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.