Over the decades, the image of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah has often been emphasized in varying shades by the state and various governments to fit in their respective ideological frames. Even though most of these images have been constructed, sometimes ingeniously, none of them dared to malign him.
One can lament that Gandhi would have been shocked by this mindset. The ruling Hindu nationalists are likely to see this, not as a failure, but a success. It is often said that one can kill a man, but not his ideas. But it is not impossible because in India, Hindu nationalists first killed the man, then in another seven decades, assassinated his idea.
Contrarily the image of Mr. Jinnah’s Indian contemporary, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, has had to suffer a worse fate. Once revered as the spiritual architect of India’s independence from British colonial rule and the most respected figurehead of the country’s founding party, the Indian National Congress (INC), Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948 by a fanatical Hindu nationalist.
The assassin was arrested and executed. Gandhi’s image as a founder of post-colonial India and a thorough advocate of the philosophy of non-violence, not only remained intact, but was enhanced, mainly due to the fact that the INC managed to remain India’s ruling party for the next four decades.
Yet, there were always those in India who continued to accuse him of ‘allowing’ the Muslims of India to create their own nation-state, Pakistan. However, the fact is, Gandhi had tried his best to dissuade Mr. Jinnah from separating from the rest of India to create a new country. It is also a fact that by the mid-1940s, the tenor and character of tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities in India had intensified to such an extent that Mr. Jinnah could not see how these could be neutralized without a large number of Indian Muslims carving out a sovereign country of their own.
The legacy of Gandhi’s assassin is proudly violent. A violence that is now being glorified as the true manifestation of Indian nationalism and the Hindu faith. A nationalism that explains every Indian to be a Hindu because, according to this narrative, the non-Hindus in the region had Hindu ancestors. Now even the slightest disagreement in this context attracts both the threat as well as actual violence. Gandhi understood Jinnah’s dilemma and used his signature non-violent activism by going on a hunger strike to plead an end to Hindu-Muslim violence. But by then, things had spiraled out of control, and he eventually came around to accept the creation of Pakistan.
Gandhi was never appreciated by the more radical elements within the INC, many of who were also close to militant Hindu nationalists. The latter, of course, always despised him, especially his philosophy of non-violence. Hindu nationalist ideologues believed that Gandhi’s ideas undermined the masculinity of the Hindu race and the need for this race to avenge hundreds of years of Muslim rule in India and make a monolithic concoction of Hinduism as India’s dominant, in fact, only faith.
Such sentiments did not die with the execution of Gandhi’s assassin. They continued to simmer just underneath the veneer of Indian secularism, even though they would momentarily come to the surface during ‘communal riots’ only to be pushed underground again by the INC governments and India’s Gandhian nationalist ethos. But the conditions that caused Hindu nationalist and anti-Gandhi sentiments were never addressed or resolved. They were simply repressed. What’s more, many INC members continued to retain relations with Hindu nationalists for electoral purposes, something we also see sometimes in Pakistan where mainstream non-religious parties do not hesitate in striking secret (and sometimes not so secret) electoral deals with militant and sectarian outfits in pockets where they have influence (and thus vote-banks).
Militant Hindu sentiments that sought to erode the Gandhian ethos and replace it with a political and religious morality that had an irreverent and even iconoclastic attitude towards this ethos, continued to chip their way upwards as INC regimes began to struggle to adjust to the rapidly changing economic and political dynamics of local and international politics from the late 1970s onwards. In 1987, when a TV serial based on revered figures of the Hindu faith became one of the most viewed TV programs in India, INC seemed to have understood this phenomenon as a way to give vent to rising Hindu nationalist sentiments but by placing them in the context of Gandhian ethos.
It was anything but. There was nothing Gandhian about the serial because it flew in the face of Indian secularism, making non-Hindu communities in India look like aliens because they could not relate to any of the myths and beliefs that were dramatized. From then onwards, every time a non-Hindu community or place of worship was attacked, it symbolized an attack on Gandhian ethos. And as the Hindu national BJP increasingly became the country’s ruling party, the number of such attacks were tolerated, until the election of BJP’s Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, when attacks of this nature were not only tolerated but are actually being encouraged and even instigated.
In January 2019, Puja Pandey, a member of a Hindi nationalist organization allied to the Modi regime, held an outrageous ceremony to eulogize Gandhi’s assassin. It was outrageous because there was also a statue of Gandhi there which Pandey pointed at with a gun and fired! Such a spectacle would have been entirely impossible to exhibit during the first five decades of the Republic of India. Symbolically, it was Pandey’s way to now assassinate Gandhi’s legacy and replace it with the ideological legacy of men like Gandhi’s assassin a legacy that had once been relegated to the fringes of Indian polity.
The legacy of Gandhi’s assassin is proudly violent. A violence that is now being glorified as the true manifestation of Indian nationalism and the Hindu faith. A nationalism that explains every Indian to be a Hindu because, according to this narrative, the non-Hindus in the region had Hindu ancestors. Now even the slightest disagreement in this context attracts both the threat as well as actual violence. One can lament that Gandhi would have been shocked by this mindset. The ruling Hindu nationalists are likely to see this, not as a failure, but a success. It is often said that one can kill a man, but not his ideas. But it is not impossible because, in India, Hindu nationalists first killed the man, then in another seven decades, assassinated his idea.