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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Understanding Gandhi

I recently read Tariq Ali’s brilliant piece in Viewpoint (“an activist alternative to the corporate-mainstream media”) on Saadat Hasan Manto, unarguably, South Asia’s best chronicler of the horrors of the subcontinent’s Partition in 1947.

Ali’s piece (Manto & ‘1947’) is a mix of the polemical and the personal, in which he adroitly combines personal history, opinion, translations of poems by Faiz and Sahir to profile Manto and contextualise his continuing relevance to South Asian societies in present times.

Non-partisan historians generally accept Ali’s analyses of the causes of the Partition and its fallout five-and-a-half decades later in South Asia.

He states, “Nehru and Jinnah were both shaken by the orgy of barbarism (of Partition riots). It offended all their instincts. But it was Mahatama Gandhi who paid the ultimate price. For defending the right to live of innocent Muslims in post-Partition India he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a fundamentalist Hindu fanatic. Godse was hanged, but two decades later, Godse’s brother told Channel Four that he regretted nothing. What happened had to happen.

“That past now rots in the present and threatens to further poison the future. The political heirs of the hanged Godse are shoving aside the children of Nehru and Gandhi. The poisonous fog of the religious world has enveloped politics. History, unlike the poets and writers of the sub-continent, is not usually prone to sentiment.”

I was reminded of another interpretation of the dichotomy between the ideas of Gandhi and Godse by Ashis Nandy.

Traditionally, most historians have misconstrued (perhaps deliberately) Gandhi as a liberal secularist not much different from Nehru, which is not to say that Gandhi was an illiberal fundamentalist. But there is a fundamental difference between Gandhi and Nehru and Gandhi defies attempts at such compartmentalisation of people and ideas into mutually exclusive and opposing categories.

Nandy gives a penetrating insight in this dichotomy between Gandhi and Godse (Outside the Imperium: Gandhi’s Cultural Critique of the West from Traditions, Tyranny and Utopia Essays in Politics of AwarenessA VeryPopular Exile, Oxford India Paperbacks).

Nandy notes, “Gandhi died, almost necessarily, at the hands of one who represented the modern world and sought a secular-scientific orientation to statecraft. The young assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, supposedly a religious fanatic, gave a spirited last speech in court before the death sentence was passed on him. It was essentially a fervent, rationalist, modern plea to recognise the dangers Gandhi posed to the growth of the modern state in India and to the conduct of ‘normal’ politics along the lines of Professor Henry Kissinger would have approved of. The plea invoked interesting reactions. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, called Godse  an insane killer who did not know what he had done. Yet, Nehru’s government banned Godse’s last testament lest others should find it too sane. The government knew that it was Godse who was seeking the secular solution, Gandhi the religious.”

Nandy adds, “It is a measure of the success of modern science in India that his ultra-Hindu, Brahmanic assassin accused Gandhi of bringing in anti-scientific ideas like soul force and morality into politics. Nathuram Godse claimed that he had unwittingly to kill Gandhi on behalf of the modern world, especially on behalf of modern ideas of statecraft and rationality, so that the newborn Indian nation could survive. One of Godse’s last wishes was to take the appeal against the death sentence passed on him for killing Gandhi to the Privy Council in Britain – still the highest court of appeal for India in 1948 – so that the world could judge his action impartially. He felt that the modern world would give him a better hearing than the superstitious, effeminate, Hindu admirers of Gandhi in India.”

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