Were the likes of Gowalkar and Savarkar the norm, and the ilk of Gandhi and Nehru an aberration when you look at Indian history in the long run?
It was a question raised by historian and author Ramachandra Guha at a conclave in New Delhi today, who also postulated an answer: “Any Indian who believes in the Constitution will not find it difficult to choose.”
Guha was speaking at an event titled ‘A Fractured Polity: The Relevance Of Gandhi Today’, which sought to discuss the relevance of Gandhi in our times. Organised by retired civil servants and members of the armed forces, speakers at the conclave included former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, AP Shah, senior journalist Mrinal Pande and Guha.
The conclave, chaired by Shah, began with his address. Speaking of a rising polarization in society, Shah elaborated on the issue of nationalism and on being ‘anti-national’, saying we are living in a “world when we are forced to stand for the national anthem. Dissent is being curbed while sloganeering and flag-waving are tests for nationalism,” said Shah, referring to the Gurmehar Kaur incident and the fact that journalists have increasingly come under attack.
Shah said that for Gandhi, patriotism was the same as humanity. However, ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ nationalism being espoused now is the “danger of a single story, ignoring a diversity of views.” Mentioning that his maternal grandfather was a member of the erstwhile Hindu Mahasabha, the former chairman of the Law Commission of India said that he grew up reading Savarkar’s works and that the late Mahasabha leader justified Hitler’s actions in the 1940’s. “Not sure his views changed,” said Shah, saying that the “same ideology finds support in the current government.”
Shah was also critical of an “abject surrender” by a section of the media. “Given the role of TV channels, one may say there is no reason for a government channel,” he said. Speaking of the recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, Shah noted an attack on the media, questioning why the PM followed people on Twitter who “celebrated and justified her murder.”
Speaking on the judiciary, Shah was also damning of the Supreme Court’s order making standing up mandatory during the national anthem in movie theaters. “It is important to remember that the right to freedom of expression also includes the right to not speak.”
Senior journalist Mrinal Pande too said that Gandhi has merely become a symbol. "We see Gandhi in charkhas and in universities but the real Gandhi seems to have gone, poof!"
Pande said that the biggest concern in present times is the environment, a cause which was close to Gandhi. Pointing out a barrier, she asked why we “can’t talk of the environment in a language that the common man will understand. Decision-makers, most of the people in this room, distance themselves from people by using a language they do not understand.”
Citing examples from history where people went out of their way to reach out to a larger audience, Pande spoke of Gautam Buddha’s choice to communicate in Pali, Tulsidas in Awadhi and of when Gandhi wrote in Navjivan.
According to Guha, Gandhi’s bedstead, the idea of Swaraj, had four posts: non-violence, abolishing untouchability, Swadeshi and Hindu-Muslim harmony. The historian went on to gauge how much the country has “nurtured these pillars. If the state has used violence, it results in violence after independence,” Guha said, referring to the likes of China, Russia and Zimbabwe. “Non-violence became the core of our diplomatic order,” he said, mentioning that the country hasn’t fared badly in curbing violence, but could have done better.
The India After Gandhi author was however critical of the current status of our multi-party democracy borne out of the struggle. “Over the last 15 to 20 years, especially in the last 10 to 12 years, we are in danger of being reduced to an ‘election-only democracy,” he said.
Referring to caste, Guha opined that while Gandhi did focus on the issue, he should have focused more on gender discrimination, with Hinduism and Islam having an “obscene record in subjugating women. In undermining caste and gender discrimination, we’ve done more in the past 70 years than in 5,000 years,” the historian said, adding that “we’ve made progress, maybe modest.
On the third pillar of Swadeshi or economic self-reliance, Guha said that the country has managed to deal with mass-deprivation and starvation since freedom. He however noted the phenomenon experts call ‘jobless growth’, saying that violence in the society is generally cause by males between 18 and 30 years old who need an outlet for venting their frustrations.
Finally, he spoke on the pillar of Hindu-Muslim harmony; the one he said was “wobbling” the most. “This is a question that confronts us since May 2014. If we had to be anything at all, it wasn’t a Hindu-Pakistan,” he said.
Guha says that the current climate is a product due to short, medium and long-term trends. He said that while the short-term products were the likes of Modi, Shah and Bhagwat, the medium-term was in the 1980’s. Guha says it was when the BJP utilized the Ayodhya movement with Rajiv Gandhi floundering in the Shah-Bano judgement and the Ram Temple idol controversy.
Speaking of the long-term, the author asked if the likes of Golwalkar and Savarkar were rather the norm than an aberration. He also had a word of advice for those looking at current events in a particular light. “Although there are unpleasant things about the present dispensation, we shouldn’t romanticize the past,” he said, adding that the decline of institutions in the country began under Indira Gandhi, and has continued since: “The Congress started it; the BJP has taken it one or two steps further.”
“This gathering shows that we are worried,” he said. He said he is of the view that the country has been witness to several crises from Gandhi’s killing and the adoption of a Constitution to the China war; the Emergency and riots in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
“If we are in a crisis, this is our fifth.”