In my book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (2015), I had observed, “Mahatma Gandhi is a man we love to hate and hate to love.” Nowhere is this more evident than on his birthday, 2nd October. The United Nations General Assembly in its resolution of 15 June 2007 undertook to dedicate this day to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness”, reaffirming “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and its commitment “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”.
The resolution, moved by then external affairs minister Anand Sharma, was supported by 140 co-sponsoring countries in addition to India, reflecting the widespread respect for the Mahatma. Repeating Gandhi’s words, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man,” the resolution upheld Gandhi’s most cherished belief in its power and efficacy in our world.
But, today, when the world observes the “International Day of Non-Violence,” India is filled with Gandhi-haters and Gandhi-baiters. One group blames him for Partition. Another for being a British stooge, lackey, and collaboration. A third says he emasculated the Hindus and was partial to the Muslims. A fourth call him a child molester and sexual pervert. A fifth an enemy of women and of the Dalits. A sixth alleges that he was racist and wants to “cancel Gandhi”.
These groups become very active on social media on 2nd October each year. They not only attack, ridicule, and deride Gandhi, but also troll and harass anyone they think is a Gandhi-supporter. To show him as a moral degenerate, they post doctored images of Gandhi dancing, in typical loincloth and stick, with white ladies in skirts smoking cigarettes. They remind the nation of his many failings, fads, and perversions. They do not stop short of saying that Gandhi was a traitor and all those who support him are betraying Bharat Mata and Hinduism today.
While this barrage of bilge and bile is unleashed on social media on 2nd October, our political leaders, regardless of their party or ideological bias, are busy paying homage to the Mahatma. They garland his statues, organise official functions all over the country to mark his birth anniversary. VIP movement to Raj Ghat and Gandhi Smriti blocks traffic. The tight security cover means that anyone with a true feeling for the so-called Father of the Nation would best avoid going to any monument of significance associated with on this day.
Sadly, the old-style Gandhians are all but gone from our midst. Some of these were people who wore only khadi, often spinning every day themselves. They were easily identifiable. Not only by their clothes, which were usually coarse, hand-washed, and unpressed but by simplicity combined with austerity, even to the point of hardness.
Many of them had taken ashram vows, which included celibacy and non-possession, in addition to non-violence. They never smoked, drank, or even indulged in simple stimulants such as tea or coffee, let alone the fancier things of life. They believed in simple living and high thinking. Gandhian institutions too, when not government-supported or controlled, declined. The pay was simply not sufficient, let alone commensurate with the rising costs of living.
The older Gandhians were like dinosaurs, whose age had passed. Non-violence as a national policy, let alone the ruling ideology, had failed. First Partition and its attendant horrors. Then the wars with Pakistan and China. Then civil strife and riots. Where was the place for non-violence in such a world of increasing violence, whether direct or indirect?
The latter included the violence of poverty and inequality, of discrimination and exclusion. And, of course, the reactive counter-violence of the dispossessed and marginalised. The tremendous violence against planet earth itself, which was the basis of the plethora of production and consumption of modern society, not to mention the over-exploitation and destruction of the environment. And the daily killing in the very food that we ate.
What, then, is it about Bapu that refuses to die? Why does he still persist in our midst? This is the question that people never fail to ask. As one of the last of living old-style Gandhians, somewhat irritated, might put it, “Why bother about Bapu? Why try to pay lip service to him just on his birthday, only to ignore and reject him and everything that he stood for on all the other days of the year?” Then, as if to clinch the argument, “Even Khadi sold through the Khadi Bhandars is hardly khadi—it is polyvastra, synthetic fibre, with a khadi look. Why so much lies and hypocrisy in his name? Why not let the old man rest in peace?”
But that is precisely what makes Gandhi so annoying. He refuses to “rest in peace”. As Sarojini Naidu so eloquently said in her broadcast to the nation on All India Radio two days after his assassination, “May the soul of my master, my leader, my father rest not in peace, not in peace, but let his ashes be so dynamically alive… let the powder of his bones be so charged with life and inspiration that the whole of India will after his death be revitalised into the reality of freedom. My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest.”
If any of what I have outlined above is true, what should we do on 2nd October? If we know or respect Gandhi even a wee bit, then we should remember that what he cared for above all was the truth. Truth, both as sat or that which is and as satya, the ontological, metaphysical, and axiological principles derived from it, would enjoin upon ourselves to admit the only one overwhelming truth about ourselves and our nation. For Gandhi, without truth, there could be no non-injury or ahimsa.
I would even go to the extent of saying that truth is the last leg of the legendary bull of Dharma, who as the legend goes, is now standing on only one leg in Kaliyuga. That is why we should be honest enough to admit that we don’t care for Bapu today. Far from respecting truth and practicing it ourselves, we are actually a nation that compulsively rehearses its opposite at various levels of our public and private life.
But we would also ask ourselves what is India without truth? What is India without non-violence? Who would respect us if this was not the land of the rishis and heroes of yore, if Buddha, Sankara, Nanak, Chaitanya, Vivekananda, and Gandhi ceased to move and inspire us to become better and more responsible human beings? Would we still adhere, even a little, to Dharma (righteousness) and continue to strive for Moksha (liberation)? Finally, without Gandhi would Hindu unity itself be possible?
The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.