My Mirror column:
On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was assassinated for trying to stop the killing of Muslims in the new Hindu-majority nation. Seventy years later, Lalit Vachani's documentary might help us look at ourselves in the mirror.
On 26 January, at his prayer meeting, Gandhi spoke of his sorrow at what the first few months of freedom had been like. He hoped, however, that the worst was over, and that Indians would work for the equality of all communities and creeds – “never the domination and superiority of the majority community over a minor...”. Four days later, on 30 January 1948, he was shot dead.His two most influential followers, Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, responded with grief and resolve. Nehru appealed to Indians to stand against “that terrible poison of communalism that has killed the greatest man of our age”. “We did not follow him while he was alive; let us at least follow his steps now he is dead,” said Patel, appealing to people to carry his message of love and non-violence.
Seventy years after Gandhi's assassination, we are a country that has not just forgotten his message but turned actively towards that of his murderer. Nathuram Godse's stated reason for killing Gandhi was his “constant and consistent pandering to the Muslims”. That destructive falsehood has now become the common sense of our time.
Among the few films that have caught our devastating transformation on camera is Lalit Vachani's 2008 documentary The Salt Stories. Looking for Gandhi in Narendra Modi's Gujarat, Vachani decided to follow the route of the 1930 Salt March, when Gandhi walked 390 km from the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to the coastal village of Dandi. There thousands would peacefully break a colonial law that barred Indians from making their own salt. Among Vachani's first stops is the village of Navagam, where he meets a self-proclaimed old Gandhian. He speaks admiringly of Gandhi's role in social reform. Then, having ascertained that there are no “Mohammedans” in Vachani's crew, the 'Gandhian' proceeds to describe the Muslim community as “raakshas”.
A dismayed Vachani moves on to Dabhan, where Gandhi caused a stir by bathing at a Harijan well. The well has been built over; it is now part of a woman's house. Her first reaction is to deny any knowledge of Gandhi's visit. When one old lady says she remembers her grandfather telling her of it, the woman snaps: “Were you there? Then stop your jabbering.” It takes some reassuring from the filmmaker for her to express her fears openly – when Vachani said he had come on Gandhi Kooch, she was instantly worried that her house would be torn down. Now she changes her tune. “I feel fortunate that I live on the place where Gandhi bathed. It's as if my home is in his heart. But if my house is broken down, what will I do?”
Across the road from the Harijan settlement was a dharamshala where Gandhi had stayed the night. Now a Patel function is in progress there. “We broke the old place down and made a Party Plot,” a man tells Vachani. The filmmaker's enquiries appear to have led two men to bring in a stone plaque on which the fact of Gandhi's 1930 visit is engraved. It looks like it might be a slab from the old building, a building that no longer exists.
Vachani's journey proceeds, acquiring a droll tenor as he encounters a series of Gandhi temples with oddly deformed depictions of Gandhi. At all these supposed shrines, the Mahatma is locked away behind bars, cobwebbed or broken, quite clearly never visited. In Surat, where Gandhi had his largest public meeting during the Dandi March, no one has any memory of the event. But the park is host to the Mahatma Gandhi Laughing Club, whose waves of terrifying hysterical laughter break upon a silent statue of Gandhi.
Earlier in the film, Vachani stops to chat with a group of teenaged boys outside a temple. Modi is their favourite leader, they tell him, and what he did was a good thing. Why, asks Vachani. Because the Hindu religion lived in fear before, comes the instant reply. “And now, do the Muslims live in fear?” asks Vachani. “Yes, they are scared. They fear,” comes the reply. “And do you think fear is a good thing?” Vachani asks. “Yes,” say the boys. “Someone or other must always feel fear.”
That is the distance that India has travelled from Gandhi. It's a long road back – and many may never want to walk it. But for those who do, perhaps we can start by ensuring that our definition of courage is not to make others feel afraid.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 Jan 2018.