By Ravindra RP
On the Mahatma's 60th death anniversary, a former member of the right-wing RSS writes about his early indoctrination against Mahatma Gandhi and his eventual realisation of Gandhi's relevance in modern-day India
It's strange that I should be writing a letter to you. Since childhood, I have had nothing but anger and hatred for you. Had I written a letter then, I would have simply abused you (of course, I would have been smart enough not to sign it). I don't know how over a period of time these feelings were transformed. In fact, I am writing this letter precisely to understand how.
I remember I must have been in the sixth or seventh standard. I was a regular swayamsewak of the Rashtriya Swayamdewak Sangh (RSS). My aim in life was to be its full-time worker. At that impressionable age, a hatred for Gandhi and for Muslims was imprinted on my mind. Nowadays, I wonder whether most Maharashtrian Brahmins carry within them a gene for Gandhi- Muslim hatred. More likely it is a virus, not a gene; how else can one explain its rapid proliferation in the likes of Narendra Modi and Vinay Katiyar?
In the shakha, we boys learnt many things while playing games. One was to run around a widening circle in one breath, chanting "Hinduncha Hindustan" -- Hindustan for the Hindus -- (automatically we used to hum "Pakistan for the Katelas"). Cool evenings and moonlight picnics were invariably linked with the "Bauddhiks" when we listened to horrific tales of Partition, of atrocities committed on Hindus, of the rebellion of the Moplas (yet another bloody tale of Hindu massacre). Our blood literally boiled, letting out fumes of hatred. That was the time I was introduced to the thoughts of Veer Savarkar and I started asking, "How can freedom be won without a war?"
In the 1960s, Bapu, your official heirs were the devious Congressmen and the Sarvodaya workers trapped in rituals like spinning. I was thoroughly convinced (of course without any study) that our freedom was won mainly through the sacrifices of armed revolutionaries, while Gandhi and the Congress ran away with all the credit. The biographies of Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Netaji Bose were so thrilling. (I genuinely believed that all of them were de facto danda -carrying Swayamsevaks, or at least very close relatives of the RSS Parivar!) As against this, your biography was very insipid. (It was only after Attenborough's Gandhi that I realised the beauty and bravery in non-violence, but that was much later.) I read Shatruchya Shibirat (Inside theEenemy Camp), Savarkar's autobiographical account of his trip to England, and concurred with Savarkar that in order to be brave and strong like the English, we too should start eating meat. That was the time when at home we were forbidden even to utter "E for Egg".)
And you, what a contrast! Repenting that you ever tried "imitating an English gentleman". So feeble and weepy! Your language was too simple. When I read your lesson in our English textbook, I found you opposed to science, obsessed with spinning and prohibition. To me, Gandhism meant spinning wheels, loincloths, sheep's milk -- no wonder their caricatures tickled the funny bone of ALL Maharashtrians (that's what we thought at the time -- WE means ALL). My stubbornness grew with age. Most of 'us' had no property, farms or mansions. But we were brought up on tales of how we had lost everything in the 1948 anti-Brahmin riots. This feeling of being wronged, targeted, was passed on to our generation. However, the elder generation around us held you in high esteem; nobody criticised you openly. But hiding the banned books of Nathuram and Gopal Godse, passing them on to others and discussing them in hushed tones was common -- it was thrilling and deeply satisfying, almost like performing a religious ritual.
Later I spent a year in Pune and six years in Nagpur for my college education. That was the time I was really growing -- physically as well as intellectually. I was a voracious reader. In the inspiring '70s, change was in the very air I breathed. I was reading not only RSS literature, but also about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. My dalit friends drew me to the fountainhead of dalit literature. Thus, paradoxically, in the very strongholds of the RSS, I not only outgrew it, but also became its staunch opponent. Later, I travelled a long road – the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini (JP's youth organisation), feminism, the people's science movement…And I graduated to becoming a "progressive".
But this process hardly altered my opinion of you. There were flashes of disturbing exception -- there was JP, candidly describing his voyage from Marxism, socialism and finally reaching your path. He asked, "But where is the 'incentive to goodness' in any ideology? What inspires a person to transcend selfish motives and do anything good for others, for society?" Acharya Dada Dharmadhikari, the leading commentator on 'Total revolution', asked a pertinent question -- "It's natural and just for members of any oppressed group -- dalits, women, toilers -- to struggle for their liberation by rebelling against the system that oppresses them; it is absolutely essential too, but is it sufficient to bring about a fundamental change in society? Who will struggle for the liberation of the entire humankind? In a complex society wherein each one is a part of the oppressive structure, how can we develop 'revolutionary consciousness', transcending mere class/caste consciousness?"
These questions did disturb me, but only temporarily. I was young, haunted by the spirit of 'progressivism', afraid of being branded a 'Savodayi'. Bapu, for us you were an 'outcaste'. For some, you were actually their 'Enemy Number One'. (For progressive people like us, the numbering and sequencing of our enemy list has always been a problem; basically weak in maths, you see.) These numbers kept changing -- sometimes it was you, at times the Congress, quite often the dissidents (from Socialists to Maoists, their number was ever growing.) It is funny, but we never felt the need to consider the RSS our Enemy Number One and really fight it.
We were talking of our relationship. Let us be clear. Your use of the term 'Harijan', your efforts at eradicating 'untouchability', your appeal to high-caste Hindus to take over 'dirty jobs' like scavenging in a spirit of atonement -- for several dalits, all this stinks of high-caste egotism. Congress's opposition to Dr B R Ambedkar and its manipulation of dalits in parliamentary politics are also being blamed on you.
As usual, you are the favourite whipping boy for all the evils in this country. You are the Father of the Nation, a nation that, in fact, does not exist. Hence, no one is offended when you are attacked, because you have no children. For the Marxists, you have always been a stooge of the national capitalists. They won't forgive you because you stood between them and the revolution they intended to bring about. Many feminists don't even mention you -- you were a man, an Indian, a traditionalist, who advocated Brahmacharya (abstinence/celibacy) rather than contraception. Your ideal of RamRajya is obviously unacceptable to the heirs of Shambuka, Sita, Marx and Lenin. Nothing wrong with that, except that this opposition blurred the fact that your Ram was diametrically opposite to the 'Jai Shree Ram' of the Sangh Parivar and would never do injustice to anyone. You were an old hat, Bapuji, while all of us were 'modern'; that was the only thing we agreed upon. We were votaries of modernism. We were convinced that all the problems of our times could be solved through planned development, the spread of modern education, progressive legislation and constitutional provisions like reservations and adoption of secularism by all.
We would have jolly well spent our lives fighting each other, cursing you, and spinning the yarn of 'intellectual' discussions. But then, like a bolt from the blue, the Soviet Union was splintered, the socialist dream soured, and the Babri Masjid was destroyed, and we suddenly woke from our slumber. I won't say that all of us were brought to our senses at the same time. How can we call ourselves progressive if we become aware of all our historical blunders at the same time? But then we woke up to the fact that we had all become redundant. "The caravan had driven past us and we were left staring at the cloud of dust it raised!" Though some of us rushed to seek a space in the Rath Yatra, others were disenchanted and went in search of eternal truth and inner peace. The remaining are still busy fighting one another, yet thinking seriously about what went wrong. Bapuji, I am ashamed to admit, many of us are slowly inching towards you.
It's not an easy process, we must admit. Where is your votebank, Bapu? Hindu fanatics killed you for being pro-Muslim, but Muslims are hardly aware of what you did (for them, for this nation and for upholding humanism). You considered eradication of untouchability as important as the freedom struggle, but for the dalits, you are the kingpin of the Brahiminical power structure (more dangerous than the RSS). Your agenda of revival of village industries brought productive castes of weavers, potters, oilsmiths (the OBCS in today's jargon) into the mainstream of production processes. You were instrumental in bringing about the change in leadership from the upper castes to the Bahujans during the freedom struggle and paved the way for the democratisation of the Indian polity; but the votaries of Mandal are blissfully unaware of this contribution. The Congress party and the so-called Gandhians buried you in statues and turned you into a pygmy, to suit their size. Today, you have no one to carry forward your heritage with pride. The whole business of being the father of an ungrateful nation has been totally loss-making. What sort of Bania are you?
Well, you aren't that unpopular either. Many of your favourite concepts, freed from ideological clutches and after a suitable makeover, have now become 'class symbols'. Khadi is now seen more on the bodies of models walking down the ramp than on activists. Nature cure has become a rage for the elite crowd queuing up for saunas and weightloss programmes. The rich, while shopping in food malls, always prefer organic food. We will all start drinking sheep's milk once its nourishing value is established by American scientists!
But in all this maddening chaos, you have become much more relevant. The overfilled and bursting megacities, drained-out villages, the growing number of farmer suicides, the lavish malls built on the tombs of textile mills, school children exhausted by the burden of schoolbags, Narmada, Singur, Nandigram, Kalinganagar, Khairlanji; people, media, judiciary, bureaucracy, political leaders and workers -- everyone incapable of rising above their narrow caste/class/other vested interests; our horizons fragmented by narrow domestic walls -- Bapu, we need your all-embracing, integral vision encompassing the wholeness of life. Your skill in discovering the hidden strengths of thousands of activists, strengthening their wings, widening their horizons and weaving them together -- we need them today.
We don't want your glasses, Bapu. We are already like the blind men probing the shape of an elephant. After wearing your glasses, we shall end up with egoistic confirmation of our individual discoveries of parts being the whole. Moreover, in the past six decades, we have travelled so much of a distance in a direction the reverse of your Hind Swaraj that it would add to our confusion. Today's problems need today's solutions. Hence, we ask not for your glasses, but your clear, loving, whole vision. We need your support to break through the fallacies of development vs environment, constructive work vs struggle, synthesis vs analysis, creation vs distribution of wealth; to be unforgiving to our own selves, and accommodating of others; to explore wider mass support (beyond funding agencies). Not just a handful of (former and present-day) activists dreaming of a more humane world, but all of us feeling suffocated in this unipolar world seek you.
Why do all the bright and inspiring victories in the struggle for equity and humanity get transformed into ultimate defeats -- India, China, USSR, Vietnam, South Africa; all those saddened by this realisation seek solace in you. The young American peacenik who threw herself before the invading Israeli tanks in Palestine chanted your name before embracing death. You have survived the bullets of Nathuram Godse and the innumerable deaths inflicted by your followers. You live, not only in books, museums and statues, but in our minds as well. You are getting younger day by day, year by year. Hence, let me say "Long Live Bapuji!"
(Translated by the author, the original article appeared in a slightly different form in the Marathi daily Loksatta on October 2, 2007)