These days one wakes up every morning to headlines about fresh ravages of COVID-19 and one more scandalous attempt by the government at the Centre to re-fashion history and public memory.
There are certain common threads to the latter campaign. For one the desperate attempt to sift and sweep out the great contribution of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress to liberation of the country from colonial rule.The perpetrators of such blasphemy know that no one in their real pantheon can be invoked to fill that place,as they were better known for their distance from the freedom movement and collaboration with British rulers.
So they have picked up heroes of the freedom movement like Netaji Subhas Bose or Bhagat Singh,who had their differences with Gandhi.They forget that their newly adopted heroes held Gandhijee in highest respect however bitter and deep their differences with him.Bose not only named brigades in INA after Gandhi and Nehru,but also hailed Gandhijee as ‘the father of the nation’, an epithet that the entire nation adopted for their acclaimed leader.Incidentally the latter tribute showed that Bose was no narrow-minded politician but a statesman with a vision.Yet out of sheer cussedness the present regime has chosen to replace Gandhijee as the icon of the national freedom struggle with Bose. It is worth mentioning in passing that Bose had actually excoriated Hindu and Muslim communalism as deadly poison to the health and vitality of the nation.
The way Gandhijee had permeated folk imagination all ove r the country across regions,languages and communities was simply unimaginable today and is still to be fully explored and documented.In Assam Gandhijee had found a place in traditional wedding songs of women-folk.In certain regions of the countryside his visits to Assam are celebrated like historic events etched deep into popular memory. No other national leader had attained such charisma,and there were serious, cogent reasons for such veneration.
It is sometimes said that for most of the past the country had been a terrain marked by big and small kingdoms perpetually at one another’s throats,until the Mughals brought the greater part of North India under their sway and established a more or less uniform revenue collection and administration in that territory.But there was no sense of or yearning for national political unity though some cultural continuum was felt across the differences.It is British rule that with uniform rent exploitation,state sponsored commercial exploitation and plunder,and new means of communications like the railways and the telegraph that unwittingly led to the birth and nurture of national unity.Canny colonial rulers woke up to it long ago and set about promoting communal division with planned implosion.
The awakening of the middle-class and a national bourgeoisie saw the first attempts at a movement for dignity of Indians and greater scope for Indian participation in government,succeeded by demand for ‘Home Rule’. Independence was a far cry and in any case unrealisable with only a handful of Western-educated lawyers, professionals and businessmen leading the various movements against imperialist autocracy.
It was at this juncture that M.K.Gandhi appeared seasoned by his experience of some success in unarmed mass struggle against a brutal autocratic,racist government and social order in South Africa.He at once saw that confined as those earnest efforts to win recognition for dignity,equality and power were,they were bound to fail without the passionate support and sacrifice of the vast peasant and working masses.
He shed his foreign suit,donned the barest simple clothes of the common people and journeyed through the great land to speak for the exploited masses against the encrusted and inhuman imperialist exploitation.The Champaran satyagraha not only brought a ray of hope to the gloom of unredeemed exploitation and ruthless oppression of peasants,crushed by a zemindari system set up and upheld by imperialists.This little incident seems to have started a blaze of mixed news,gossip,myths,hopes and yearnings that spread far and wide in the vast heartland of North India and was to be later chronicled by Subaltern Historians who perceived them as discourse but failed to understand their revolutionary social import.Sardar Patel under his tutelage repeated the experiment with success in Bardoli,Gujarat and in the far North-eastern corner of Assam students dropped out of college in hordes to mobilise the peasantry in various programmes of such resistance and re-awakening.
The first concerted and planned use of countrywide mass mobilisation and participation was of course the non-co-operation Movement which symbolised a massive boycott of foreign goods and colonial administration as well as education.This thunderous cry of resolute opposition to powerful symbols of foreign rule along with the call for Hindu-Muslim unity actually awakened the Indian people from centuries-old slumber and first aroused in their minds some sense of a united nationhood.Later more radical and militant movements took off from this ground.In this sense Gandhi was indubitably ‘the father of the nation’.Later tidal movements that rocked the country from time to time would have been unthinkable without this galvanic moulding of the peasants and working masses of India.
To seek to replace him with some ideal figure armed with a sword or a gun heroically overturning British rule is just childish fanatasy and fable.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator