The Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, near Berlin, is the same concentration camp where the Nazis perfected the method of killing Soviet prisoners of war by firing a neat shot at the back of their neck while pretending to measure their heights. It is also the place where the famous pastor, Martin Niemoller, the one who spoke of the folly of not speaking out when they came for Communists, trade union leaders and then the Jews, was kept. When they came for him, there was no one left to speak for him.
What does not escape your attention is that the police training academy for the region is located cheek-by-jowl to the camp. As part of a political consensus in Germany to ensure that Nazi philosophy is never forgotten, and so never repeated, police training academies are situated near concentration camps. The idea is to keep the horror alive for those who are most visibly identified with the state.
The use of memory as a political tool to preserve sanity and not forget has been the subject of much debate — and some concern too — in Germany. But the broad idea of how one must remember to remember is perhaps modern Germany’s biggest contribution to good sense in the post-war world.
At the Gandhi Smriti, where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, you experience the opposite of remembering. The museum has, no doubt, been refurbished with care and imagination. Its aesthetic speaks to each visitor, but something very important is missing.
The name of the assassin and the ideas that drove him to murder Gandhi find no mention at the memorial. The fact that he was killed is perfunctorily mentioned, but the setting at the memorial is such that you would think you are in Porbandar or Wardha, where he was born and lived for long periods. At Gandhi Smriti, the site where Gandhi was killed, his life indeed is celebrated, but there is no solemn evaluation of his death.
Why is memorialising Gandhi’s death relevant now? The spate of hate crimes and lynchings on the basis of what you look like or eat, have reopened many debates that were once deemed as settled. Being an Indian citizen was once like being part of a large quilt, where a different patch was accepted and, in fact, a matter of pride. Now, when the government speaks of amending the Citizenship Act on the basis of religion or its senior ministers visit those accused of mob attacks on dinner tables, as in Dadri, the signs are clear. They become very graphic when governments, for instance in UP and MP, ask madrasas to prove their patriotism.
When the idea of nation-state arose in Europe, it was embedded in language and a oneness that valued sameness. It was only countries like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia that proposed solid multi-ethnic and religious identities. India was an even bigger exception.
During the Independence struggle, broadly three competing visions emerged: The mainstream Gandhian/Congress concept of a secular and democratic India; the Left idea, shared by Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries and the Communists; and a third exclusivist vision, shared by both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha/ RSS, which saw religious faith/identity as the marker of citizenship and Hindus and Muslims as adversaries. The first two, predictably, clashed with the third vision. The Muslim League got its Pakistan, but the Hindu Rashtra could not be realised since the idea of a modern, secular and democratic republic with a vote to every citizen, prevailed in India.
Hindutvavadis saw Gandhi’s eclecticism and abhorrence of the two-nation theory as a threat to their ideas. The communal hate fuelled by Partition and the quick turn of events between August 1947 and January 1948 created an enabling climate for them to kill Gandhi. This is what Sardar Patel, a devoted Gandhian and then deputy prime minister and home minister, meant when he wrote the letter banning the RSS, referring to the “cult of violence” that had whipped up enough hate to murder the Mahatma.
Gandhi Smriti alludes to the killer, a “madman”. It speaks of the hatya, but not the politics that killed the Mahatma. The phrase “madman” was used by a distraught Pandit Nehru when he addressed the crowd to douse communal fires. But, certainly, seven decades on, it is time to strip the madness of its camouflage and confront the beast in the tent. In countries that have been able to prevent a repeat of hate, spelling out and recalling those episodes, like the Third Reich, are very important.
The Partition museum that has come up in Amritsar might be a good beginning to start thinking clearly about the hate that broke up the Subcontinent. Even merely recalling the ideas that allowed hatriotism to masquerade as patriotism would be a revolutionary act. History will not repeat itself as parody or farce, if only we remember.