Every year, on October 2
nd, Mahatma Gandhi gets moved out of the mothballs we stored him in for the rest of the year, dusted, and venerated. And, then when the day is over, he gets put back in the crate and forgotten for the next 364 days. This year, the venerations have been a bit louder and the remembrance a bit more forced. This is the 150 th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and everyone is trying to appropriate him as their mascot – the ultimate semi-divine approval from the martyred father of the nation.
"If Gandhi had been around, what would he have done?" is the oft-seen statement on a number of timelines, op-ed pieces, and general statements. And, the answer to that is rather more complex than it seems. Had he remained alive, and in some modicum of health and fitness at age 150, Gandhi would have been a deeply unhappy, completely marginalised person in Indian politics. He would have derailed policy, interfered in foreign relations, marred negotiations and more.
In the short span of the 5 months between independence and his murder by Godse, in 1948, he had already thrown a spanner in the government of India’s handling of Pakistan over the invasion of Kashmir by beginning a fast unto death. Post-Independence, there was a division of not just land, but assets. Amongst the assets was the transfer of Rs 75 crore from India to Pakistan. The first instalment of Rs 20 crore had been paid, and there was a balance that had to be paid, when Pakistan government-backed Pashtun tribes invaded the independent kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, setting off a chain of events that reverberate in the sub-continent even now. The government of India led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and home minister Vallabhai Patel decided to withhold the payment of the remaining money. Rs 55 crore in 1948 was a lot of money – and Pakistan needed this money, and the government of India saw a strategic advantage in using this to her advantage. But Gandhi would have none of that. He believed that India should not ethically and morally link the two issues and went on fast to bend the government to his way of seeing things. And he succeeded.
Had he been alive, for decades that followed there would have been a no greater thorn in the side of the Indian government than Gandhi. He would have gone up against the powerful Indian National Congress in the post-independence India. Stood against the construction of dams, stood against the modernisation planned by Nehru. It is likely he would have fasted against Operation Polo – where India annexed the princely state of Hyderabad, and later the annexation of Goa. He would have definitely intervened in the post-war negotiations with Pakistan in 1965, and 1971. It is likely he would have opposed Emergency, and he would have stood against the state on operation Bluestar. He would have protested the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 actively, and the Babri Masjid demolition; he would have stood with those whose homes would have been submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam, and he would work closely with citizens in Naxal dominated areas – including Naxal leaders. He would have protested the Gujarat riots, and he would have opposed excessive industrialisation. In other words, he would have protested so much in the 70+ years following his death, that his protests may have landed him in jail just as frequently as he visited it when the British were here.
Right now, you can sure, had Gandhi been alive, he would be fasting until the government changed its stance on Article 370. And you could be sure of the backlash – press coverage on Gandhi’s eccentricities; media moguls going apoplectic at whether protests of conscience are treason. The term traitor and the phrase “Go to Pakistan” would be applied liberally to him. There would be a meltdown on social media – and comedians would have a field day with some of his utterances on the ‘morning constitution’, and celibacy.
Had Gandhi been alive today, he would have pretty much done what he did then – protest against injustice non-violently and go on fast against things that really bothered him. In an era far more cynical, where consent is manufactured by mass media organisations showing you a distorted version of reality – Gandhi’s multi-layered personality, his sense of humour, his empathy, his genuine belief in ahimsa and love for all beings (including those of other religions) – may have broken through the clutter to attract a new generation. He may have been a beacon for many today, as he was then.
And, if we take away the manufactured packaging of Gandhi as a brand, and revert his messaging to his core values, those values would still resonate. In a world where devotees of the murderer Godse are welcomed as heroes, there will always be the need for a multi-layered person like Gandhi, who helps you aspire to become the best version of yourself.What would Gandhi have said? – be the change you want to see in society.