In search of Gandhi and Godse

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

The communalisation process under way in India clearly has an impact on people of Indian origin around the world.

DURING a hectic schedule of speaking engagements that recently buffeted me across the length and breadth of the United States, I witnessed a diaspora in tumult, even more polarised, divided and wounded, than the middle classes in India today. With battle lines drawn everywhere, courageous, secular and progressive elements sometimes seemed under siege. Muslims of Indian origin were in the throes of anguish, often internalising their anger as an intensely personal sense of hurt and loss. I saw recurring signs, during my travels, of the heart-breaking near death of faith and hope.

The Gujarat carnage - the stunning brutality of the mass violence, the impunity of the state authorities, the depths of the social divide, the success of the economic boycott and above all the electoral endorsement of the massacre - has convinced many living in the prosperity of their adopted country, of the threat of the imminent death of Gandhi's India; and of the fact that minorities in the India of the future will have to come to terms with second-class citizenship. Their dark sense of despair and alienation is clouded further by the post-9/11 scenario in the U.S., with the swirling winds of public prejudice, militarisation, brutal and unethical wars and racial profiling of all Asian Muslims by the government.

Zahir Janmohammed, a 25-year-old graduate and third-generation expatriate from India, poignantly evoked this sense of bewildered loss: "I have been searching for Gandhi for several years. But after spending months in Gandhi's homeland, Gujarat, I fear he may be dead".

His grandparents migrated from Gujarat to East Africa in the 1920s. His father, expelled by Idi Amin's regime in Uganda in 1971, made a fresh start in California, where Zahir was born. He was a vegetarian and revered Gandhi. It was natural that he encouraged Zahir to return for a year to Gujarat to reclaim his legacy. Zahir volunteered to work with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in a slum in Ahmedabad. Weeks after his arrival, the city and much of Gujarat was convulsed by the most brutal sectarian blood-letting after Partition, following the torching of a railway compartment in Godhra.

Zahir volunteered to work in the relief camps for the battered survivors of the pogrom, where he tried to share with them a little of their agony. But he encountered bigotry everywhere, even among friends. No one restrained the members of the NGO with which he worked, when they openly taunted minorities. The mother of his host family, a hospitable and affectionate Hindu, said to him: "Well you know beta, those Muslims go to the relief camps because they get free food there". His stomach heaved at the memories of the relief camps, with their pervading stench of human excreta, urine and crowded tents.

Returning months later to his home in California, a shaken Zahir found himself frozen when a shop-keeper asked him his name. A year afterwards, he joked bitterly when he saw me off at the airport, "Be careful, your air ticket has been booked on the Internet by a Muslim."

Zahir, a sensitive, reflective young man still struggling with the unhealed wounds of his trauma in Gujarat told me: "The Gujarat carnage has changed my life" - a refrain I heard echoed over and over again in many parts of the U.S. Among those whose lives were altered irrevocably were a large number of deeply idealistic young American Indian Muslim men and women, trying to come to terms with the situation in which their community finds itself. Many were trying to contribute by raising money for relief and rehabilitation, or lobbying with both the U.S. and Indian governments, or building networks with secular, progressive groups. I was touched by the way they dealt with their intense internalised sense of personal tribulation and privation, by constructively working with resolutely preserved resources of faith and hope, for reclaiming and defending pluralism and democracy both in India and the U.S.

In New York, Ubaid Shaik, a neurophysician with gentle manners and a passion for justice, was engaged for many years after he migrated to the U.S. in the African American civil rights movement. He was so wrenched by the Gujarat massacre that he launched the Indian Muslim Council to promote values of pluralism and tolerance with particular focus on the Indian diaspora in the U.S. He barely sleeps a few hours each night, so that he can find time for this work even after a punishing schedule in the hospital besides commuting for four hours daily, and taking care of a large and loved family. He has been joined in this enterprise by young professionals from cities across the U.S.

In Seattle, I was drawn to Javed, a software engineer who, after Gujarat, tirelessly collects money for relief as a volunteer for the Indian Muslim Relief Committee, which was formed in 1983 following the Nellie massacre by a compassioned and energetic biochemist Manzoor Ghauri. After Gujarat, an energetic elderly nuclear engineer in Chicago, Imtiaz Uddin, pulled himself out of retirement to establish a forum for the defence of secularism.

A number of committed secular academics in universities across North America, including Biju Mathew, Shalini Gera, Vinay Lal, Angana Chatterjee, Abha Singhal and many others came together in the wake of the Gujarat massacre, to put together the Stop Funding Hate Campaign, which painstakingly collected extremely damaging evidence on the funding of organisations belonging to the Sangh Parivar by Indian Americans.

In many universities I also met young members of secular development organisations such as Asha (founded by Sandeep Pandey) and the Association for India's Development. Many of them shared the grave disquiet about the assaults on pluralism in India, and wanted to contribute to efforts to defend secularism. But among some members, I also did find ideological confusion, reflected in their sympathy to parts of the Hindutva ideology or claims that many NGOs in India were `neutral' to the turbulent communal divide.

For Jayashree and Ashok, a young couple in Seattle, a major segment of their daily life is devoted to volunteer work for Asha. Ashok spends many evenings and week-ends away from his work in a computer company, singing old Kishore Kumar songs in a band cobbled together to raise funds for development work in India. Stirred by accounts of the continuing distress of families in rural Gujarat, the couple has resolved to raise funds for them. Both dream of abandoning their well-paid positions and returning soon to India, to work for advancing the cause of education. In most cities, mainly first-generation young Indian Americans, many of them engineers, attempt to engage constructively with development organisations and social movements in India.

MEETING these two groups of young people of Indian origin, those belonging to the Muslim organisations and those with organisations like AID and Asha, I was struck by how similar many of them were - idealistic, impassioned and sincere. They were also of the same professional profile - software professionals, university students, social science researchers, and so on. Yet, they rarely met and worked together. The claims by AID and Asha that they never consciously kept youth from the minority communities out and that it just happened, mirrored arguments a few years ago about why most development groups `just happened' to have mainly men.

Also, with both sets of groups of socially committed young Indians of American origin, I observed their remarkable insularity from social justice movements in the U.S. Except for Ubaid, the remarkable doctor who founded the Indian Muslim Council and a young physics teacher in Detroit, I rarely encountered any young people of Indian origin - first or second generation - who were involved in civil rights causes of African Americans, or those who volunteered to work for causes of deprivation and injustice in the U.S. like homelessness. For Ubaid, it was only the state complicity in the Gujarat bloodbath that persuaded him to pull back from his work in the cause of human rights in the U.S., and, instead involve himself in efforts to safeguard these rights in the deeply loved country of his birth.

Many Indian Americans involve themselves in political events in India with an immediacy and passion, to an extent that it is sometimes difficult to remember that one is not in India, but on the other side of the planet. During my visit, for instance, people followed and analysed every reported word of hate speeches by Praveen Togadia and the confused, unsteady responses to these by state authorities in India, with greater concern than in many bylanes of India itself. A multiplicity of deep emotional chords continue to bind millions of people of Indian origin who choose to live and work in the most powerful nation in the world, to the ancient land in which they and their parents were born.

Many Indian Americans spoke about how precious the pluralism of the Indian tradition and their identity as Indian Muslims were to them. Quaid Saifee, a young computer executive in Detroit, spoke of his days in an engineering college in Indore. "I was the only Muslim in my entire class. My friends always used to adjust their plans, when we went out to see films, or for dinner, so that I could offer namaz at the prescribed hours. When any vegetarian friends came home for food, my mother would wash out the entire kitchen in advance, so that their food could not be touched by meat. There was so much love between us. Where has all of this gone?"

The visit confirmed to me how closely the turbulent recent history of the dramatic rise of right-wing religious fundamentalism and the politics of hatred in India, is related to and nourished by the Indian diaspora in the U.S. An influential segment of this diaspora is ideologically committed to the politics of Hindutva, and shares its irrational malevolent hostility towards minorities, and uncompromising opposition to the vision of a pluralistic, democratic India with genuinely equal citizenship for people of all faiths, caste and gender.

Going beyond its enormous financial support, exposed by the Stop Funding Hate Campaign, is its ideological nourishment from the U.S., in the form of minority bashing literature, web sites and propaganda. The temples are one of the only spaces where the majority of Hindu Indian Americans meet on a regular basis, and these are reportedly increasingly controlled by Hindutva elements that actively promote their divisive ideology. Youth summer camps to assist second generation Indians to learn about their `culture' are also used as powerful vehicles to propagate their intensely partisan vision of Indian culture, history, society and politics. There were many Indian Americans who believe that the U.S. is growing into the most influential fortress for the rallying of the forces of Hindutva after the Indian state of Gujarat.

There is also evidence of influential political alliances with powerful sections of the U.S. ruling political establishment. Especially in the aftermath of 9/11, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government and major segments of the media and public opinion are actively engaged in the demonisation of the Islamic world. This has led to a growing opportunistic alliance between the domestic and global policies of the U.S. government and the domestic politics of the Indian government. Hardline Israeli elements and the government of Israel are also joining this axis.

The impact of all of this on the Indian diaspora is to create an uncompromising, unprecedented divide between people of Indian origin who are born into the Hindu and Muslim faiths. This spills into even second and third generation Indian Americans, and increasingly characterises social relations even in universities, with increasingly strident organisations of students owing open allegiance to Hindutva playing an active role in most U.S. universities.

People I met in many cities recognised, especially, the need to work with young people of Indian origin in the U.S., including those of second and third generation, in order to strengthen their commitment to pluralism, peace and justice. Spaces like places of worship need to be reclaimed from fundamentalist elements; young people need authentic humanistic teachings of their respective faiths. Secular avenues also need to be built to enable them to acquire an undistorted picture of what constitutes Indian culture, its syncretic, pluralist, tolerant character, but also its traditional injustices of caste and gender. They also need to be brought in touch with the social justice issues of the adopted country, which is now home for them and their children.

Everywhere, there was great enthusiasm for building an Aman Parivar, or family of peace, as an alternative to the Sangh Parivar. This is envisaged as a very loose and broad platform of people and organisations that are committed to join hands to fight the mounting poison of communal hatred and divide, and to defend to reclaim and to strengthen pluralism, secularism, justice, humanism and democracy. It would bring together anti-communal religious, cultural and professional organisations with a range of liberal, left, democratic and development organisations.

ON May 19, 2003, the day I returned to India, a call was given by Hindu Unity, the U.S.-based wing of the Bajrang Dal, which is the youth front of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and by the Hindu Mahasabha to celebrate Nathuram Godse's birth on May 19 "to send a message to the enemies of humanity that we will fight and even die to protect the basic principle of Hinduism". It further denigrated Gandhi by saying: "Gandhi was a downright pacifist, without guts and scruples. His constant preaching to his fellow Hindus, to be non-violent at all times, even in the face of aggression, paralysed the manhood of India, mentally and physically..'

The undisguised poison of this appeal, and the outrage of many groups of Indian Americans that followed, symbolises the struggle that convulses the Indian diaspora in the U.S. The struggle is to find its soul, whether in the message of love and tolerance of Mahatma Gandhi, or in the twisted legacy of his assassin Nathuram Godse.

In the dark storms of bigotry, of wars of collective vengeance that sweep our world today, does anyone in the U.S. or India have an answer to the question that young Zahir Janmohammed asks each of us, both as a challenge and a plea:

"Could Gandhi still be alive? Somewhere, in someone?"

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