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Sadanand Menon: Speculating on Gandhi


Sadanand Menon  |  New Delhi 

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948. That date, this year marked the sixtieth anniversary of that traumatic moment. People old enough to remember it, speak of a moral sin that seemed to have visited the new nation. A hushed silence descended over the land. We still have not been able to device a 'rite of passage' to free us of the collective guilt of the moment.
I was part of a fascinating group of scholars from different parts of India, who assembled at the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, on January 30, 2008, to interrogate the meaning of that wedge in history. Jointly hosted by the Ashram and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, the meeting brought together Ashis Nandy, Mushirul Hasan, Partha Chatterjee, D L Sheth, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Rajeev Bhargava, Thomas Pantham, Ganesh Devy, Sujata Patel, Sudhir Chandra, Harsh Sethi, Peter deSouza (Director, IIAS), Tridip Suhrud (Gandhi Ashram) and others.
The gathering organised around two distinct streams of reflection. One was to explore the symbolic meaning of that assassination. Was it a moment of moral orphaning of the nation which, even as it was born, killed the 'father' who helped its conception? Did the nation, then, slip into a zone of Oedipal guilt and withdraw into a liminal area of self-flagellation and self-hatred? It is an act inviting interpretation.
The other vector of reflection was along the line of exploring the significance of his absence. Did the Mahatma's death free the nation from the moral constraints that his presence seemed to have imposed on the national conscience? Did his death enable the setting up of a more pragmatic legal-rational-military state? Would the architecture of the nation have been different, had Gandhiji been alive?
It is an interesting historic irony that the boundary line of Gandhi's death almost overlaps the birth of the Indian nation. He was eliminated hardly five months into the national project. In one sense, this enables us to think freely without being burdened by the 'ifs' and 'buts' of historical practice. Contemporary counter-factual exercises regarding the course that history would have taken had events been different is, more and more, a futile, if playfully smart, exercise.
It is tempting to reflect on what the shape of the nation would have been had Gandhi lived longer? How he might have engaged with issues relating to sub-nationality movements, linguistic re-division of states, issues of secularism and communalism, the caste and Dalit question, the continuing exclusion of minorities, the agrarian crisis, compulsory mass education, gender and feminist issues, technology and globalisation, ecological issues including the nuclear question, issues relating to Kashmir and the north-east and so on?
While all this is fodder for the speculation mills, it hardly contributes anything of reflective value to contemporary understanding. The wonderful British historian E H Carr had warned us, in his classic What is History, against the tendentious nature of speculation in history writing. He called it the 'Cleopatra's nose' syndrome. You know, 'If Cleopatra's nose had been longer, the history of the world would have been different', school of history. Indulging in the 'had-Gandhi-been-alive' kind of speculative discourse can be a thoroughly pointless exercise.
Science believes in entropy. Everything has a birth and a change of state. In fact, in most traditional temple architectures and iconography, anything that is installed, has its moment of 'death' inscribed in it. Gandhi too, from the time he was consecrated as 'Bapu', had written out his own script of death. He knew he was destined for a violent death. If it was not several assassination attempts, he himself was constantly threatening suicide through all his 'fast-unto-death' strategies. It seemed inevitable he would be sacrificed at the moment of the nation's liberation; that the new nation would be baptised in his blood.
The point is, Gandhi himself represented a certain repression of dominant political tendencies in the formative phase of the Indian state. The national movement was accompanied by several imaginaries of the nation. By the 1920s, the first OBC movement had begun in the south, which would lead on to the demand for a Dravidasthan. The Communist Party had galvanised into a grand politico-cultural movement by the 1940s. The Dalit movement had mobilised into the demand for a Dalitsthan. The tribal movements were projecting a unified Gondwanaland. The religious majoritarian tendencies were converging around the idea of 'Hindu Rashtram'.
All these tendencies were contained by force of the Gandhian idea of 'swaraj'. Gandhi's position on these questions too changed as he was impacted by developments in each of these areas. But as soon as he died, all of them erupted with a new force. Telengana happened almost immediately, followed by Constitution making, founding of the DMK and anti-Hindi agitations, the linguistic reorganisation of states, the first elected Communist Ministry in Kerala, atrocities on Dalits and so on. The Hindutva factions, with their communal agenda, went underground and slowly worked their subterranean way upwards in forty years.
Yet, there is a lurking suspicion that the political, economic, cultural alternative the country so desperately needs in its present moment of schizophrenia, might come by reconnecting with Gandhian premises (as evident in the Munnabhai films). However, these ideas need a contemporary re-radicalisation. While the myth of Gandhi will continue to haunt current political discourse, his sarcophagus might yet be the new talisman of the nation.

First Published: Fri, February 08 2008. 00:00 IST