Attacks on Gandhi reveal a deeper crisis
Gandhian thought, institutions and the Mahatma himself are under unprecedented attack today. From positions of power in the government to poisoned minds among activists and a wide variety of loose cannons, Gandhi and his ideas are routinely run down and presented using narrow lenses designed to mispresent and even demonise the Father of the Nation. It is no surprise that Gandhians are aghast. But there is also a sense of despondency, fatigue and resignation at the ferocity of the attacks and the sheer volume of venom that is spewing out across media channels. What should Gandhians do? How should they respond?
Ironically, these were precisely the questions at the centre of a discussion for a conference that was planned and scheduled by Mahatma Gandhi himself to be held at Wardha on Feb. 02, 1948. The context was different though – to consolidate efforts in post-Independent India. Gandhi was assassinated three days before that conference, which then was rescheduled to March and carried the theme: Gandhi is gone. What should we do now?
The question raised in 1948 is the question staring us in 2023; the only difference is that “our” government is now accused of open hostility, of fostering disharmony and creating divisions that strike at the root of Gandhian thinking. But the sameness of the question over a 75-year journey tells us a lot about us as a people and about the Gandhian movement
That conference from March 13-15, 1948 marked the birth of the Sarva Seva Sangh. Among those present were Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, education minister Maulana Azad, Congress President Rajendra Prasad as the Chair, and those like Acharya J B Kripalani, J.C. Kumarappa, Jayaprakash Narayan, Vinoba Bhave, who spoke “with candour, self-criticism, and a refreshing objectivity that (did) not exempt even their martyred mentor,” as an account in the book ‘Gandhi is Gone. Who Will Guide Us Now’ (Editor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, published by Permanent Black) put it. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was to attend but could not due to ill-health. The Sarva Seva Sangh would keep away from party politics and work with the aim “to usher in a social order based on truth and non-violence infused by human and democratic values which are free from exploitation, tyranny, immorality or injustice and which offer enough scope for human personality development” in the words of its constitution.
The charade of paying obeisance to Gandhi while disregarding all that he said and stood for continued to play out in the India that bought more modernity, more liberalisation and an economic boom riding on consumerism as a key marker of success
It is this Sarva Seva Sangh and its facilities in Varanasi that are now fighting a demolition notice in the High Court against the local administration and the railways who claim to have the title of the land the Sangh sits on. The notice disregards the institution’s records and assertions of the of validity of sale deeds it has produced dated 15May1960, 09May1961 and 20May1970 that show the land was duly bought from the government. The demolition notices and the dates fixed for the actual razing have come up with lightning speed, quite unlike the way the government machinery is known to work. The case highlights what one member said is “the plight and the threat Gandhian organisations are facing today.” As he put it: “Sarva Seva Sangh in Varanasi is under attack. We are doing everything to save it.” If the richness of its history, the purity of its intention (truth in public life) and the galaxy of leaders who got together to give the impetus that became the organisation could not stop the authorities from moving to demolish Sarva Seva Sangh buildings, then almost no one from among those left of the Gandhian movement can be considered safe.
Today, violence is deeply embedded in the Indian State, increasing exponentially over the years
There is no question that this anti Gandhi direction is despicable. Every effort must be made to resist it. Deep, rich and evolved thought that nurtures the best in us and speaks to our heritage and ethos is being brought to a level that lowers the stature of the nation and should worry all right-thinking Indians. Yet, the anti-Gandhi thinking is by all accounts flourishing. The question raised in 1948 is the question staring us in 2023; the only difference is that “our” government is now accused of open hostility, of fostering disharmony and creating divisions that strike at the root of Gandhian thinking. But the sameness of the question over a 75-year journey tells us a lot about us as a people and about the Gandhian movement. Both don’t look good.
We can and must blame the powers that be, those that shape the narrative and fill up endless hours of airtime and social media beacons to sell the idea that Gandhi is not our real hero. But that they are able to carry this narrative so successfully also tells us that Gandhi’s ideals are not really embedded in the hearts and minds of Indians. So, blame also must be shared by all of those who are known as Gandhians. There is little dispute that as the Gandhians of an earlier generation aged and moved on, there has been a lack of new energy (barring a few exceptions) to build Gandhian thinking and offer it to a new generation for a new era. A vast majority of the youth memorised Gandhi’s messages for a formal exam but never really critically examined or accepted the thinking, let alone internalising it.
'broad social support for Gandhian ideas and work, except for benign social service, is almost non-existent'
The charade of paying obeisance to Gandhi while disregarding all that he said and stood for continued to play out in the India that bought more modernity, more liberalisation and an economic boom riding on consumerism as a key marker of success. All of this may have accelerated recently but the trendline has been in the direction of the slide for a long, long time. Some trace it back to the rejection of Gandhi’s ideas in ‘Hind Swaraj’ by Nehru. Today, violence is deeply embedded in the Indian State, increasing exponentially over the years. Justice is difficult to get, particularly for the under-privileged. Power speaks and the reality is that truth can be crushed with this power, at least in the short run. The latest example is the political shenanigans of the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, where those accused of mega scams and under investigation have been welcomed to a government controlled by the BJP. The defector Ajit Pawar has been honoured as the Deputy Chief Minister while others from his side take on ministerial berths. Young audiences reading these developments cannot grow believing that truth is the road forward, certainly not in the India of today.
There is hardly a Gandhian organisation that called out this trendline of decline over the years. It is one thing to be episodic and pick events, and quite another to look at the thematic collapse that has brought us here. New leaders have not been nurtured. New and exciting material is not brought to the classrooms. Challenges are supressed rather than allowed to flourish. In an insightful paper published almost a decade ago, the Gandhian Dr Sudarshan Iyengar wrote: “Many (Gandhian) institutions … appear in peril. Their core seems to have weakened, reflecting both poverty of thought and rigidity in practice. There is limited availability of committed persons … In general, broad social support for Gandhian ideas and work, except for benign social service, is almost non-existent.”
At the 1948 conference, Rajendra Prasad had said: “The nation’s moral fibre has gone slack.” We could say that again and again.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)