When an unwritten truth confronts us in an extraordinary moment, it leaves us awestruck. Oh I knew this! Why didn’t I realise this till today, we think.
I had a similar experience many years ago at Uganda’s Lake Victoria. We had reached there from Kampala. On the way, someone had told us that Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed here. I was captivated. In those days, Lake Victoria hadn’t yet become a tourist attraction. If the lake was a human being, people would have been left mesmerised by its natural beauty. A little eddy was forming noiselessly at the place where the Nile emerges from the lake’s womb. I imagined that the Mahatma’s ashes would have dissolved into a similar whirl. At that moment I realised for the first time how deeply people from my generation — who have grown up listening to all sorts of lofty statements for and against Gandhi — are connected to the Mahatma.
Even Gopal Godse’s flawed logic made us revere the Mahatma even more. Nathuram Godse’s younger brother was an accused in Gandhi’s assassination. After completing his prison term, he went around the country justifying why they had carried out Gandh’s ‘vadh’ (murder). During this time he offered some laughable examples. At one time he claimed they had killed the Mahatma the way Krishna had slayed Jarasangh. I replied by asking him whether he put himself in the same category as Lord Krishna? How does it matter, he argued, our feelings were similar. At Lake Victoria I had discovered a connection with the Mahatma along with a growing feeling of sadness. During my conversation with Gopal Godse, the sentiment was turning into a seething anger, but there were people in Agra who had hosted him. They listened to him with a lot of respect. On that day I realised Gandhi’s biggest strength are his detractors. The more they resist him, the more his ideas will keep inspiring people.
It has happened with every great man.
That is why, when the Father of the Nation’s picture was missing from the All India Khadi Gram Udyog calendar this year, I wasn’t upset. Power attracts sycophancy and that is how sycophants damage the image of politicians in power. The prime minister’s office didn’t just offer a clarification, but also tightened the screws, but the Opposition had sensed an opportunity by then. One result of this illogical debate over Gandhi was that the Mahatma’s magic was again before the world in all its glory. According to Google News statistics, the number of people searching for the Mahatma grew by 50% in India and 62% worldwide in this period.
Clearly, those in this generation who were not familiar with him got to know the Mahatma. This inquisitive quality in the younger generation is its biggest elixir.
I am fortunate that I have visited Gandhi memorials in various corners of the globe. Surprisingly, even after so many years, how does the Mahatma manage to elicit such a mix of curiosity and respect, that too in alien lands? In October 1997, when I met Nelson Mandela face to face along with former Prime Minister IK Gujral, at the residence of South African president Mahlamba Ndlopfu, I wanted to ask him the same question, but could not get an opportunity.
Later, the secret of Gandhi’s popularity was revealed while speaking with anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada. Kathrada told him that when Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, he had many charges of violent crimes against him. The prison was the South African equivalent of our Kala Pani (Cellular Jail). It was a tried and tested method of white colonialists. They confined people to such uninhabited islands. Mandela realised this tactic. He told his colleagues they would protest against the white regime staying within prison regulations. Mandela was imprisoned there for 28 years, but pursuing his unique policy, he evolved from a person to an idea. It is the only instance in the history of humanity that a man could lead a freedom movement for so long from within the prison. And when he was released, he saved his country by adopting the policy of forgive and forget.
According to Kathrada, Mandela had learnt this lesson from the Mahatma. Perhaps, Kathrada said this as a mark of respect to his guests, but not just Mandela, four other Nobel laureates of the 20th century — Martin Luther King Jr, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel — have admitted that Gandhi’s philosophy influenced them. If we take out these evolved human beings from the last century, we’ll be left with nothing more than two World Wars and injuries from innumerable other wars. Gandhi and his ideological disciples have played a big role in keeping the earth worth living for human beings.
Today is January 30. Do you remember this was the day Nathuram Godse pumped bullets into the Mahatma’s body. But could he kill Gandhi?
He certainly couldn’t. Gandhi is alive in the minds of innumerable admirers and will continue to live there.
Shashi Shekhar is editor in chief, Hindustan