He may be the “father of the nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters. A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”. On my visit to this monument recently, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation. This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes. If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, celebrated by those who trembled at the thought that the old man would otherwise continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.
The Aga Khan Palace is more than just the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime. One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba. She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of the anti-colonial resistance. It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage, which lasted over 60 years, was brought to an end by her demise. Not only that: Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterised in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement here.
One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be impeccably preserved. There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi. The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them, which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over her. All of the paintings are in want of restoration. Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair — for instance, Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in A Crusader for Humanity.
As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons — except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life. Gandhi experimented, for the greater part of his life, with toilets that would work with little or no water. One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is titled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur. Perhaps, there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over Swacch Bharat, the country has for decades blotted out the idea of public hygiene from its consciousness. India, after all, holds — and by an exceedingly large margin — the world record for open defecation.
Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy under their charge.
The shocking state of disrepair is not likely to excite anyone’s attention. The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable. Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who, not coincidentally, was born in Pune district. Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.
The Maharashtra government is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as an eunuch. It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons because an American scholar, Jim Laine, had done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to its hero. For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.
However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either. Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly titled, “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him. In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to concede that he was a sexist and racist; some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike. The “real” Gandhi, we are being told, has been hidden from history. If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.
Vinay Lal is professor of history, UCLA.