There is a sense of the unreal in the cariacaturisation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the days leading to his 150th birth anniversary. It is a convenient and selective resurrection, faintly reminiscent of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s cinematic classic Mukhamukham, where the iconic protagonist is expedient only as a statue.
Since the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman dedicated the Budget to the Gandhian ideals and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the pledge to achieving Gandhi’s goal of ‘Swachh Bharat’, there has been a breathless competition to commemorate Gandhi.
It would, however, be instructive to remember amidst Thursday’s spectacle at Rajghat that the Mahatma was not so easily confined to his “11 vows” of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth), Aparigrah (non-possession) et al even on the momentous occasion of India’s first Independence Day.
Once the date was set for August 15, Gandhi travelled to riot-torn Bengal via Kashmir and Punjab. At Srinagar, he declared that the future of Kashmir “should be decided by the will of the Kashmiris”. Determined to stop the cycle of violence that began in Calcutta on August 16, 1946 when the Muslim League called for a “Direction Action Day”, Gandhi moved in a Muslim home in Calcutta.
He pushed Bengal Chief Minister Shahid Suhrawardy to address a public meeting with him on August 13, 1947 where, in the words of his friend Horace Alexander, “Gandhi stood with his arm around Suhrawardy’s shoulders as the crowd shouted ‘Gandhi go back’. The critical moment came when a young man shouted at Suhrawardy: ‘Do you accept the blame for the great Calcutta killing?’ ‘Yes’, replied Suhrawardy. ‘I do accept that responsibility. I am ashamed of it.’… Even as Suhrawardy was still speaking, a policeman came with news that in another part of the city Muslims had joined Hindus across barriers to put up the national flag.”
At yet another prayer meeting on August 29, 1947 when Suhrawardy and other Muslims on the stage stood up when ‘Bande Mataram’ was being sung, Gandhi kept resolutely sitting because he believed that standing up as a mark of respect for a national song was a “western import”.
A lot can be said about the contrast between the Mahatma’s lifelong practice of “Aparigrah (non-possession)” and the reality that India’s seven national parties have declared a total income of Rs 15.59 billion at a time when the country’s per capital income is just over Rs 10,000 a month. All of this only shows that Gandhi represents inconvenient truths, then and now.