Karwan e Mohabbat, which started its journey at Nagaon in Assam on September 4, travelled across the country, offering atonement and solidarity to families battered by hate violence. The journey is a small tribute to the valiant love of Mahatma Gandhi’s last and finest months. The Karwan will continue in many ways, but we felt it was fitting for its first journey to culminate in a pilgrimage, on October 2, at the small room in Porbandar, Gujarat, where Gandhiji was born nearly 150 years ago. We celebrated the Mahatma with reflections, songs, candles. And a resolve to search for the same love in our hearts for which, 70 years earlier, he had been killed.
The love our Karwan speaks of and so imperfectly aspires to was practised by Gandhiji with luminous, fearless courage, and unshakeable conviction. In 1947, a million people had died in Hindu-Muslim riots, yet he risked his life repeatedly for love, for the right of minorities to live in India as their homeland, as equal citizens in every way, without fear and with their heads held high. He walked bravely, alone and unmindful of his safety, and fasted again and again until peace was restored, consecutively in Noakhali, Bihar, Calcutta and Delhi. He did this even as the country was engulfed and ripped apart by a tempest of hate.
It is not that Gandhiji was not officially remembered on his 148th birth anniversary. The problem is which Gandhi was remembered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled him as an icon for sanitation, of keeping clean our physical surroundings. It is this Gandhi that Modi fashions himself to be a follower of. He speaks in one breath of himself with Gandhiji: he declares that even 1,000 Gandhis and one lakh Modis are unequal to the challenge of making India clean.
Two-thirds of Indians today are below the age of 35 years. The majority of them would be led by Modi’s reinvention of the Mahatma to believe Gandhiji’s greatest life mission was for a clean India. This officially-cultivated image by the Modi government of Gandhiji as a Super Sanitary Inspector is a profound disservice to the man who was assassinated only and only because he so bravely battled hate. It deracinates Gandhiji, and empties him of his core ethical and political message.
The ultimate injustice to the Mahatma is recent attempts by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to claim his legacy. In an article in The Indian Express, RSS ideologue Ram Madhav tried to trace an ideological line from Swami Vivekanand and Gandhiji to – hold your breath – Modi. These leaders, he says, are all part of the Conservative Right. They are rooted in the Indian ethos, the native genius. Gandhiji’s ideological anti-thesis, he suggests, was Jawaharlal Nehru, who inherited his ideological moorings instead from his Western colonial masters.
To try to reinvent Gandhiji as a Hindutva icon is as audacious and deceitful as suggesting that Martin Luther King Jr was a white supremacist or Nelson Mandela was a defender of apartheid. Of course, Gandhiji and Nehru had many differences, especially over the path of development that independent India would follow. But they were fully agreed on their most fundamental imagination for free India: that this country would belong equally to people of every religion, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Adivasi or any other. All people would have the freedom to practise and propagate their faith, without fear of discrimination or persecution; and they would enjoy equal rights in every way.
One of India’s great historians, Irfan Habib, describes the last months of Gandhiji’s life as his finest. In these months, Gandhiji fought – repeatedly staking his life – sweeping communal hatred fostered and inflamed by organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. In this battle, his closest ideological ally was Nehru. His epic fast for 40 days in Calcutta succeeded in dousing the inferno of communal killings of Hindus and Muslims. Lord Mountbatten wrote to him that what 55,000 armed soldiers could not accomplish in burning Punjab, one man did in Bengal, battling with only the weapon of his frail body and his steely moral resolve.
Gandhiji had resolved to proceed from Calcutta to Punjab to fight the communal madness that had gripped it on both sides of the new border. But when he reached Delhi, he found Hindu and Sikh refugees had gathered in their tens of thousands, bitterly enraged by the killing of their loved ones and the loss of their homes and homelands to Muslims on the other side of the border. Spurred and encouraged by the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the Akalis, the refugees began to attack Muslim settlements, violently occupying Muslim homes and placing Hindu idols in more than a hundred mosques and shrines in Delhi. Both Nehru and Gandhiji would go to the refugee camps, braving the anger and hatred of refugees, to persuade them to restore peace and amity. Gandhiji said the Hindu faith would be destroyed if a single mosque was forcefully turned into a Hindu temple. He reminded angry Sikhs that love was central to the tenets of their faith. He said India’s soul would be hollowed out if Muslims could not live in India as equal citizens, without fear. His last fast, a fortnight before he was killed, was for all mosques, shrines and homes to be returned to the Muslims.
Habib reminds us that in effect Gandhiji was asking Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan to vacate the Muslim homes they had occupied and return to their refugee camps. It required utmost courage and love to make such a demand on one’s people. Only the Mahatma could do this. His moral force prevailed over the bitter rage of the refugees and the poison spread by the RSS and the Mahasabha.
Habib believes that if Muslims could live in free India as equal citizens without fear and persecution, and if India chose to be a secular country that belonged equally to people of every faith, it became possible because of Gandhiji’s last battle. Another historian Dileep Simeon describes the last months of Gandhiji’s his life aptly as “Love at Work”.
Courts were unable to establish that Gandhiji’s killer was a member of the RSS. VD Savarkar was let off from conviction for conspiracy for Gandhiji’s murder on technical grounds. But it is indisputable that it was the ideology of hate that organisations such as the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha fostered that stirred the ideological flames that led to the Mahatma’s assassination.
None of this finds place in today’s textbooks. Students are told that Gandhiji was killed because he consented to the Partition. They are never told he was murdered because of the extraordinary courage and resolve of his love; because he wanted India to hold together as a country that was compassionate, inclusive and secular; because his opponents wanted an India which would be a Hindu Pakistan. Modi has been a member of the RSS all his adult life, and before he entered politics, a dedicated worker of the organisation committed to a Hindu Rashtra, an India that is the very opposite of the India Gandhiji died for. It is a travesty for Modi to claim any ideological kinship with the Mahatma.
Seventy years after Gandhiji’s assassination, India is being torn apart by hate once again. Muslims, Christians and Dalits are being taught to live in India as second class citizens, in fear and submission.
It is to respond to the engineered hate of our times with the love that the Mahatma taught us that Karwan e Mohabbat set out on its journey across the country. Seventy years after Gandhiji’s death, when the country threatens to be torn apart again – with the same hate, fostered by the same alternate idea of India as a Hindu nation – we need to find within ourselves Gandhiji’s resolute and valiant love and unshakeable belief in the equal rights of all people, of every faith, caste and gender. The Karwan’s pilgrimage to the place where he was born was to remind ourselves about the true meaning of love in times of hate.
This is the second article in a series on Karwan e Mohabbat, a civil society initiative to reach out to the victims of communal, caste and gender violence across India.