India and the US are often seen as sharing a close link in the form of their democratic setups. While India is the largest democracy, the US is the oldest living democracy in the world, however, there remains a stark difference between the two societies, that is, while one has matured enough to digest uncomfortable truths that shake the foundations of the nation, the other is yet to get there.
The biggest reason behind this stark difference emanates from the fact that there are no ‘holy cows’ in the American narrative, as opposed to India which has had an unreasonable fetish with certain ‘holy cows’ that are gradually elevated beyond criticism. The manner in which Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, or even Abrahim Lincoln, are not seen as infallible in the American discourse shows what differentiates a democracy that is more than 200 years old from the Indian democracy which, in its present form, is 70 years old.
In fact, until very recently, it was considered politically incorrect to point out the blunders of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, or for that matter the clear faults of even somebody like Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. That the soft spoken ‘Holy Cow’ and honourable former PM Manmohan Singh presided over possibly the most corrupt governments in India, will also be discussed in length one day. Demanding the abrogation of Article 370, or even bringing up some of the most bizarre historical wrongs or blatant errors committed by such ‘holy cows’ was considered almost blasphemous, and designated as the ‘fringe’. How can a democracy deepen its roots in a society when a particular elitist section is able to mould the discourse and create a perception that certain individuals and their actions are beyond criticism and public scrutiny?
The biggest obstacle in the maturity of Indian democracy is manifested in how Mahatama Gandhi, “the father of the Nation” has been eulogised in a manner so as to be God-like and beyond criticism. He epitomises our obsession with seeking ‘holy cows’ in the larger national perception and then marginalising anyone who dares to speak against such an individual. Therefore, despite all controversies surrounding Mahatama Gandhi, he has been essentially seen as infallible.
On a cursory look, one can find that the very core of MK Gandhi’s ideology, viz. non-violence, was somewhat inconsistent and shakable. The Bambatha Rebellion, when the Zulus had protested against the imposition of taxes by the British after the end of the Boer War, is an example of dubiousness in Gandhi’s principle of non-violence. He had actually persuaded the British to recruit Indians as part of the Army against the Zulus even as the British responded with the killings thousands of Zulus. Another example of the shocking inconsistency in his principle of non-violence is manifested in ‘Sergeant Gandhi’s’ support of the British during the World War-I and also joining the British government campaign for getting Indians to volunteer for the British Army, even as he continued to impose his principle of non-violence upon the Indians in their freedom struggle.
A closer look at his utterances and actions would also reveal that he was the one who gave rise to the malaise of minority appeasement in India, which continues to be a defining feature of the Indian polity. His support for the Khilafat movement, and his decision to align the Non-Cooperation movement, which was supposed to be a national movement with the Khilafat movement- concerned with the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Caliphate, actually gave birth to the phenomenon of minority appeasement in India
. The Khilafat Conference at Nagpur witnessed Maulanas reciting ayats from the Quran and giving frequent references to jihad against kafirs. The Mahatma, however, decided to downplay this clear threat and said, “They are alluding to the British bureaucracy.” As it later turned out, they were not alluding to the British democracy, and were, in fact, very serious about jihad against kafirs¸ ultimately taking the shape of the Moplah massacre of 1921 in which thousands of Hindus were killed and yet lakhs of them were rendered homeless. Writing about the inhuman rebellion, Gandhi said that five hundred Moplahs were killed, but at the same time, he tried to downplay the atrocities perpetrated upon Hindus as “they (Moplahs) have resorted to arson and looting.” He did not give any vivid account of the massacre which resulted in the killings of an estimated 5,000 Hindus. Instead, he said, “Hindus must find the cause of Moplah fanaticism”.
Annie Besant on Moplah massacre. At JNU History Centre they taught us that it was a class revolt of "poor Muslim peasants". against well off Hindu landlords! And Gandhi dismissed reports of this massacre as much ado about nothing pic.twitter.com/3LkGbSWjtv
— MadhuPurnima Kishwar (@madhukishwar) May 20, 2019
His brand of minority appeasement gets further corroborated with the manner in which he rushed to support Swami Shraddhanand’s assassin, a Muslim fanatic called Abdul Rashid, who had killed the former owing to his campaign to help reconvert followers of Islam to Hinduism- “Ghar Wapsi”, as it is recognised today. Gandhi not only defended Rashid, but actually went on to exonerate and eulogise the murderer calling him his brother and arguing that he should not be considered guilty of murdering Swami Shraddhanand, as the latter was spreading hatred.
Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement has also been exaggerated to an unimaginable extent. While he is portrayed as the one who single-handedly led the freedom struggle, the fact remains that his campaign, or at least a substantial part thereof, was defeatist and lacked purpose. While he continues to be hailed as the man who freed us from the British, factors like Bose-led Indian National Army’s role, the impact of World War-II and the eventual decline of the British Empire have been traditionally ignored despite these factors being the immediate cause of Indian independence.
Despite all his shortcomings, and a range of personal and public controversies, Mahatma Gandhi has successfully remained the ‘holy cow’ of India, criticising whom is seen as blasphemous. As a necessary corollary, his assassin, Nathuram Godse is constantly vilified. The consequence is an immature democracy which gets uncomfortable when confronted with the question- Was Nathuram Godse a patriot? After all, the man was an ideologically driven assassin but could he be a terrorist? Was he an enemy of the Indian state? The historical circumstances in the backdrop of a violent, reckless partition that witnessed crores of Indians die, through no fault of theirs, have often been ignored when judging Nathuram Godse’s side of the story. We cannot simply ignore as to who pushed the country into such turmoil and left innocent citizens of the country unprepared in the face of one of the most violent events in the world history- the partition.
The Mahatma’s murder cannot be justified, but for the sake of a maturing democracy and nation, it should not be blasphemous to discuss Gandhi’s flaws, or to recognise that Godse, a murderer, may have been a patriot himself, and to discuss Godse’s testimony in court.
Every time these questions have been raised, it has evoked extreme reactions at a national level showing how uncomfortable we are when faced with such contentious issues however these are some bitter realities that cannot be simply ignored. It took a Bhagwa clad, hence, easy-to-hate Sadhvi Pragya to bring such contentious issues into public glare. That Shiv Sena believes the same is yet to be protested by our Gandhian secularists.
As stated earlier, Indian democracy, whose strengthening has been frequently plagued by the addiction with ‘holy cows’ is still not at terms with someone raising such uncomfortable questions. Sadhvi Pragya has faced ridicule even from her own party. However, Sadhvi has arrived and she comes with a debate that is not going away until addressed. It would be a mistake to think that with a forced exit, or gagging of Sadhvi Pragya, the debate will be buried. Sooner or later, these questions will have to be mainstreamed. The only question is when will India be comfortable enough to take up such contentious questions, without falling for its obsession with the ‘holy cows’.