This year, on January 30 — the day commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination — a group of people led by a woman stood before a large cut-out of Gandhiji. The woman was wielding an air pistol which she aimed at the image and shot at point-blank range — reminiscent of the original assassination by Nathuram Vinayak Godse. Then, each one in the group followed suit. This was followed by an announcement that the performance would be an annual event.
Watching the unbelievable video clip of this event, that was making the rounds all over the country, my heart broke. My naive mind started imagining that the culprits would be caught red-handed and put in jail for the extreme act of disrespect and defilement to the Father of the Nation.
Some of us in Thiruvananthapuram got together in front of the government secretariat later and held a meeting to seek pardon from Bapuji for our compatriots’ vandalistic expression of ingratitude and desecration, graphically caught on camera, and, circulated for everyone’s consumption.
Sadly, we were very wrong to believe that people who share such radical beliefs might recognise the error of their ways: Another woman with similar radical beliefs was elected to the Lok Sabha with an astounding margin.
No one would have imagined that Gandhiji could, one day, become an object of malice and hatred in a country that he fought and died for: This has to be seen against the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi being commemorated across the world with installation of his statues in city squares and streets being named after him.
Is our memory so short? Is it possible for us to think about an India without Gandhiji’s spiritual guidance? The Indian independence movement he spearheaded and fought for had no precedent in history. It assumed especially epic proportions as it was fought with the weapons of non-violence and non-cooperation against a mighty empire like the British Raj. Gandhiji could garner the support and involvement of every proud, thinking Indian in his struggle. Freedom from colonisation was the birthright of each and every citizen of India, he had declared.
He lived a life of such absolute austerity and honesty, that anyone who watched could only learn and be inspired. Gandhiji used to say that his life is his message — and there was no duality about what he professed and practised. His autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, is a testament to how an introverted person overcame inhibitions and how honesty and adherence to personal values moulded him into an individual unafraid to fight for causes — whether for a community or for his country.
Animosity and hatred had no place in his mind. In every difficult confrontation with the British, and even when caught in the midst of religious fanatics with a propensity towards violence, he would resort to satyagraha to cleanse his conscience of any untruth and anger.
A devout Hindu, he always believed in cordial co-existence with other religions. He used to assert that he was a Hindu, Muslim and Christian all at once. He took lessons from Christianity and Islam and also from faiths closer home like Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. He never saw these religions as inimical to his pursuit of sanatana dharma. He was the essential Indian.
Gandhiji’s favourite Hindu god was Ram, but I think he was also highly influenced by Lord Krishna, who was an adept statesman and had great tact in solving complex worldly problems: Gandhiji’s personality was a unique combination of both these puranic purushas. Otherwise, he could not have negotiated so effectively with the British for so long till we achieved freedom. One need only study the stance Gandhiji took regarding the participation of Indians in World War I. The British did not keep their promise that once the War was over, India’s claim for independence would be considered. Undeterred, he went on to ensure an overwhelming Indian participation in World War II as a tactical means of bargain. This time, after the War was over, the British had to relent and active parleys started.
It should be remembered that the prefix of “Mahatma” was bestowed on him by no less a personality than Rabindranath Tagore. On his visit to Santiniketan, when Gandhiji addressed Tagore as Gurudev, Tagore in turn addressed him as Mahatma. Gandhiji became Mahatma thereafter for the whole country and the rest of the world.
The Indian National Congress and Gandhiji, along with his close associates — Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, B R Ambedkar, Abul Kalam Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose and a host of other leaders — instilled into every Indian the thirst for freedom and the willingness to sacrifice. The strongest-willed and, occasionally, even stubborn among them, was Gandhiji. But he was also the most soft-spoken and understanding. He spoke in Gujarati, Hindi and English depending on the region where he was speaking. His language was simple and direct, and its appeal always deep and clear.
Gandhiji’s life and teachings attracted many admirers — world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr, among many others. Without winning a Nobel, he became the apostle of peace and harmony among people of various faiths and pursuits.
Gandhiji firmly believed that in independent India, democracy should be practised from the grass roots. Gram panchayats were his dream. Men and women who represented the voters, he believed, should be leaders of immaculate character and should serve the people with devotion and selflessness.
Self-reliance was the great mantra he wanted every Indian to practise. For instance, he could make yarn from cotton on a charkha and the yarn could go in for weaving after that for making regular clothes. Every village should become self-sufficient in producing food, clothing and shelter using materials available in its locality, he believed. He asserted that Nature can give what we need, but it cannot feed our greed.
It seemed as if he had a simple solution to every complex problem. While he always preferred our hands to be engaged in producing things, he was never averse to mechanisation that eased and assisted human labour. When the stitching machine was introduced by Singer company, he duly termed it “the most useful machine man has invented”.
The great humanistic philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi is forever. Becoming blind to his contributions does not augur well for humanity and India, in particular. The legacy of this great son of India is for us to celebrate and feel proud of, not denigrate.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 15, 2019 under the title ‘Turning away from Mahatma’. The writer, a filmmaker, studied at Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu.