The day when a 79-year old much-revered man “stopped three bullets of their deathly trajectory of hate” in 1948 is observed in India as the Martyr’s Day. Since that fateful evening in the calendar year after India attained Independence, January 30 has been the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. But it is in the fitness of things that the day is observed not in a singular tribute to the man. Rather, the observance was chosen to honour the memory of all those who preceded Gandhi – and probably followed him as well.
There are questions that have arisen from the time when the pace of time and din in the cities was not loud enough to drown sirens that went off to remind people that it was time to stand up in silence in memory of the martyrs.
Now this is not even ritualistically observed in most government offices and business continues as usual at the stroke of 11 a.m – the designated time to stand up and observe two minutes of silence. Part of the reason behind this is the bitter fact that Indians as a nation have forgotten the raison d’être to not just observing Janaury 30 as the Martyrs’ Day but also the reasons why Mahatma Gandhi should continue to be given that prefix. They are also no longer aware why there is need to distinguish him from countless other freedom fighters who also struggled against the colonial regime.
The biggest reason behind this disconnect of the people with the memory and understanding of the values of Mahatma Gandhi is the failure of the State to guard the image of Gandhi from decay. What is presented as Gandhian values actually does not reflect the true spirit of the man. It is seen as a utopia – not practical to follow because “even the leaders don’t”.
True every leader of significance swears by the name of Gandhi (unless their politics is pegged on the extreme rightwing). But then barring public endorsements, little is done. This is the reason why youngsters have grown up over the years believing that Gandhi is a make-belief character whose follies were brushed under due to political compulsions. Now that new generations do not have compulsions of deifying the Mahatma, amateur historians project themselves as Gandhi scholars and deride the man.
There is no place more symbolic than Birla House where Gandhi was gunned down. But even this place – noted for a quiet prayer meeting in the evening has been taken over. Security concerns for the assembled VIPs, has often meant that those who have a right to attend the meetings are kept out.
More than a decade ago, I had witnessed the finest Gandhian historian – BR Nanda – being kept out because no one recognized the man and could not care less for the contribution of the man in enabling India to understand Gandhi. Since then, many stopped going for the prayer meeting choosing to pay obeisance from their personal space. For them being seen at the prayer meeting was not of importance. What matter more is a quiet personal memory with the memory and image of the man who left an indelible mark on the history of his times.