There is No Fate But What We Make: Gandhi - A Contrarian View

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Gandhi - A Contrarian View

Another Gandhi-jayanti has come and gone. It seems to me over the
years, the enthusiasm with which this day is celebrated has gone
down. If true, this could be for many reasons. In a way, I am happy
about it. I am not in favour of blindly eulogizing any person. If a
person does an objective analysis and then venerates Gandhi,
it is fine (and I think I am in this camp). But Indians are never
given a balanced picture of Gandhi's life. Look at our history books
(at least the ones taught in academics). They seem to give a
completely one-sided account of his life. It's always - Gandhi was
great, all-sacrificing, fasting, peaceful messiah - British were bad -
Jinnah was communal and a devil - Congress was secular -
Muslim League created communal violence - ad nauseum!

I would prefer if people do not respect Gandhi based on such
reading. I would rather people do an objective analysis
themselves and then decide to applaud or denigrate
(or both) Gandhi.

Gandhi has had an immense impact on India's destiny. His
hunger strikes, non-violent protests and salt march brought
India closer to freedom. While his colleagues at Congress sat
in meetings and discussions about communal riots, Gandhi
would walk through riot affected areas and appeal for peace.
Noakhali is a good example of how he single-handedly
brought peace to riot stricken areas. Nobody in his right
mind can do anything but revere such a saint.

Yet, I would like Gandhi's failings to be discussed. They too
had as much (and more calamitous) effects on this sub-continent.
What was Gandhi's primary mistake? Before his arrival to India
and joining the Congress party, the Congress party was largely
an elitist institution. Started by Bhadralok Bengalis, the Congress
party was working on the modest aim of legislative reforms that
would give more self-rule, but within the framework of British
rule. Gandhi made it a mass movement. How's this a mistake?
To make this a mass movement, he employed religious symbols.
If he had used symbols from all religions and given equal or
more prominence to minority religions, it would have been fine.
But he chose exclusively Hindu symbols - Bhajans, talk of
Ram raj etc.

His failure to realize the impact of all this was a BIG mistake.
As congress took more and more Hindu appearance, the
political stage was begging to be exploited by the British on
communal grounds. And that they did very well.
Following the old Roman "divide and rule" dictum, the British
suppressed Congress leaders and actively propped up Muslim
leaders. But to blame it all on the British would be unfair.
Even without the prodding of the British, prominent
muslim thinkers realized for the first time that an independent
India would mean Hindu hegemony (as they saw it).

It was during this time that Jinnah left the congress. Jinnah was
once described by Sarojini Naidu as an "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim
unity". Jinnah left Congress in disgust at the vulgarization (as he saw
it) of the national movement. In fact, he left the country itself and
settled in London for barristry. Had it not been for Nehru's pompous
statement that "Jinnah is finished", Jinnah would probably never set
his foot back in the sub-continent.

Mohammad Iqbal, a prominent nationalist and the author of
"Saare Jahan se achcha, Hindostan hamara", too changed
his opinion and became an active supporter of the two-nation theory.
It was under these circumstances that Muslim League (which too
started in Bengal) started gaining popularity.

But there are other sides as well to Gandhi's movement. His talk
of an egalitarian society where the masses would yield power
rang an alarm bell to the landlord muslim Zamindars of Punjab.
For many centuries rich Zamindars in the fertile Punjab region
had an immense control of masses. This system wasn't necessarily
communal - the Zamindari system exploited Hindu and Muslim
peasants with equal harshness. This has a parallel in Bengal,
the other state which was partitioned in 1947. The masses of
Bengal reeled under Zamindari system too. The fact that
the Zamindars were mostly upper caste "Bhadralok" Hindus
and poor peasants mostly Muslim didn't change the intensity
or nature of the exploitation.

But this socio-economic background was ripe for a call for
"Pakistan". In the Indian subcontinent, it isn't religion but it
is the social-economic class a person belongs to, that controls
his destiny. Conversion to Islam/Christianity/Buddhism
never changed the fate of poor caste-oppressed Indians.
They remained the oppressed people even in the egalitarian
religions. (Anyone who doesn't believe this, please visit
"Brahmin" churches in Kerala which bar "Dalit" christians). So if
religion didn't make much of a difference to people's destiny,
why did the call for partition by Muslim league take roots?
This happened because "Pakistan" meant different things
to different people - to the rich Zamindars of Punjab this meant
a continuation of their rule over the masses - to the poor peasants
in Bengal it meant a deliverance from the cruel Zamindars - to the
urban muslims of UP it meant a chance to get new age jobs
(clerical/administrative jobs which so far had been taken mostly
by western educated Hindus). A purely religious analysis of the
partition would imply that the Maulavi class would support
partition. But the Maulavis were vehement opponents of partition
and Jinnah - to the extent of denigrating him as "Kafir-e-Azam".
This proves that we need to take a more complete view of the
partition. Each region had its own dyanmics and complexities.
Viewing through an all-encompassing communal lense would give
an imperfect picture.

Gandhi while making the Congress a mass-movement completely
lacked the foresight to realize the repercussions of his actions.
He made a ripe ground for communal passions that were unleashed
and caused the partition. For this he must take blame.

While this is his most important failure ("strategic" failure in
MBA-speak), his tactical failures were important too.

Look back to 1936 national elections. Congress won handsomely
all over the nation (except in Bengal where the masses voted for
KPP, and in Punjab where the gentry and masses were still solidly
behind Sardar Hayat Khan of Unionist Party). At this point,
Muslim League was still very weak politically - they had very few
representatives in the parliament.
Gandhi had the opportunity to create a bridge of peace with
Muslim League. The League would have been glad to do so since
they were weak. Congress and Gandhi missed this golden
opportunity. It's partly the hubris, partly their inability to read
the situation that was to blame. Either way, this miss was
disastrous for the subcontinent.

During the same election, KPP (Krishak Praja Party) won maximum
seats in Bengal. KPP was led by Sher-e-Bengal Fazl-Ul-Haque.
This party represented the masses of Bengal. For this reason,
the Bhadralok Zamindars of Bengal never liked it. They were solidly
behind the Congress party. Most of the monitory donations to
Congress came from this Zamindar class. Congress wouldn't do
anything to upset this class. Fazl-Ul-Haque proposed a joint
government to Congress with a formula for power sharing.
You would expect Gandhi to lap this offer.
But he didn't. The messiah of the poor masses failed to deliver where
it mattered so much. Subhas Chandra Bose pleaded Gandhi to accept
the offer. But Gandhi and Congress remained on the sides of the class
that fed them.

The minority government of Fazl-Ul-Haque was pulled down by
Congress soon. A disappointed Fazl-Ul-Haque was served on a platter
to the Muslim League. This gave the League a back-door entry to the
Bengal government. From this point on, partition was almost a
certainty. And guess what? It wasn't the muslims in Bengal - but
the Hindu Zamindars now who clamoured for a partition of Bengal.
Since they saw partition as the only way of getting their privileges

The blame for this must go to Gandhi.

Lest someone should get the impression that I am putting the entire
blame of partition and the riots on Gandhi and letting the Muslim
League scot-free, here’s my clarification. The League made
grave errors of judgment. The Pakistan that was created
(“moth-eaten” or otherwise) had a fundamental paradox.
The most vocal support for the partition was in areas where
the muslims were not in majority. This meant UP, Bihar,
Ahom, Punjab and Bengal. The areas with overwhelming
muslim population were never enthused with partition. The
Sindh province was lukewarm. Even in the 1946 elections,
the Frontier province chose Congress backed Abdul Gaffar
Khan, rejecting League’s partition demand. What does all
this mean? After the partition, the most vocal supporters of
partition found themselves in India and those where against
or lukewarm to it found themselves in Pakistan. Bigger irony
is for those muslims who stayed or remained in India, the
creation of Pakistan weakened them instead of strengthening
them. The leadership and educated urban muslims from north
India migrated to what became Pakistan. This left the poorer
and uneducated muslims in a precarious position. They had
no real leadership to speak of – an affliction that has remained
till today. Of course, the migrants didn’t exactly get a welcome
mat in the new land (read about Muhajirs). It’s highly
questionable whether muslims are better off with the partition
than they would have been in a single nation.
This was League’s fundamental mistake. A large part of the
rioting was caused by League’s lower level leadership. Some
of them were pure demagogues. They incited riots and horrible
pogroms. The “Direct Action Day” in Calcutta (August 1946)
called by the League was pure evil. There is no evidence of
Jinnah actively reigning in these elements. Being a leader, it
was his job to control what he started. I will accuse him of the
same crimes as I indict Gandhi for. In fact, in some matters,
he was worse. He should have known what his statements
(like, “muslims are not necessarily docile people… they will
give back in equally harsh manners what they receive”)
would trigger. Similarly, Suhrawardy of Bengal was equally
guilty of inciting riots. Riot happy Leaguers were matched
atrocity-to-atrocity by RSS/Arya Samajis. So both sides
share the blame.

Anyway, let me continue on Gandhi.
Zoom to 1946 - a few days after the political agreement
between Congress and Muslim League (Cabinet Mission Plan).
Mind you, 1946 was very different from 1936.
The Muslim League had won handsomely
in all muslim majority regions (except the Frontier province).
It was no longer ready to play the under dog. With the cajoling
of the British an agreement was reached. The League was still
ready to ditch its demand of partition. Provided, safeguards are
established for the representation of minorities in the legislature
and jobs. Not an earth-shattering unjustified demand.
Alas! Gandhi, the person you least expect it from, chose to display
extreme polemics on wordings of this agreement. He should have
seen the larger picture and adjusted. Yet he said, horror-of-horrors,
"Congress keeps the right to interpret the agreement in its own
ways." This, a few days after the agreement was reached and the
ill-fated press-briefing by Nehru, finally convinced the League
that Congress was never sincere about accommodating the

In the final analysis, the blame for partition must go to
Gandhi just as the credit for bringing freedom closer.


At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 10:23:00 PM, Blogger observer said...

Hi Charu,

You have written a very comprehensive account of the events that led up to partition. I liked reading it and definitely learnt some new things.

Reading your article, I got a feeling that what you are saying is that it is hard to blame a single person for the partition, but if one really has to pick a single name, it will be that of Mahatma Gandhi.

I am really not equipped with any substantial facts to contest any of your contentions, except making two general observations: One, that I would find it hard to digest that he had a vested interest in having the country partitioned; and two that the events only go to show that best intentions do not lead to best strategies, especially when seen over a longer time horizon and with the benefit of hindsight.

I agree with you that it is a disservice to the Mahatma to portray him in the light of perfection. In fact, forcibly teaching people that he was perfect I feel is the root cause for the several baseless criticisms that he often receives.

I have been, and still am, a deep admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. My respect for him arises from the practical aspects of his life. The dedication with which he went about pursuing his cause, and the several practical messages that he illustrated through his actions are a great guiding force for me. Hence, criticism of his role in the freedom struggle, while giving me a better understanding of him, does not take anything away from my respect towards him. Like I said, I like to see him as a human being, not a super-human!

I look forward to more such informative and thought-provoking articles on your blog.



At Monday, October 31, 2005 8:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is too polite an assessment of Gandhi. Here's more harsh (and more
realistic) assessment:

At Tuesday, November 01, 2005 11:00:00 PM, Anonymous Orion said...

Nicely written.

At Thursday, November 03, 2005 6:20:00 PM, Blogger observer said...

I just read the lengthy "more realistic" account of Gandhi at The article is actually more a criticism of Gandhi the Movie. It basically makes the point that the movie did not portray the true Gandhi, who was not so great after all, was full of contradictions, was stubborn, was not followed by his people even then, etc. etc..

The article lost some of its credibility (in my eyes) because of the author's palpable bias of a Western moral superiority.

My take, as always, would be as follows: let us put the microscope of scruitny on our own lives. We go looking for perfection in Gandhi, don't find it, and start blasting him all out. I believe we miss the point. With all his imperfections, strategic mistakes, and, well, strange ideas, there is still a lot to learn from him.


At Friday, November 18, 2005 5:57:00 AM, Blogger mrsingh said...

Thas silly girl, charu, didn't mention in her article that many news-papers in South-Africa continue to publish letters from indignant readers with comments like: "Gandhi had no love for Africans. To [him], Africans were no better than the 'Untouchables' of India. Some early writings and comments attributed to Gandhi have been the focus of their ire.


"Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves."(M.K.G on forced to share a cell with black people)

"Europeans sought to degrade Indians to the level of the "raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness"(at a meeting in Bombay in 1896)

But then even Valmiki was a 'dakoo' no less before he became a poet.

I am not a Gandhi fanatic but believe that a balance of imagery need to be developed in order to understand what is good and what is not for us.

Not that Gandhi was absolutely right. Somewhere he has to be wrong because thats the rule. But before abandoning Gandhi lets also look at the options we have.

Jinnah indeed was once described by Sarojini Naidu as an "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim
unity". But that pork-chomping "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity" also unleashed the direct action plan. Jinnah left Gandhi because he believed Gandhi by employing exclusively Hindu symbols - Bhajans, talk of Ram raj etc. would turn India into a Hindu-Rashtra. The Hindutva clowns blame Gandhi for Muslim appeasement.


At Friday, November 18, 2005 6:17:00 AM, Blogger mrsingh said...


Gandhi was born Mohandas. People made him a mahatma. Gandhi-vaadi's didn't become Gandhi-vaadi's because there was a gandhi. They were born looking for a Gandhi.

Mahatma's are born from time to time to remove a catastrophe and establish Dharma (righteousness). They preach according to the time, place, conditions and requirements. Lord Buddha peached "Don't kill". Guru Govind Singh preached, "Kill".

When Buddha was born, people were sacrificing many animals. He had to preach Ahimsa to stop killing. Guru Govind Singh had to infuse chivalry in man. One prophet preached, "Renounce and go to the forests". Sri Ramanuja preached, "Enjoy at home. Have no attachment. Worship Vishnu". The teachings are not contradictory in reality. They are needed to suit the occasion, time and nature of men.

If the people became cruel, a teacher like Buddha appears to preach Ahimsa or non-injury. If they become timid, another teacher like Guru Govind Singh comes to infuse courage in them. If they become inclined towards rigorous Tapas (austerities), a teacher like Ramanuja comes and preaches "Realize while enjoying in the world".

When Hinduism degenerated on account of creeping in of superstitious beliefs and false worship, various reformers appeared to purge Hinduism of its superstitions and wrong beliefs and observances.

Thus all great teachers and Mahatmas were reformers. They tried to improve the existing conditions and to do good in their own way to suit the time and condition in which they were born. They themselves are the product of the same environment people are of. Mahatmas dont make themselves. People make them Mahatmas.


PS :

Say, what do you think of Neta-jee shaking hands and doing those japphies and pappies with Hitler, Harihito and Mussolini ??

Is that your Hero ??

At Saturday, February 18, 2006 11:09:00 PM, Anonymous namrata said...

a good article..
on the whole i think its not right to expect one person to set right everything wrong. gandhi obviously had his prejudices ,contradictions like any other person and did what he thought was right for everyone concerned.
mostly gandhis strengths permeates is his understanding of his own failings, his ability to stand for his beliefs despite obvious personal hurt, and more importantly his ability to correct himself if proved to be in the wrong..

At Sunday, February 26, 2006 9:48:00 PM, Anonymous nishu said...

nice work charu,

well to put is straight.....
partition was a wrong decision.
and gandhi could have prevented it.

well thats all i get from the facts u mentioned. you must not say that gandhi was responsible as gandhi was just a human and he couldnt have known the after effects of partition!!
during his last time he was almost blinded by the power he had.

At Tuesday, June 10, 2008 2:52:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

A comprehensive set of inputs on one of the greatest man of 20th century, help in understanding him from different dimensions.

Mahatma Gandhi was a multifaceted personality and remember; more than just a political leader he was a great spiritual leader as well. True to what one said, he was also a human being and can't be perfect in everything.....that's where many people get wrong.

The biggest mistake people make is that they held Mahatma Gandhi responsible for partition. The man responsible for that is Jinnah and not Mahatma Gandhi. When the rift was very deeply imbibed by Jinnah, the idea of a consolidated nation was nearly impossible. In early 1930's when Jinnah came back from England, he got to notice the tremendous influence Gandhi had on the Indian masses. He became a protagonist character, by sowing the seeds of communalism within the muslims. The effect was seen in 1944 elections where muslim league won majority of muslim votes. He thus became the leader of minorities, imbibing the concept of a separate nation; propped by the diplomatic administration.

The butchery that took place at the time of partition is a testimony of the fact that pacifism will always not help and one needs to take a practical stand. Because of his saintly nature he might have failed in understanding that being too good is; at times, too bad. THe same thing was disclosed when China attacked India in 1964.

Gandhi's doctrine and method was the best then. Sardar Patel was the one who had the most practical approach....during independence and psot independence.

NB: Government of India, even now, under the name of HUMANITY forgives serial killers and dacoits. This is cowardice. In order to maintain law and order "GOOD for BAD" doesn't help. It means a man with evil thoughts will keep on killing innocent people and the innocent ones will die for the sake of nothing. I think the hands of these dacoits should be chopped off. Poor Indian Laws.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home