It is an axiom that a nation can forget its great leaders only at its own peril. Indeed, some leaders have a far-reaching influence on the nation in its onward march, as they serve as a lighthouse. If there ever was one leader in modern India in whom the characteristic civilisational ethos of India manifested as living truth, it was Mahatma Gandhi. In his 150th anniversary year, we ought to recall the words and actions of this great man who will remain an everlasting source of inspiration for the world.
If we have embalmed the man with the epithet father of the nation, we do need to reflect whether he would be at ease, leave alone he be happy, with the state of the nation today. The question that we need to begin with is: Is this the India of Gandhiji’s dreams?
There seems to be a general unease among the populace at large, from villages to cities. Some sections at more unease than others because of their community identities and markers. Sadly, this unease is barely reaching those who are in the driving seats of the nation.
Today, when communal disharmony and enmities — primarily between Hindus and Muslims — have reached an unprecedented height, we need leaders with a Gandhian moral urgency to address the situation. We need to recall that these issues had primacy over the attainment of swaraj in the Gandhian worldview. This pervasive communalised environment has unleashed institutionalised as well as ad hoc rabid forces with an exclusivist agenda. This agenda wants to push those already on margins, most pronouncedly Muslims, further to the edge with disparaging appellations such as anti-Hindu, misogynist, extremist, etc. This has created a stark polarisation, where the political class as a whole shies away from stating the obvious for fear of eroding their vote-bank. In such an environment, it is not the principles of civility or constitutional ethos of rights or the equality of rule of law that informs and nudges our leadership. Gandhi must feel ashamed.
For Gandhiji, India’s religious and linguistic diversity was an asset, not a liability. His use of metaphors like “clay pot” and the “oceanic circle” while talking about nurturing civic nationalism is quite fascinating and needs to be emulated. Moreover, as opposed to V D Savarkar’s understanding, he wants to see a deep emotional tie between different sub-national groups.
In today’s times, when general misconceptions and outright fallacies about Muslims and Islam are spread with unrestrained passion, we need to recall how Gandhiji had to deal with the similar issues in his day — most prominently immediately, during and just after Partition. His writings, speeches and actions did much to imbibe the moral ethos of a composite culture in the warring communities. He didn’t allow the majoritarian perception about Islam and Muslims to become a verity. True to the great syncretic and evolved tradition of India, he proceeded to understand Islam and Muslims not through hearsay and tittle-tattle but his own reading of the Quran, the Prophet and Muslims he had lived and grown up with. He approached it with objectivity and sobriety and found Islam essentially to be a religion of peace and the Prophet as a pure soul with pious purpose.
Gandhiji was, in many ways. the Indian equivalent of Thomas Carlyle who shook the prejudicial attitude of Jews and Christians towards Islam and Muslims through his 1840 lecture titled “The Hero as Prophet”, where he showered praise on Islam and called the Prophet genuine, compassionate and humane. It was Gandhiji’s commitment to communal harmony that led him to engage with great freedom fighters like Maulana Mahmood Hasan and Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, among many other stalwarts of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind.
However, the violence and intimidation against the oppressed by organised zealots and individual psychopaths alike have made minorities feverishly insecure. This insecurity — physical as well as psychological — when matched with material privations has engendered a sense of estrangement and helplessness, which bodes ill for any civilised, democratic polity.
In such a situation, Gandhiji should serve as a reminder that the idea of swaraj has as a central tenet the notion of “sarvodaya”. As a nation, we must assure that our minorities must feel at home, fully partaking in public life as free and equal citizens. Gandhiji’s ethical concepts and moral universe are capable of dealing with the violent sectarian politics that is being unleashed today.
Finally, a sane voice from the East needs to have a dialogue with the hegemonic West. As the humongous force of globalised capital has created havoc — destabilising nations and endangering peace — a counter-hegemonic discourse is the need of the hour. This capital, the biggest Satan of our time, has already destroyed lives in many poorer nations. It constantly puts up “enemies” as a trope to find new sources of profit. It has unleashed crass materialism and consumerism that is eating into away at the norms of family and community. We must face this onslaught with the moral force Gandhiji employed throughout his political career. Our fight must remain, under all circumstances, non-violent.