At a public meeting to mark the centenary of Sabarmati Ashram, Narendra Modi said, “What are we doing? Cow protection and cow worship is something that Mahatma Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave spoke about. Both of them have showed us how to do it and that is the route the country has to take for its progress.”
Evoking the Gandhian way, Modi further warned, “Killing people in the name of gau bhakti is not acceptable. This is not something Mahatma Gandhi would approve… we are a land of non-violence. We are the land of Mahatma Gandhi. Violence never has and will never solve any problem.”
This statement has been widely publicised – either as a strong message to those who are involved in the killings of innocent Muslims in the name of cow worship, or, as a reaction to the ‘Not in my name’ campaign against the failure of governance and lawlessness in recent years. However, Modi’s appropriation of Gandhi to legitimise his version of politics did not get adequate media attention.
Analysing PM’s Speech
A close reading of Modi’s statement suggests three conclusive points:
- There is no difference between Modi’s national project and Gandhi’s saintly image.
- Those who have been killed are “PEOPLE”. “THEY” do not have any community at all; however, “WE” are a community, a nation and we have a responsibility to not kill “THEM/PEOPLE”.
- Mahatma Gandhi was basically an old man, who could only be treated as a saint. By virtue of this logic Gandhi (as well as Vinoba and Jain spiritual leader Shrimad Rajchandra) is an apolitical figure.
Let us locate these inferences in Gandhi’s writings and speeches. Gandhi’s projection as a religious worshipper (of virtually anything) is highly problematic. He was very clear about his understanding of religion and the act of worship. According to Gandhi:
By religion, I do not mean formal religion or customary religion, but that religion which underlies all religions, which brings us face-to-face with our Maker.Mahatma Gandhi, in a letter in 1907
In an article written in 1920, Gandhi elaborates further on it. He says:
“It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one…to the truth within and whichever purifies”Excerpt from an article by Mahatma Gandhi (Young India, 12 May 1920, p 2)
This is the reason why Gandhi makes a distinction between historical/mythological figures and the moral virtues attached to them. He makes a few categorical observations:
My Rama… is not the historical Rama… the King of Ayodhya. He is the eternal, the unborn… Him alone I worship.Mahatma Gandhi (Harijan, 28 April 1946, p 111)
…My Krishna has nothing to do with any historical person. I would refuse to bow my head to the Krishna who would kill because his pride is hurt… I believe in Krishna of my imagination as a perfect incarnation, spotless in every sense of the word.Mahatma Gandhi (Young India, 1 October 1925, p 336)
Examples of these kinds show that Gandhi cannot be defined as a neutral saint who believed in status-quo, or was involved in blind bhakti of Rama, Krishna or even the cow. On the contrary, he engages deeply with the messages attached with religious symbols and makes a serious attempt to endorse constructive politics of religion.
Gandhi and Violence Against Muslims
Gandhi defined himself as a proud practicing Hindu. This bold evocation of Hinduism did not prevent him from addressing the question of violence against Muslims and other non-Hindu communities. By March 1947, when it became clear that India was going to be partitioned into India and Pakistan, Gandhi started focusing on the rights of minorities in his writings and speeches.
In an article published in Harijan, he wrote:
If the Hindus felt that in India there was no place for anyone else except the Hindus and if non-Hindus, especially Muslims wished to live here, they had to live as the slaves of the Hindus, or they would kill Hinduism.Mahatma Gandhi (Harijan, 28 September 1947)
In another article he says:
My one aim with respect to the Hindu-Muslim question is that the solution will be complete only when the minority… feels perfectly safe, even if they are in the minority of one.Mahatma Gandhi (Harijan, 14 September 1947)
Gandhi’s courage is clearly evident. Unlike Modi, he is not playing the power game of WE/THEY; he is very confident that his use of Hindu and Muslim as faith communities would demoralise the politics of communal organisations like the Muslim League, RSS and Hindu Mahasabha.
Narendra Modi, it seems, fails to understand the fact that Gandhi offered a creative definition of politics. He has not been able to make that distinction between religion and politics.
Gandhi clarifies, “My devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means (YI, 12-5-1920).”
This intermixing of religion and politics should not be confused with politics of power. Rather, the purpose of Gandhian politics is to establish a moral-ethical state.
For me, politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, ever to be shunned. Politics concern nations and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth. For me, God and Truth are convertible terms, and if anyone told me that God was a god of untruth or a god of torture, I would decline to worship Him. Therefore, in politics also we have to establish the kingdom of Heaven.Mahatma Gandhi (Young India, 18 June 1925)
This is the reason why he further elaborated this meaning of politics on the eve of India’s independence.
The life of the millions is my politics… my politics may take a different turn [after 15 August 1947] is quite possible. But that will be determined by circumstances.Mahatma Gandhi (Harijan, 17 August 1947)
It is clear that Gandhi never gave up politics. Instead, he emphasised on the moral foundation of politics. Unfortunately, Gandhi’s legacy was reduced to a virtuous monument, which gets its due share of attention on certain official days – 15 August, 2 October and 26 January. Seeing what has been happening all around with the Mahatma being projected as the rakshak of a particular religion, Gandhi would have said, no, not in my name.
(The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Rajya Sabha Fellow 2015-2016. He can be reached @Ahmed1Hilal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)