Modern India grapples with Godse’s ghost

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

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