Dear Bapu: A Letter to Gandhi Written on His 150th
A random experiment with truth, to try and find some truths, on Gandhi Jayanti
It’s difficult for me to believe, living in the times that one lives in, that you will actually read this letter. So please look upon this more as what you would probably call an experiment with truth, than any hope of an actual exchange. Grief therapists sometimes ask people to write letters to loved ones they have lost. I believe that you are still loved in this country by many, despite your various imperfections. I believe that many of us, born well after your time, have grown to miss you even as we have grown to know you and debate your life’s worth.
Please forgive any incoherence that follows. An experiment with truth is not readily coherent. You should know.
On your birth anniversary, one recent bit of news is that the president of the United States has dubbed our current prime minister ‘Father of the Nation’ too. How strange, I thought, when I heard. The informal title of ‘Father of the Nation’ for you can be traced back to Netaji Subhas, that great patriot who differed from you on the means to independence, but chose nevertheless to address you with the utmost respect. In the case of the prime minister too this title was bequeathed informally, but by the premier of a foreign state. But then what can one say Bapu. These are strange times.
For instance, just the other day I was thinking of the story of you being thrown out of a train compartment for daring to travel first class. This is rare nowadays. Not just in South Africa, but anywhere in the world. Oppressive systems of the world have wizened up to the mischief of lives like yours. They now lock the world’s privileged securely into metaphorical first class compartments, throw away the key, and ply them with the finest food and wine. The privileged in India today are far more at one with the privileged in other parts of the world than they were when you were fighting for independence. So you see Bapu, there is little reason for any of us to really change anything. Yes. Us. I travel in this metaphorical first class compartment too.
As for the unprivileged… but wait. It is your 150th birth anniversary. Let me play one of your favourite bhajans.
Raghupati Rāghav Rājārām,
Patit pāvan Sītārām
Bhaj pyāre tu Sītārām
Ishwar Allah tero nām
Sab ko sanmati de Bhagavān
Rāma Rahīm Karīm samān
Hama saba hai unaki santān
I don’t know if you can access internet videos where you are Bapu. (I will just assume that you know what the internet is.) Internet videos – videos shot on a cell phone and uploaded on the internet – have become popular with an ever increasing number of Indian lynch mobs who lawlessy lynch Muslims, Dalits or even Caste Hindus whom they suspect them to be guilty of some crime. There was a recent video which was particularly haunting. A man named Tabrez Ansari was forced to say “Jai Shri Ram” while being brutally beaten. He succumbed to his injuries.
The bhajan is over now. I have found a book called Prayer, published in the 1970s, which is a compilation of your thoughts on the subject. A friend had written to you, after the fact: “You have now given the Kalma a place in the (Sabarmati) Ashram. What further remains to be done to kill your Hinduism?”
You replied: “I am confident that my Hinduism and that of the other Ashram Hindus has grown thereby. There should be in us an equal reverence for all religions. Badshah Khan, whenever he comes, joins in the worship here with delight. He loves the tune to which the Ramayana is sung, and he listens intently to the Gita. His faith in Islam has not lessened thereby. Then why may I not listen to the Koran with equal reverence and adoration in my heart?”
Further, you had said, “Vinoba (Bhave) and Pyarelal (Nayyar) studied Arabic and learnt the Koran in jail. Their Hinduism has been enriched by this study. I believe that Hindu-Muslim unity will come only through such spontaneous mingling of hearts and no other. Ram is not known by only a thousand names. His names are innumerable and he is the same whether we call him Allah, Khuda, Rahim, Razzak, the Bread-giver, or any name that comes from the heart of a true devotee.”
Do you know Bapu, as I watched the mob beat Tabrez into saying “Jai Shri Ram”, the sloganeering of his killers sounded more and more like taunts and Tabrez’s cries, as he inched towards death, began to seem like genuine prayer.
But where was Ram, Bapu? Where was the Maryada Purushottam? And where was Allah?
yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata
abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srjamy aham
Famous lines from the Gita, a book you love to refer to. Was the beating to death of Tabrez dharma Bapu? Was it maryada?
I’m pretty sure this is not the first time this question has been put to you. I imagine it would have occurred to you when the country was tearing itself apart in riots, on the eve of independence and its immediate aftermath. Yet the name of Ram never left your lips, reports say. Even after you were shot. Even as you passed away.
I know what you will say. Ram is an idea. A principle we hold in our hearts. Ideas and principles do not die.
To tell you the truth Bapu, when I had read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, many years ago, I thought of India and laughed. It will be a while, I thought, before “God is dead” in this country. But isn’t that what they are doing, Bapu, slowly but surely? From the time of the pre-independence clashes and riots to now, aren’t those spreading the message of violence and fear and hatred in the name of God killing God, bit by bit, like they killed Tabrez?
vaiṣṇava jana to tene kahiye
je pīḍa parāyī jāṇe re
(A Vaishnava is that person who can feel the pain of the other)
Another one of your favourites. I have read or heard somewhere that you would sing this bhajan in your childhood without realizing its meaning and that, when you did, it became a kernel of your philosophy. Is this true?
Sometimes, Bapu, I feel that’s what India has become: a prayer whose meaning no one can really comprehend.
In the West, God was replaced – to a considerable degree – with the wonders of science and technology. You had warned of the dangers this might bring. But here Bapu, in India, I fear that an ever increasing godlessness, in God’s name, ironically, is leading to a void, a vacuum.
For the only counterpoint arising in response to constantly rising feelings of hatred and anger is a mechanical call for sound government policies and their implementation. But sound policies cannot alleviate the distress that plagues the mind of a society Bapu. They cannot infuse hope into a nation’s psyche. They cannot present a diverse and disparate population, of well over a billion, with philosophies of life and purpose. Without these, we are a country without a future. We risk becoming a people trapped in a maze without a map, so that we keep on running in circles and when we confront our past selves, we are breathless with anger. Babasaheb had quoted the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in his response to you once, writing acerbically, “The Hindus… are wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” Frightening words. I can’t help but wonder if they apply to India today.
The death of God is like the death of a parent Bapu. It is that cold moment when realization dawns upon you that you are alone. It is, to borrow from Panditji, that moment when you feel the light has gone out of your life. Whether you are faced by a mob, an assassin or a void becomes irrelevant. The feeling remains the same.
I‘m leafing through Nathuram Godse’s final letters now, written not long after he killed you. A line in one of them – written to novelist, playwright and Tarun Bharat editor Gajanan Tryambak Madkholkar – strikes me.
“Gandhiji will live forever, but Gandhism is now on its deathbed.”
Funny, isn’t it? You had said, “There is no such thing as ‘Gandhism’ and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems… The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final. I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.”
“Gandhi’s heightened self-awareness and openness to self-criticism stand in striking contrast to the arrogance of those in positions of power today,” Ramchandra Guha, one of your biographers, writes. “Gandhi once admitted to making a ‘Himalayan Blunder’; but contemporary activists, as much as contemporary politicians, are loath ever to admit to even a simple mistake.”
Guha has also written an acclaimed contemporary history called India After Gandhi. But one truly troubling thing about this India after you, Bapu, especially this India several decades after you, is the state of public discourse. Was it as uninspiring in your time?
Allow me to explain. Envision a gigantic square hall, filled with people. This crowd then breaks up into four groups which collect at the four corners of the hall, and begin to agree with one another loudly. The cacophony that arises from the collective din of these expressions of agreement, each expression restricted to its corner and unchanging for want of a counterpoint, is the discourse of today. ‘Echo chamber’, ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘tribalism’ are fashionable terms and phrases used to describe this.
I can’t help but think of the conversations – written and spoken – that you conducted across ideologies, often with detractors. It’s not that you and Babasaheb or Gurudev or even Panditji or Sardar always agreed with one another, but arguments from either side seemed to be designed to convince the other, not merely score points with supporters. That is seldom the case today. Opinions, whether in newspaper columns or TV screens or on social media, exist in boxes like actors stuck in a character role. They rarely spill over. They hardly ever diversify.
But while on the subject of discourse, Bapu, a lot of the talk today has been about you. Your actual contribution to the nation and the world is being weighed against problematic views you held at different points in your life. Many views are being cited Bapu. Early racist remarks. Your defence of the varna system. Your constant measuring of the virtues of tradition and spirituality against the virtues of science. Conservative views regarding women and sex. Your obsession with preventing cow slaughter. Babasaheb’s critique of you. You know the roster. This debate is not new. It existed when you were around. It will continue to exist. You opened yourself up to it.
“Among all the public figures of his time (our ours), Gandhi was singular in that he exposed his defects, his manias, his lusts, his passions and his superstitions, to the whole world, through his writings in periodicals he himself edited and published,” writes Guha. “And the odd dark thought that he kept for correspondence with friends was posthumously (and unsentimentally) published and exposed by the editors of his Collected Works.”
The larger motion under consideration today seems whether you should be called ‘Mahatma’ or ‘Father of the Nation’. One would imagine these are personal choices best left to individuals. They are not, after all, official titles. “The Mahatma I must leave to his fate,” you had written, in 1927. “Though a non-co-operator, I shall gladly subscribe to a Bill to make it criminal for anybody to call me Mahatma and to touch my feet. Where I can impose the law myself, i.e., at the Ashram, the practice is criminal.”
Still, every year, on your birth and death anniversaries, people get so agitated over these questions it seems as if you are alive and have decided to go on a fast unto death till they are resolved.
The spectrum of voices and figures referred to by others as the ‘Right Wing’ in India has been especially productive this year, it being your 150th. While some members of this spectrum have decided to appropriate your legacy, others are deriding it – cherry-picking and collating disagreeable things you said and did – and still others are glorifying Godse instead. Consequently, the Left and the Centre are confused on how to react, a feeling compounded by the fact that some of your criticisms from the Right are actually coming from a Left Wing perspective. Should they combat the appropriation or the demonization? All in all it has acquired the nature of a farce. If you were alive you would have enjoyed it.
And what do people say in your praise Bapu? Do you care enough to want to know?
“Non-violence.” I feel that if a word association game was played with the citizens of India this is what a vast majority would say when asked to think of a word synonymous with “Gandhiji”. It is what I thought of too, as a child.
“Gandhiji means non-violence.” As simple as that.
But simplicity can be deceptive.
Non-violence has been espoused by the Buddha. It is a key tenet of Jainism. Non-violence isn’t an original idea. This is an argument many critics of yours, including Babasaheb, have put forward.
True. But then I think, Bapu, that Gautama Buddha and Mahavira weren’t around – in person at least – during the Indian freedom struggle. You were. Despite the myriad colourful versions of history this country has come to enjoy I feel this is something most of us can agree upon.
You put your belief in non-violence into practice with Satyagraha. ‘Satya’ and ‘Graha’: holding on to the truth. Once again, deceptively simple.
A historian, Mridula Mukherjee, explained Satyagraha succinctly in a talk today. Satyagraha can take various forms. It could mean marches and sit-ins. It could mean non-cooperation with the oppressor. It could mean ‘Civil Disobedience’ which involves actually breaking a law, non-violently, and possibly going to jail.
Satyagraha is a convenience, as non-violence marks its ambit. So, many more people are likely to join in a Satyagraha than in armed resistance. But Satyagraha is also a test. If the truth you hold up to the people isn’t actually the truth, they won’t come forward to hold it with you.
You were a great identifier of this truth, weren’t you Bapu? In Champaran and Kheda. During the Rowlatt Satyagraha. During the Salt Satyagraha. At different points of time, you were able to place your finger squarely on the truth of the people of this nation. And so the nation responded. Millions gave up their livelihoods, their lands and themselves towards causes you advocated because the truth of oppression you held up to them in each instance was a mirror image of their existence. Not because you were a Mahatma. Not because you were the father of the nation. Indians weren’t stupid then and they aren’t now Bapu. We might not always be able to find the truth ourselves but, when someone points it out to us, we recognize it.
And so millions joined in your Satyagrahas, and your belief in non-violence became the belief of many Indians. I know you were a broken man during the partition Bapu but think of the fact that today, so many decades after independence, we have survived as a democracy (save for a few dark years of Emergency in between) even as new nations the world over have been subjected to a series of violent coups. That was, at least in part, your reason for insisting on a non-violent resistance, wasn’t it? I can’t speak for others, but I feel a deep sense of gratitude whenever I think of this.
All we need to do now is find our truths again.
Best Wishes on your 150th.
Rishi Majumder is a freelance writer.