If MK Gandhi were alive today, he might have a difficult time recognizing the country he helped win freedom for, 72 years ago. For not only have his ideals been forgotten, India has chosen to go in quite the opposite direction, especially in this millennium. Still, the country is commemorating his 150th birth anniversary and so it’s worthwhile thinking about what he might have to say, if he saw the state of the nation today.
Surely, the first thing he’d notice is the fraying of the secular and pluralist fabric of this nation. The rise of Hindutva politics as well as the complete communalization of life in every sphere would sadden him no end. For a leader who invented “satyagraha” and fast unto death as a form of protest, he had gone on such fasts, innumerable times, not just to win us our freedom, but equally, to get Hindus and Muslims to make peace and to stop communal riots. For him to see state-approved or at least silence-approved communal violence, would have been quite out of the question.
The violence of our times, especially in the last decade or so would have made him angrier still. All the killings, lynchings and rapes in the name of religion and caste that have taken so many lives and polarized Indian society are acts he would have condemned outright. It is another matter that he himself fell to the bullets of a raging religious bigot and fanatic, but he would have chosen the form of protest he knew best to stop the killings: fasting.
The complete emasculation of rural life and the state of farmers in our villages would have caused Gandhi great pain. If he were to see farmers’ falling incomes, rising debt and farmer suicides, or indeed, their land being taken away with little recompense or rehabilitation, he would have probably led a march to the legislative assembly and to parliament, the way farmers did last year. He always thought India lived in her villages and that they were the pride of the country. He would have loved to see our villages thrive and grow into larger communities, farming becoming a sustainable occupation, along with handicrafts and small industries.
Though Gandhi didn’t agree with many of Nehru’s plans to industrialise and modernize India, Nehru himself saw sense in Gandhi’s vision for India’s villages. And together, they would have taken the country to a future where cities and villages, industry and farming coexisted and helped to grow each other. Sadly, that is not where India is headed today.
If Gandhi saw the state of India’s land, her rivers and forests, coastlines and mountains, he would have lamented our idea of progress. He would not have allowed indiscriminate damming of our rivers, land being cleared for mines, groundwater being pumped out of existence, the pollution in our air and waters, and worse. Gandhi would have certainly not stood by and watched, while legislators themselves dilute environmental laws and regulations to benefit certain vested interests, whether it be for industry and mining, or for tourism and everything else that we call development. He would also have questioned our insatiable appetites for consumption and our crass consumerism. And while it is true that the Gandhian way of life is not for everyone, we can certainly bring greater balance and moderation into our lives and how much we consume.
But nothing would have made him sadder than to see the space for democracy itself shrink, the way it has in the past 5 years and more. Entire institutions are being undermined, if not destroyed, with an impunity not seen since the British left India. To simply have a different point of view and express it in these times could be a crime, for we can be charged with sedition (an arcane British law that Britain herself has long done away with) and be called anti-national. People, including intellectuals, are being killed for the power of their thoughts, while others are put away under some unsubstantiated charge or the other, for simply expressing their ideas and views. New names and labels are being invented to ‘brand’ liberals who dare to think and speak differently: urban naxals, the Khan market gang, and so on.
Gandhi would certainly have seen all these as sure signs of the beginning of authoritarian and perhaps even totalitarian India. So, as we commemorate his 150th birth anniversary, let us be mindful of what he might have expressed as his greatest lament today: that the people of an entire state in India should be kept under complete lockdown for almost two months. That their leaders should be under house arrest. That their future should be decided by New Delhi without prior consultation or discussion.
The Indian government will, no doubt, put on a big show to commemorate this day. But, as Ram Guha has written in this piece recently in The Telegraph, it will ring false and will be complete hypocrisy. In fact, let me also say here that every attempt to vilify Jawaharlal Nehru by today’s leadership is equally an attack on Gandhi and to question his judgement. For Gandhi supported and indeed, endorsed, Nehru as the ideal Prime Minister to lead India into the future.
On the eve of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, we have the chief of the RSS saying that India is a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation) and that it is non-negotiable. We also recently heard the US president anoint Narendra Modi as the “father of India”. This might be the “New India” that this government has in mind, but this is certainly not the India whose freedom Gandhi fought for, and ended up giving his life for.
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.mahatma gandhi