The so-called godman Kalicharan was arrested in Chhattisgarh in connection with remarks “insulting” Mahtama Gandhi. This goes to the heart of a culture of uncritical reverence for “national heroes” that has had dire consequences for the politics of the republic. By arresting Kalicharan for insulting the “father of the nation”, we continue to nurture a broader context of passivity that allows for the rise of authoritarian figures who claim to speak in the name of Indian traditions and culture.

Kalicharan is reported to have said that Gandhi’s politics would facilitate India’s “takeover” by Islam and that his killer, Nathuram Godse, was praiseworthy for providing an alternative worldview.

There is a difference between giving speeches that explicitly call for the genocide of certain communities and those that criticise individuals – no matter how flimsy or reprehensible the arguments – who have been granted the stature of being unquestionable. The former could lead to very real, actual harm, but the latter leads to a situation where individuals can be granted the status of gods and hence the capacity to inflict real harm.

If we do not allow a culture of criticism against Gandhi, we simultaneously encourage a situation where we too easily accept the words of “Great Men” when they tell us that nothing they say can be questioned.

The making of Gandhi’s saintliness – it is very unclear that he himself approved of his elevation – is part of a process of producing a culture of nationalist laziness in which all sides of politics have collaborated. We can no longer say nothing about anyone, really. The criticism of Shivaji hurts Maratha sentiments, saying that Rajput military heroes were not what they were cracked up to be could lead to riots. We must say nothing about Akbar or Aurangzeb, making fun of gods and goddesses hurts Hindu sentiments (but we don’t mind that their images sell beedis and cooking oil) and other religious figures are always above reproach.

The problem is a more general one: an attitude of uncritical reverence – Nehru seems to have been one of the few leaders who was able to question it – leads to a complete nationalisation of times and spaces. In the first case, we come to subscribe to a Republic of timeless (usually male) heroes. This means that we refuse to think – and refuse training in thinking – about the requirements of the present.

Nationalist nostalgia for a timeless present – where for one group Gandhi and for another Shivaji provide firm visions of the future – has been the death of a questioning attitude that is able to place “heroes” in their context and question their current relevance.

It is also this attitude that lies at the heart of authoritarian personalities that build their popularity upon dubious, dangerous and deceitful versions of the past. But as we have nationalised the past, it becomes difficult to question it.

The nationalisation of time derives from thinking of virtue as a timeless essence – Gandhi’s ideas are seen to be applicable to all manner of things – and is accompanied by the nationalisation of space. That is, we come to believe that all that we now see as “Indian” has roots in the geographical entity known as India.

‘Nationalisation’ of ideas

It is precisely this belief that is at the heart of a lack of any widespread outrage against a recent calendar produced by the Centre for Excellence of Indian Knowledge Systems at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The calendar, titled “Recovery of the Foundations of Indian Knowledge”, provides, among other things, “evidence” that the migration of pastoralists between the Central Asian Steppes and the Indian landmass never happened.

On the other hand, actual evidence for such movements (based on DNA testing, for example) is so strong that to even conceptualise such a calendar is an exercise in self-delusion. However, the spatial nationalisation of ideas means that we have a strong belief that “Indian” cultural ideas and beliefs – language, food, religious practices – can only have originated in the Indian landmass.

What we need to overcome the parochialism of thought that leads to uncritical admiration which, in turn, produces Indian authoritarianism, are not laws that lead to arrest for insulting this or that “great” personage. What is required is the abolition of laws – whose origins, in any case, lie in the particular needs of colonialism – that make such “insults” punishable by law.

The prohibitions against, say, questioning Gandhi, feeds into the logic of not being able to question anyone who claims to represent Indian national culture. If Gandhi’s ideas are stronger than those of his killer, they do not need laws to protect them. Rather, they require the space to be evaluated in their context, frequently providing answers to our times and sometimes not. It is only this that will allow us to think critically of all ideas, rather than fall back upon their nationalisation.

Those who insist that national and religious cultures wither and die without legal (or other kinds) of protection should be reminded of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and the controversy that surrounded its initial release. If we must seek examples of how questioning the apparently sacred need not lead to its demise, it is worth looking at the bright side of the thinking life this film points to.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.