Mahatma lives on

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 24, 2018
Paranjape successfully establishes the particularity of the stigma of parricide in the Hindu context, excavating the epics to argue that it remains a rarity.

Paranjape successfully establishes the particularity of the stigma of parricide in the Hindu context, excavating the epics to argue that it remains a rarity.

The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi; Makarand Paranjape; Random House; Non-fiction; ₹599

The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi; Makarand Paranjape; Random House; Non-fiction; ₹599

In the face of brazen celebrations of Gandhi’s assassination at the public stage today, scholar Makarand Paranjape’s book puts the leader back on a place that is his alone

A world historical figure never ceases to inspire creativity. An exercise in meta-scholarship could possibly relate the tone and content of the growing literature on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with changing times and attitudes. Close to seven decades since his assassination, Gandhi remains a source to go to for resolutions of contemporary dilemmas. To be fair to those of critical disposition, his copious volume of published work may seem to offer one solution now and quite another elsewhere.

Part of the reason is that Gandhi did not cling to any recognisable political canon. He invented his own. As an ideology, if such could be deemed to exist, Gandhism was reinvented far too much during the lifetime of its proponent, to be easily domesticated within any political brand. But through successive reinventions a constant vein of pacifist anarchism is evident, a distrust of organised apparatuses of power, and a distinct scepticism about the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in nationalist ideologies.

Makarand Paranjape’s book comes at a time when public life in India is witness to brazen celebrations of Gandhi’s assassination. The mission here is, supposedly, a recovery of the original identity of the Indian nation, which Gandhi is believed to have profaned.

During his lifetime, Gandhi was the man to go to on every consequential matter. The dependence was such that at a time of national shock at his assassination, India’s prime minister could distractedly refer a decision about funeral arrangements to his wise counsel. “Ask Bapu,” said Jawaharlal Nehru when an aide came to him with a query on logistics.

That was a measure of Gandhi’s paternal authority over the new nation’s leadership. And on the third day of his assassination, Sarojini Naidu called him back to life in a memorable address on national radio titled ‘My Father, Do Not Rest’. “Mahatma Gandhi,” said Naidu, “who lived for truth in this world has been translated, though by the hand of an assassin, to a higher stage of the truth.” And then followed an invocation of his mystical power in death: “May the soul of my master, my leader, my father rest not in peace, but let his ashes be so dynamically alive... let the powder of his bones be so charged with life and inspiration that the whole of India will after his death be revitalised into the reality of freedom.”

Naidu’s invocation of the paternal bond was of the essence. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, and Madhav Apte, the plotter — one the repressed psychotic craving acceptance, the other a dissolute seeker of pleasure — saw it as their cause to avenge an undeserving father’s connivance in the violation of mother India. The slaying of the faithless and feckless father was a way of establishing the more authentic paternal claims of Hindu nationalist icon VD Savarkar.

Naidu’s invocation of Gandhi’s afterlife, Paranjape says, has been partially answered in certain artefacts of contemporary popular culture. Two that he treats at considerable length are Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi and the recent Bollywood production Lage Raho Munnabhai, about a street tough’s amorous pursuit and his collateral discovery of ‘Gandhi-giri’. Paranjape’s choices of relatively lowbrow cultural productions may seem to bridge the chasm between the higher discourse on Gandhi and his assimilation into the everyday lives of a nation. But he leaves room for some disquiet over a partial and oversimplified representation of a complex historical personality.

Soon after its birth, the Indian nation was drawn into parricide, leaving a stain that called for effacement. Paranjape successfully establishes the particularity of the stigma of parricide in the Hindu context, excavating the epics to argue that it remains a rarity in the received cultural corpus. This is quite unlike the social psychology of the west, where the Oedipal longing to possess the mother, if necessary by getting a father out of the way, is regarded as a primal impulse.

The universalisation of the Oedipal longing, Paranjape finds, is an instance of western cultural imperialism. But in preparing for a death which he seemed to foresee and welcome, Gandhi also bequeathed the means for the nation to avoid colonisation anew on account of its culpability in Oedipal sin.

Gandhi, in the second part of this book, is portrayed as gradually awakening to the compulsions of statecraft in a modern nation, laying out rules of conduct for India that, at an early stage, set it apart from Pakistan. Paranjape reads these as a political bequest that redeemed the possibility of a tolerant and generous democracy, in contrast to the train-wreck that is Pakistan today. The argument feeds into current preconceptions but may be a little inattentive to the longer Gandhian effort to grapple with the realities of statecraft. These include his active sponsorship of the Karachi Congress resolution of 1931 and his deliberate arm’s-length relationship with the provincial governments that took office in various parts of India in the 1930s.

There’s also a risk of provincialising Gandhi here, especially the person who during his last days in riot-torn Calcutta, insisted that he belonged equally to both the nation-states that emerged out of the debris of the Raj, who repeatedly warned the Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir to do the right thing for his oppressed people and step out of the way. Viewed in this context, the ensuing state of permanent war in South Asia, not to mention the brute force with which peripheral regions have been wrapped tightly into the Indian nation, speak vividly of a breach of faith with the Gandhian legacy. That though, is not an avenue that Paranjape sets out to explore.

S ukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced StudyShimla

Published on May 29, 2015

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