The contradiction is mirrored in the attitude of the Hindutva-inspired BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary comes at a time when his legacy, the very idea of Gandhi, stands challenged by prevailing ideological currents. At a time when the standing of his historic detractors, whose descendents now form the ruling dispensation in the country, is at an all time high, Gandhiji has been criticised for weakness, for having bent over too far to accommodate Muslim interests, and for his pacifism, which is seen by the jingoistic Hindutva movement as unmanly.
The Mahatma was killed, with the name of Rama on his lips, for being too pro-Muslim; indeed, he had just come out of a fast he had conducted to coerce his own followers, the Indian ministers, to transfer a larger share than they had intended of the assets of undivided India to Pakistan. Gandhiji had announced his intention to spurn the country he had failed to keep united and to spend the rest of his years in Pakistan, a prospect that made the government of Pakistan collectively choke. But that was the enigma of Gandhiji in a nutshell: idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined, a man who answered to the beat of no other drummer, but got everyone else to march to his tune.
The contradiction is mirrored in the attitude of the Hindutva-inspired BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi was schooled, like other RSS pracharaks, in an intense dislike of Mahatma Gandhi, whose message of tolerance and pluralism was emphatically rejected as minority appeasement by the Sangh Parivar, and whose credo of non-violence, or ahimsa, was seen as an admission of weakness unworthy of manly Hindus.
Modi, for all his Hindutva mindset, his admiration of Savarkar, has embraced Gandhiji, hailing the Mahatma, even using his glasses as a symbol of the Swachh Bharat campaign, linking it to a call to revive Gandhiji’s idea of seva.
At the same time, there is a tangible dissonance between the official embrace of Gandhiji and unofficial ideological distaste for this icon. Gandhiji embodied the central approach of Advaita Vedanta, which preached an inclusive universal religion. Gandhiji saw Hinduism as a faith that respected and embraced all other faiths. He was influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause.
He was a synthesiser of cultural belief systems: his signature bhajan of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram had the second line Ishwara Allah Tero Naam. This practice emerged from his Vedantic belief in the oneness of all human beings, who share the same atman and therefore should be treated equally. Such behaviour did not endear him to every Hindu. In his treatise on ‘Gandhi’s Hinduism and Savarkar’s Hindutva’, social scientist Rudolf Heredia places his two protagonists within an ongoing debate between heterogeneity versus homogeneity in the Hindu faith, pointing out that while Gandhi’s response is inclusive and ethical, Savarkar politicises Hinduism as a majo-ritarian creed. But Gandhiji’s own understanding of religion, in Heredia’s words, “transcended religiosity, Hindu as well as that of any other tradition. It is essentially a spiritual quest for moksha but one rooted in the reality of service to the last and least in the world”. Unlike Savarkar, who believed in conformity, Gandhiji was a synthesiser like no other, who took care to include Indians of other faiths in his capacious and agglomerative understanding of religion.
He took inspiration from not just Advaita Vedanta but also the Jain concept of Anekantavada — the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently by different people from their own different points of view, and that therefore, no single perception can constitute the complete truth. This led him to once declare that ‘I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi, a Jew’.
Hinduism and Hindutva represent two very distinct and contrasting ideas, with vitally different implications for nationalism and role of the Hindu faith. The principles Gandhiji stood for and the way in which he asserted them are easier to admire than to follow. But they represented an ideal that is betrayed every day by those who distort Hinduism to promote a narrow, exclusionary bigotry.
Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, is an acclaimed writer, having authored 18 bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction, centred on India and its history, culture, politics, society, foreign policy, and related themes.