Given the majesty with which he dominated the first half of this painful century, it is truly unfortunate that the debate over the virtual ban on Pradip Dalvi’s Marathi play has not stimulated a meaningful evaluation of Mahatma Gandhi’s historical role and lasting contribution to Indian society. Rather, the outpouring of Left, secular and liberal concern over the ‘suppression of artistic and creative freedom’ appears a thinly veiled pretext to vindicate MF Husain’s controversial works of art by those who have not been able to reconcile themselves to the artists’ sensible retreat in the matter.
We are thus freed of the necessity to equate the Gandhi-Godse question with any other issue and can examine it on merits. To my mind; the Gandhi-Godse question is best understood in the context of the distinct yet overlapping spheres of politics, religion and dissent, all of which properly belong to the public realm. I say this because Gandhi has often been misunderstood (even by his peers) and accused of mixing religion with politics in a fragile and volatile society. A proper appreciation of his concern for morality in politics, however, would show that he understood politics and religion to be separate but complementary and sought to maintain this kinship.
It is nobody’s case that the Mahatma was either a fool or an innocent abroad. He understood and respected the primacy of politics in the public arena. But he alone among his peers appreciated that the sovereignty of religion is larger. He was agreeable to the notion that religion should not exercise political power. Indeed, this is in consonance with the Hindu tradition established at least from the days of Yajnavalkya and Janak.
But Gandhi also had the prescience to recognise the danger of the political realm suppressing and exiling the spiritual realm, a tendency most poignantly illustrated in our times by the erstwhile Soviet Bloc countries. In modern India, Gandhi’s anointed heir Jawaharlal Nehru effected the dreaded divorce between the religious and political spheres with consequences that the nation is still grappling with.
This brings us to the issues Gandhi stood for in his lifetime and the reason he fell to an assassin’s bullet. The Mahatma frankly stated that he regarded the achievement of political freedom as the minor aspect of his life’s work. For him the social tasks he set himself were far more important: overcoming caste acrimony particularly the abolition of untouchability and the uplift of Harijans; emancipation of women; education and economic empowerment of women and depressed sections of society and empowerment of the village community through panchayati raj to end centuries of social and economic stagnation.
Gandhi was at no time insensitive to the perils of reinvigorating Hindu society on the one hand, and accommodating the growing separate political consciousness of the Muslim community. Even as he made the much criticized concession to Muslim separatism, he struggled valiantly to include them in his vision of one Indian nation. Gandhi’s unique style of weaving his political and social campaigns around his prayer meeting makes sense only from this perspective. Yet even today there is no proper appreciation of the enormity of the burden he shouldered alone.
Gandhi’s dharma could openly shun established caste and canon law precisely because it was recognised as the ultimate moral law which, in times of distress, is enunciated by great men. It is no accident that no one thought to assassinate Gandhi for his unconventional views and actions in matters of caste. Yet, Gandhi’s excessive public emphasis on the Jain principle of ahimsa (non-violence in thought word or deed) to contain and channelize the multiple unrest in Indian society of his time, has tended to obscure this principal concern with dharma.
The question remains why was this “half naked fakir” widely acknowledged as a Mahatma in his lifetime, felled by a bullet? I must confess I have not read Dalvi’s play nor was I aware that Godse’s own defence is now a public document. Yet I do share the general public awareness that Godse and his co-conspirators held Gandhi responsible for the vivisection of the country and that the latter’s decision to go on fast to secure Rs 55 crore foreign exchange to the newly created Pakistan proved the proverbial last straw.
It is now widely known that Gandhi was prepare to concede the most unreasonable demands of Jinnah and the Muslim League precisely to avert Partition and that the decision to accept a divided India was taken by Nehru and the Congress Working Committee behind his back. So Godse was wrong on his fact, not to mention his deed. Yet there is no denying that he continues to fascinate the nation with his unrepentant addiction to his side of the story. We need to understand this if we are to lay his ghost.
To my mind, Gandhi’s large failure to return a revitalized Hinduism to its original status as the sheet anchor of Indian nationhood fuelled Godse’s disillusionment. In fairness it must be added that the task was too great for one man, even such a man as the Mahatma. But his almost schizophrenic policy of battling the two-nation theory on the one hand while unduly accommodating Jinnah on the other must have seriously unsettled the Pune conspirators who believed they had found the cause of the Partition in his decision to fast for justice to the fledgling Pakistan. The rest is history.
Given these known facts and speculations, wasn’t it prudent to let the play be staged and allow people to draw their own conclusions? In my view Congress was justified in demanding a ban and home minister Advani wise to ensure it. There is a difference between a book or play read in the privacy of one’s home and a public performance which grab the minds of an unsuspecting audience while giving the culprit the benefit of a powerful last word.
The Times of India, 14 August 1998