the ground with the hands of the English official serving in the same government in which they had served. But each blow was turned into a triumph by the spirit in which it was endured. The vow they had made to God was kept to the letter. The onlookers were also praying. These were strong Sikh soldiers and they were praying. It was very rarely that I witnessed any Akali who went forward to suffer flinch from any blow when it was struck. The blows were received one by one without resistance’. This is C.F. Andrew’s assessment. ‘There has been something far greater in this event than a mere dispute about land and property. It has gone far beyond the technical questions of legal possession and this day a new heroism learned through suffering has arisen in the land. A new lesson in moral warfare has been taught to the world’.
This was the Akali agitation. It’s a fascinating account, you can go into it in detail and study it, but it is a very interesting reflection that the origins of the Akali movement were in a Gandhian resistance. Later on the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee Act was passed and these gurudwaras were indeed handed back to the Sikhs.
Just another mention I will bring up of another community upon whom Gandhi’s ahimsa had such a profound impact. And this is all the more strange, I’m talking about the Pathans. That today the Pathans are only known for militancy, and Taliban, and fundamentalism, and jihadi etc and the Americans and Europeans and Nato are engaging with the Pakhtuns… I don’t even know whether they have the slightest knowledge of the fact that this is the area, the homeland of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. This is the homeland of a man who is called the Frontier Gandhi. This is the homeland of a man who is probably the foremost bhakt of Gandhiji. Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
And this movement that he created there which was called the Khudai Khidmatgars. It’s really one of the shining examples of Gandhian satyagraha in the history of India. But neither Indians know it, nor do Pakistanis know it. It’s worth remembering. The Khudai Khidmatgar movement is also known as the Red Shirt movement. And it’s a movement which began in the late 1920s which is around the time that Ghaffar Khan met Gandhi but actually he had been politicized in jail in the early 20s through his contact with a person called Baba Khadak Singh who was an Akali. So it is an Akali who gave the message of Gandhi’s non-violence to Badshah Khan, who was in any case inclined that way, and then he gave his assent, one of our foremost and tallest followers of Gandhiji.
But what’s very interesting is an incident that took place in 1930 in the bazaar of Peshawar. It’s called Kissa Khani Bazaar. This is an area where there was a big Civil Disobedience movement going on, and in those days eyewitness reports say that the streets of Peshawar were resounding with slogans which we would find very odd to hear today—‘Allah ho akbar’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’.
Around that time the Khudai Khidmatgars had virtually taken over the whole city for a few days and the British sent their most loyal regiments of the Garhwal Rifles to crush this…the British called out the army to crush the Civil Disobedience movement which was still non-violent. And in the course of that there was a certain platoon led by a hawaldar called Chander Singh Garhwali. Again this is a hero whom we have all forgotten. We should remember him.
Chandra Singh Garhwali was given the order to open fire on the Pathans. There was an Englishman who gave him the order, who gave the order to fire and Chandra Singh Garhwali retracted the order to fire. And at that time reportedly he said to the English officer that ‘sir these are my countrymen and the Indian army was not meant to shoot Indians’. And thereafter of course he was cashiered and he was sent to jail and so on. Rahul Sankrityayan has written a whole book on Chandra Singh Garhwali, it’s fascinating.
And there are some very nice stories there also of how Chandra Singh Garhwali had first met Gandhiji in 1929 when he had gone up to Bageshwar. And Gandhiji was giving some pravachan at some holy spot, and this man had worn his military hat. And Gandhiji commented on his hat and said ‘do you think you will intimidate me’ – in a half joking way – ‘do you think you can intimidate me with your military hat’. So he said I would gladly wear the Gandhi topi. Then someone gave him a Gandhi topi and he threw it back. He said ‘mai boodhe se hi loonga’. So he threw the cap at Gandhi and Gandhi then handed him the cap and then he stood up and then he did namaste and said one day maybe I’ll be worthy of this.
The same Chandra Singh Garhwali in 1930 refused to open fire on the Pathan demonstrators. Now these are just little stories I am telling you in order to focus on certain things. One is that the Sikhs and the Pathans were some of the most staunch Gandhians in the Indian national movement and it is… I’m telling you this only in order for us to be able to reflect on the power and the stature of his personality. You see if you look simply at his identity, since nowadays everybody focuses on the cultural and the religious identity of someone, then he was a Sanatani Hindu and he was a Baniya from Gujarat. It is very unlikely that Pathans and Sikhs would acquire such a devotional and worshipful attitude to a person who is just a baniya in a dhoti. But if you look at the impact that he had…
In 1938 it was the first time he was allowed to travel to the North-West Frontier Province and the British used to allow Jinnah to go there, they used to allow Maulanas to go there but they never allowed Gandhi to go there.
And when he went there, he told his lieutenants that you see I will never see any guns over here, I don’t want to see any rifles and guns. And there are photographs of that episode and you can get an impression of his impact on them if you just look at the expression on their faces. But anyway..
On 22nd of December 1947, Gandhi made an announcement and I’ll read out what he said: ‘Some eight or ten miles from here in Mehrauli there is a shrine of Qutub-ud-din Bakhtiyar Chishti. It is esteemed to be second only to the shrine at Ajmer. It is visited every year not only by Muslims, but thousands of non-Muslims. Last September this shrine was subjected to the wrath of Hindu mobs. The Muslims living in the vicinity of the shrine for the last eight hundred years had to leave their homes. I mention this sad episode to you that though Muslims love the shrine, no Muslim can be found anywhere near it. It is the duty of Hindus, Sikhs and the officials of the government to open the shrine, and wash this stain off us. The same applies to other shrines and religious places of Muslims in and around Delhi’.
So this is the background to his last fast. 13th to 18th of January 1948, Gandhiji went on a fast… and it was a fast…it began on the thirteenth, he said, ‘I have started my fast. Many people cannot understand what I am doing. Who are the offenders? Hindus or Sikhs or Muslims’ etc and he said ‘I will terminate the fast only when peace has returned to Delhi. If peace is restored to Delhi it will have an effect not only on India but on Pakistan’. So when he was closely questioned about this… people asked him who is it against. He said it is against the Hindus and Sikhs of India, and it is against the Muslims of Pakistan. He said that all religious places should be returned to the people to whom they belonged.
The point about this is that Gandhi’s actions saved us from a predicament of having something like a Babri Masjid controversy on the doorstep of the capital. Few people realize the importance of this. It was a tremendously powerful act. Delhi became visibly affected by this fast and Maulana Azad addressed a gathering of up to three lakh people on the 17thof January and he announced certain tests and preconditions that Gandhi had posed to him and those are fairly simple. That people should be free to move around without any fear. That the property of all communities should be safe and Muslims who had been chased out of Delhi should be asked to come back.
He ended his fast on the 18th. Large numbers of people were coming to see him but interestingly there were also large numbers of people who were marching past saying ‘let Gandhi die’. The atmosphere was full of trauma and hatred. So I am trying to evoke for you the kind of conditions that were prevailing. When he used to go to his prayer meetings there were people weeping and screaming at him. It was not that you know everybody said ‘oh what a great mahatma he is’, not like that’. There were people full of hatred for him. People who said that you are a Muslim lover. You are the man responsible for the deaths of all the Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab. You are the man responsible for the partition of India. You are the man responsible for all this calamity. Actually he was not, there were many other actors in the drama. But this is the atmosphere in which people were venting their feelings and he was trying to calm them.
I mean the impression I get from reading about his last utterances is one of a man of immense and extraordinary strength. I mean even reading about it is so painful…when you realize what was going on, what must have happened to the people who had experienced this.
Anyway, when he was on fast people were coming to him everyday and he was speaking everyday. Despite the fact that he was on fast, he was speaking very weakly. And people from Rajendra Prasad, Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Shah Nawaz Khan, the general from the INA, even the Pakistan high commissioner, were coming to him and saying please lift the fast. You see. And he said, the Pakistan high commissioner, a man called Zahid Hussain, said that I’m getting calls everyday from Pakistan asking about your health.
But the fast had an impact in Delhi. I’m telling you all this because this is our city. This is our city where these things happened in 1948. It had a big impact and then processions of Muslims were taken out in Sabzi Mandi and their Hindu neighbours offered them sweets and so on. So there was… it did have a calming effect on the population of Delhi. Undoubtedly.
And a declaration was made on the 18th of January 1948. It’s a very interesting declaration which was signed by everybody. So it was not a legal document but it was a kind of ethical and moral document which was signed in the presence of Gandhi which again people have forgotten about. It says… it was signed by all these top leaders including members of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, you see…
‘We wish to announce that it is our heartfelt desire that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and members of other communities should once again live in Delhi like brothers and in perfect amity. And we take the pledge that we should protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and the incidents that have occurred in Delhi shall not happen again. We want to assure Gandhiji that the annual fair held at Khwaja Qutub-ud-din’s Mazaar will be held this year as in previous years. Muslims will be able to move around in Sabzi Mandi, Karol Bagh and Paharganj and in other localities just as in the past. The mosques which have been left by Muslims and now in the possession of Hindus and Sikhs will be returned. We shall not object to the return to Delhi of Muslims who had migrated. We assure that all these things will be done by our personal effort and not with the help of the police and military.’ This is very significant. And then finally ‘we request Mahatmaji to believe us and give up his fast’.
So this is the declaration made on the 18th of January 1948 and then Gandhi made a very very moving speech in response to that declaration which I don’t want to read out, there’s no time, but you can see all these things in volume 97 and 98 of Gandhi’s Collected Works online.
Now I will try to sum up for you my interpretation of all these things. In terms of his…as his last testament. In the last weeks of his life, Gandhi spoke his mind to all citizens of India and Pakistan. And I’m saying this is almost in the form of a bhavishyavani. The things that he said about what is going to happen to India and Pakistan are indeed coming true. They are coming true before us today. So when I read these things and when you read about them…if you see what he said…you get the impression that the man is talking to you personally. And that sixty years have evaporated and what he’s saying has profound significance for us and the people of Pakistan. I’m saying all this because I frankly, simply as a political observer, I look in front for the next ten years and I find a pattern…I mean I can sense that there is some kind of disintegration going on. And we will be faced with the consequences of partition. That is, the consequences of the partition of India are still with us. And Gandhi was a man who in those days was saying that this is a sin. And he was telling the Pakistanis also that this is a sin against Islam. And he was telling Hindus that I also believe in Akhand Bharat but not to be won by conquest and violence. It can only be determined by love. It cannot happen if we hate people so much. Anyway.
So he spoke his mind to all citizens of India and Pakistan. As I said he spoke as a citizen of neither country, or as a citizen of both countries. He spoke freely as it was his habit, not sparing anyone, always with respect and an appeal to their better side. He asked Pakistan’s rulers to ensure the safety of minorities and predicted that Pakistan would be an impermanent entity, unless it evolved a secular polity. How true this is. He warned those who were pained by partition that Akhand Bharat or United India could only be established by love and mutual respect, never by force. He spoke to community leaders whose utterances pained him including Muslim leaders who had called him a kafir and the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha who hated him for the respect that he showed to Islam and Muslims.
He discussed the matter of the Somnath temple in Kathiawar, insisting that its restoration could not be paid for by the government of India which was a secular state but only by private donations from devout Hindus. He said, after all we have formed the government for all. It is a secular government, that is, it does not belong to any particular religion. Hence it cannot spend money on the basis of communities. Now mind you, this is a Sanatani Hindu. Jinnah was a secular Muslim. Gandhiji was a Sanatan Dharmi but he was asking for a secular state and Jinnah was calling for a state based on a communal principle. Anyway.
He addressed Sikh refugees in the company of Sheikh Abdullah who was visiting from Kashmir, and hailed the example of Kashmiri Muslims in maintaining communal harmony. He spoke to Sikhs warning them never to misuse the kirpan. The day he ended his fast was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and Gandhi sent a message to Sikhs congratulating them for their victory over anger and ending with the slogan ‘Waheguru ji di fateh’. He sent a special message to fellow Gujaratis. He discussed the issue of a national language and his preference for Hindustani. He spoke to caste Hindus about the evil of untouchability. After recounting the painful experience of oppressed castes of Rohtak he admonished Jats and Ahirs for tormenting them and treating them as slaves. He talked about the Meos, renamed ‘criminal tribes’ by the British who had been forcefully evicted from vast areas in Delhi’s hinterland and called for their rehabilitation. He criticized the Congress party very severely… and certain Congressmen who had begun using power for personal benefit. He spoke to social organizations such as Hindustani Talimi Sangh, Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust and Harijan Sevak Sangh.
He spoke about the individual, he spoke about the community, he spoke about philosophical ideas, religion and the concept of ahimsa. And most of all he spoke words of comfort to refugees crazed by grief, listening calmly to their abuses, and even hatred. ‘Let Gandhi Die’ were the slogans raised by some people while he was on fast. After the fast he continued the custom of reading from the Quran and other holy books and despite protests he would continue to do this. He asked everyone to see reason, to give up the ways of Satan, to remember the best part of their tradition.
But Gandhi was also a man in pain. Now we come to the final part which is his assassination and the effects of it. In his prayer meeting of 25th of November ‘47 he had spoken about those who had been deprived of their homes. ‘If we come to our senses here today everything will be well tomorrow. I too will be free. Today I am much disturbed’, said Gandhi. ‘My life has become a burden to me. I wonder why I am still here. I could become strong, Delhi will restore to sanity then I would rush to west Punjab and tell the Muslims who have gone away from here that I’ve prepared the ground for them and that they should come back. Anytime they want to. But today I have become a sort of burden. There was a time when my word was law but it is no longer so’. Anyway. He sensed as I said, you could read Nandy’s essay on this, perhaps he sensed that he was about to die.
On the 20th of January a bomb exploded seventy five feet away from his desk at Gandhi Smriti, that is now called Gandhi Smriti, the Birla Bhavan. One person called Madanlal Pahwa was arrested. Six other men escaped in a taxi. This was the fifth attempt on his life since 1934. All of them were made by extreme Hindu nationalists. Gandhi was unruffled. Upon being asked by the DIG to agree to additional policemen he refused, saying that his life was in the hands of God. And that if he had to die, no precautions could save him. He would not agree to any restrictions on entry to his prayer meetings. So people were free to come and go, even assassins.
At the next day’s meeting after the bomb exploded he said the man who has exploded the bomb obviously thinks he has been sent by God to destroy me. Incidentally if you read Nathuram Godse’s statement to the court, ‘May It Please Your Honour’, you’ll see that Nathuram Godse actually thought that he was an avatar of Vishnu. He has been sent by Vishnu to finish off the evil-doers. So here is Gandhi saying on the 21st of January that ‘the man who thinks he has been sent by God, he has taken for granted that I am an enemy of Hinduism. When he says he is doing the bidding of God, he is only making God an accomplice, an accomplice in a wicked deed. It cannot be so. Those who are behind him or whose tool he is should know that this sort of thing will never save Hinduism. If Hinduism has to be saved, it will be saved through such work as I am doing. I have been imbibing Hindu dharma right from my childhood’.
On the 30th of January, one Nathuram Godse, editor of a Poona Marathi journal called ‘Hindu Rashtra’, shot at him three times at point blank range and killed him. It’s a very very complex history of this crime and if you read.. it is worth reading what Nathuram Godse had to say about why he killed him, you could see a kind of Mahabharat-type epic symbolism in whatever he was saying. Ordinary concepts of law, morality, ethics did not enter the frame. It was like an epic confrontation and he said ‘with due respect for Mahatma I have to kill him because he has destroyed Hinduism and India’ and so on.
However, very interestingly, I can tell you this as a person who was in the Maoist movement in my youth. There was one prominent Maoist, left-hand man of Charu Majumdar, whose name was Saroj Dutta. And if you read his writings on Gandhi and the type of vituperation and abuse that he directed at Gandhi there is very little difference between what a Maoist had to say and what Nathuram Godse had to say about Gandhi. In terms of their comments on Gandhi their moral is exactly the same. Anyway.
What happened thereafter is very interesting and I will try to sum up with this. There was a trial, and in the trial eight people were put on trial, and two people were convicted and hanged in November 1949, Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte, and one person was acquitted. Five people were sent to jail for fourteen years… actually they were sent to jail for life and they were released in fourteen years. And the person who was acquitted was a man called Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. And Savarkar’s involvement in the conspiracy was attested to during the trial but the judge wanted corroborative evidence and for lack of corroborative evidence Savarkar was let off.
Subsequently there was an outrage in the country, especially because when those five men were released there were sweets distributed in Pune at which Savarkar was also present. And there was a lot of outrage that, you know, these people are celebrating the murder of the Mahatma. And at that point a commission of inquiry was set up called the Justice Jivan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry into the Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. That commission conducted fresh hearings and also interviewed the bodyguard and the personal secretary of Savarkar. And clinching evidence was found that the assassins were actually with Savarkar a few days before the assassination and also before, in the planning. Jivan Lal Kapur came to the conclusion that there is no other theory possible for the assassination but the conspiracy involving Vinayak Damodar Savarkar at its head.
This is a man, Savarkar, whose portrait has been hung in the central hall of parliament. It’s almost as if we as a country are celebrating the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. People don’t know about this. I feel that at least we should know exactly what we are doing.
Now Gandhi died standing up with God’s name on his lips, just as he had always wanted to. He had always said that he was prepared to die for his beliefs. His death could have been prevented. Who can say what would have happened had he been allowed to perform his padyatra to Pakistan. But it was not to be. ‘In the eyes of too many officials’, this is a quote from a biographer of Gandhi called Robert Payne, ‘he was an old man who had outlived his usefulness. He had become expendable. By negligence, indifference, deliberate desire on the part of many faceless people assassination had been accomplished. It was a new kind of murder, the permissive assassination. And there may be many others in the future’.
Now I will conclude with… there’s lots more to tell you but we have limited time. Until the mid 1940s the cycle of partition-related communal massacres had not begun. In the twilight of British power certain political groups and leaders had thrown away the chance of accommodation, despite the opportunities available. So now I’m talking about the 30s and even early 40s. There was a chance of political accommodation. I’m speaking all these things from the standpoint of the partition of India which, as I began by saying, still hangs heavy on us.
But Gandhi spoke of love and mutual respect in the midst of hatred and carnage. Some were pessimists even when there was hope. Gandhi gave people hope even in the midst of despair. He appealed to their better instinct at the worst of times. This is the message of Gandhi’s final fast of January 1948. It is a message from a man of extraordinary strength and courage. After he died, politicians argued about whether he is the son of the nation or the father of the nation. I believe actually that he is neither. He is the foundation. He is the foundation of the Indian union and if you reflect carefully on it you will discover why.
The history of the subcontinent after the death of Gandhi is beyond the scope of what we are discussing. But it’s enough to recall that Jinnah’s Pakistan lasted only twenty four years. It ended in 1971. And it’s noteworthy that the bulk of the people of Pakistan walked out of Pakistan, in 1971. And the logic of communal strife did not end. Gandhi was very right. If we cannot sort out this matter, we will pass under the control of foreign powers. And indeed that seems to be happening. But two symbolic events tell us something about how we have treated the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.
One is in 1998, we exploded nuclear devices in Pokhran. And Gandhiji, you can imagine what he said about the atom bomb.. I’ve written about this…but he said that the generation will come… ‘future generations will curse the scientist who invented this atom bomb’. Anyway.
And in February 2003 the top Indian political leadership placed the portrait of the man behind Gandhi’s assassination in the central hall of parliament. Einstein had famously said of Gandhi that ‘generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth’. Less well known is the fact that in the year 2000 global readers of the BBC website were asked to comment on who they thought was the greatest man of the millennium. And it was Mahatma Gandhi.