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Mainstream, VOL LII No 5, January 25, 2014 - Republic Day Special

Lead, kindly Light....

Tuesday 28 January 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Every year we dutifully go through the ritual of offering homage to Gandhiji on the day of his martyrdom.

We shall once again be witnessing the ceremony on January 30 to be conducted as per protocol—early morning prayer at Rajghat, singing of bhajans and hymns, a round of spinning and then during the course of the day, meetings and seminars and a special programme on Doordarshan to remind us of the Father of the Nation. VVIPs encircled by gun-totting security guards will do the round of the Samadhi marked with the two words that he had uttered last—Hey Ram! And there will be the military salute as it is officially celebrated as the Martyrs’ Day to remind ourselves of those known and unknown heroes who had laid down their lives in the freedom struggle.

This year, of course, we miss Gandhiji more than ever before as we watch the hideous apparition of the demon of communal violence engulfing city after city, as Hate overpowers sanity in communal killings, forcing thousands homeless, and handing over normal life to goonda gangs or mastans linked to political bosses. Not that it all started with Ayodhya December 6. Communal violence has been flaring up here and there all these fortyfive years since he was shot dead. And yet Ayodhya December 6, 1992 has become a watershed in the annals of contemporary India. For, here a place of worship of one faith was demolished by insensate fanatics, bent on building a place of worship of another faith at that very spot. The architects of this campaign say that they are determined to build a grand temple there because they knew that Lord Ram was born at that very spot.

Their plea has been that a general of Emperor Babur had demolished a temple to build a mosque. And so five hundred years later they must, tit-for-tat, demolish the mosque to build the temple—all in the name of Ram, who was the personification of benign tolerance and transparent candour. It was a short-shrift job, the demolition of the mosque by a competent demolition squad coming stealthily under cover of the massive crowd collected by a non-stop campaign. But in the aftermath of that demolition operation, three thousand people lost their lives in distant parts of the country in the tension-charged weeks that allowed. Not only the scars of that trail of bloody violence are visible, but the assailants have been freely roaming all over, untouched by the guardians of law and order.

There have no doubt been protests, angry protests, from hundreds and thousands—in speeches and statements, meetings and rallies. And yet with all these stirrings, however belated, for stamping out communalism, in the midst of it all, we miss Gandhiji. And what would he have done had he been living in our midst today? Perhaps the answer to this question might help our leaders to strike out for the right path to meet the challenge of communal hatred.

Those of us who are old enough to remember him have to confess that in those days many of us in our youthful impudence used to think that the frail old man was making too much fuss about Hindu-Muslim animosity, as we fondly believed that the problem would be solved once the British quit our country, since the Raj exploited the principle of divide-and-rule.

But Gandhiji could sense danger ahead. He was not secular in the European sense of the word, in which the secular is meant as opposed to the clerical. Gandhi’s view on secularism—a term he rarely used—was that in the Indian context, it should extend equal respect for all religions. Himself a devout Hindu, he insisted that the Muslim must have the same right to pursue his own faith. At the same time he campaigned for the removal of inequities enjoined by Hindu tradition. Hence his campaign for the Harijan’s right of entry to any temple, and his insistence on the active involvement of women in the national struggle for independence—both the issues which the orthodox school in the Hindu society has frowned upon to this day.

With his arrival on the national political scene, he sought to unite the Congress with the Muslim League, which in the early twenties culminated in the Congress-Khilafat pact. In the thirties came his tireless crusade against the pernicious British device of separate electorate—keeping the Hindus and the Muslims apart, as also the Scheduled Castes from caste Hindus. While he succeeded in persuading Ambedkar to give up separate electorate and agree to reservation of seats in the legislature for the Scheduled Castes, Gandhiji could not win over the Muslim League for scrapping the system of separate electorate for the Muslims. Few of our political leaders at that time or later could anticipate the danger that the separate electorate system spelt for India’s unity. Only Gandhi could foresee it.

Herein lay the seeds of partition. Hence his last-ditch efforts in the forties to come to an understanding with Jinnah and ward off the partition which the British had already planned to impose by exploiting the demand for Pakistan. Gandhiji’s last desperate efforts could be seen during the hectic days of negotiations with the British Raj immediately after the end of the Second World War. And when he found he could not convince even his trusted colleagues in the Congress High Command to repudiate the partition plan in the Mount-batten award, he withdrew. The Congress Working Committee took the momentous decision to agree to the country’s partition as per the Mountbatten Plan without the advice and consent of the tallest member of the party.

Gandhiji could foresee the bloodbath that the partition brought, and his entire efforts at that time were directed towards healing the wounds of the partition. It was a one-man crusade which took him to Noakhali, Calcutta and Bihar—a fearless pilgrim traversing the frightening jungle of hatred. And he had planned to go to Pakistan with the same message of harmony instead of hate when he himself fell to the bullet of a fanatic Hindu assailant.

For him, the mission was simple, straight as an arrow—since the partition could not be averted, let us concentrate on reinvigorating the urge for Hindu-Muslim harmony and peace. No hatred for Pakistan, but extend the hand of trust and amity and thereby break down the barrier of suspicion and hatred—a far-reaching design for the two communities, for the two countries, to live in harmony and honour.

That’s how Gandhiji comes back to us today, alive and beckoning us all to live and let live. To be my brother’s keeper was his watchword for building this great land of ours.

Today we miss him most—he with his constant prayer, Lead kindly Light amid the encircling gloom....

(Mainstream, January 30, 1993)