As Gandhi commits suicide

October 29, 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

A MEMORABLE thing about Lucknow’s La Martiniere College, on which the school days of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim were modelled, was its 18th-century baroque chapel shored up by its mesmeric organ music.

Occasionally, a preacher from Korea or America would come visiting and leave the school choir with new songs to hug and play with. “When through the woods and forest glades I wander, then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee. How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The crescendo in the Korean visitor’s composition nearly touched the ornate ceiling of the chapel and gave us goosebumps. It mattered a lot to the joy of the moment that some of us were not even Christian, coming as we did from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Parsi families. All were welcome to the chapel, and to join the singing if they had the requisite uncommon talent for it.

The same was true of Baba Sarandas’s Ram Mandir in Lucknow’s Nirala Nagar neighbourhood. The Baba’s sense of music was iffy, but then we had DV Paluskar and MS Subbalaxmi on the radio practically every morning to make up for the lapse. The temple had come up overnight, and rumour had it that the Baba was a dacoit before he made good as a dope-smoking, affable and an essentially open-minded priest. Everyone was guaranteed the best vegetarian meal by Sarandas, as we squatted in multi-ethnic lines in the temple courtyard, served with syrupy malpuras on dried banyan leaves that were stitched into a plate. Steaming puris were always served with at least three kinds of vegetarian options scooped from zealously scrubbed steel buckets.

Yogi Adityanath and his 20th-century forebears crushed the spiritual pantheon into rubble.

June 1991 derailed the romance, quite possibly for the foreseeable future, and it has struggled ever since to withstand the challenges of contrived hatred that has been orchestrated by the Hindu right to blow up India’s syncretic bonds into smithereens. That was the month the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was installed in Uttar Pradesh, applauded by many who claim to be feeling its bite today.

A few months into BJP’s rule in the state, the Babri Masjid was destroyed in Ayodhya and the rest is history. If there is still a ray of hope for the country’s quest for an inclusive culture it comes from the Sikh gurdwaras that have remained scrupulously musical, each culturally resplendent shabad tied distinctly to a particular raga, and every human soul welcomed to the precincts for food and worship.

Mohammad Furqan Ali, the headmaster of a school in Uttar Pradesh, is paying a toll for the sociopolitical restructuring of India currently under way. Ali was suspended last week for teaching the children to sing a ‘Muslim’ prayer penned by Allama Iqbal. “Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri/Zindagi shama ki surat ho khudaya meri”.

My mother’s generation sang it in school or at least her younger sisters did, and they all grew up as uniformly eclectic people, embracing friends and relatives of different faiths, with a singular pursuit of humanism. Iqbal’s poem speaks of the humanist desire of a young petitioner kneeling before God, who wants to live life in the image of a candle, which spreads light in the world and drives away darkness.

Uttar Pradesh, venue of the abuse of this lovely poem and other forms of daily petty-mindedness against Muslims, Christians and Dalits, is ruled by Prime Minister Modi’s handpicked chief minister not known for his love of anyone who differs from his garbled sense of Hinduism. On the contrary, he has inherited the mantle as the head priest of what used to be a formidably inclusive house of meditation in Gorakhpur where Kabir, Guru Nanak and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai of Sindh, among other saints and mystics, held sway as India’s spiritual lodestar.

Yogi Adityanath and his 20th-century forebears crushed the spiritual pantheon into rubble and aligned the Gorakhpur institution with the hateful politics of Hindutva.

Reference to Allah and Khuda have been cited in Iqbal’s poem to target it as Islamic, not unaware that Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan also referred to Allah and Ishwar as the names of a single entity worshipped in different ways by Muslims and Hindus. But who is Gandhi today and what is his memory worth to stop the orchestrated wickedness stalking India under the right-wing state’s watch?

In the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat, not surprisingly, a question in a school exam for the IX standard recently wanted the students to explain how Gandhiji had harmed himself, euphemism for committing suicide. The question has reportedly shocked the state’s education authorities, and they have apparently initiated an inquiry.

But the erring question is not a stand-alone issue in Modi’s cabinet and parliament. His colleagues are known to deify Nathuram Godse, the Brahmin who killed Gandhi. One of Godse’s devotees is Sadhvi Pragya, who was plucked from prison and fielded as the winning candidate from Bhopal in the recent parliamentary polls. She belongs to a cult within the Hindutva fold that openly worships Godse and loathes Gandhi as an appeaser of Muslims.

Hindutva is not the only challenge to a liberal culture flourishing in India. I recently heard actor Nasiruddin Shah lip-syncing a poem by Asrarul Haq Majaaz adopted by Aligarh Muslim University as its ‘qaumi tarana’. A little-known truth is that the progressive poem with secular and anti-colonial sentiments has been pared down to less than half of the original to comply with the university’s current regressive Muslim makeup.

A reference to the predominantly Muslim campus playing host to people of different faiths has been deleted, as are the lines that refer to the poet’s rage against the British crown and the mullah’s robe equally, which he saw as symbols of a stagnant polity. That complete poem is worth reading too even if Gandhiji would frown on its implicit violence against an exploitative order.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019