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The Gandhi paradox?

Every time any event involving Gandhi takes place, the present government, led by Mr Modi is fulsome in tribute. Through all formal means of communication, Gandhi is treated with due reverence and is accorded the appropriate ceremonial endorsement in line with what successive governments have done. But things are not what they seem, for this valorisation of Gandhi is skin-deep, and it takes little, particularly from the BJP’s support base, for the more real feelings about the man to emerge.

To illustrate, this 30th January, for this along with the Mahatma, Godse too was trending on Twitter, and many florid tributes were forthcoming. A leader from the Hindu Mahasabha mock- enacted the shooting of Gandhi, while celebrating the actions of Godse. Posts attacking Gandhi in graphic terms, including justifying his killing were plentiful in number. And in keeping with tradition, many of these voices were ‘fortunate enough to be followed on social media by the Prime Minister’.

On the government’s part, it is a strategic move to attack Nehru without restraint, but to leave Gandhi out of the firing line, at least formally. Attacking Nehru has several advantages, not the least of which is that he serves as a surrogate for his descendants. Attacking both Gandhi and Nehru would also expose the party to the oft-repeated charge that it played a marginal role in the freedom movement, which is why it is demonising both its heroes. Focusing anger on Nehru while ritually celebrating Gandhi allows for the subtle distancing of the freedom movement from Nehru. Apart from being a tactic, the dislike for Nehru is, in any case, visceral, and finds expression so often that it has become a running joke.

But in many ways, Gandhi is the real figure of distaste. Nehru might be the easier target, but Gandhi is no less the enemy. A recurring theme in the imagination of those on the right is the sense of loss felt as a result of the partition of the country, for which Gandhi is held squarely responsible. The government on its part communicates its aversion in thinly veiled codes- speaking of Gandhi and Savarkar in the same breath, for instance, which is a dead giveaway of their true feelings about the man.

The nostalgia for undivided India is easy to understand at an abstract level, but the truth is that had Pakistan and later Bangladesh not become independent, then the religious composition of India would have looked significantly different. Instead of constituting 14% of the population, Muslims would have made up nearly 25% of the country, making the prospect of a Hindu nation that much dimmer. Wanting Pakistan as part of India is in effect a demand by the right to want more Muslims, and this is mystifying. All the anxieties about the size of the Muslim population would have got magnified, and politically too, Muslim representation would make it difficult for this section of the voters to be ignored.

As is the case in Kashmir, the tendency is to see territory as ‘belonging to us’, while disowning the people that go with it. But if the current Pakistan and Bangladesh were to be part of India, then the ability to control three different tracts of territory through military might would have been much more difficult. The idea of Akhand Bharat ‘belonging’ to ‘us’ becomes less meaningful when the definition of ‘us’ itself changes. The insider/outsider classification that is at work today would have been rendered null and void, had the country not been partitioned. Put simply, there would be no Pakistan to send Muslims and ‘anti-nationals’ to.

The implicit mental model at work seems to be rooted in the idea of conquest in a medieval kingdom rather than that of inclusion in a modern democracy. The urge to reverse history ignores that in many ways, the kind of erasure sought is simply not possible. Keeping today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh within the folds of India would not be tantamount to conquest, but to a redefinition of India itself.

The demand for a unified India should on the other hand, translate into comfort with the idea of unity and equality. If we are indeed part of the same fabric of nationhood, then why the need to demonise the other side? Today, the impulse is to ask all those that do not toe the government’s line to ‘go to Pakistan’; Akhand Bharat is in effect the idea of all of Pakistan coming to India. You cannot want an entire people to become of a part of who you are, while finding every way to disdain them.

The other puzzling aspect of the reaction of the right is its aversion to the idea of Hindu terror. To nuance this a little, it is easy to see why the label ‘terrorist’ is objected to. The effort is to make it synonymous with Muslims, and hyphenating Hindu with terrorism clearly militates against that need. But otherwise, the idea that the once-timid Hindu is now capable of anger and even violence is an important part of how the right narrativises itself. The idea of Hindu terror gives form to that desire. The word ‘terror’ is admittedly problematic, but the idea underlying this label should not cause the kind of anger that it does. The desire to hang on to the idea of the accommodative Hindu is unquestionably a deep instinct, even when the opposite impulse, that of being taken seriously and feared is perhaps even stronger.

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