Gandhi spinning in the late 1920s. via Wikimedia

A Bollywood movie about a legendary queen of India’s Rajput caste has caused violent protests in recent days in the north of the country. Protests began a year ago when filming started, hardline Hindu groups alleging that the film, Padmaavat, is disrespectful of their culture by depicting a romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim king.

Since the film opened last Thursday, cinemas in Uttar Pradesh and other states have been vandalised, highways blocked, shopping malls set ablaze and several buses burned. A bus carrying school children was pelted with stones. A state-level spokesman for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party has offered US$1.5 million for the head of actress Deepika Padukone, who plays the queen Padmavati (a figure more mythical than real, according to historians).

Although the director of the film is a Hindu and the protestors are Hindu – and the issue ostensibly one of religious sensibilities– the protests inevitably have a political aspect. Set during the siege of the fort of Chittorgarh by Sultan Alauddin Khilji in 1303, the film is a reminder of the historic Muslim conquests of much of the subcontinent.

With elections looming this year, the uproar can be seen as playing into the hands of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has its roots in Hindu nationalism. “It’s not so much about Rajput pride as a Hindu-Muslim issue, where Muslims are the predators and Hindus have to protect themselves,” history professor Aditya Mukherjee told the Washington Post.

Sadly, this upsurge of Indian identity politics – if that is what it is – comes with the 70th anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated by Hindu hardliners on January 30, 1948. Nathuram Godsee and other extremists of the Hindu Mahasabha organisation blamed Gandhi for the partition of India at Independence the year before, although it was the last thing the spiritual father of the independence struggle wanted. “You’ll have to divide my body before you divide India,” he told Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of the Raj era.

However, the Muslim leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, insisted on it, Mountbatten yielded to him, and Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian Congress leaders decided in the end that a free India was more important than the united India Gandhi had always insisted on. “For the first time in their lives,” wrote historian William Shirer in his memoir of their mentor (and his, to a large extent), “they broke with Gandhi.”

Already, the violence that Gandhi had staked his whole independence campaign on avoiding, was rife. Partition however, saw terrible bloodshed as millions fled across the new boundaries; half a million were killed before they could reach safety.

Already, too, Gandhi had undertaken one of his great fasts “to get the Hindus and Muslims in Bengal to stop butchering each other,” says Shirer. Then on January 13, 1948, and at the age of 78, he began another, “swearing that he would not end it until the Moslems [sic] and Hindus in Delhi agreed on a truce.” After four days he was near death, but the communal leaders hammered out an agreement and he took some nourishment. This fast, the last of his life, “brought an end to the massacre in Delhi.”

A week later the Hindu extremists made their first strike on his life but bungled it. All but one of the perpetrators remained at large. Then on Friday, January 30, when Gandhi was about to lead evening prayers in the garden of the house where he was staying, the assassin struck, firing three shots at point blank range into his chest. “Oh God!” he cried and collapsed to the ground dead. It is a scene that forms the prologue and finale of Richard Attenborough’s great film, Gandhi.

According to Wikipedia, there have been nearly two dozen assassinations of politicians alone in India since that of Gandhi, and nearly three dozen in Pakistan. There is also regular communal violence in both countries based on political, religious or caste disputes, although India, at least, is a secular democracy in which everyone is equal before the law.

Of course, there was communal violence in Gandhi’s time too, but to a large extent he seems to have rallied Indians of all persuasions and states in life behind his “non-violent revolution” against centuries-old British rule, and won the attention, if not always the respect, of British leaders themselves. How did he do it?

He was a seeker of Truth, which he equated with God. He recognised that the truth about human dignity and human rights transcended mere political programmes, and that the latter must be based on the former. While he remained a devout, if unorthodox Hindu, says Shirer, “he reached out all his life for the Truths of other religions and made them his own [especially Christ’s Sermon on the Mount] unceasingly preaching tolerance of all faiths.”

Unfortunately he could not persuade some of his own people that religious tolerance was essential to a free country. It is a lesson that India, Pakistan and the world in general is still learning, in different ways.

Gandhi was a man of self-discipline and more, self-sacrifice. He would rather than do violence to himself – by fasting — than to others to achieve his goals, and persuade others to take the same approach.

It is true that his leadership in the campaign for an independent India brought down violence upon many thousands of his followers: most terribly in the Amritsar Massacre, where Colonel Dyer ordered troops to open fire on thousands of people gathered in a Delhi walled park, targeting especially those trying to escape; but also with great brutality in the famous Salt March. It the latter, 2,500 Indian Congress volunteers led an unarmed “raid” on the government’s salt works north of Bombay and were struck down by native policemen wielding steel-clad lathi sticks under British orders, as marchers persisted in waking forward.

But his idea of “militant non-violence” – making salt illegally, boycotting British goods, strikes – won the sympathy of the wider world and ultimately forced the British to negotiate with him and the other congress leaders.

Besides, was there ever a just cause for which someone, many, did not have to suffer? And was there ever a violent rebellion that did not bring more suffering than it relieved?

He was a man who was prepared to live like the poor, and not just talk about the poor. In order to promote their dignity and rights as fundamental to a free India, he wore a simple loin-cloth (Winston Church dismissed him as a “naked fakir”) and spent hours a day spinning yarn, as many of the poor did, even during talks with leaders and dignitaries. He lived on a simple diet and insisted, when a birthday party was held for him in London during the infamous round table talks of 1931, that only fruit be provided, and that the charge for the lunch be only a shilling so that the poor could come.

Despite the inclination of some admirers to canonise him (added to other aspects of his life the fact that he was killed on a Friday brought comparisons to Christ) Gandhi was not perfect. His treatment of his wife, Kasturbai, to whom he was married when they were both 16, and one, at least, of his sons, seems to have been wanting. His vow of sexual abstinence when they were 36, though inspired by Hindu spirituality, led Nehru, who admired him in almost every other way, to write that “Gandhiji is absolutely wrong in this matter”. His English devotee, Mirabai, was surely an intrusion on their family life. Then there was the strange business of sleeping (only) with young women towards the end of his life.

Still, his virtues and tactics remain valid for those who want to build a free, or freer society. Putting the search for truth before politics; self-sacrifice; solidarity with the poor – not only India’s political elite but leaders the world over would profit from taking those principles of the Mahatma on board.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet