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‘I am shaken, but not crushed’


Rajmohan Gandhi’s  India After 1947 appears just as the government launches its celebrations around 75 years of Independence. There is indeed much to celebrate, but as Gandhi—author of over a dozen works studying different aspects of our past and its personalities—reflects in his new book, there is also a good deal that should make us uneasy. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Seventy-five years in the life of a nation is not very long. You were a teenager in 1947, and speak of the idealism and hope your generation felt for India. Liberty, equality, and fraternity are yet to be fully realised in our society, however, and instead a new form of tribalism makes itself felt with force. How would you characterise Indian democracy in 2022? Do you recognise this India and its current path?

I was 12 on that mid-August midnight when I stayed awake in our Delhi flat to listen with excitement to the radio and hear the chimes of liberty. In subsequent decades, Indians of my generation felt proud as the world acknowledged the free and democratic climate of a nation where, by all familiar criteria, democracy should have failed. After June 1975 I had the privilege of opposing the Emergency, which thankfully ended after 19 months.

Something in today’s India stabs my spirit. In old age I am witnessing a fearsome assault on my boyhood dream. What wounds me the most is the silence from the top about cruelties on the ground. Norms are being set by vigilante groups and hysterical TV channels. Supremacy (of the dominant) is elbowing out equality as the desired national goal.

I am shaken, but not crushed. One basis for my hope is the eagerness in Indians to belong to the world, live everywhere in the world, and expect equal rights everywhere. The view that within India Muslims and Christians must exist only as second-class citizens will have to yield when it clashes with the hunger to belong to the world as anyone’s equals.

A second basis is the certainty of Indian resistance to supremacy and its twin, authoritarian rule. Indians do not like being told what to do, what to shout, what to believe. Massive propaganda against the Other may work for a while. But dislike of the Other will eventually be trumped by love of our own liberty.

We read in several places in the book of your life as a young boy, living practically inside a newspaper office. Editors had difficult choices before them then, and in the 1970s you, at Himmat, dealt with similar ethical and moral questions when resisting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. In 1976 I believe you had trouble even printing the magazine at commercial presses because of government hostility. Having fought that fight, what do you make of the state of the Indian media today?

From my personal memory of the 1940s, I can testify to the historical fact that the ink of the printing press was a magnificent resource in the fight for freedom, almost as valuable as the fighter’s blood. And then, much later, there was the Emergency, when Himmat was able to play an honourable part, along with several other publications. Today, in the India of 2022, few are more courageous than the brave reporters who from every corner of our land file stories and videos of injustice. Major media, whether print or electronic, may not always feature their stories, but India possesses a great number of enterprising, risk-taking journalists.

But yes, most of India’s large media houses are understandably fearful of a powerful government. For survival they give prominent space to propaganda even if they dislike it. And then there are the outlets that have smelled profit in serving supremacy. Their loud voices are the ones that currently dominate the Indian air.

Fortunately, a handful of great media houses continue to give news and comment without fear or favour. A great salute is also in order for the journalists who through online portals keep significant sections of the population informed of what is happening.

You speak of a very personal Ram who inspired and animated Hindus, and was an everyday presence in their lives: a Ram who lived within, and was not a political shuttlecock. Today we find a more muscular Ram promoted, tied to a specific site and turned into a mascot for assorted grievances. Have we lost something in the process, or is the new form—as its advocates argue—a product of an assertive “Hindu civilisational state” that is emerging? Does this new Ram speak to you at all, and is there any justice in his new avatar?

What will raise India’s standing and restrain India’s enemies, wherever they might exist, is not a muscular, aggressive or divisive Ram, but a united nation where Indians trust one another and cooperate with one another. The “new Ram” certainly does not inspire me. And I doubt very much that a Ram fabricated for frightening India’s minorities is a mascot that will impress the peoples of the rest of the world.

Is there any justice in this new avatar? I am no philosopher, but I am willing to concede that projects of revenge anywhere in the world may contain an element of justice. However, I also think that folly forms a much bigger part of revenge. Will chain reactions of revenge among different sections of the Indian population strengthen India? The answer is obvious.

What is represented by the personal Ram (or by a similar Hindu or non-Hindu expression) is a lamp that may help anyone walking on a dark evening in a difficult terrain anywhere in the world. Or an umbrella that may protect anyone, Indian or non-Indian, against the sun or the rain. Perhaps, who knows, cries to the new Ram avatar will lead some to the merciful one.

You quote a remark from Tagore to Mahatma Gandhi—your grandfather—in 1921, where the former says: “You have persuaded Muslim and Hindu to sit side by side on the political platform and to crack a whip together at the British Raj... But how far down in their hearts and minds does this sense of unity... penetrate?” A century later, how would you answer this question? Where have we succeeded and where have we failed?

This of course is the key question: was there, is there, can there be a deep and lasting unity among Indians of different, often conflicting, groups? Having a common political enemy, the British, clearly did not suffice. Great joint struggles against British rule indeed took place in 1857, 1919, 1921, 1930, 1942, and at other times. At the neighbourhood level, Hindus and Muslims often took part in each other’s festivals. However, there was insufficient mingling and no real fusion.

In 1947, great killings accompanied Partition, especially in both halves of Punjab, yet every student of that year’s tragic events also finds that protectors from the “other” side vastly outnumbered killers from that side. Before and after Partition, a large majority of Indians rejected the two-nation theory. However, coexistence rarely translated into long-term bonding. Still, for six decades after Partition, Bollywood and its music wonderfully enhanced Hindu-Muslim friendship, as did the nation’s acknowledged leaders. As a state and as a people, India disproved the two-nation theory.

Today, however, enmity generates passion, power, profit.

Moreover, not only are Muslims under-represented everywhere, including in Parliament, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, and the army, their representation continues to shrink. While the BJP seems to pride itself in keeping Muslims out, opposition parties seem to think that a Muslim face will hurt their electoral prospects. Sports seems to be about the only field where India’s diversity is visible. Champions of the two-nation theory, and their ghosts, can now smile.

Gandhi warned in 1947 of the perils of attempting to rewrite history; of his fear that India’s Muslim heritage might be expunged. History has always necessarily depended on debate and revision. Yet what we see now is a more sinister affair. As a historian and scholar, do you fear—like the Mahatma—the consequences of what is now under way, aggressively promoted through social media and technology?

Keenness to find fresh ways of understanding everything, including the past, should be celebrated. But a project to “abolish” the past is a wholly different exercise. In fact, the past may be about the only thing that even an Almighty God cannot alter. Like it or not, what happened did happen. The Mughals did rule over India. So did the British.

No one can undo the past, but technology, social media, governmental edicts, and doctored textbooks may combine to obliterate memories of the past, at least for some time. One by one, thousands of names of cities, villages, roads, and buildings can indeed be changed. Despite unmistakable laws and the Constitution, it may prove possible to coerce the “return” of more places of worship.

It is true, as my book recalls, that in November 1947 Gandhi wrote an article in his Harijan weekly stating that the future could see attempts at “rewriting history” and “obliterating the Muslim period”, and that we could even “forget that there was a mighty Jama Masjid in Delhi, or a Muslim university in Aligarh, or the Taj in Agra”.

Attacks on the past and on the past’s continuing symbols are also attacks on the minds and eyes of today’s Indians—and on the sentiments of many Indians, Muslim and non-Muslim. Their escalation will sink India’s prestige.

You quote your grandfather: “What pricks them [extremists] most is that I keep calling upon them to lay down their lives instead of rousing them to kill.” There is also a remark you make that until leaders of moral clarity and mass appeal emerge, the fight to preserve democracy will need to be fought in “our small circles”. This suggests that eventually change will come—are you hopeful about the next 75 years of Indian democracy? For generations that have their whole lives ahead of them, do you have any advice?

I have already offered the thought that two things might contribute to a change: India’s keenness to belong to the world, and our Indian dislike of being ordered about by fellow Indians. I hope that young Indians today, those who are in their teens or twenties, will strengthen both these urges within themselves.

To them I would say:

“I hope that you will see yourselves as co-sharers, along with the rest of humankind, of our planet as a whole—and that you will jealously protect your liberty of thought, belief, and expression, and the similar liberty of your fellow Indians. In such an effort, the assent of your conscience will be far more important than the applause of your friends. When you learn of persons falsely accused or punished, I hope you will raise your voice in their defence.

‘Secondly, you should get to really know India, and especially those portions of India and the Indian people that fall outside your customary orbit. Recognise and reject the manufactured slander of sections of your compatriots. Travel, that amazing educator, is expensive and not without risks, but reading (not merely on the Internet) and listening can be just as enriching. Get to really know Indians of a background different from yours. If doing that face to face is not easy, get to know about them by reading books written by their well-wishers.

‘Thirdly, if possible form small circles of friends with similar or dissimilar backgrounds who develop mutual respect, mutual understanding, and a shared commitment to liberty, equality and friendship.

‘Liberating India from mutual ignorance, mutual dislike and mutual fear may turn out to be harder than liberating India from British rule. You can have a part in making it happen. This old man wishes you all the strength and luck that you can find.”

Manu S. Pillai is a historian and writer.