An Imaginary Conversation with Gandhi
It was a long week in Germany as I headed into the aircraft and took my seat. The weather had been cold and windy, I was sleep deprived and heading back home. While I was gone, Yogi Adityanath, a religious radical was appointed to a high government seat, as India continued its slide into religious nationalism. As soon as I took my seat, my eyes automatically shut themselves….
I enter a room, shutting out the bright sunlight as I close the door behind me. It takes me a few moments to find my bearings. At one corner, Gandhi is sitting quietly and working on his spinning. He looks very old and frail, and probably does not notice that I had entered the room. Looking around the room, I guess that I am at the Birla House in New Delhi, the house where he was assassinated.
I look at Gandhi and then myself. He is wearing his homespun loin cloth and I am wearing a polo t-shirt and jeans. My Gujarati is pretty rusty, so I try to frame an opening sentence of what I would say to him. I remembered he was called Bapu (old Gujarati for father) in Gujarati. I was not sure how to address him, as I had never heard that word being used before.
“We are sorry Bapu, we were not able to follow your path.”, words come out of my mouth hesitatingly, “Dark clouds are on the horizon once again. The Hindu Mahasabha, has risen from the ashes as the Bharatiya Janata Party and is now in power. They have finally managed to reduce your influence and are now slowly turning back all the progress we made under you. I am sorry we have no idea how to stop their influence, their followers keep increasing by the day. I am worried that this will all end in violence”.
Quietly Bapu looks up to me, and then continues with his spinning. Maybe he is thinking that after dealing with so many hotheads, he now has to deal with one more. Maybe he is disappointed with me. Maybe he is just old and tired.
“I met your grandfather once. He was a kind man” he speaks slowly, still spinning.
“Bapu, how do we stop the radicals from rising? I cannot believe that so few people believe in an idea of secular India anymore. The faith in our constitution is eroding. People have forgotten the horrors of hatred and the dark days of communal strife and partition. Almost everyone I know, supports the BJP or is a sympathizer. When I talk to them, it seems like talking to a wall. They don’t want to listen to me”.
“They did not listen to me either”, he says softly and smiles. “I had to go on long fasts so that they would listen to me. Even then, the only reason they would do what I say was because, it would look so bad if I died fasting, not because they agreed with me. I was a very tough negotiator and I had prepared myself very well. You have to sacrifice something for people to take notice of you.”
“Bapu, I am afraid, I do not have the moral clarity you have…”
Bapu looks up to me and smiles, “Come sit next to me” he says. I sit down cross legged next to him.
“I saw a lot of anger in Nathuram’s eyes when he shot me. People have a lot of anger. You have to listen to them and understand them.”
Just then the door opens and the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi walks in. He is looking dapper in a beige kurta and trademark jacket. He goes towards Bapu touches his feet out of respect. I feel naive and ashamed for not paying my respects, when I came in. Then I remembered that even Nathuram Godse touched Gandhi’s feet before pumping three bullets in his chest.
“Come, come Narendrabhai”, says Bapu respectfully in Gujarati as if meeting an old friend, “Please sit next to me. How are you?”.
Prime Minister Modi sits cross legged next to the great man, opposite to me.
“All is good Bapu. How is your health?” he asks kindly.
“I am an old man now, Narendrabhai, and I am old fashioned too, but I am still not finished spinning. I know what you have to say. I had told Jawahar that it was a very bad idea to bring Indira in politics. The Congress had done its job and it would have been best to dismantle it. I know they made big mistakes.”
“Bapu, after you went, the Congress destroyed our country. There was corruption everywhere. From their high seats in New Delhi, they did not care what happened to the rest of the country. Even their Italian daughter in law was about to become Prime Minister. We had to remove them. There was no choice. Now that I am the Prime Minister, I will clean this country and restore it to its former glory. Your dream of a clean and poverty free India will be realized soon, Bapu, it is my promise”
“I agree with you Narendrabhai, but you should also think about the Muslims. They have suffered a lot too and they are by and large, poor and helpless. There cannot be an India without my Muslim brothers and sisters being prosperous and happy like my Hindu brothers and sisters.”
“Bapu, the Congress leaders had used the Muslims as a vote bank and appeased them for years. Things had gotten out of hand. But now that I am in power, I have put them in their place. Don’t worry Bapu, there won’t be bloodshed anymore”.
“You must promise me Narendrabhai. You will ensure none of my Muslim brothers or sisters are harmed under your leadership”
“I will try my best Bapu, I cannot give any guarantees though. First we gave them their Pakistan, then they send militants from Pakistan to kill innocent Hindus. There are limits to how much we can tolerate.”
There is silence in the room. I suddenly feel small in the company of powerful men. The Prime Minster looks at the floor.
Then he gets up. “Bapu, I have to leave now. Seeing you gave me a lot of happiness. I would like to have your blessings”.
Joins his hands in prayer and does a namaste to Bapu, then he looks at me and bows and does a namaste too.
Instinctively I do the same to him, not believing that I am being civil to a person with whom I have so many disagreements and I believe is responsible of not doing his duty to protect innocent civilians that lead to so many deaths.
The Prime Minister leaves and Bapu and I are alone in the room.
“Narendrabhai loves is country a lot. I hope the Lord shows him the right path”
“These are the people who killed you Bapu. How can you be so optimistic. What would you have done if you were alive today Bapu?”.
The great man ponders for a moment. “When they threw me out of the coach in South Africa, I realized that I will never be a free person under British rule. That is when the purpose of my life became clear. The British were at the peak of their empire and they mocked me first. But towards the end, I knew they were far away from their home, and tired and ready to leave. My methods worked for the cause.
But, my methods did not stop the Muslim League and Jinnah from breaking the country, nor did it do enough to convince the Hindu Mahasabha to give up hatred. Religious fanaticism comes from a very deep place in the human heart and often it is a dark place.
You know I was a religious man all my life, and you may find it strange, but I think that religion is itself the problem. All religions are flawed by the concept that only a few men are chosen to understand God’s message, the priests. This gives power to those who are able to use religion for their own good.
People want to believe in something that is beyond them and this makes them weak. Others use this weakness to build their own power. This has happened again and again. They had to kill me because I weakened their faith. Now, I see that your new tools are challenging their faith, they that makes them angry. This is why they are fighting back. They are fighting for survival and will not give up so easily.”
“So Bapu, you are saying there is no way this can end peacefully? Are we destined for violence?”, I ask him.
“Son, I am an old man belonging to another era. Your generation has made more progress then ever in humanity and I am not in a position to even understand the inventions you have made. I am sure you will find a way, as long as you have a pure heart. You have to fight your own fight, and in ways that play on your strengths.
This is your fight though, and I can only pray that you see the light.” With this, Bapu goes back to his spinning.
“Thank you Bapu, I am beginning to see what you are saying. As you said, the new tools that spread the light of knowledge have the power to dispel the ignorance and hatred that comes with religion. We have to build even more tools for people to acquire their own knowledge so that they can think for themselves and not be so easily manipulated by others.” I almost talk to myself as I begin to leave. I feel like I want to touch Bapu’s feet once before I leave….
Slowly I wake up. I realize that my mission to spread knowledge just acquired a new meaning.