I imagine you believe that he was for the most part adored; in fact he was hated and he is still hated today. Hatred is still alive in India and he died of it… But the simple fact that he lived according to his own law — which was ascetic and demanding of himself was something people could not tolerate.” French writer Hélène Cixous turns to Gandhi to compare his life with the ways of writing that “may hurt, may dissatisfy and give the feeling that something is taken away.” Gandhi’s life, like the rigorous writings of Clarice Lispector, Jean Genet or Marina Tsvetaeva, was a continuous exercise or struggle to live his life his own way, evolve a living principle that unsettled and embarrassed.
Gandhi’s first test of sacredness was the ability to clean the night soil of others. Similarly, he befriended the British while fighting against their unjust rule in India, reminding them that their stay in India was unethical by their own standards. He was a deeply religious man, refusing to separate politics from religion, and yet imagined a nation not based on the principles of any faith and chose the agnostic, if not irreligious, Jawaharlal Nehru as his successor. For this decision, his disciples started hating him secretly. He declared that India would be partitioned over his dead body and yet asked the government of India to honour its commitment by giving Pakistan its share of assets from the treasury of undivided India.
This is the charge repeatedly brought against Gandhi — why did he not die for the “Akhandata” of Bharat, and why did he keep insisting that Pakistan be dealt with humanely? We are asked to understand and appreciate the decision to put him to death for his stubborn act of trying to help an enemy nation when it was at war with us. There is a widespread feeling that India would have achieved a much neater and cleaner self-identity as a nation, save for Gandhi’s insistence on equal status for Muslims and Christians living in a nation of Hindu majority. Gandhi is blamed for the confused Indian identity, or for making it “unclean”.
He had to die, then. Just 12 days before his final moments, he had returned from the verge of death. On January 18, 1948, Gandhi broke the fast he had commenced on January 13, as he could not bear to live in a Delhi where he could move around with ease but his friends Zakir Hussain and Shaheed Suhrawardy were not safe. He could not allow his fellow Hindus to take over the properties of Muslims and drive them out, capture mosques and turn them into temples. Hatred was flowing on the streets of Delhi. Gandhi knew that it was a “do or die” moment for him. D.G. Tendulkar writes in his masterly biography of Gandhi, Mahatma: “We are steadily losing hold on Delhi,” Gandhi mentioned to a friend. “If it goes, India goes and with that goes the last hope of world peace.” He found that his appeal for peace and understanding had no takers. He felt that he had no other way but to put himself on trial once more, this time to protest against the wrong done by his society.
Delhi was sheltering Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan who had lost everything and suffered the worst kinds of atrocities. To ask them to vacate Muslim properties was an audacious demand. Muslims in Delhi had left their colonies and taken shelter in Purana Qila and Jama Masjid.
Gandhi said, “It will end when and if I am satisfied that there is a union of hearts of all communities brought about without any outside pressure but from an awakened sense of duty.” Gandhi was very clear about the nature and objective of his mission. He said that he was fasting on behalf of Muslims in India and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, that he would rather die than be a helpless witness to the destruction of Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. This destruction was certain if Pakistan ensured no equality of status and security to people professing various faiths, and if India copied Pakistan.
The fast excited contradictory passions. Slogans like Marta hai to Marne do (Let him die) were heard. He was criticised for undertaking a pro-Muslim fast. Gandhi was unwavering. He patiently dealt with all objections to his fast. But it also forced people to look inward and examine themselves. The fast did generate a lot of goodwill but it also hardened the hatred against him. A day before his killing, a group of refugees came to see him and some of them abused him, holding him responsible for their woes, and asked him to leave them to their miseries and retire to the Himalayas. Gandhi said that his Himalaya was always with him.
Is it surprising that there is no memory of this fast available though our school textbooks, which shun the mention of his killing by a man who was not mad at all? Why is it that schools take their young to Rajghat but seldom think of visiting Birla House, where he was killed? It was not surprising at all that, when the University of Delhi decided to have a course on him, it carefully avoided everything that could be linked to his politics and did not even mention his killing. Is it because the killing of a Hindu by another purer, masculine Hindu embarrasses us? Why have Gandhians been only singing bhajans on this day, never daring to touch the real issue, the killing of Gandhi? Why do we not want to face this moment? Is it because there is no national consensus on how to describe the death? Is it because we want to evade the “why” part of it?
Long after his death, the act of “disembowelling” Gandhi continues. The “abominable” part of him is being removed.
We are trying to get rid of the Gandhi who keeps challenging us and want a Gandhi who, with his bhajan, would put us to sleep. But Gandhi was an eternal rebel. This rebellious Gandhi needs to be rescued. As a first step, we need to visit the moment of his death and gather the courage to face the ghost of Gandhi, who still wanders inside Birla House.
The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University
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