What if the Mahatma had lived?

(My essay in Mint Lounge, 27 January 2018)


The funeral of the man remembered as the apostle of peace was a scene of dramatic military display. Legions of policemen were deployed around New Delhi as the cortège wound its way through town, while the solemn procession itself featured not less than 4,000 trained men of war. The remains of Mahatma Gandhi, who saw even an indiscreet thought as violence to the soul, were placed on a gun carriage, a bed of flowers perhaps mitigating the strange irony of the spectacle. Flags were at half-mast, and crowds lined the roads, their unfeigned grief spilling on to the immaculate streets of Lutyens’ zone. At the spot where Gandhi was killed, such was the clamour for handfuls of earth that a crater took form, 1ft deep; where he was cremated, then, the authorities quickly plastered up a platform of cement. As historian Yasmin Khan has written, it was concrete, “the ultimate symbol of the modernizing and developmental aspirations of the postcolonial state”, that was used to virtually “seal” the memory of the Mahatma. In his own lifetime, he viewed such conventional aspirations with a mixture of suspicion and dismay at best—in death, it was no longer for him to say what should or should not be the destiny of the land for which he had wholly spent himself.

The man born Mohandas would certainly have rolled his eyes at the pageantry that accompanied his funeral proceedings, treating him less as a disenchanted sage and more as a powerful potentate. But if the ritual of his funeral went against every principle he upheld in life, the India that took shape in his wake became perhaps even more alien to the vision he had so carefully crafted in his mind. By dying when he did—and in the way he did—Gandhi could be quickly deified. Without embarrassment to his heirs, set on a course different from his own, he was consigned with due pomp to banknotes as well as the background; a totem, deployed one moment and promptly ignored the next. His assassin, Nathuram Godse, claimed that the Mahatma, with his “childish inanities and obstinacies”, would have got in the way of tomorrow. With him, India would have had to handle his “subjective morality under which he alone was to be the final judge of what was right or wrong”. Without him, Indian politics “would be more practical”. It was a profoundly arrogant statement coming from an unrepentant killer. But even before the Mahatma fell to the ground, was Godse alone in fearing that the venerable old man might not fit too well in a changing world? Gandhi was a formidable instrument in the struggle for freedom—but freedom having come, all that was available for him was that special respect that the more honest know as pious lip service.

But what if Gandhi had not died that winter morning in Birla House? What if Godse’s revolver had been snatched from his hand before the trigger that changed history was pulled? Would India, on the cusp of its socialist embrace of modernity, have grown tired of its greatest elder, parking him on some variant of the Margdarshak Mandal? Or would he have retired to his ashram, writing as much about his bowel movements as he might furiously against the new dams and industrial “temples”? Gandhi is to us a martyr, but might he have become, instead, a resigned old man with no place in the world? Gandhi’s legacy was certainly of value—when his ashes were conveyed to Prayag (Allahabad), atop the train fluttered flags both of the Indian people and the Indian National Congress—but Gandhi in the flesh quickly raised a formidable moral question to new leaders who replaced foreigners in the old seats of power. “Will the hand of truth at any time reduce the vile myth of Gandhi to the putrid mass it deserves to be?” asked the writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri after the Mahatma was dead. But if he were alive, would he have had to suffer remarks such as this in person and in the press? Had he acted on his desire to live in Pakistan, would the old man have become, for Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that inconvenient thing: “an international problem”?

It is not impossible to conceive of relations between Nehru and his mentor crumbling into polite disrepair, especially on the question of India’s future governance. As early as 1938, the two had clashed, each as determined as the other; and in this lay the seeds of discord. Perhaps at first, Nehru’s affection might have let the Mahatma prevail, but eventually would they have parted ways? Gandhi after all, as one scholar writes, sought “legitimacy…not in the laws and the constitutions, not in parliaments and courts, but in the conscience of man” (which to him was his own conscience). Nehru, meanwhile, absorbed more lessons from history—institutions and courts married to the steel frame of bureaucracy alone offered stability to a diverse land which, even during the midnight tryst, saw bloodshed in the West and rebellion in the East. Gandhi thought economic planning “a waste of effort” while Nehru was enamoured of the idea, infused as it was, he declared, with “magic”. “For me,” proclaimed Gandhi, “India begins and ends in the villages”. Cities—a “matter for sorrow rather than congratulation”—argued the Mahatma, prospered by “sucking the blood” of the rural poor. It was the village that thirsted for reinvention. No, disagreed Nehru, for it was in the aged countryside that the “physically and intellectually degenerate” feudal class preyed like “vultures” on the weak. India could not wallow in romantic yearnings of ideal village life—cities were emblems of progress, and progress necessarily meant change, no matter the Mahatma’s dreams.


Gandhi thought modernity a disease, albeit one that could be cured to pave the way for Ram Rajya. “I entirely disagree with this viewpoint,” insisted his political heir, for “I neither think the so-called Rama Raj was very good in the past, and nor do I want it back.” Where Gandhi thought machinery represented “great sin”—even as he embraced the munificence of titans of Indian industry—Nehru descended into ecstasies at visions of “industrialization and the big machine”. “Independent India can only discharge her duty towards a groaning world by adopting a simple but ennobled life…living at peace with the world,” stated Gandhi with conviction, seeking self-sufficient village republics that had no quarrels beyond their borders. But India’s first prime minister knew that the “world has become internationalized” and that, in a networked world, such autonomy was wishful thinking. In 1909, in his famous (or in some contexts, infamous) Hind Swaraj, Gandhi explained that freedom on a Western model was nothing but a curse. It meant, he announced, that “we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India…not Hindustan but Englistan.” Nehru, on the other hand, envisioned a “socialist economy within a democratic structure”, and codes of the British inherited alongside habits that went “My Lord” and “Your Honour”. If the Mahatma had not died in 1948, would he have turned his fingers toward Motilal’s son and accused him of nurturing not Hindustan but a veritable Englistan?

Who might have been Gandhi’s friends? Most certainly the Mahatma would have found an obdurate foe in B.R. Ambedkar, not only in matters of caste. “I know Gandhi better than his disciples,” the Dalit leader once proclaimed. “They came to him as devotees and saw only the Mahatma. I was an opponent…. He showed me his fangs.” The greater fight for freedom may have persuaded Ambedkar to sacrifice the political interests of his own people to satisfy the national interests Gandhi stood to represent. But after independence, would things have remained the same? “He was never a Mahatma,” Ambedkar went on to say. If he was, how could he advocate his less-is-more philosophy, consigning those with the least to remain behind forever? Gandhism, to Ambedkar, “with its call back to nature, means back to nakedness, back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people”. He disagreed with Nehru too, but as a constitutionalist and a builder of institutions himself, Ambedkar could meet halfway with the Pandit while parleying bitterly with his guru. So then, when the time came to formulate a rulebook, would the Mahatma have blessed it or seen in it Western weaknesses that could never be allowed to taint the Indian nation’s soul? Would the man who won us our freedom have stood in the way of that document we today proudly celebrate as sacred: our blessed Constitution? Or would the former lawyer in him have returned to frame a charter of his own?

Though he was not himself a communalist, those ordinarily identified with rabid communalism might have, ironically, offered to champion the old man in his moment of decline. After all, a good deal of what Gandhi said could be deployed in favour of their own peculiar cause on the right. “I have been long pledged to serve the cow,” he once said, hoping, elsewhere, to “approach my Mohammedan brother and urge him for the sake of the country to join me in protecting her”—lines that might still find ready reception among those who despise Nehru and Ambedkar. So too, Gandhi found abhorrent a society divorced from religion. “Religion is dear to me and my first complaint is that India is becoming irreligious,” he once proclaimed. It was a different matter that what he sought was ethical politics inspired by religion, not carrying out politics in the name of religion. Still, those in certain quarters might have revelled in such a view. What too of his position that the state must be absolutely secular? “The question of the ‘protection of minorities’,” he once said, “is not good enough for me; it rests upon the recognition of religious groupings between citizens of the same state.” Would those who would change the Constitution have seized on this and deployed the Mahatma’s words to demand at once, perhaps, a uniform civil code? Gandhi said that we are “Indians first and Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis and Christians after”, but would they, instead, have chosen to lift his “Nationalism is greater than sectarianism” to give legitimacy to their own brand of nationalism, infused with impulses that can only be called majoritarian at their core?

What, meanwhile, would have come of Indian education had Gandhi lived? “Of all the superstitions that affect India,” wrote the Mahatma, “none is so great as that a knowledge of the English language is necessary for imbibing ideas of liberty and developing accuracy of thought.” To him, Hindi ought to have been the language of the Indian nation, and diverse mother tongues the medium of learning for all children till they were 14. He was not, to be sure, averse to Western learning. “I do not want,” he affirmed, “my house to be walled on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.” However, he added, “I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them.” This too, ironically, would have appealed to those who for decades had little to do with Gandhi and his nationalist cause, but whose desire to cultivate uniformity is well known, and who see no reason to seek knowledge from the West when all of it is already, of course, available in ancient texts of the East. Would Gandhi, through his words, have breathed life into causes that were strange then and remain so to this day? Would the tallest Indian leader have gone down in the minds of many as a proponent of what we know as the imposition of Hindi?

“I have been known,” the Mahatma once said, “as a crank, faddist, mad man. Evidently, the reputation is well deserved. For wherever I go, I draw to myself cranks, faddists and mad men.” It is reassuring that he did not live in the age of WhatsApp and the internet; his work may have been subjected to lampooning and ridicule? He blamed the Bihar earthquake in 1934 on the Hindus’ treatment of Dalits—it was punishment from God for the evils of caste. In 1940, Gandhi wrote, wishfully, “I do not believe Herr Hitler to be as bad as he is portrayed.” He spoke with the certainty that even the worst could be shown the light, but would the courts of Indian television have forgiven the Mahatma for a remark such as this? On medicine, he was convinced that this too required a marriage with religion. “A man who attends to his daily Namaz or his Gayatri mantras in the proper spirit need never get ill,” he once stated. So too, in order to know the universe, all one needed to know was one’s own body, he was convinced: “That which cannot be found in the body,” he declared in what was perhaps vaguely philosophical, “is not found in the universe.”

Of course, for everything he said, Gandhi also said the opposite. “I have never made a fetish of consistency. I am a votary of Truth and I must say what I feel and think at a given moment…without regard to what I may have said before.” What a gift this man would have been to satirists and humourists with his remarks and idiosyncrasies, but would they have allowed him to remain that unique creation: a Mahatma towering over an entire nation?

There was a time when Gandhi expressed the opinion that a human life could span 125 years and that he would quite like to live that long. If he had had his way, the Mahatma would have departed not in 1948 but around 1994. He would have seen the rise of the first Communist government in Kerala, and its unholy dismissal a couple of years later—one is tempted to picture him preparing to fast unto death to preserve the legitimate right to govern of a party he may not have agreed with but would defend to uphold a greater principle. Might he, after independence, have been quietly allowed to take his fast to a full success? The man, in his 90s, would have been witness to the war with China in 1962. Would he have made an effort to rush to mediate at the frontier himself, needing the Indian state to restrain him for his own protection? In the face of fascism, he was prepared to tolerate war, so would he have sided with Indira Gandhi to end genocide in East Pakistan and help birth Bangladesh? More importantly, would Mrs Gandhi have thrown the man who meant everything to India in prison during the Emergency? As the Congress faced decline, what would the original Gandhi have said to those who borrowed his name? Would he have uttered that word “karma” and offered, yet again, that the answer to their problems lay in disbanding the whole vehicle and its teetering mission? Most importantly, if Godse’s bullets had not killed him, would the tragedy that was Babri Masjid have pierced the Mahatma’s heart as he approached his own deadline of a century and a quarter?

“It is generally foolhardy to write about Gandhi,” writer-philosopher Akeel Bilgrami once said, “not only because you are never certain you’ve got him right, but because you are almost sure to have him wrong.” To venture on a journey of “what ifs” is an even more foolish enterprise, with a man who said and did things in a single lifetime with no parallels that are still open to endless interpretations. There is little that can be said with certainty, but so many are the questions one must ask of the Mahatma and his message; of what he offered then, and what he might have offered later had he had the chance. Never, really, will we know for sure, what Gandhi might or might not have done. But a glance at the history of this nation can assure us of one fact—If the Mahatma had lived a full life as he once desired, the obituary on his death would have sadly gone: “Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one-time barrister at law, one-time freedom fighter and neglected thinker of an orphaned philosophy, passed away yesterday. He was 125 years old and died of a broken, shattered heart.”