This year, more than ever, January 30 is the day when we are confronted with a tough choice. Are we going to focus on the politics of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination? Or can we grapple with its more fundamental life-sustaining challenges?
In the political domain there has not been a darker moment since Nathuram Godse shot Gandhi on this day 72 years ago. Misinformation about Gandhi’s life and politics is rife. Open admiration for his assassin is common place. There is a serious possibility that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was charged as a co-accused in the conspiracy to kill Gandhi, may be conferred a Bharat Ratna.
The underlying moral and ideological disputes that fuel the pro or anti-Gandhi politics are important. In fact, these run through virtually the entire field of politics in India at present. Above all, this is manifested by the tens of thousands who are reaffirming the humanitarian values of the Indian Constitution in large public gatherings across India.
And yet, if we focus only on the politics of the moment, there is a risk that we may lose sight of the most fundamental questions: What does it really mean to be human? If I want unconditional respect and dignity for all, regardless of their ethnic identity or political affiliation, then how do I have to “be” for this aspiration to be fulfilled?
Human nature, Gandhi said, “will only find itself when it fully realises that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal”. Across the multidimensional political divides there is no shortage of people who will agree with Gandhi on this. The challenge lies at the next level when Gandhi insists that while it is brave to take up arms and die fighting against injustice, it is braver still to refuse to either be violent or to yield. “If death is a certainty in either case, is it not nobler to die with the breast bared to the enemy without malice against him within?” asked Gandhi.
Even among those who broadly admire Gandhi, many would regard this exhortation as unreal. Certainly today, when societies across the world are struggling with unprecedented polarisation, it is easy to doubt if Gandhi’s methods can work against an opponent who is flagrantly arrogant and indifferent to the suffering of those who challenge him or her.
The same sceptics would even ridicule Gandhi for writing letters of appeal to Hitler, perhaps even condemning Gandhi as being naïve. On the contrary, Gandhi had no illusions about Hitler. He knew that Hitler stood for a philosophy that called it cowardice to shrink from carnage. Both Hitler and Mussolini, Gandhi wrote, “exhaust the resources of poetic art in order to glorify organised murder.”
What then was the point of appealing to those who appeared to be monsters?
Because, Gandhi noted, it is human nature that even if we are wrong we tend to resent bitter or sharp criticism.
Today, you can find evidence of this in everyday life as old friends and family members bitterly accuse each other of being on the “wrong” side. Such clashes only further harden positions and cause pain on both sides.
This is why is it important to understand Gandhi’s logic, why he insisted that it is possible to convert Fascists and Nazis: “They belong to the same species as the so-called democracies or, better still, war resisters themselves. They show in their family circles the same tenderness, affection, consideration, and generosity that war resisters are likely to show even outside such circles. The difference is only one of degree.”
In moments of outrage and anger it is excruciatingly difficult to accept that the difference between ourselves and our opponents is only one of degree — for example, when confronted by loved ones who say it is okay if many are killed in order to secure the future of “our own” people. And make no mistake, such moments are being experienced in all communities.
It may seem natural, at this point, to feel superior to those who are brazenly advocating civil war. But is that helpful? Aren’t we then mirroring the anger and hatred which, in the first place, is the problem we are trying to solve?
This is why January 30 is not a day of mourning but rather of celebrating the triumph of Gandhi’s life-sustaining insight that in nonviolence there is no defeat, because “there is no bravery greater than a resolute refusal to bend the knee to an earthly power, no matter how great, and that without bitterness of spirit and in the fullness of faith that the spirit alone lives, nothing else does.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 30, 2020 under the title “The meaning of January 30”. Rajni Bakshi is author of Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi.
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