For a long time, I admired John Wayne more than Gandhi.” Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar, 48, a burly man with a short, neat, salt-and-pepper beard, was sitting in his kitchen, with its yellow painting of Kasturba at her spinning wheel, in a rundown residential area of Santa Cruz in Mumbai. He was trying to dispel the notion that there was any inherited magic in the Gandhi name that helped frame his belief in nonviolence.
“I felt that the quick draw was the solution to every problem,” said Tushar. “Violence seemed a much more glamorous option than nonviolence.”
Mahatma Gandhi may be central to India’s independence story. His wrinkly face may appear on all its money. But in India in the 21st century there are few true Gandhians left. His message has been exiled in laurel leaves. To his people he has become an intimate stranger.
“When the constitution was being adopted,” recalls Tushar, “Gandhi was very keen that an adherence to nonviolence be included in the preamble itself. Also, in the manifesto of the Congress Party.” Party leaders balked at the idea. “For them, [nonviolence] had been just a convenient method of getting independence. It was like a medicine that had passed its use-by date.”
As director of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Tushar is trying to apply Gandhi’s medicine to the body of India. He administers different doses. In 2005, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Salt March, Tushar re-enacted the 235-mile march from his great-grandfather’s ashram in Gujarat to the sea at Dandi. It was staged to “awaken the people of the world to stand up for peace and nonviolence and reaffirm the power of right over might.” The march included Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi. Mainly, though, Tushar goes out to speak to the young. “We have lost our today,” he laments, despairing of his own generation, “but we haven’t lost our tomorrow.”
In the post-9/11 world of terrorism, Tushar Gandhi is met with robust skepticism. Young Indians ask him how he would disarm a suicide bomber nonviolently.
“They don’t ask, ‘What turns a human being into a suicide bomber? What is the cause?’ They see the suicide bomber as the problem, Islam as the problem. I tell them it is glib to say Islam promises heaven for martyrs and just leave it at that. Would any of them agree to swap his or her life with all its troubles for a death that allegedly brings with it all sorts of wonderful rewards? Of course not.”
As a thought experiment, Tushar asks young people to reflect on a reality where death is considered preferable to life. What would such a reality be like? Clotted with anger and resentment, probably. Ripe for exploitation. “It gets them thinking. I say to them, ‘You can stop a terrorist with a bullet, but you can’t stop terrorism with a bullet.’”
Speaking on Behalf of Muslims
On the Muslim question, he is satisfied to stand where his great-grandfather stood: squarely on the margins. “With Partition,” Tushar says, “and later with the demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindus [December 1992], and the Muslim riots that followed, there has been a silent resentment against Muslims in India.”
In 1947 British India was split into the independent countries of India and Pakistan. In the process, as Muslims fled north from India to Pakistan and Hindus fled in the opposite direction, at least a million people were slaughtered, slashing open a crevasse between the two communities that has never been bridged.
Tushar says that the Muslims “are treated with prejudice and suspicion, and a little bit of hatred mixed in. When I say ‘a little bit,’ I am talking about the so-called moderates, not the fanatics, of course, who hate Muslims a lot. This is very tragic because our land depends on Hindu-Muslim unity.”
Once, at an Indian film festival whose theme was nonviolence, he was astonished by a standing ovation lavished on the Israeli consul general when he arrived. An outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Tushar Gandhi rose to challenge the audience: “What has Israel done to warrant such a great reception for its consul general? What am I missing?” He was told, “Here is a person whose country gives tit for tat.”
“Regrettably, wherever in the world there is a conflict involving Muslims,” Tushar explains, “many Hindus sympathize with the other side whether it is justified or not. These are the people who believe that had Mahatma Gandhi not reassured Muslims that they should stay in India, that India was their land, all the Muslims would have fled during Partition, and India would be rid of them. The anger he stirred up over this was one of the reasons he was killed.”
A Voice in the Wilderness
Tushar finds himself throttled by uneasy alliances. As much as he loathes the Congress Party for its bloody suppression of Kashmir and its embrace of a nuclear India, he supports it against the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The B.J.P.’s castist, religion-based ideology can only be countered by a powerful organization like Congress.” He adds ruefully, “Congress is unappreciative of my support.”
Likewise, while he belongs to a Palestinian support group, its two-tiered approach toward the use of violence is a point of contention. Most see the violence of the Palestinians as justifiable, the violence of the Israelis as deplorable. “I say all violence must be condemned. That puts me on the losing side.” To him, the choice is not between caving in or converting. He has his view and he will express it, even if his allies will eat him up for it.
The young Gandhi does not compare himself to the old; he is not, he admits, “a totally nonviolent person.” There are times he says he slips and finds himself wondering whether violence is perhaps more suitable in a given situation than nonviolence.
“I am still traveling on my journey of nonviolence. I have a long way to go. It’s like an expedition to Mt. Everest; even reaching the base camp is an achievement. For me, the base camp is not even in sight at the moment.”
From the archives, the editors on the death of Gandhi.