Jamia Firing: Are We Inching Closer to the Idea of Gandhi’s India or Godse’s?

Social Commentary

Jamia Firing: Are We Inching Closer to the Idea of Gandhi’s India or Godse’s?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

A lot should change in a country over 70 years. Maybe, a lot has. 

India, once extolled as a colonially wounded animal waiting to race out of the traps into the arms of withheld modernism, somehow seems to have travelled back in time. In 1948, months after India became independent, the founding father of this country, Mahatma Gandhi was shot at point-blank range by Nathuram Godse, a right-wing Hindu sycophant from the Hindu Mahasabha. He believed that Gandhi’s non-violence was emasculating Hindus, weakening them.

Jamia

One student was reportedly shot in the hand before police arrested the alleged gunman, who timed his attack to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination of independence hero Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 by a Hindu radical.

Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto

Seventy two years later, on the anniversary of that assassination, a 17-year-old who identified himself as Rambhakt Gopal, brandished and fired a gun at students and protestors outside Jamia Millia University in Delhi. In a series of Facebook posts, which have now been taken down, the gunman said, “Do my funeral rites with me covered in the saffron flag, with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ being chanted.” He is seen posing with guns and swords with messages about protecting the honour of Hindus.

Two bullets, fired more than 70 years apart prove two things.

One, that the same murderous rage that managed to manufacture a Godse continues to own and run its damned laboratories. Time may travel forward, but in India it seems stationary, stuck like postage to a card that just sits at the doorstep, unmoved, undelivered. And second, that while there wasn’t a Gandhi on the other end of the bullet fired in Jamia, his ideology continues to breathe through the bodies left standing – the peaceful student protestors – generations after him.

We started out to create Gandhi’s India, but unfortunately are inching closer to Godse’s instead.

There is no way to unpin the events at Jamia from the board we are building a collage on with shame and indignity. Law and order sound like distant institutions, with a police force that feels like a fictional character that enters and exits the narrative like a whimsical non-entity. Incidents over the past month prove that the Delhi police has just stood back and watched, as if they’ve been ordered not to act. From iron rods and masks at JNU a few weeks ago, to a local-made revolver and a boastful stride in the light of day, things have escalated to the point that bigots feel both empowered and ordained by those who are attempting to summon violence and carnage in the name of ideology. 

What is alarming, however, is the enthusiasm with which youngsters are willing to respond to this call. In the case of the minor shooter at Jamia, that enthusiasm takes the form of murderous aggression. Clearly, he did not care who he was shooting at, who he struck, or who he’d kill, had he killed. He did not care if he’d survive this, as his social media posts clearly show. “Mere ghar ka dhyan rakhna,” he said in a Facebook post, indicating that he was ready to go down for a “cause”. It is evidence of having been brainwashed to the extent where anger and homicidal tendencies become the only way of handling an argument, or shutting it down.

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Students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and local residents of Okhla during a protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NRP) on the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi, India on January 30, 2020.

Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto

It is important to understand why Gandhi must be recalled at this unsettling point in the life cycle of this country. Gandhi condemned all possible means of violence, even those that served Indian interests in his broader vision for the country. Avowedly Hindu, Gandhi’s greatest accomplishment and also his inevitable undoing was his refusal to sanction or in any way endorse the Hindu right’s intent at retaliation against partitioned Muslims who decided to stay back in the country. It was a stance that irked the likes of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, because it interfered with majoritarian fantasies like Hindu Rashtra which the RSS continues to back to this day. 

To kill Gandhi, was for many right-wing extremists both vengeance and strategy, hoping his sudden removal would leave a moral vacuum that could easily be populated by propaganda and bile that is the toast of WhatsApp groups in modern India. Thankfully, India fell to the hands of a few choice men who decided to steer the country out of hands that intended to bleed it internally. But today, we seem to be taking more than a few steps behind. Over the past few years, the othering of minorities has only magnified. It started with IT Cell threats and propaganda, moved to lynchings in the name of “gau raksha” and has culminated with the vile CAA. The communal dream has continued to fester and spread, both in spirit and body. 

We started out to create Gandhi’s India, but unfortunately are inching closer to Godse’s instead.

That said, there is a lot that is to be feared about this latest attack on Jamia. At least Gandhi’s killer did not enjoy the comfort of being watched on by an oddly indisposed police force. At least Godse was mobbed by a crowd that collectively agreed on his guilt. At least Godse didn’t openly declare his mission beforehand. At least he didn’t have the audacity to perform for his audience, for the camera, for the ritually stationary guardians of the law.

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Local residents of Okhla during a protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NRP) on the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi, India on January 30, 2020.

Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto

There was no stomping or celebrating an act of crime in the name of “nationalism”. All that has changed, because it has been sanctioned, structured and egged on by political voices. Just days before the Jamia attack, BJP’s Anurag Thakur urged a crowd while campaigning for the Delhi elections, “goli maaro saalon ko”. Home Minister Amit Shah promised that the Jamia culprit will not be spared and then hours later asked Delhi voters if they are with Modi or Shaheen Bagh.

The distance India has travelled between 1948 and 2020 can be earmarked by two milestones that tragically, look and feel the same.

The gun-wielding teenager at Jamia embodies an Indian tragedy of sorts. Consumed by an outdated yet in-vogue fantasy he has been raised by hate and propelled by the promise of a never-ever-land. Without the agency of opportunity or education, he has become a cog in a dirty wheel to radicalise for gain. It doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger, the dividers-in-chief are the ones loading the pistols.

But to this tragedy, there is also the bittersweet sprinkle of irony. That the bullet was fired at all is proof of the fact that Gandhi’s India lives on.

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