NEW DELHI — Jan. 30 is the 61st anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi. As that date approaches, the reputation of the Mahatma, or “great soul”, has seen better days.
Sure, when a British magazine publishes a cartoon of the emaciated and bespectacled figure getting pummeled by a muscle man India erupts in outrage. And when a Bollywood hero embraces nonviolent resistance in a slapstick masala movie the youth are suddenly fired with enthusiasm for candlelit marches. But in the sphere of politics, the man known as the father of the nation has in recent years become its whipping boy.
(Here's another view of Gandhi's legacy from GlobalPost contributor and Indian filmmaker Rajiv Roy)
Though Gandhi worked to eliminate the practice of untouchability, the leaders of caste-based parties castigate him for his stalwart defense of Hinduism and for blocking India's oppressed castes demand for special voting rights. And despite Gandhi's efforts to prevent a rift between Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian National Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League in the leadup to India's independence in 1947, ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum today blame Gandhi for the bloody partitioning of India that killed as many as a million people and laid the foundations for 60 years of bitter strife between India and Pakistan.
“Because Indian politics today is about competing sectarian identities — on language, on region, on religion, on caste — you have people attacking Gandhi and blaming him for all kinds of errors, real and imagined,” says historian Ram Guha, author of India After Gandhi. “In the first ten years of independence, he may have been a holy cow. But now there's open season.”
Consider the condemnation offered by a former chief of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS). "While Gandhi succeeded in creating and leading a people's movement, he committed two mistakes: supporting the Khilafat movement and making Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the prime minister. The end result was that two enemies, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were created forever."
Apologists from the Hindu right have long sought to justify the assassination of Gandhi — who was killed by a Hindu nationalist and former RSS member named Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948 — by arguing that the Mahatma had betrayed his country by supporting the proposal for an independent Pakistan and encouraging a policy of Muslim “appeasement.” Every year on the anniversary of Godse's execution his relatives still gather to celebrate his grim achievement. But this year the stakes grew much higher, as an organization run by the assassin's niece — allegedly the country's first Hindu nationalist terrorist cell — was linked to a series of bombings of Muslim sites.
The partition of India itself remains at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan. More than the territorial dispute over Kashmir, partition instilled deep fear and distrust — even hatred. Some 18 million people were forced to migrate to areas where they would be in the religious majority. As many as a million, from both sides, were butchered en route. And the arbitrary dividing line, which granted India 90 percent of the subcontinent's industrial capacity and its three most important cities, encouraged an inferiority complex in Pakistan that has had disastrous consequences.
However, Gandhi's actual role in the division of India is ambiguous. On the one hand, despite his propagation of an early form of multiculturalism, Gandhi's religious idealism bordered on the obsessive, and probably encouraged doubts among the Muslim League about their role in an independent but united India. But on the other, according to Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly, “the real actors were Jinnah, [Viceroy Louis] Mountbatten, [Congress leader Vallabhbhai] Patel and Nehru.” And no one was more upset than Gandhi by the religious divide that eventually tore India in two. Says Ganguly: “Remember that he wrote, 'On this day of independence and partition, my heart is divided; let others rejoice, leave me alone to shed my tears.'”
“Of all the major leaders of the time, he's certainly the least culpable,” says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. And the question of how to share power among Hindus and Muslims was an impossible quandary. “One historian once said Partition was a non-solution to an insoluble problem,” says Bhanu Mehta. But that hasn't shielded Gandhi from blame, partly because the partition had such tragic and long-lasting consequences, and partly because Gandhi is the only one of his contemporaries who still holds enough relevance to justify an attack.
The simmering conflict in Kashmir, the disturbing emergence of a Hindu nationalist terrorist cell, and the devastating attacks in Mumbai on November 26 drive home the need for Gandhi's idealism. “Worldwide you see a rise of competitive religious fundamentalisms,” says Guha. “What Gandhi does is he provides a way out of this.”
Other recent GlobalPost India stories by Jason Overdorf:
Beware the killer "Blue Line"
Welcome to the ghost fair
For Which it Stands: India