Since Amit Shah exclaimed on June 9th at Raipur, “Aur isi liye Mahatma Gandhi ne durandesi ke saath, bahut chatur baniya tha woh, usko maloom tha aage kya hone waala hai, usne azadi ke baad turant kaha tha, Congress ko bikher dena chahiye” (Translation: and this is why Mahatma Gandhi with much foresight, and he was like a clever Baniya who knew what was to come, suggested after independence the Congress be disbanded) – a storm has been raised – essentially by the Congress. Many otherwise well-informed and well-meaning people also have condemned Amit Shah because they are shocked that someone could refer to Gandhi in non-deferential terms.
I find the discourse that this speech has unleashed brings to the fore a crude rudimentary binary which keeps Dalit-Bahujan voices subdued. Jargons and nuances that are otherwise advanced to layer discourse were missing. It was as if you either sided with Gandhi or Shah. You either stood with people condemning Shah or those cheering him. There are two elementary problems here – first is that there is a large section of people who do not care much for both of them and the second that there is necessarily no conflict in these two world views that promote a nationality based on varnashrama dharma. The choice that is handed out is not a choice between democratic and theocratic polities, but a choice between two theocratic polities and asking the discussants to choose one over the other – between Gandhi’s Ram Rajya and Hegdewar’s Ram Rajya. When this conflict dominates the discourse on politics all it means is that the polity has reached a tipping point where it does not want the marginalized even to participate in dissent and if it does want to participate in dissent, it has to be on the terms of these discourse creators!
Let us take a close look at what Amit Shah said and the politics and timing of the same. What Amit Shah said was no attack on Gandhi rather it was a clever strategy for the appropriation of Gandhi to fit the RSS ideological framework ahead of the upcoming assembly elections particularly in its fort, i.e. Gujarat – where its fortunes seem to be slipping. I think the mistake that many people are thrusting on others is in the claim that this is an attack on Gandhi which it obviously is not. In fact what Amit Shah said was strategic and meant for the traditional BJP votebank. Let us once again look at what he said exactly: “Aur isi liye Mahatma Gandhi ne durandesi ke saath, bahut chatur baniya tha woh, usko maloom tha aage kya hone waala hai, usne azadi ke baad turant kaha tha, Congress ko bikher dena chahiye”. He used the prefix “Mahatma” and he called Gandhi – a Chatur Baniya as a term that would endear Gandhi to this constituency. The attempt here in this speech is to take away Gandhi from the ownership Congress has traditionally claimed over him. And he was not at all lying when he said that Gandhi himself wanted the Congress to be disbanded. So Amit Shah was making an attempt at appropriating Gandhi – and interestingly from a Congress which through its own machinations of history keeps claiming Gandhi for itself. The dispute is not whether people want to own Gandhi and taking away from the ownership. The dispute is not even whether Gandhi himself would have objected to this description of him. In my opinion, he wouldn’t have. He was a strong adherent of varnashrama dharma, proud of his identity. Therefore, this dispute is about the ownership of Gandhi between BJP and Congress.
Arguments that have been put forward in this discourse are like a spider’s web that one gets stuck in the more one tries to extricate oneself. One predominant argument that has been doing the rounds is that Amit Shah had insulted a national emblem and a FIR ought to be filed against him and he should be prosecuted. I entertain no doubts in my mind that there are a number of cases of omissions and commission by Amit Shah that needs to be prosecuted, but not in this case. I am also surprised that this argument has come from people otherwise championing free speech. But more importantly, Gandhi is not a national emblem through any law that is in force in India. His status as the supposed father of the nation has never been formalized. It is just what successive governments and their prescribed textbooks have told us and have indoctrinated a belief in the paternity of the nation. This argument plays directly into the jingoistic discourse that the RSS promotes to label people anti-national. If you dislike Gandhi – you are anti-national – what a convenient and lazy argument to put those who differ with you on the backfoot!
This non-choice discourse was imposed with impunity in the case of raids on RRPR, the company that owns NDTV. All those who tried to nuance the ongoing assault on freedom of expression based on the difference between media freedom and freedom to conduct financial transactions while running a media company and point out that NDTV’s history was not one of championing freedoms – including free expression and support to NDTV should be extended with those reservations were bullied (into silence) casting aspersions on their seriousness to fight fascism. The critics were proven right when the dais of representation that protested government gagging of NDTV reflected exactly the same bias that reflects an RSS program – Hindu, upper caste and male! Therefore it was not surprising to see Arun Shourie – one of the stalwarts of RSS ideology occupying a prime position in claiming freedom of expression. It was also not accidental that on the previous evening NDTV aired an exclusive interview with Yashwant Sinha – a face that BJP sympathizers sell as credible. But what was interesting about this assertion of self-proclaimed radical freedom of speech is that the interview was cut short leaving one wondering whether it was because Sinha was going too far with his criticisms of the government of the day. Well, we must remember most of these corporate media did not blink even once when conducting trials in their studios or their op-ed pages branding whole communities as terrorists and criminals – setting the stage for the current state of affairs where some of them are facing the heat.
It is here that I need to highlight the Piano Man case that happened in New Delhi just a few days before Amit Shah’s Baniya speech and the raids on RRPR, where a band that called itself ‘Bhangijumping’ was scheduled to perform at this club called Piano Man and when the casteist slur was pointed out – it followed with more casteist abuses and dismissal of the objection as being anti-art. Unlike Gandhi’s case where there is no law against calling Gandhi’s caste or calling Gandhi cunning – there is an express law that criminalizes caste slurs against Dalits and the Constitution expressly calls for the abolition of untouchability. But except for some Dalit Bahujan voices, there were hardly any protests and I am given to understand that there is yet no case registered against the band or the owner. But if anyone who pointed this out would immediately be called divisive and of course an illogical argument regarding Gandhi’s weightage over the law of the land would have been thrown at the face.
In my opinion, what happened at Raipur and since is an intra-caste jousting between Vaishyas with Congress sympathies and Vaishyas with BJP sympathies over the ownership of Gandhi. The rest of us should mind our own business and they should be allowed to fight out their claims in the splendour of their puritanism!
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.