October 06, 2019

150th year of Mahatama Gandhi’s birth anniversary: Redouble the Resolve to safeguard the Secular-Democratic Republic

Sitaram Yechury

YEAR 2019 is the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhiji remains the unparalleled mass leader of the Indian people. He successfully mobilised people from the whole of India’s vast diversity in the struggle for independence from British colonial rule.

As my generation grew up in post-independent India, a question always arose that demanded an answer.  This unrivalled leader of the Indian people would often be living in the house of one of the biggest capitalists in India, Ghanshyam Das Birla. It was at his house in New Delhi that Gandhiji was assassinated by the bullets of a Hindu fanatic on January 30, 1948.  Is there no contradiction in the fact that Gandhiji was embraced, both, by the vast mass of the poor Indian people and by their exploiters – the capitalists and the landlords? We shall return to this later.

In today’s context, this 150th birth anniversary observation acquires crucial importance.  All that Gandhiji stood for as the leader of India’s freedom struggle is now coming under assault.  Gandhiji’s consistent stand on anti-imperialism; his upholding of secularism; his struggles against untouchability and for social justice – the principles that eventually formed the basis of the Indian Constitution – are all being undermined today. 

Notwithstanding the political differences between Communists and Mahatma, during the ups and downs of the freedom struggle, his adherence to the above principles is both acknowledged and noted. 


The results of the 2019 general elections in India marked the consolidation of the political right. This sweep of the victory and the manner, in which it was achieved, by itself, defines the impending challenges for both our people and our secular democratic Republic.

A corporate communal alliance has come into dominance vigorously propagating the ideology of aggrandising nationalism, putting the `nation’ and it’s interests above the people, demanding sacrifices from the people including the forfeiture of their democratic rights in the name of the `nation’. Recently, when the amendments to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act were being considered by the Lok Sabha, the home minister thundered that, those who opposed the amendments are supporting terrorism and protecting terrorists! These draconian amendments severely impinge on the democratic rights and civil liberties of all individuals. Any expression of dissent against the BJP government and its policies can lead to the arrest and detention, on the grounds of being ‘anti-national’- the legalisation of a ‘Police State’.   

What is at stake is a very survival of our secular democratic constitutional order and everything Gandhiji stood for; the ‘Idea of India’.  

Though Mahatma Gandhi never explicitly used this expression; `Idea of India’ in any of his writings, but the principles that he stood for, in fact, constitute the foundations of this idea.  While being a religious person himself, he assiduously fought for keeping religion as a personal matter and not to interfere in politics or in state policy.  Whatever many say about his espousing khadi and the spinning wheel (charka) as being `anti-modern’, the fact remains that economic self-reliance and the protection of our economic sovereignty in this age of neo-liberalisation; and, the Modi government’s aggressive pursuit of the same, remains an important aspect.  Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-imperialism, secularism and anti-untouchability campaigns remain relevant and important in today’s conditions.  The current battles are, thus, between Indian nationalism and Hindutva nationalism.  Hence, the observation of this anniversary must be based on re-doubling the people’s resolve to safeguard our constitutional order and the principles Mahatma Gandhi stood for. 


What is this `Idea of India’?  To put it in simple terms, though conscious of its complex multiple dimensions, this concept represents the idea that India as a country moves towards transcending its immense diversities in favour of a substantially inclusive unity of its people.

The `Idea of India’ fosters an inclusive concept of Indian nationhood as opposed to exclusive concept of Hindutva Nationalism. This defines the stark battle line.


The emergence of the conception of the `Idea of India’ was a product of Indian people’s freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi. It arose from a continuous battle between three visions that emerged during the course of India’s struggle for freedom in the 1920s over the content of the character of independent India. The mainstream Congress vision had articulated that independent India cannot be anything else but a secular democratic Republic. The Left, while agreeing with this objective went further to envision that the political freedom of the country must be extended to achieve the socio-economic freedom of every individual, possible only under socialism.

Antagonistic to both these was the third vision which argued that the character of independent India should be determined by the religious affiliations of its people. This vision had a twin expression – the Muslim League championing an `Islamic State’ and the RSS championing its `Hindu Rashtra’. The former succeeded with the unfortunate partition of the country, admirably engineered and sustained by the British colonial rulers, with all its consequences that continue to fester wounds till date. The latter, having failed to achieve their objective at the time of independence, continued with their efforts to transform modern India into their project of a rabidly intolerant fascistic `Hindu Rashtra’. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a ‘Hindu fanatic’ reflected their disappointment over the fact that the Indian freedom movement rejected the RSS vision and political project.

Clearly, the ideological battles and the political conflicts in contemporary India are a continuation of the battle between these three visions. Needless to add, the contours of this battle will define the future of the `Idea of India’.

The Indian Left played an important role in this process of the evolution of this `Idea of India’.  Indeed, for this very reason, given the Left’s visionary commitments to the long struggle for freedom, the Left’s role is absolutely central to the realisation of the `Idea of India’ in today’s conditions.


The RSS construct of nationalism is its ideological-theoretical justification for the establishment of its “Hindu Rashtra”.  This is premised on an assertion of the late RSS chief that “Hindus have been in undisputed and undisturbed possession of this land for over eight or even ten thousand years before the land was invaded by any foreign race”.  And, therefore, this land, “came to be known as Hindustan, the land of the Hindus” (We or Our Nationhood Defined - M. S. Golwalkar, 1939, Page 6).

Hindutva supremacists, proceed to assert the intolerant, theocratic content of such a Hindutva nation: 

"...The conclusion is unquestionably forced upon us that... in Hindusthan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu nation and naught else but the Hindu Nation.  All those not belonging to the national i.e., Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and Language naturally fall out of the pale of real `National' life.

"Consequently only those movements are truly `National' as aim at re-building, re-vitalising and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation.  Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal.  All others are either traitors and enemies to the National cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots" (Golwalkar, 1939, pp. 43-44). 

This is completely in contradiction to the `Idea of India’ as envisaged by the freedom struggle. Jawaharlal Nehru describes in the Discovery of India, “India is an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”  

Likewise, Rabindranath Tagore says: “Aryans and non-Aryans, Dravidians and Chinese, Scynthians, Huns, Pathans and Moghuls, all have merged and lost themselves in one body.” And, this body is India.

The RSS project constitutes a regression away from realising the `Idea of India’ as inclusive nationalism, everything that Gandhiji stood for.  What is being promoted today is an exclusive Hindutva nationalism, to establish their fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’. 



The RSS/BJP seeks to appropriate the icons of the freedom struggle, chief among them being Sardar Patel. As the Union Home Minister, Sardar Patel penned a government communique dated February 4, 1948 announcing the ban on the RSS by stating “the objectionable and harmful activities of the Sangh have, however, continued unabated and the cult of violence sponsored and inspired by the activities of the Sangh has claimed many victims.  The latest and the most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself”. 

Further, on November 14, 1948, Patel's Home Ministry issues a press note on the talks that were held with then RSS chief, Golwalkar who made many deceitful compromises.  This informs that the “professions of RSS leaders are, however, quite inconsistent with the practice of its followers” and refused to withdraw the ban.  A further request by Golwalkar for a meeting was refused by Sardar Patel who ordered his return to Nagpur.  It was only on July 11, 1949 that the ban was withdrawn when the RSS buckled and accepted all the conditions set by the government including that it shall remain an apolitical “cultural organisation” “eschewing secrecy and abjuring violence”.


Let us now return to the question posed at the very outset.

EMS Namboodiripad says about the contradiction, that we raised at the outset, the following:  “It may appear self-contradictory if one were to say that Gandhi with his `reactionary’ social outlook was instrumental in bringing about a profoundly revolutionary phenomenon – the drawing of the mass of the rural poor into the arena of the modern national-democratic movement.  This self-contradiction, however, is a manifestation of the contradiction in the real political life of our nation, arising out of the fact that the national-democratic movement was led by the bourgeoisie, linked with feudalism”.

The reason why the capitalists and the landlords embraced Gandhiji as their leader was that they recognized that he could draw the vast masses of the people into the anti-colonial struggle and, at the same time, check their militancy from reaching levels threatening their exploitation.

He demonstrated this capacity repeatedly. When the Ahmadabad textile workers, during the course of a strike, resorted to actions at the residence of the owners, Gandhiji went on a fast to stop that.  Following the `chauri chaura’ incident, when a police station was being raided by the people, Gandhiji withdrew the ongoing civil disobedience movement calling it a `Himalayan blunder’. Many of the Congress stalwarts like Nehru, from jail, wrote to Gandhiji objecting this withdrawal.  This call was rousing the Indian people like never before. 

In fact, it is after the withdrawal of this call that many streams, that were part of the Congress-led freedom movement, started getting separated due to disappointment and a sense of betrayal.  On the one hand, Bhagat Singh and his associates moved pronouncedly towards Left and socialism. Many Communist leaders like P Sundarayya, EMS Namboodiripad, P Ramamurthy, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and scores of other freedom fighters moved towards the socialist vision and eventually emerged as top leaders of the Communist movement in the country.

Gandhiji’s ability to rouse the masses into action and at the same time to check their militancy, which could turn against their exploiters eminently, suited the emerging ruling classes of independent India in establishing their class rule. However, once their class rule was established and India became independent, the bourgeois-landlord ruling classes found Gandhism and his methods as a hindrance.  They no longer required Gandhiji to control the militancy of the masses; they now had the police and the army. 

The tragedy of Gandhiji’s last days, as EMS Namboodiripad noted, was this: while Gandhiji remained true to his values, the new rulers rejected his views on several questions like Hindu-Muslim unity, etc., etc.

It is most unfortunate that today’s younger generation in India does not notice the significance of the fact that on August 15, 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of independent India were unfurling the tricolor at the Red Fort celebrating independence, Gandhiji was absent.  Where was he?  He had gone to Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) to stop possibly the worst of the communal carnages that took place during partition.  He was on an indefinite hunger strike in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to stop the incendiary communal riots that had engulfed the city, apart from other parts of northern India.


The four values that Gandhiji stood for, that we noted at the outset, have been enshrined as the fundamental pillars of our Constitution, but the assault on them mounts aggressively.  It is in this context, that remembering Gandhiji and what he stood for is absolutely essential to meet and defeat this challenge to Indian nationhood by Hindutva nationalism. 

The observations of this 150th birth anniversary must aim to redouble the resolve to safeguard our secular democratic Republic from being destroyed by the fascistic RSS/BJP agenda.