It was an ugly atmosphere of hatred which he was fighting. Partition had taken the toll of 10 lakh people and uprooted lakhs. The anger in India was focused on Muslims and Pakistan had pushed out nearly all non-Muslims. Men had become beasts, as Gandhi said. He was sad and disappointed. This was not the India of his dreams.
Leaders tried to revive confidence among the Muslims. Rajendra Prasad, the then chairman of the constituent assembly, convened the Communal Harmony Committee of over 100 members of every faith. They delivered to Gandhi a single pledge to end discrimination against Muslims. A forlorn Maulana Abul Kalam Azad spent most of his time in the Jama Masjid area ensuring the safety of Muslims. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel marshalled all resources of the state to combat rioting.
Yet, conspirators, terrorists and fanatics came from nowhere to destroy the pluralistic society that Gandhi had tried to build. The fire of communal frenzy raged unabated. What it put out was, ironically, Gandhis own life. Everything froze in its tracks crime as well as callousness. A shocked nation groped for light, which Gandhi had provided. There was also a feeling of guilt, the realisation how hatred had blinded people.
A mountain of grief fell on us: The Punjabis, the worst sufferers. I remember how we, the refugees, blamed Gandhi all the time. But the moment we heard of his assassination, we poured water on the fire burning in our kitchens, a custom when someone from the family dies. We were angry with Gandhi, but it was like a child showing his temper. We will not run to him now for advice and seek solace from him and that is a terrible blow, Nehru said it for all of us.
However, Gandhis assassination brought about a sea change in the atmosphere. The country turned over a new leaf of love and amity. None dared to talk in communal terms. The public pounced on whoever did so. The fanatics were on the run. They were considered Bapus killers. Political parties with communal bias were decimated at the polls. Even a wisp of parochialism was openly denounced. We began to inhale secular air once again. Whatever experts may say, Gandhis martyrdom protected the country from the hot winds of communalism for nearly four decades.
Gradually, the communalists came out from their holes. Complacent liberals never bothered about their nefarious activities. So much so, the communalists owned Gandhi and also became part of the resistance built against the authoritarian rule of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The dangers of dictatorship, however, pushed back the fear of communalism. The Emergency provided an opportunity when even known fanatics jettisoned their separatist agenda and joined the battle for restoration of democracy. The Jana Sangh merged with the Janata Party. But it turned out that it had not snapped its ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, contrary to the undertaking given to Jayaprakash Narayan, who had brought disparate elements together against the autocratic regime.
Gandhis India was really buffeted by Rajiv Gandhis naivete: Placating Muslims by amending the Constitution to overcome the Supreme Courts judgment on maintenance to a divorcee, Shah Bano, and pleasing the Hindus by opening the locks at the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Rajiv Gandhi polarised the society. L K Advanis Rath Yatra did the rest. Many people were killed in its wake. The demolition of the masjid, followed by communal riots and bomb blasts in Mumbai, more or less, finished whatever was left of Gandhis heritage.
The nation looked stark naked without his skimpy clothes. The manner in which the Gandhians were beaten up at Ayodhya for their protest on the day the Babri Masjid was demolished showed the countrys respect for Gandhi. A caustic comment by a Muslim MP in the Rajya Sabha shook me the other day. He said that even after 55 years of independence, Muslims felt insecure and unwanted. In my speech, I said if that was how the Muslim community felt, there was something wrong with the Hindus, who constituted 80 per cent of the population. It is the duty of the majority to ensure that the minorities had a sense of belonging. I have found that the same feeling of not being treated fairly is growing among the Christians. It must be really bad because they are the most tolerant lot.
The extent to which Hindutva has permeated our society, the education system and the tiers of establishment is frightening. There has been an erosion of secular values. In the name of cultural entity, we have been swamped with communal thoughts and actions. We must eliminate communalism which has spread its tentacles in the last few years. The civil service, the police everything is getting more and more contaminated. At the time of entry, there is still a check on whether a candidate has been a member of the communist party, but there is no bar on those who have had communal affiliations. The Intelligence Bureau keeps a tab on people with radical, not parochial, views.
Pakistans fundamentalism owes much to its government servants and the police. Even the military, which was Islamised by General Zia-ul Haq, needs to be cleansed. President Pervez Musharrafs determination to convert his theocratic country into a modern one will be tested when he initiates action against fundamentalists in the services and the ISI. Still, his announcement is praiseworthy.
In India, there is not even a semblance of fight by the government against communal forces. Our war against terrorism or confrontation against Pakistan does not in any way affect our resolve to fight communalism. In fact, religious fundamentalism, which some political parties are fanning for electoral gains, can seriously harm the countrys integrity. Those who are trying to rebuild the Ram temple at the place where the Babri Masjid stood are striking at the roots of secularism. We have a difficult task on hand because the ruling Bharatiya Janata Partys own agenda is to rebuild the temple at the disputed site. BJP MPs have been asked to give moral support to the cause. How can the ruling party take such a stand And the home minister takes pride in saying that his Rath Yatra was like Gandhis Dandi march. This is like comparing the sublime with the ridiculous. I am amused to find Mr Advani presiding over the launch of a book on Mahatma Gandhi. If he is trying to take a U-turn, let him take a cue from Gen Musharraf who is almost denouncing the two-nation theory, the thesis on which Pakistan was won.
There are many Advanis lurking in the government. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayees unequivocal attitude and the imbecility of secular forces are only making the situation more tragic. Strange, in a Left-inclined state like Kerala, secular people indulged in communal riots recently.
What the communal elements have not yet appreciated is that pluralism is what is keeping India united and democratic. Our secular credentials will be judged by the feeling of equality that we give to the minorities. Probably a movement needs to be initiated to make Gandhis words Hindus and Muslims are my two eyes come true. Let his martyrdom day begin the process.