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In the Name of the Father

Mahatma Gandhi died at the hands of irreligion. This new book tells us why we ought not to forget.


Updated: April 4, 2015 1:48:41 am
Mahatma Gandhi’s body on the terrace of Birla House, as mourners wait below (right); book cover Mahatma Gandhi’s body on the terrace of Birla House, as mourners wait below (right); book cover

Book: The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi

Author: L Makarand Paranjape

Publisher: Random House

Pages: 348 pages

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Price: Rs 599

This book is a meditation on a haunting. India’s tryst with modernity began with genocide and patricide, an “epochal event” that Indians have evaded for decades. The author notes that it was Gandhi’s disciple Sarojini Naidu whose eloquent national broadcast of February 1, 1948, launched the Mahatma’s afterlife at the same time as it sought to “interdict a national soul-searching”. Naidu’s speech ended with her wishing him no rest. Paranjape is at his most sensitive here, bluntly telling us that there can be no escape apart from  a transcendence of the two-nation theory.

Paranjape’s book traverses many moral and psychological themes. Above all, he links the murder of Gandhi to Partition, reminding us that it was “the slaying of a dream, the dream of communal harmony… his murder was an act of communal hatred”. He also meditates upon philosopher BK Mallik’s assessment of the event as a final rejection “of the Indian tradition in its entirety”.

Partition did not resolve communal rifts, but institutionalised them. Gandhi had warned that without mutual friendship and security for all minorities, independence would be imperilled. About those who combined hatred with slogans of Akhand Hindustan, he remarked: “There is nothing in common between me and those who want me to oppose Pakistan except that we are both opposed to the division of the country.

There is a fundamental difference between their opposition and mine. How can love and enmity go together?” That is why he planned to lead kafilas to take refugees back to their homes in both countries. Like Badshah Khan, Gandhi cannot be confined to a nation-statist frame. As Paranjape notes, his memory disturbs us, and it is this disturbance that explains his afterlife.

Although the book develops many lines of theoretical inquiry, an interrogation of the crucial term “nation” would have been appropriate.

Nationalism has emerged as a civic religion and patriotism a political form of prayer. As such, it can combine zealotry even with atheism.

Gandhi’s religiosity was not the basis of his nationalism, but the source of his philosophical questioning. Religious nationalists, whether Hindu or Muslim, conflated the two, producing a hateful perversion that Gandhi intuitively named irreligion. Those who mistake Hindutva for sanatan dharma forget that nation-worship is a manifestation of right-wing atheism, an identitarian numbers-game. The discourse of national homelands for religious communities turned faith into geo-politics; and replaced metaphysics with raison d’etat. To mix philosophy with nationalism renders wisdom itself into an ideology, and it is good to remember that ideology is the antithesis of wisdom.

Paranjape believes that accusations of being involved in the murder directed at the RSS are “best described as political”. That may be true, but so too are its protestations of innocence. As Patel put it, “in the case of a secret organisation like the RSS which has no records of membership… securing of authentic information whether a person is an active member or not is a very difficult task”. There were intelligence reports about the Sangh’s plans for terror. The AICC resolution of November 16, 1947 referred to the RSS, the Muslim National Guard and the Akali Volunteers as “private armies”, a menace to India’s freedom. Paranjape mentions the ban on the RSS, but omits the contents of the communiqué which ended thus: “the cult of violence sponsored and inspired by the activities of the Sangh has claimed many victims. The latest and the most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself”. Given Paranjape’s call for truthfulness, the Sangh’s violent activities required attention.

That Gandhi embodied the persistence of love in the midst of hate was manifest in the worldwide shock at his death. He foresaw his assassination, and Paranjape makes a compelling argument about the Mahatma’s ultimate oblation towards transforming people’s hearts. He cites the American Vincent Sheean recounting the “wavelike disturbance” in his head, as he recoiled from the shock: “I felt the consciousness of the Mahatma leave me then – I know of no other way of expressing this: he left me.” Fazlul Haq, one-time premier of Bengal, compared the assassination to the tragedy of Karbala. Rajagopalachari compared him to Socrates and Jesus.

Gandhi’s stature was a combination of temporal and spiritual authority, says Paranjape, and this is why the elision of his assassination is “a question of gigantic proportions”. He reminds us that patricide is so heinous to Hindus as to be incomprehensible. He re-iterates that partition ideologies destroy societies. Hence it is puzzling to read his query about whether the current “majoritarian political formation” might emerge as a “better guarantor of religious and cultural pluralism”.

The author repeatedly criticises Hindu nationalists for the lie that Gandhi was partial to Muslims. His last fast was meant to restore communal peace in India’s capital; and above all, marked his steadfast rejection of revenge, regardless of who indulged in it. Yet Nathuram Godse did not consider Gandhi the father of the nation, but the father of Pakistan. Those were his words. In which case killing him was not patricide — Godse’s admirers name it Gandhi-vadh. Whom do we execute, if not criminals?

Mahatma Gandhi is among a handful of world historic figures who illuminate the potential of human goodness. By sacrificing his life, avers Paranjape, he “overturned the mechanics of Partition, countering the engines of hatred, violence, domination, destruction and death. Just as he did not live in vain, the Mahatma did not die in vain either”. This moving assessment requires a caveat. The engines of hatred still turn, some among us still celebrate his death. Gandhi’s life is a compass. How we use it is up to us. The riddle remains unresolved, but Makarand Paranjape has labored courageously to place it before us. I urge Indians of all faiths to read it.

Ja ja varde mandir maseeti
Kadi mann apne vich vadeyaa nahi
Avein lardaa hai, shaitaan de naal bandeya
Kadi nafz apne naal ladeya nahi

You keep entering temples and mosques

But you never entered your own mind..

It’s futile, friend, to wrestle with Satan

When you never wrestled with your deepest self  — Bulle Shah

Dilip Simeon is an author who lives in Delhi

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First published on: 04-04-2015 at 01:17:34 am

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