THE NEED OF THE HOUR: TUSHAR ARUN GANDHIby Vinta Nanda November 19 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 23 mins, 36 secs
In this interview with Tushar Arun Gandhi, Vinta Nanda probes his mind to understand the dangers lying ahead and what are the steps that need to be taken to protect India’s democracy.
Tushar Arun Gandhi is the son of journalist Arun Manilal Gandhi, grandson of Manilal Gandhi and great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
He is the author of “Let's Kill Gandhi” (Rupa Books) and "The Lost Diary of Kastur, My Ba" (HarperCollins India). Born on a train between Mumbai and Kolkata and raised in Mumbai, Tushar established the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Vadodara, Gujarat in 1998. Now located in Mumbai, he is its President. Since 1996, he has served as the President of the Lok Seva Trust, an NGO established by Dr. Kanti Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, for the welfare of textile-mill labourers. He portrayed himself in a fictional Bollywood movie directed by Kamal Hassan, Hey Ram (2000), as well as in a semi-fictional movie, Road to Sangam (2009), based on an episode from his life.
He was appointed Chairman of the Australian Indian Rural Development Foundation (AIRDF) in 2008 and led the 75th-anniversary re-enactment of the Dandi March in 2005. Tushar Gandhi became a Director of the Gandhi Research Foundation in Jalgaon, Maharashtra in 2019, and in 2023, he was appointed the Ambassador for “Return to Palestine”.
In this conversation with him, I ask him about his work with the secular forces of the country and why it is more important now than it was ever before to save the inclusive nature of our democracy. Over to Tushar then…
What are the primary reasons for you to be active in informing India about facts?
It’s become crucial because the dumbing down of opinion has been systematically done. When we were young, the emphasis used to be on rational thinking, and a scientific temperament. Today society in general has been indoctrinated to follow blindly, and scientific temperament is being reduced to rituals, practicing of rituals, that go under the name of tradition. In these circumstances, it becomes essential to not just state the facts and imagine that people will ascertain the truth because the habit has been completely revoked, but to go beyond that and communicate them correctly. So, we have to almost spoon feed now, because just serving up a dish and hoping that people will consume and swallow it is no longer an option.
Do you think this has happened in the last 9 years? And, that we have been caught sleeping over something that has been going on for a long time?
I believe it started much earlier, and it’s been shifting gears for the past 30 years or so. In the last 15 years it has gone to hyper mode. And, we have…us who call ourselves liberals and the educated elite…deluded ourselves that this is just another lunatic fringe, which can be ignored and things will keep progressing. In doing that we did not realise that it was we who were pushed to a corner and marginalised.
Are you planning to become a part of politics if the need arises or are you going to continue working from the outside?
I don’t want to get into active politics now. At one time I thought that I needed to have an active political career and I did try, but I realised I wasn’t fit enough for electoral politics. I’d rather work from the outside with clearly defined objectives. It’s important for me to know who I will be working with and what are the thoughts, the ideals that I will work towards strengthening. This gives me great satisfaction. Even though I know that it is an uphill and difficult task, if I am able to bring a transformation in one individual it gives me hope that slowly we will achieve the goal of enabling rational thinking, that we will make the difference.
What are the couple of things you believe you need to do, in particular, that’ll bring a shift in behaviour and attitudes?
What needs to be continuously hammered is the danger of this rampant hate, which has permeated every strata of society, and has reached, and started causing discord, within family circles. This unsubstantiated hate, the prevalence of prejudices…I think that is what we need to focus upon. Unfortunately, there are so many aspects of this, so many facets that it is easy to lose focus.
I believe that the lesson from the Mahabharata, what Dronacharya taught Arjun, is very important, that while hunting a bird if you focus on the eye, your aim is perfect. If you keep seeing the bigger picture, you’ll never be able to hit the small target that you have to achieve. I also believe that the core of hatred is our own insecurities within us, our own fears, and the prejudices that grow from there that we hold in our minds…which are then exploited by the hate mongers.
We need to work on ourselves and those we are closest to. We need to tell people the one slogan, which came from the Bharat Jodo Yatra, when Rahul Gandhi kept telling people “Daro Mat” (Don’t be afraid!). It is very important because hate is eventually a result of our fears.
I don’t think nine years ago, there was any significant fear we were living with. Things happened, bomb blasts, terrorist attacks and such, but there was a government that was empathetic while it went about its job of making people feel secure and giving confidence to its citizens. Hindutva was looming large after the Gujarat riots of 2002, which were horrific, but that the hate would spread across India wasn’t ever a thought that came to mind. So, does it take just nine years for a whole nation to change the way in which it perceives things?
No Vinta, let’s not lose sight of what is actually happening. In this desperate need to defeat Modi, we are losing sight of the game plan of the Sangh. The Sangh has gone hammer and tongs after its objectives right from the 1970s. See, the emergency was used to legitimise the Sangh, which was till then shunned from public spaces and mainstream politics because of the stigma of association with Bapu’s assassination. It was only during the Emergency that Jayaprakash Narayan embraced the Sangh and gave wings to people like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani - he brought them into the political mainstream. Otherwise, prior to the Emergency, none of them were able to take any political position. Once that crack in the door opened, they infiltrated in the most insidious manner.
But Vajpayee was considered moderate…
Our biggest fault was that we did not realise the danger that Vajpayee was to subverting our democracy because behind his very pleasing, his very gentle façade, he legitimised the fanaticism of the Sangh and mainstreamed a fanatic like Advani. While Vajpayee was the compassionate face of the Sangh, Advani with his ‘Mandir wahin banayenge’ and ‘Shustikaran’ campaigns was sowing the seeds of divisiveness in our society. The first manifestation of it was when Advani started on his Rath Yatra, and burned the swaths of hateful infernos across India in its wake.
Unfortunately for us, the mistakes during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister come home to roost - the Shilanyas and the opening of the box inside the Babri Masjid structure. So, somewhere the secular and liberal icons we hoped would guard our democracy made political blunders, which were exploited by these people to the hilt. (Ill-advised of the consequences, the Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 opened the locks that had been placed by the Jawaharlal Nehru government in 1949 after idols of Ram appeared on the premises under mysterious circumstances. This was at the heels of a campaign that sought to prove that the Masjid stood at the exact birthplace of the deity Ram).
Would you call them political blunders or you’d rather see them as actions taken in the spirit of inclusivity, the need to embrace the Hindu hardliners, the confidence then that they were ready to change the stance of demanding a Hindu nation?
The blunder was in actually facilitating the Sangh’s objectives. A dialogue would have happened if the unlocking of the Masjid door and the shilanyas wasn’t done, which rapidly escalated into the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
Yes, but the demolition happened after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination?
It was post his assassination, but the seeds were sown earlier. It was Rajiv who opened the locks, and carried out the shilanyas. He gave the Sangh the vocabulary. Although I am a great admirer of what Rajiv Gandhi did for India, there were mistakes that happened during his time, which have been exploited to the hilt by people like Advani and Modi.
Exploited yes, because his actions were more or less to be inclusive of the Sangh and carry it to the mainstream – actually it was appeasement of the Hindu hardliners in a sort of way, which inadvertently ended up handing them the ammunition.
But we must admit that it is now permanently engraved that Rajiv started it, and therefore the Sangh has reason to tell the Congress not to blame them. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, in their parlance, is finishing the business that was started by the Congress.
Also, the 1984 riots and the genocide of the Sikhs. Even though it cannot be compared with the riots that swept across the country in 1992, post the demolition of the Babri Masjid and what happened in Gujarat in 2002, but when you talk about the divisiveness of the Sangh and its policies that are biased, it turns around and tells you, “What about 1984? Who killed Sikhs in Delhi and who justified it by saying that when a large tree falls, the earth shakes?”
The problem is that every time we have an issue, on which we can corner the Sangh, it has reason to accuse the Congress and this justifies its actions. They have with them the grenades to lob at us, and it has us running for cover. That’s our misfortune. Even at that time, until the Sangh became the monster that it is today, we were hesitant to admit that ‘okay! 1984 was a mistake but 2002 is a greater crime’.
There is a difference between a mistake and crime but we weren’t able to articulate our faults for a long time, whereas the Sangh was growing its base alongside, using the actions of the Congress as justification for what it was up to. Instead of falling prey to the whataboutery then, we should have stood up and admitted that we had been wrong and said that what the Sangh and its affiliates were doing is worse - that what the Sangh is doing in a committed and calculated way is dangerous for our democracy.
It’s because we let them get away that today they kill because they don’t like what people wear, they don’t like the traditions they follow, they don’t like what they are eating and things like that. That, according to me, is the real defeat of the liberal thought in India - it’s not the intellectual freedom or the lack of debates and dialogue in the society. Fact is that crime is legitimised in the name of religion, in the name of patriotism. The misfortune of our country is that we don’t understand the difference between patriotic fervour and bigotry.
What do you believe is going right and/or wrong with the discourse today?
The greatest strength of the opposition today is the INDIA alliance – it is an attempt to achieve political unity. I’m hoping that despite regional interests, because of which conflicts are happening, when it comes to the time for the national strategy they will put their differences aside and work together on a basis of equality. One weakness of this alliance is that it has only thought of a political and electoral strategy to counter the forces of the Sangh and has as yet ignored the fact that this battle has to be taken into the society. That political parties alone cannot do it alone. They needed to include non-political civil organisations into the alliance and have an aspect where, apart from the electoral strategies, there will be creation of strategies to counter hatred and divisive forces in society. The toxicity is not going to go away merely by a victory or defeat at the ballot. The electoral strategy is a five yearly cycle, but this battle to win back society, to devenomize it, will have to be fought on a long term basis.
It has taken the Sangh seventy five years to reach this place. It’s not as if they started working ten years ago or fifteen, twenty years ago. They’ve been systematically working towards their objectives right from the time of Independence. Even when they were underground, even when they were shunned by society, they continuously worked with their cadres and created a venomous band of loyal, dedicated members of their ideology…subscribers to their ideology…and that is why from day one when the INDIA alliance was formed, I kept thinking of why they are not including civil society organisations and activists.
Yes, there is a whole cultural aspect to unifying people. I feel the INDIA alliance is an incubation of an idea for the world to adopt as a model. If so many parties, with the differences they have, are able to find unifying moments it’ll be an achievement. Because the whole world has fault lines today and nobody has been able to find a solution. How we bring conflicting ideas together by sharing the commonalities and putting aside the differences is what the alliance is an experiment of, isn’t it?
We have seen on a smaller scale, these experiments successfully running democracies in Europe. In smaller countries in Europe, you do see middle of the spectrum politics aligning with the extreme left and extreme right, even the extreme right and the extreme left forming coalitions on issues. This can happen if the focus is to serve people, if delivering to the billionaires is the secondary agenda, not the primary. It's not as if contradicting ideologies have not been able to work together to stent commonly agreed upon objectives.
The European Union is an example. Look at how countries in Europe were at war with each other before the two World Wars and how they’ve eventually emerged as formidable electoral democracies working with each other on common principles.
Absolutely, and still there are simmering hostilities in the background but despite that they have managed to cobble together such a powerful coalition of nations.
Do you believe there is something in the INDIA alliance as a design that the world will be able to adopt, after its success, to iron out differences? Do you believe the alliance is an important incubation for the moment?
Unfortunately, we don’t realise that we are not one homogenous nation, that we are a coalition, which has come together to be a nation…that’s why we are divided as regions, languages, cultures, behaviours and practices. It’ll be the day when we understand this fact, and also accept the statement of Rahul Gandhi’s, which is mature and praiseworthy, that ‘we are a union of states - united to make this democracy, and we need to give each other space as well as respect if we want to flourish and grow’. We need to internalise Rahul’s words. If you look at Europe, some of the countries there are smaller than many of the linguistic states of India.
Coming to Bapu, one can say that besides the many things he achieved, he was able to unite people through something as simple as the Bhajan, 'Vaishnav jan to'. It took George Harrison to add a string of Pandit Ravi Shankers Sitar to one song and Indian classical music became a rage across the world. So one song, a piece of music, an art connects the world if one was to see it metaphorically. I also believe that Rahul has it in him to speak directly to the heart, sensitively, so as to connect people to one another.
Absolutely. Look at Rahul before 2014 and post it. It’s two different people you will see. The maturity that he has shown, the fearlessness, even without the support of his party. At many times he has gone out on a limb for what he believes in and his party has cringed, but it hasn’t bothered him. He just goes about doing what he believes in and knows that one day everyone will be talking about what he is doing and agreeing with him.
Very interesting! I gather from what you’re saying that this is the only way to progress - if someone takes the lead irrespective of whether others follow or not. In a way, Rahul is following Bapu’s ideals and setting an example instead of asking people to change the way they think. If Bapu was alive, what do you believe he’d have said, looking at the state of affairs - to Rahul and to Modi?
To Rahul he would say that he should keep doing what he is doing. To Modi he would say, ‘stop doing what you are doing’.
As simple as that!
Yes. Bapu was simple. Even in his philosophy, ideology, he was simple as a person…to the extent of being point blank. He was known to call a spade a spade. I think the most important message he would say to both Rahul and Modi is what I have told you…as plain and simple as that.
And, I think Bapu also took the brutality upon himself…fasting, and walking…he inflicted the pain of sacrifice upon himself and motivated people…
As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite happening now. With Modi coming to power, there has been a legitimisation and popularisation of hate and othering in the country…completely contrary to the ideals of Bapu, which led to the freedom of the country.
So, what are the various ways in which you’re involved with bringing a revival of secularism, inclusivity as an idea, to mainstream narrative?
One of course is the airing of one’s opinions, on subjects that I am passionate about through my writings, talks and social media. The other is to pick up issues that are critical and take action to find remedies for them, become a caregiver to those who are confused about what’s going on – like when the mob lynching was becoming rampant and a majority of people were supporting it.
If you look at it, when the spate of mob lynching was happening, Indian society in general behaved as if they were not bothered and called them stray incidents - there was an attitude like, ‘the Muslims need to be taught a lesson.’ This kind of behaviour started from 2002, and spread widely after 2014. It was distressing when the present Union Home Minister, while campaigning in Gujarat, boasted about how they had taught the minority community a lesson and how the Muslims have fallen in line after 2002.
When the mob lynching was happening, the attitude by and large in the Indian society was the same. I thought that we cannot be silent so I joined the appeal for remedies that was made to the Supreme Court against mob lynching. Tehseen Poonawala had filed a suit by which he wanted the Supreme Court to hold the Prime Minister responsible and punish him. I felt, beyond the strategy of vendetta, there is a need to put in place a mechanism to ensure that there were curbs in this trend becoming popular. I approached the court with a list of remedies to be implemented. Fortunately, the Supreme Court agreed with almost everything that I asked for the state and Central Governments to implement to ensure mob lynching was stopped.
Then the Dharam Sansads started spewing hate. Once again we saw the acceptance of that hate by society, I approached the Supreme Court and said that you can’t keep turning a blind eye to this. In two particular instances, one is Uttarakhand and the other in Delhi, the court has taken cognisance of my intervention and we’re hoping that some action, which will be seen as an admonition or punishment for dereliction of duty by not acting against hate will be taken.
And, then there was the Muzaffarnagar incident, where the young Muslim child was traumatised, beaten up by his classmates on the orders of the teacher…it wasn’t as if only the victim was affected…even the children, otherwise innocent, who were told to slap the Muslim child one by one, were being desensitised to violence and indoctrinated to hate. They needed to be counselled and helped to get past what they had been made to do. We have to understand that mob lynchers for the future were being prepared this way. One slap will eventually translate to a stab. I once again approached the Supreme Court. There’ve been three hearings so far and the court has taken a grave stance on it. It has asked for implementation of its orders in the state. That’s the kind of activism I do.
Ever since the INDIA alliance has happened, I’ve been working with organizations in Maharashtra to ensure that social groups from the liberal spectrum should start working on their own to facilitate the electoral victory of the alliance. My ability is more in ideating and discussion. I take suggestions and help create strategies. The iconic nature of my inheritance, the legacy I carry, helps causes and I put myself out there when I am needed.
So, this takes your time, resources…travel…how do you manage?
Well, fortunately for me, my wife worked in a bank all her life. The bringing up of our children and the financial needs were dependent on her. I had the liberty to do things that compelled me. I could fund my own work through my writing and the talks I was invited to give, which I was paid for. There is a need in the world to also hear and listen about peace and non-violence and I was fortunate to travel and be given honorariums to support myself. Now, I’m at a stage where both my children are working and settled. It’s only my wife and I, and she has a pension from her job because she’s retired now.
I don’t know if you’ve also noticed this recent trend of the targeting of Gujaratis. Somehow the liberals have started to paint all Gujaratis with the same brush because of obvious reasons, e.g. most cases against liberal politicians are being filed in the state of Gujarat and such. My Gujarati friends are liberal and it doesn’t seem right when they are suspected of bigotry, and a ‘Guju’ tag is heaped on them. What do you have to say about this?
The tragedy is we boast of being liberal and following progressive ideologies, but we end up countering hate with hate. Hate cannot be countered with hate. It has to be dealt with compassionately, with empathy and has to be met with love.
Rahul Gandhi said and correctly during the Bharat Jodo Yatra when he went from place to place, that ‘main nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan kholne aaya hoon’. I would’ve said instead, ‘nafrat ke Shahar mein, mohabbat ka ghar basaane aaya hoon’, but the message is the same. I would change the syntax because in my opinion words like ‘nafrat’ and ‘dukaan’ are commercial. As progressive, liberal people need to be gentle. We should not get provoked to respond to verbal abuse in its own style. We need to become icons of love, understanding and compassion. We are also, in generalising this trend of radicalisation and applying it to the whole community, doing the same thing as what the Sanghis have done with the minorities.
I think what you are suggesting is to follow the poetic path whereas Rahul is speaking to Modi in a language he and his followers best understand because a Sahir Ludhianvi would be like water off a duck’s back on people filled with hate, isn’t it?
I come to my last question. How has Hindutva ended up dominating Hinduism? Isn’t Hinduism about inclusivity and the search for the universal truth? I am a practising Hindu who prays, and I feel cheated when the Hinduism I follow, which is spiritual, inclusive and propagates the universality of truth, has been hijacked by Hindutva. What are your thoughts?
It is the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva that we have not been able to explain to society. Most believe that Hinduism and Hindutva are one and the same thing and therefore shy away from admitting that ‘while they are Hindus, they don’t subscribe to Hindutva’.
I have never been a practicing Hindu, never bothered about religion although I participate in rituals for the sake of the family. If I sit in a Puja, I do it for my wife because she wants it. I wait for the pandit to tell me when it is going to get over. I am of the belief that we should embrace atheism. Reject organised religions. Everywhere I see that religion is the root cause of hate and its tragic consequences. If you look at the conflict in Palestine, it’s basically reduced to the religious axis – the Christians, the Jews and Islam. Although it is being projected as a geographical conflict, at the root of it is hate that Christianity had for Judaism, and the capture of Judaism by Zionism. That is why Islam is targeted. But when you look at the Islamic world, they too are not in this conflict to benefit the Palestinians. They’re in it to grind their own axe. And, in that whole mess, the Palestinians are suffering. This is a worldwide phenomenon. This radical religious fervour has been at the centre of conflicts and tragedies are being inflicted upon humanity everywhere.
In the last few years I’ve been talking seriously about India becoming an atheist republic instead of secular. By that I don’t mean that we outlaw religion. I mean that the state should be religion agnostic and we should outlaw religion from politics and public spaces. If you want to be religious, be religious in your house. Go to a temple, a mosque, church and be religious, but don’t bring it to institutions, government, to education and to your place of work. Even religious identities should not be allowed in public spaces. A strict separation is required.
Fact is that you can be a Hindu and completely reject Hindutva. Hinduism is a way of life and Hindutva is the politicisation of religion. Hindutva is not religious, it is nothing to do with the tenets of religion. It is a self-seeking selfish politicisation of religious belief and the fear of God. If we manage to make society understand this, people will stop being confused about the path they should take - we must understand that there is a big difference between spiritualism and the ritualistic practice of religion.