Tuesday, Feb 04, 2003
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By Supriya RoyChowdhury
THOSE WHO went to high school some two or three decades ago, would remember that many of us wrote an essay, annually, around this time of the year, on Gandhi. Usually the teacher then read out in class the three best essays. It was always, unfailingly, an emotional time for the class. Some of us compared Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Others compared his killing to the crucifixion of Jesus, Gandhi's last words, as he fell to the bullet, "Hey Ram..." to Jesus' dying utterance "Lord, forgive them for they knoweth not what they doeth".
Those were inspired moments in the growing up of a generation born post-Independence, when our fathers and mothers who had been part of the civil disobedience movement recounted Gandhi for us, the moment of national agony when his assassination was announced, the nation's stunned response, as shutters were downed, as life itself seemed to stop, and as weeping men and women joined the many long lines to mourn the killing of the nation's father.
We have grown up now to write history for our children. The NCERT's Contemporary India (Class IX), in the series of Textbooks in Social Sciences describes the moment of Independence thus: "The Muslim League communalised the country's political situation... The bitterness created by the Muslim League produced dangerous results. The common people were subjected to senseless brutalities. Gandhi and other leaders... did try to control the situation but with little success. It was under these sad and tragic circumstances that India got Independence on August 15, 1947" (pp 157). The chapter on Independence ends without a single reference to Gandhi's assassination. Nor is there any reference in the subsequent chapter on the Indian Constitution to his killing, or to any other aspect of his life and ideas. This is the history text that 14-year-olds all over the country who study the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) syllabus must learn from. A random check of school history texts in classes V and VI revealed the same silence. Curiously, the history text for class X in the ICSC schools, although it provides a much more balanced account of Independence and of Partition, similarly makes no mention of Gandhi's assassination. Thus, the killing of Gandhi, which is, historically speaking, an inseparable part of the moment of the nation's freedom and Partition, is wiped out in one stroke.
Our children, then, must grow up not knowing that Gandhi was killed. That Gandhi was killed by a Hindu. That his killing, was, indeed part of a wider political current which resented Gandhi's acceptance of Muslims as part of the Indian nation. All this, because that political current has finally come into its own and taken hold of the reins of power in New Delhi.
This year too the leaders in New Delhi made their ritual journey to Rajghat on the anniversary of his death on January 30. However, let us not forget to create this one moment of truth when we must remind ourselves, that the nation's children are being lied to, systematically, through the authority of the textbook, within the classroom, under the auspices of the ruling regime.
The killing of Gandhi has taken place many times over in our polity. The nation has devised many forms and nuances of this killing, much more subtle and powerful than the gun which was used by Nathuram Godse. The killers have emerged in different forms, as texts, as teachers, as opinion leaders, as Chief Ministers celebrated precisely for their taste for killing minority communities. But if indeed we were to gather ourselves together to summon the moment of truth, that moment surely could not be confined to the critique of textbooks and of the current regime? The moment of truth would surely explode in our faces as we confront the enormity of the untruth that underlies public life today.
Indeed, the moment of Gandhi's killing was not when he fell to the assassin's bullet, but in the quiet closing of a chapter in which politics could be used to open up questions of what constitutes an ethical life, to the beginning of a new chapter when politics is only about theft and cheating. For, Gandhi personified a certain kind of politics, where politics became, along with other dimensions of life, an exercise in ethical living. If an ethical life could not be achieved without fundamental changes occurring in public life, politics was the act by which those changes could be brought about. Politics was, then, an activity that was a means to ethical life, and at the same time itself the exercise of both an individual and a public ethic.
In a certain sense, Gandhi's assassination was well timed. The nation had just been bifurcated. The Congress, instead of dissolving itself according to Gandhi's preference, was preparing for the business of governing; Gandhi had been sidelined from his commanding role in mainstream politics to that of a messenger of peace moving from one prayer meeting to the next. Had he not been annihilated in one of those meetings, what might have been his fate and his role? His death at that juncture served many purposes. As he went about his prayer meetings, a possible politics as alternative to the politics of power may surely have emerged. It was not unimaginable that the frail, unarmed figure who had led successfully an unarmed struggle against the world's most powerful empire, could have forged a similar challenge quietly to the politics that would turn the nation towards unequal growth, environmental disasters, nuclearisation and an all-pervasive corruption.
More importantly, with Gandhi's death, the ethical content of politics, so strongly manifest in concepts such as non-violence, civil disobedience and so on, could be relegated to the shelf along with his collected works, as quaint formulae, no longer relevant to the business of realpolitik in India.
The fact that some of Gandhi's ideas, such as trusteeship, prioritising the village economy, and his deep distrust of modern industrialisation could be dismissed with relative ease by Nehru and his team, also made it easier to pack away his concept of ethical politics along with these other concepts. Thus, ethical politics became as much a curious anachronism as trusteeship. Not only was this to ignore that the concept of ethical politics is what underlay his preoccupation with the micro village and his distrust of industrial consumerism, but in the process, what had given politics its inspiring character during the Gandhian phase of the nationalist movement, was now completely lost.
Today, cynicism pervades the polity, on the part of those who practice corruption and, equally, on the part of those who are at the receiving end of corruption. This cynicism has become, curiously, the truth of our public life, and there is no way to put it aside in order to reach for the truth. Thus, it is in the logic of things that we have sought to remove Gandhi from national memory and from our children's imaginations.
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