Pratap Bhanu Mehta: ‘We revere Gandhi but didn’t know what to do with him till 1930s’

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: ‘We revere Gandhi but didn’t know what to do with him till 1930s’

Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta at the 45th Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture on Thursday. (Express Photo: Anil Sharma)

Stating that “in a way” Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination saved India, academic and writer Pratap Bhanu Mehta said it helped prevent “a possible split in the Congress and delegitimised Hindu nationalism”.

“We revere Gandhi,” he said, delivering the 45th Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Gandhi Peace Foundation on Thursday, “but even as early as the late-1930s (we) did not quite know what to do with him. In a way, his assassination at the hands of (Nathuram) Godse saved India. It led to preventing a possible split in the Congress party, and it delegitimised Hindu nationalism. Would a Nehruvian India have been easy to construct without Gandhi’s assassination? Would he not have faced an emboldened Hindu Right even in the ‘50s? So Gandhi’s death served a purpose.”

Speaking on the topic ‘Overcoming Gandhi: Gandhi and Contemporary Politics’, Mehta asked, “Which Gandhi do we remember on this occasion? The Gandhi who inspires us, who gives us much of our lexicon of protest? Or the Gandhi whose response to India’s independence was ‘silence’ — an admission of defeat, a profound sense of inner loneliness, as if his moral relation with the nation had been severed?” Mehta called BJP the “single-most radical challenge to Hinduism” today. “These are times characterised by symptoms of fascism: targeting of minorities because of who they are, (a) growing authoritarianism, and allegiance to a leadership principle — (believing) whatever the leader does is right,” he said.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: ‘We revere Gandhi but didn’t know what to do with him till 1930s’

Mehta was speaking on the topic ‘Overcoming Gandhi: Gandhi and Contemporary Politics’. (Express Photo: Anil Sharma)

On the current political environment, Mehta said people compare it to the situation in Europe in the 1930s, but there is also another comparison. “The 1920s and ‘30s saw growing communalisation. Gandhi’s response was to find a cultural idiom of communal harmony. His claim was that for Hindu-Muslim friendship to endure, it must be ‘unconditional’, not subject to the calculus of bargain and interest. But while that idiom was very powerful, it sidestepped a problem representative democracy threw up: how is power going to be shared between groups?”

“The cultural idiom of a syncretic India, or a plural India, did not quite answer this specific question. In a way, we continue to sidestep this question. The BJP has declared, more or less, that power need not be shared with minorities - they can be made irrelevant. The cultural idiom of communal harmony again seems powerless to address this specific conundrum.”

In the age of social media, Mehta said, there is an asymmetry between truth and false, and “it is easier to sow suspicion rather than establishing the truth. No greatness can survive that doubt.”

He said: “It is an interesting question whether an age of social media can have a place for genuine greatness. First, Modi’s great success has been to produce greatness fatigue — getting people into a mindset where the very greatness of Nehru and Gandhi is held against them. If they were so great, should they not be blamed for India’s condition?.... Second, in a social media age, doubt triumphs over truth.”