Book Review: The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi

the death and afterlife of MG

“What has, however, clearly happened in my case is the discovery that in all probability there is a vital defect in my technique of the working of non-violence. There was no real appreciation of non-violence in the thirty years’ struggle against British Raj. Therefore, the peace that masses maintained during that struggle of a generation with exemplary patience, had not come from within.

The pent-up fury found an outlet when British Raj was gone. It naturally vented itself in communal violence which was never fully absent and which was kept under suppression by the British bayonet. This explanation seems to me to be all-sufficing and convincing.” – Gandhi (November 6, 1947)

“He felt that non-violence during the struggle for independence was an expedient, i.e., resistance to the white man was undertaken in a non-violent manner simply because we had no military strength with which to offer battle.” – Kingslay Martin – Jan 27, 1948

The above quotes are a great reflection on the contribution Mahatma Gandhi (apparently) had or did not have on the nation, which he was considered the Father of, in the days preceding and immediately after his death, a thought and a question that Makarand Paranjape’s book centers around.

On the cover of the book, there is a quote by Rajmohan Gandhi“A remarkable work of research and analysis… a most valuable text”. I agree with most of it, except the analysis bit. The book, more a research thesis than an insightful analysis, picks a very interesting question – the impact of the last few days of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and his impact after his death.

Paranjape pokes at the central theme of most such discourses – the murder of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse –  by asking if it is too simplistic to assume that Mahatma’s death was more the whim of an individual or a faction, and whether the nation at large and the various moving parts of a newly independent country failed Mahatma, eventually leading to his death/ murder, and hence should take the collective blame of his death. In doing so, it steers away from spending a lot of time on the earlier years of Mahatma’s life, and focuses mostly on writing during or about this period.

Paranjape mixes no words in blaming the political forces, the congress, the police, the various sparring factions (religious and social), in having failed to protect Mahatma Gandhi. Having survived a bomb attack on Jan 20, 1948, the protecting agencies could have been anything but so callous in protecting the Father of the Nation. He also blames the misplaced understanding of what Gandhi stood for, especially by Nathuram, for his murder. There are several measured views, presented through Gandhi’s writings and speeches as well as the work of various commentators during this time frame, that Paranjape invokes to suggest that Mahatma’s death and afterlife have a profound implication about and impact on the moral fibre of the nation. In repressing a lot of this discussion and discourse, again, he believes that his true heirs – Nehru, Patel and the Government of New India – failed his legacy. Interestingly, he also analyses two of the most prominent Gandhian movies – Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai and their version of Gandhian philosophies to address the core questions he is researching.

The book is split into two parts. The first section deals with a more socio-political treatise on the subject and the various point of views available on the subject, analyzed through a psychoanalytical construct, that leverages Freudian Oedipal syndromes as well as Karmic philosophies of Hinduism. The second section, however, focuses on the last six months of his life, his speeches and writings, his dilemmas and pain, and in a way, his choice of his death that he proclaimed and fulfilled in a well documented detail – thereby dying as a Mahatma.

“But God alone knows if I will run away when I am being shot at or attacked with knives or will get angry with the attacker. If this happens then also there is no harm because the people will come to know that the man they looked upon as a Mahatma was not a true Mahatma. I too shall come to know where I stand. It is possible that I may still utter ‘Rama Rama’ when I am shot at or attacked. Let the outcome be either; ultimately it will be for good.”

Unfrotunately, there is an unmistakable anti-Pakistan and anti-Islamic sentiment that pervades a significant part of the second half of the book. It appears to me that in order to negate the biggest critique by Nathuram (and a large section of people who were anti-Gandhi at that time) – that Gandhi was pro-Muslim, Paranjape’s book goes out of the way to portray Gandhi’s disapproval of the atrocities by Muslims in Pakistan and India (while reasonably acknowledging the atrocities committed by Hindus and Sikhs). In his version, somehow, the Hindu atrocities always seem to follow Muslim atrocities as a revenue/retaliation – a sentiment that Gandhi cannot and does not agree with. It does talk through his generalized disapproval of Muslim League’s machinations and we will take Pakistan by force philosophy. The failures of India during this period, his fading equations with Nehru, Patel and co., and the fact that a nation devoid of a purpose not understanding how to handle its new found purpose – are topics that have not been touched well enough. Maybe, just maybe, they had a role to play as well in this period.

“I know everything that has happened there. The Muslims went berserk. They thought that since they were now free they could kill and slaughter. It all started from there. And once it started, there were the Sikhs who are also warriors. How could they take it lying down? They also started killing and slaughtering. That is the story which is not yet over.” – Gandhi (24 September 1947)

The book is slow and wordy (expected of a research heavy book), a little too grandiose, relying often on long and complex sentences, quotes and quotables from various publications and articles, and deeply entrenched in the queen’s language. In short, its not for an average reader. It is meant for a class of readers deeply interested in Indian history, and Gandhian philosophies. The book also tends to repeat its quotes and references a fair bit within the book. The footnotes become tedious after a while. Yet, the quality of research is comprehensive. So much so that the references section itself runs into more than 30 pages.

Where the book succeeds in a big way is by asking us – Is Mahatma Gandhi relevant anymore? Or, was Gandhi ever relevant in a post-independence India? Paranajape believes, and so do I, that he was, is and will continue to be.

“May the soul of my master, my leader, my father rest not in peace, not in peace, but let his ashes be so dynamically alive that the charred ashes of the sandalwood, let the powder of his bones so charged with life and inspiration that the whole of India, will after his death be revitalized into the reality of freedom…My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest.” – Sarojini Naidu’s eulogy on Gandhi’s Death.

It is not an easy read, but it’s an important piece of research.

TitleThe Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi
AuthorMakarand Paranjape
Publisher/ ImprintRandom House IndiaVintage Books
Pages: 230
Genre/ Sub-Genre: Non-Fiction/ History
Rating: 3.00 of 5
Reviewed for: Publisher

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