Will India’s future be dictated by the resentful victimhood that seems today to grip champions, young and old, of Hindu nationalism in a Hindu India where Hindus dominate the economy, the polity, the media, the culture, and everything else? Or will calm, thoughtful, self-critical yet confident young Indians — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, and others — build a thriving, just India that inspires the world?
— Rajmohan Gandhi
At a time when the militancy of hyper-nationalism has invaded the politico-cultural and even educational sphere, are we really ready to be calm and thoughtful, engage with his ‘reflections and recollections’, realise the intensity of the damage we have already caused to our collective consciousness, and restore the fundamental spirit of the freedom struggle — decolonised and egalitarian India as a confluence of multiple traditions and faiths? Possibly, this slim book with five chapters will inspire every engaged reader.
To begin with, as we read the text, it becomes almost impossible not to reflect on the way Rama — ‘the lord of the universe to whom many turn for mercy and protection’ — has been transformed into a ‘patriot-hero’. Amid the cacophony of Jai Shri Ram, or the vicarious pleasure in constructing a spectacular temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, everything is turned into its opposite — religiosity into hatred, or the poetic beauty of the Ramayana into a discourse of noisy/hyper-masculine nationalism. Likewise, Rajmohan Gandhi persuades us to ask yet another critical question: what sort of ‘Akhand Bharat’ are the champions of Hindu nationalism trying to recover? The fact is that even though India is an ancient civilisation, the idea of ‘Akhand Bharat’ as some sort of centralised political unity was ‘crafted by the Mughals and later consolidated by the British’.
Yes, the trauma of Partition continues to haunt us. But then, ‘the last thing that Hindu nationalists desire’, says Rajmohan Gandhi, ‘is a merger of the populations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’. Instead, as the call for ‘safai abhiyann’ indicates, they are rather over-enthusiastic to ask Indian Muslims to ‘go to Pakistan’; but the Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh becoming part of India is only an ‘unreasonable nightmare for them’.
We are also living at a time when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is repeatedly condemned, stigmatised and demonised. ‘Casteist’ Gandhi; ‘pro-Muslim’ Gandhi responsible for the partition of India; ‘effeminate’ Gandhi — there seems to be no end to the list of abuses. Not just as the Mahatma’s grandson, but as a gifted scholar — Rajmohan Gandhi encourages the reader to understand Gandhi’s life, politics and worldview deeply and meaningfully. Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence or Satyagraha as an art of resistance requires immense courage to practice; it is not, as the propaganda machinery spreads, cowardice, or passive surrender before evil forces. Likewise, even though Dr BR Ambedkar’s ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ was a path-breaking text, it would be naïve to negate the way Gandhi’s approach to the caste question was becoming increasingly radical over the passage of time. Rajmohan Gandhi urges us to read “Caste Must Go” — the article Mahatma Gandhi wrote in the Harijan in 1935.
The question is: where do we go from here? Should we allow ourselves to be paralysed by the ‘pessimism of the intellect’, or, as Antonio Gramsci would have said, should we trust the ‘optimism of the will’, and resist the prevalent pathology? Yes, Rajmohan Gandhi is not wrong in suggesting a set of ‘simple ways to nudge our people forward’. To quote him:
The home, the classroom, the bus queue, the train compartment — such are the places where a democratic culture either grows or is slipped down. We protest, as we must, the suppression of liberty and the condonation of ‘zabardasti’ in public spaces.
Unlike a heavily loaded prosaic ‘academic’ text, this book flows like a river. And I would urge the readers to switch off the toxic and noisy television channels, unlearn the packages of falsehood bombarded on them, and converse with Rajmohan Gandhi — a graceful thinker/philosopher carrying the soul of India.