Friday, April 3, 2015

Book review: In the name of the father

NB: This is my review of Makarand Paranjape's book. It includes observations that were curtailed by the required word-length. The shorter version appeared in The Indian Express on April 4, 2015 . A related article on the theme of Gandhi's murder may be read here: The Abolition of truth - DS

Book: The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi
Author: Makarand R. Paranjape
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 348 pages
Price: Rs 599

This book is a meditation on a haunting. India’s tryst with modernity began with genocide and patricide, an “epochal event” that Indians have evaded for decades. The author notes that it was Gandhi’s disciple Sarojini Naidu whose eloquent national broadcast of February 1, 1948, launched the Mahatma’s afterlife at the same time as it sought to “interdict a national soul-searching.” Naidu’s tremulous speech ended with her wishing him no rest. Paranjape is at his most sensitive here, bluntly telling us that there can be no escape apart from a transcendence of the two-nation theory.

Paranjape’s book traverses many moral and psychological themes. Above all, he links the murder of Gandhi to Partition, reminding us that it was “the slaying of a dream, the dream of communal harmony… his murder was an act of communal hatred”. He cites Karl Jaspers famous post war book, The question of German guilt, to help us reflect upon the various forms of ethical responsibility that weigh upon a polity born amidst disaster. He also meditates upon philosopher BK Mallik’s assessment of the event as a final rejection “of the Indian tradition in its entirety”.

Partition did not resolve communal rifts, but institutionalised them. Gandhi had warned that without mutual friendship and security for all minorities, independence would be imperilled. About those who combined hatred with slogans of Akhand Hindustan, he remarked: “There is nothing in common between me and those who want me to oppose Pakistan except that we are both opposed to the division of the country. There is a fundamental difference between their opposition and mine. How can love and enmity go together?” That is why he planned to lead kafilas to take refugees back to their homes in both countries. Like Badshah Khan, Gandhi cannot be confined to a nation-statist frame. As Paranjape notes, his memory disturbs us, and it is this disturbance that explains his afterlife.

Nationalism and religion
Although the book develops many lines of theoretical inquiry, an interrogation of the crucial term “nation” would have been appropriate. Nationalism has emerged as a civic religion and patriotism a political form of prayer. As such, it can combine zealotry even with atheism. But to compare nationalism with religion is not the same as identifying it with this or that religion. French nationalism, for example, began with atheistic rejection of religiosity. Gandhi’s religiosity was not the basis of his nationalism, but the source of his philosophical questioning. The spokesmen of religious nationalism on the other hand, used it for political differentiation, and sought to exclude people on that basis. It is a moot question as to whether systematic murder, of one person or many people, can be judged to be an ethically sound state of mind for a prayerful person.

Religious nationalists, Hindu and Muslim, conflated nationalism and religion, producing a hateful perversion that Gandhi intuitively named irreligion. Those who mistake Hindutva for sanatan dharma forget that nation-worship is a manifestation of right-wing atheism, an identitarian numbers-game, wherein all truth is reduced to a philosophy of number. The discourse of national homelands for religious communities turned faith into geo-politics; and replaced metaphysics with raison d’etat. To mix philosophy with nationalism renders wisdom itself into an ideology, and it is good to remember that ideology is the antithesis of wisdom.

Gandhi’s stature was a combination of temporal and spiritual authority, says Paranjape, and this is why the elision of his assassination is “a question of gigantic proportions”. He reminds us that patricide is so heinous to Hindus as to be incomprehensible. He re-iterates that partition ideologies destroy societies. Hence it is puzzling to read his query about whether the current “majoritarian political formation” might emerge as a “better guarantor of religious and cultural pluralism.” 

Truth and reconciliation?
There are other problematic observations in the book. Thus, in a passage recalling debates about early medieval history he cites Gandhi: "Muslims should realise and admit the wrongs perpetrated under the Islamic rule." Paranjpe adds, "Nothing of the sort has, of course happened. There is no Indian equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which helped to heal the wounds of apartheid after the collapse of the latter. Such a process has never happened between Hindus and Muslims in India.’ This confuses me. Quite apart from the questionable efficacy of the TRC, surely such a device would not be effective as a means of addressing deep historical grievances? The TRC was set up in the immediate aftermath of a political transformation, but Islamic sovereignty in India ended over two centuries prior to 1947. And who was going to speak for this or that community? What would be the time-span for which ‘hearings’ could be conducted? Who would attest to what transpired in the thirteenth or sixteenth century? 

This is not an esoteric debate. The question of an acknowledgement of historic injustices affects discourses of identity in South Asia – among religious as well as caste groups. But the task is beyond the scope of officially-run commissions. It requires sustained and wide-ranging social dialogue and historical inquiry – of which, indeed, this book is a fine example. And it will transpire slowly, in Indian standard time.

The Swayam Sevaks
Paranjape believes that accusations directed at the RSS are “best described as political”. That may be true, but so too are its protestations of innocence. As Patel put it, “in the case of a secret organisation like the RSS which has no records of membership… securing of authentic information whether a person is an active member or not is a very difficult task.(vol 6 of Selected Correspondence of Sardar Patel; edited by Durga Das, p 57)

There were intelligence reports about the Sangh’s plans for terror. The AICC resolution of November 16, 1947 referred to the RSS, the Muslim National Guard and the Akali Volunteers as “private armies”, a menace to India’s freedom. Paranjape mentions the Government's ban on the RSS on February 4, 1948, but omits the contents of the communiqué which stated:"The objectionable and harmful activities of the Sangh have, however, continued unabated and the cult of violence sponsored and inspired by the activities of the Sangh has claimed many victimsThe latest and the most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself”.

Given Paranjape’s call for truthfulness, the Sangh’s violent activities required attention. There is evidence that the surface facts concealed many things. Ramachandra Guha, citing data from police archives, writes:

The RSS, on the other hand, wanted to complete the process of ethnic cleansing. So said a sub-inspector of the Delhi Police named Bhagwan Das Jain. A mole inside the RSS, Jain reported on October 24 that the Sangh saw in the unsettled conditions the chance to take a bold step towards the establishment of Hindu rule in India. As he wrote, "according to the Sangh volunteers, the Muslims would quit India only when another movement for their total extermination similar to the one which was started in Delhi sometime back would take place". The RSS men, he continued, "were waiting for the departure of Mahatma Gandhi from Delhi as they believed that so long as the Mahatma is in Delhi, they would not be able to precipitate their designs into action".

By early November, Golwalkar himself was camped in Delhi, planning for future action. In a speech in Ramjas College, he noted with satisfaction that the RSS membership had increased by 2,500 in a single month. He told his audience to be prepared for the fight ahead. On December 6, Golwalkar convened a meeting of RSS workers in Govardhan, near Delhi. The police report on this meeting remarks that "the (RSS) workers are alleged to have discussed the ways and means of capturing the seats in the government.... It is also alleged that one of its (the RSS's) programme(s) would be to assassinate the leading persons of the terrorise the public and to get their hold over them":

A politics of love
The philosopher Hegel has spoken of the ‘patient work of the negative’. To which Albert Camus responded that ‘real love is as patient as hatred.. the demand for justice is not the only justification throughout the centuries for revolutionary passion, which is sustained by a painful insistence on universal friendship’. Gandhi was an immensely strong person, we don’t see it because we identify strength with force, and force with violence. Confronted by a world marred by mental animosity and physical destruction, he stood out as the voice of universal friendship. That he found this strength in his religion is hardly the point. Religion for him was not reducible to doctrine, but an expression of love, for which he also used the word ahimsa. Its impact was palpable: the contemporary Shahid Ahmad Dehalvi recorded the impact of Gandhi’s arrival in Delhi in September 1947 thus - Sukhe dhanon mein pani pad gaya. (Cited in Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition, (2002), p 148)

That he embodied the persistence of love in the midst of so much hate is made visible by the shock waves of his death, which spread over the world. That we still wrestle with him is proof enough, but two examples will suffice. One is cited in this book. The American eyewitness Vincent Sheean, upon hearing the shots spoke of the ‘wavelike disturbance’ in his head, as he recoiled from the shock, which he described thus: ‘I felt the consciousness of the Mahatma leave me then – I know of no other way of expressing this: he left me.’ Fazlul Haq, one-time premier of Bengal (and who had sneered at Gandhi’s peace mission in Noakhali in 1946), described the assassination as one of the most tragic events since Karbala. CR Rajagopalachari compared him to Socrates and Jesus. Taking note of these things does not require us to elevate Gandhi to divine or saintly status. Rather, they are pointers to the human spirit, which is beyond all forms of ethnic or religious identity, and which Gandhi never ceased to invoke:  “The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step.”

The author repeatedly criticises Hindu nationalists for the lie that Gandhi was partial to Muslims. His last fast was meant to restore communal peace in India’s capital; and above all, marked his steadfast rejection of revenge, regardless of who indulged in it. Yet Nathuram Godse did not consider Gandhi the father of the nation, but the father of Pakistan. Those were his words. In which case killing him was not patricide — Godse’s admirers name it Gandhi-vadh. Whom do we execute, if not criminals?

In his last days Gandhi wondered about the 'failure' of his version of ahimsa, the non-violence of the brave.' The author however, reminds us that Gandhi's non-violence was "spectacularly successful" in Noakhali, Bihar, Calcutta and Delhi. His fasts had a colossal impact, attested to by most observers, including persons who had sneered at him. Mahatma Gandhi is among a handful of world historic figures who illuminate the potential of human goodness. By sacrificing his life, avers Paranjape, he “overturned the mechanics of Partition, countering the engines of hatred, violence, domination, destruction and death. Just as he did not live in vain, the Mahatma did not die in vain either”. This moving assessment requires a caveat. The engines of hatred still turn, some among us still celebrate his death. Gandhi’s life is a compass. How we use it is up to us. The riddle remains unresolved, but Makarand Paranjape has labored courageously to place it before us. I urge Indians of all faiths to read it.

Ja ja varde mandir maseeti
Kadi mann apne vich vadeyaa nahi
Avein lardaa hai, shaitaan de naal bandeya
Kadi nafz apne naal ladeya nahi
Bulle Shah
(You keep entering temples and mosques
But you never entered your own mind..
It’s futile, friend, to wrestle with Satan
When you never wrestled with your deepest self )
Also see
The Philosophy of Number
The Abolition of truth (on the 'parivar's celebration of Gandhis murder)