A death on the altar of inclusive India: Remembering Gandhi in 2024

If we claim to remember what happened 1,000 years ago, we must recall what Gandhi stood for.

WrittenBy:Neeti Nair
Mahatma Gandhi.

I have watched two hours of television in 2024. Two hours too many, it would seem. Here’s a snippet of primetime television on January 22, 2024.

“Are we witnessing a civilisational moment or a Modi moment?” Who better to ask this question than Rajdeep Sardesai? 

And who better to answer it than an RSS man, even better, a former editor of RSS journal Organizer – Seshadri Chari. “Somnath temple was destroyed because of civilisational clashes,” replies Chari, a devotee of Sam Huntington.

“What about Gandhi’s Ram Rajya?” asks the intrepid Sardesai.

Chari does not blink. “I agree with Gandhi’s Ram Rajya,” he says – but of course he does, and of course he will say so. What else will the RSS-BJP say? Why else would they take the heads of G20 countries to pay homage to Gandhi’s memorial at Rajghat? To talk about his assassin Nathuram Godse?

Hai Ram!

It is January 30 once more and a day to remember the Mahatma. So, let us remember what he represented 76 years to this date, and why Godse felt he had to kill him. If we can so glibly claim to remember what happened five hundred years ago or a thousand years ago, then surely we can, good historians all, remember what happened just the other day at Gandhi’s prayer meeting in Birla House.

There would be no prayer meeting that day. Gandhi was shot, en route. But the previous day and the day before that, for almost five months, he had held prayer meetings, public meetings that were open to anyone who walked to Birla House in Delhi, anyone with access to a radio when the meetings were broadcast. 

Gandhi’s prayer meetings embodied inclusion, belonging. They included recitations from the sacred scriptures of Hindus, to be sure, but also from the Quran, the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Zend Avesta. For decades in his ashrams and now in the heart of Delhi. 

Now, at the height of Partition violence, Gandhi sought to make minorities especially feel they still belonged in an increasingly Hindu India. Now, he begged and pleaded that minorities in India and Pakistan stay right where they were, and not feel cowed into migrating to nations where they might think of themselves as majorities. Equality, not domination; belonging, not exclusion. Or what would be the point of this hard-won freedom, this azadi? 

But they moved – on foot in kafilas and in special trains pulled into the thankless service of transporting newly-minted refugees, attempting to create as religiously homogeneous a state as possible, a Sisyphean task. They came and they went – from Multan and Karachi and Aligarh, from Sylhet and Patna and Daryaganj – carrying little but their memories, lending the names of their homelands to bakeries and clothing stores, wrenched away from lands where they felt they no longer belonged. 

And still Gandhi asked minorities to stay where they were, to not be afraid, to think of themselves as citizens of the world. And still he insisted on reciting from every holy religious text important to India’s citizens, every last one of them, the leaderless and the fearful. 

And for this crime of trying to create an inclusive India, he was shot, yes, by an RSS man. Their secret badge of honour. Today not-so-secret as Godse Jayantis are celebrated and Gandhi’s assassination is re-enacted by members of the Hindu Mahasabha. 

What was that India that Gandhi died for? What was that India that Godse detested? It was an India that was inclusive, an India to which belonged people of all religious faiths and practices, an India whose people could pray to Ishwar and Allah.

The India in which I came of age was an India whose anthem song “mile sur mera tumhara” revelled in diversity – of physical features, myriad ways of dressing, celebration, accents, faiths, languages. Where Hindi imposition was the stuff of history textbooks yet to be written, and the aspiration to learn English was about to burst through the seams of an economy slowly opening.

Where secularism had not yet been denuded of meaning, and the common man’s everyday understanding of the word “secularism” meant to treat each religion with respect. That was the mark of being both civil and civilised, of belonging to an ancient civilisation that had drawn Zoroastrians fleeing Persia and Muslims fleeing the Mongols. Whose greatest medieval ruler, Jalaluddin Akbar, preached “peace with all”, sulh-i-kul

Whose envoy to the United Kingdom in 1992, Lakshmi Mall Singhvi, mourned the destruction of the Babri Masjid and claimed it the fault of India’s federal system where the centre had no control over law and order in the states. “Yes, India was still secular, yes the destruction was a terrible tragedy” and so Singhvi repeated, ad nauseum, lest the West flee a newly liberalising economy. 

This, too, is our history, our inheritance that we forget to our collective peril, as we force the singular chant – “ Jai Shri Ram” – down the throats of all Indians.  

If we choose to revel in the resolution of imagined hurts, we participate in the ongoing consecration of new myths. Let us at least not do so in the name of Gandhi, India’s “one-man peace-keeping force” and greatest export, who was killed on the altar of an inclusive India. 

So no, Mr Sardesai, this is not “a civilisational moment”. Quite the contrary. 

Neeti Nair is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Her latest book, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia, is published by Harvard University Press (2023).

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article imageDelhi sites commemorating Gandhi crowded with Modi’s posters, quotes


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