The grilling of professor Arupjyoti Saikia of IIT Guwahati by the NIA, against which a galaxy of scholars have issued a statement, was not about his scholarship, nor any public comment he made on the policies and programmes of the BJP. A mild-mannered and retiring personality of studious habits, he is being questioned on his association with allegedly Maoist KMSS, a mass-based organisation that had pumped vigour and force into a rather innocuous popular movement against the CAA. Saikia has been its adviser from day one.
Now I have known the founder and unquestioned leader of KMSS for three decades, and I have had numerous conversations with him. He happens to have been a student of mine. An unrivalled capacity to mobilise and organise people, an inexhaustible stamina and a gift of making fiery impromptu speeches, his support has waxed and waned in waves during all these years. His appeal cuts across ethnic and communal boundaries. KMSS today is quite a force in the countryside of Assam and is a headache for the BJP government. It has seized the opportunity to brand him and KMSS as “Maoist” in the eruption of public anger over passing of CAA in Assam.
As I had reported earlier, Akhil Gogoi undoubtedly gave a tremendous impetus to the movement of protest against CAA. Apart from Akhil, several of its top leaders like Dhairya Konowar, Bittu Sonowal, Raju Boro, and Manas Konwar and others have been arrested for questioning by NIA. On the ground its workers are still active in the face of severe police repression.
But though I have kept my distance, I know enough about Gogoi’s thinking and activities to be quite convinced that he has no links with any
Maoist organisation. There was a time in this country when rebellious youths, almost without exception, were attracted to thoughts of Mao tse Tung and several outfits, many short-lived, had capitalised on it. Many youths were rubbed more or less by their influence. But it had been ephemeral and changed conditions in the country simply pushed it to the margins. Akhil, too, most probably had come under its influence temporarily. But in a published work where he has articulated his political experience and credo, he does not lean towards Maoism except in the very limited sense that it called for radical change in society galvanised by peasant movements.
I do not know how much Saikia has contributed to it. From all I have known of his academic work, he shows no such interest or leaning. That brings us to a more serious question evaded by the community of academics: the branding of all radical scholars who for some reason or other make rulers uneasy as “urban Naxals”, “suspected Maoists” and whatnot. Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj and many others have been detained and charge-sheeted with cases pending for years. Saikia is not as personally involved as they were in activities that took up the causes of the oppressed. But the Maoist allegation against KMSS brushes off on him when ‘guilt by association’ has become a ruling doctrine.
Hence it is more to the point to challenge the patent threat to academic freedom, freedom of expression and rule of law that overshadow social life in the new dispensation.
BJP MP Anant Kumar Hegde is given to firing salvos from his mouth that repeatedly send leaders of his party scurrying for cover and force them to issue anodyne statements that absolve him without a clean denial of his intent to damage. He also later claims that either he is misunderstood or that his views had been torn out of context. He had claimed scriptural sanction for superiority of Brahmins, extolled Nathuram Godse as a heroic patriot and declared that his party would remove the word ‘secular’ from the Constitution.
This time, in an unmistakable reference to Gandhi, Anant Kumar ridiculed his contribution to the freedom struggle and debunked his role as subservience to the British and his celebrated hunger strikes as empty play-acting. On the other hand he held up for salutation those “who fought for the country with weapons”, who presumably include Savarkar. The latter, he said, “had practical views for the future of the country”.
Interestingly, as in all such incidents, the BJP leadership contented itself with issuing him a show-cause notice. As on earlier occasions it will leave him unscathed.
The incident makes it clear that while the RSS, on certain occasions, takes pains to deny its affinity to Hindu Mahasabha, it remains its ideological mentor. The contempt for Gandhi runs like a livid streak all through Savarkar’s political journalism. Strangely, it is on the record that it was Savarkar who made all the adjustments with British colonial policy, to the extent of forming governments in alliance with the Muslim League during the years of World War II. Anant Kumar’s parroting of Savarkar’s ideas is what passes for “true history” in Hindutva circles including RSS.
The most worrisome fact is that while Congress registered a strong protest, as it was anyway bound to do, other democratic parties did not show the required degree of outrage. My own experience with public audiences has also been that Mahatma Gandhi has become just a distant legend and its meaning has chipped away and faded under sustained saffron attack. This is a danger to our democracy for life of democracy is sustained by certain memories of its past.
How has it come to pass? Before the saffron attack could do its damage, Gandhi’s role must have suffered neglect and ravages like an old photograph in a neglected corner of a museum. Such an eventuality was unthinkable right through the seventies of the last century when ultra-left theorists and writers mounted a fierce concerted campaign against him but failed to dislodge him from his elevated position.
But with the neo-liberal shift in economic policy of the country his role in the struggle to wrest the country’s freedom from the colonial power became for rulers a kind of embarrassment. Colonialism now got lauded to the skies as ‘early globalisation’, the supposedly magical key to equal development. Economic reorientation led to political and then cultural and ideological reversion. The changing times were in evidence in NCERT textbooks, for example in a class XII textbook on modern world history of 2012 which, incredibly, did not have a chapter on the epoch of national liberation movements in Asia and Africa.
Following this erasure, Gandhi became at best a national fetish and the freedom movement a fading memory no one was eager to retrieve. This provided the saffron army a golden opportunity to conquer the historical space, for no nation could survive without a history about its making. They busily set about rewriting it. There are many such histories circulating among the faithful who purvey the lessons in dollops to eager followers.
While the ultra-left account of Gandhi (that he was an agent of colonial power and Indian comprador capital in a saint’s garb) savours of their obsession with war as the basis and apogee of class struggle, and the supreme necessity of secretive conspiracy, the saffron discomfort with Gandhi’s ideas is their firm and steady affirmation of Hindu-Muslim unity, which hits at the very heart of of the Hindutva ideological and socio-political project.
Gandhi’s idea of Indian nationhood is the key. Gandhi believes in the possibility of organic unity based on diversity whereas the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS are addicted to the European capitalist hegemonic and homogenising concept of the nation. This idea of unity is also closely related to his concept of political Ahimsa and brotherhood.
Subhash Chandra Bose, while hailing him as “father of the nation” in his radio message to the country on the eve of the Azad Hind campaign to liberate India, unerringly put his finger on his pre-eminent constructive role in the making of the nation.
Though put in somewhat abstract and general terms, the message seems to recall some of the giant steps the Mahatma had taken in leading the people towards nationhood. A nation can take shape only in and through an impassioned popular and united struggle for self-determination. Until Gandhi, no other leader united people for such a struggle. Such unity became an animated reality when peasant masses, prostrate and cowering under ruthless colonial tyranny, were awoken to a sense of their power by his tireless journeys throughout India, with stories of his fearless and successful fights to bring relief to peasantry in Champaran in Bihar and Bardoli in Gujarat reaching distant regions ahead of his visits to them.
Up to my youth, he had been a radiant source of inspiration in Assam. Vinoba Bhave and Baba Amte were welcomed there primarily because of their Gandhian outlook. That must have been the case in all the diverse regions of the country, each with its own language and culture. The shackles of caste and insularity were loosened. Second, Gandhi famously brought women out of their kitchens into the streets, giving an immeasurable fillip to the struggle for freedom. For such had been the tenacity of tradition that even the educated middle class in cities could not conceive of such a degree of emancipation and comradeship with women.
Third was Gandhi’s untiring and unswerving faith in Hindu-Muslim unity. The Muslim League leadership with preponderant feudal elements which were permeated with the idea of a dominant Muslim nobility once ruling India and thereby derived a sense of entitlement, did not share it. They were more focussed on power. The Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS were its mirror image harking back to an age of Hindu supremacy. Gandhi’s vision of unity was based on brotherhood and solidarity of people at large.
He had initiated and led even from confines of jail three tumultuous mass movements that rocked British rule to its foundations. His Satyagraha was not, as often caricatured by the Left and the ultra-Right, passive goodwill and appeal to ruler’s hearts. It was intended to be active, determined and unbending resistance to foreign rule as the annals of the freedom movement should prove to any unprejudiced reader. No doubt its results were mixed. But it brought a prostrate nation to its feet. Long-standing colonial strategy and collaboration of Hindu and Muslim feudal elements with it jinxed his titanic efforts. But he was beyond doubt the father of the nation.
The extent of his influence and acceptability as a father figure comes out in an instance normally ignored by scholars. Indian communists who had collaborated with British war efforts as they considered it an international anti-Fascist war, while the country was ablaze with the Quit India movement, were much reviled and cornered after the war as traitors. As a way out they sought a meeting with Gandhi, who gave them a patient hearing, and in the end agreed they had acted out of genuine conviction and goodwill, thus allowing them to take part again in the freedom movement.
It is his charisma among the people that provoked Savarkar and his followers to fury and thoughts of revenge. They would much rather that Hindus fought Muslims to the bitter end to wrest power lost for a thousand years under the benign umpiring of the British. They found it hard to digest the fact that in the teeth of their tireless efforts to set both communities at each other’s throats [Rajendra Prasad in a letter to Nehru wrote how such Hindu elements donned Muslim dress and attacked Hindu villages!], Gandhi had calmed tidal waves of communal violence in Kolkata, Noakhali and finally in Delhi, during the worst days of Partition riots, single-handed. For this he was not to be forgiven. And it rankles that long after his death he still remains a figure of reverence among his wayward children.
The writer is a literary critic and commentator on socio-political issues. The views are personal.