By Harsh Mander
The journey of the Karwane Mohabbat that started at Nagaon in Assam on 4 September 2017, travelled across the country, offering atonement and solidarity to families battered by hate violence. The journey of the Karwan attempts a small tribute to the valiant love of Gandhi’s last and finest months.The Karwan will continue in many ways.But we felt it was fitting for its first journey to culminatein a pilgrimage,on 2 October 2017,at the small room in Porbandar where nearly 150 years ago Mohandas Gandhi was born. We celebrated the Mahatma with reflections, songs, candles.And a resolve to search for the same love in our hearts for which, seventy years earlier, he had been killed.
The love that our caravan speaks of and so imperfectly aspires to, was practiced by Mahatma Gandhi, with luminous, fearless courage and unshakeable conviction. In 1947, a million people had died in in a tempest of hate in Hindu-Muslim riots, yet he risked his life repeatedly for love, for the right of minorities to live in India as their homeland, as equal citizens in every way, without fear, and with their heads held high. He walked bravely, alone and unmindful of his safety,and fasted again and again until peace was restored, consecutively in Noakhali, Bihar, Calcutta and finally in Delhi.He did this even as the entire country was engulfed and ripped apart by hate.
It is not that Gandhiji was not officially remembered on his 148th birth anniversary. The problem is which Gandhi was remembered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled him as an icon of sanitation, of keeping clean our physical surroundings. It is this Gandhi of who Modi fashions himself to be a follower. He speaks in one breadth of himself with Gandhiji: he declares that even 1000 Mahatma Gandhis and one lakh Narendra Modis are unequal to the challenge to make India clean.
Two thirds of Indians today are below the age of 35 years. The large majority of them would be led by Modi’s reinvention of the Mahatma to believe that Gandhi’s greatest life mission was for a clean India, This officially cultivated image by the BJP government led by Modi of Gandhiji as a Super Sanitary Inspector is a profound disservice to a man who was assassinated only and only because heso bravely battledhate. It deracinates Gandhiji, and empties him of his core ethical and political message.
The ultimate injustice to the Mahatma is recent attempts by the RSS to claim his legacy. In a recent article in the Indian Express, RSS ideologue Ram Madhav tried to trace an ideological line from Swami Vivekanand and Mahatma Gandhi to – hold your breath – Narendra Modi. These leaders, he says, are all part of the conservative right. They are rooted in the Indian ethos, the native genius. Gandhiji’s ideological anti-thesis, he suggests, was Jawaharlal Nehru, who inherited his ideological moorings instead from his Western colonial masters.
To try to reinvent Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindutva icon, is as audacious and deceitful as suggesting that Martin Luther King Jr. was a white supremacist or Nelson Mandela was a defender of apartheid. Of course Gandhi and Nehru had many differences, especially about the path of development that new India would follow. But they were fully agreed on their most fundamental imagination for free India, that this would be a country that would belong equally to people of every religion, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Adivasi or any other. All people would have the freedom to practice and propagate their faith, without fear of discrimination or persecution; and they would enjoy equal rights in every way.
One of India’s greatest historians Irfan Habib describes the last months of Mahatma Gandhi’s life as his finest. In these months, Gandhiji fought –repeatedly staking his life –monumental sweeping communal hatred fostered and inflamed by organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. In this battle, his closest ideological ally was Jawaharlal Nehru. His epic fast for 40 days in Calcutta succeeded in dousing the inferno of communal killings of Hindus and Muslims. Lord Mountbatten wrote to him that what 55000 armed soldiers could not accomplish in burning Punjab, one man did in Bengal, battling with only the weapon of his frail body and his steely moral resolve.
Gandhiji had resolved to proceed from Calcutta to Punjab to fight the communal madness that had gripped it on both sides of the new border. But when he reached Delhi, he found that Hindu and Sikh refugees had gathered in tens of thousands, bitterly enraged by the killings of their loved ones and the loss of their homes and homelands to Muslims there. Spurred and encouraged by the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the Akalis, they began to attack Muslim settlements and violently occupied Muslim homes, and placed Hindu idols in more than a hundred mosques and dargahs in the capital. It was both Nehru and Gandhi who would go to these refugee camps, braving the anger and hatred of refugees, to try to persuade them to restore peace and amity. Gandhiji said the Hindu faith would be destroyed if a single mosque was forcefully turned into a Hindu temple. He reminded angry Sikhs that love that was central to the tenets of their faith. He said India’s soul would be hollowed out if Muslims could not live in India as equal citizens, without fear. His last fast, a fortnight before he was killed, was for all mosques, dargahs and homes to be returned to the Muslims. Irfan Habib reminds us that in effect he was asking Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan who had occupied Muslim homes to vacate these and return to their refugee camps. It required utmost courage of love to make such a demand on one’s people. Only Mahatma Gandhi could do this. His moral force prevailed over the bitter rage of the refugees and the poisons spread by the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha.
Irfan Habib believes that if Muslims could live in free India as equal citizens without fear and persecution, and if India chose to be a secular country that belonged equally to people of every faith, this became possible because of Gandhiji’s last battle. Another historian Dileep Simeon describes the last months of his life aptly as Love at Work.
Courts were unable to establish that Gandhiji’s killer was a member of the RSS. VD Savarkar was let off from conviction for the conspiracy for Gandhi’s murder on technical grounds. But it is indisputable that it was the ideology of hate that organisations like the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha fostered that stirred the ideological flames that led to the Mahatma’s assassination.
None of this finds place in today’s textbooks. Students are told that Gandhiji was killed because he consented to Partition. They are never told that he was murdered because of the utterly extraordinary courage and resolve of his love, because he wanted India to hold together as a country that was compassionate, inclusive and secular; he was killed because his opponents wanted an India which would be a Hindu Pakistan. Narendra Modi for all his adult life has been a member, and before he entered politics, a dedicated worker of the RSS, committed to a Hindu Rashtra, an India that is the very opposite of the India that Gandhiji died for. It is a travesty for him to claim any ideological kinship with the Mahatma.
Seventy years after Gandhiji’s assassination, India is being torn apart once again by hate. Muslims, Christians and Dalits are being taught to live in India as second class citizens, in fear and submission.
It is to respond to the engineered hate of our times with the love that the Mahatma taught us that the Karwane Mohabbat set out on its journey across the country. Seventy years after Gandhiji’s death, when the country threatens to be torn apart again – with the same hate, fostered by the same alternate idea of India as a Hindu nation – we need to find within ourselves Mahatma Gandhi’s resolute and valiant love and unshakeable belief in the equal rights of all people, of every faith, caste and gender.
The pilgrimage of the Karwan to the place where he was born was to remind ourselves about the true meaning of love in times of hate.