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Mahatma Gandhi and India’s National Independence Movement

by Prof. Irfan Habib, 4 September 2008

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(Delivered as ’Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture and then published in ’April-June 1995’ Issue of Social Scientist’)

Professor Patnaik, friends of the SAHMAT organisation, ladies and gentlemen.

I deem it an honour indeed that I should be asked to speak at this function
which is part of observance of Safdar Hashmi’s martyrdom-anniversary. It was thought by the organisation that the theme should be one worthy of the occasion. And so I was asked to speak on Mahatma Gandhi and the National Movement. It is a very important theme, because it is my belief that in the cause of the National Movement Gandhi occupied a crucially important position. The theme is appropriate, but I’m not an expert on Gandhi. I have read some of his writings, and I have seen secondary material on Gandhi, and I have - as many of us have - met people who knew him, who were his followers or his critics. In any case anyone who is seriously interested in Indian history must be confronted in his own mind with the nature of the National Movement, which could be regarded as the greatest creation of the Indian people to date, and, within the nature of Gandhi’s legacy. I agreed to speak on it, despite my limitations, because I thought the time has arrived when certain questions with regard to Gandhiji’s role, and with regard to the National Movement and its nature, could be profitably raised.

I should like to begin with the embarrassment of my own first encounter with the problem of assessment of Gandhiji in slightly personal terms. My
difficulties are not exceptional. They might have been faced by many who
came to the communist movement during the last phase of the National
Movement. With my parents it was not usual to refer to him as Gandhiji, but only as Mahatmaji.

Even to refer to him as Gandhiji was thought of as taking a liberty. It did
not mean that my father was not critical of certain positions taken by
Gandhiji: but it meant that whatever the criticism it was within a framework
in which Gandhiji’s total dominance of the National Movement was accepted as a fact, and although one might differ, one must defer to Gandhi’s views. From this background, suddenly to come to the references in communist literature -reading R.P. Dutt’s India Today - about the ’mascot of the bourgeoisie’, ’that general of unbroken disasters’, ’the Jonah of Revolution’, came as a personal shock. One attributed this sense of shock to the petty - bourgeois class psychology to which one belonged, but even this didn’t satisfy; and the dissatisfaction with such an assessment of Gandhiji persisted.

It later seemed to me while re-reading R.P. Dutt that even within R.P.
Dutt’s attack on Gandhi there were extremely important concessions - the
admission, for example, that Gandhi alone could enter the house and hearts
of the Indian poor, where the Indian bourgeoisie could never gain entrance.
How and why did he have this particular quality? Any explanation of how
Gandhi achieved this rapport with the Indian poor and with the Indian people as a whole was missing inR.P. Dutt’s analysis. I think that subsequent assessments of Gandhi became difficult because of a particular misconception of its own position in the National Movement by the Left. The Left not only decried the bourgeois leadership of the National Movement and its various limitations, but tried to suggest as if the Left movement was parallel to the National Movement, R.P. Dutt, indeed, thought of the working class movement and the communist movement, as essentially part of the National Movement, in which it was contesting with the bourgeoisie for leadership. But in certain writings of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, for example, notably his latest collection of articles on the freedom struggle which are built upon a reading of Tarachand’s History of the, Freedom Movement and certain other writings, it seems in fact as if there were three parties to the struggle - imperialism, bourgeois nationalism, and Marx-ism.or working class movement.

The subalterns take this to its logical extreme in which the whole National
Movement is seen as an elitist movement. The ’subaltern’ classes, according
to this theory, consisting of the zamindars and other rural strata, had
autonomy, and based on this autonomy they contested for power with
imperialism, whereas the national elite merely benefited from their
struggle, and instead of transferring power to the subalterns they
transferred power to themselves. Therefore, in a sense, imperialism and
nationalism were of the same category, or belonged to the same class more or less, viz., westernized elite, while the subalterns, who carried out the autonomous struggles, would, as was almost fatally inevitable, lose out. It was on the basis of their autonomous struggles that the national leadership or National Movement took power from Britain. This puts the Marxist movement also along with the elitist nationalist leadership. Then, because you have the term subaltern on one side, you don’t have the bourgeoisie on the other side, you have elites - and whether they are imperialist elites or nationalist elites, it doesn’t apparently matter.

The subalterns are so satisfied with their theology that Gandhi is not very
relevant to them, and although we are told by some scholars that subaltern
studies have opened a new vision on Gandhi, I’ve not been blessed with
receiving that kind of insight from them. It seems to me that lumping
everyone in one basket of undifferentiated elites, or very thinly
differentiated elites, and treating the subalterns as autonomous, which
means denying the influence of Gandhi on those vast classes of the Indian
poor, is a position no serious historian can adopt. And if-you start with
this denial, then, of course, you cannot offer any real perception of

Imperialist historians, or British Government officials during the British
period, and post-Independence British historians thereafter, have always
tried to argue that Gandhi was only a Mahatma to look at from outside;
otherwise he was a very clever politician, a master of manipulation, and
that the British in a sense themselves created the myth of Gandhi with their
actions, both constitutional and political. Those who are familiar with
Seal’s work would remember that, according to him, the nationalist appeal
did not acquire any popular support till the elections of 1937, because it
was the Government of India Act 1935 rather than Gandhi’s and other
nationalist mobilisations which gave Indian politicians the necessary
impetus to reach out to the Indian masses. As for those who in the
Non-Cooperation Movement of 1930-31, risked their lives and property for
Indian freedom at Gandhi’s call, Judith Brown has already put them in their
place: they were merely Gandhi’s ’sub-contractors’ or ’intermediaries’.
Theirs was a business enterprise, no real movement. So, not Gandhism, nor
any other strand in the National Movement, Left or any other, but the
constitutional measures of the British government, particularly the
Government of India Act 1935, created that massive nationalist following
among the Indian people. The application of the Namierist method by the
Cambridge School -Seal, Judith Brown and others - results, as has been said about its application to English history, in an extensive loss of the wood
for the trees. I particularly remember the fact that Seal tells you about
Dadabhai Naoroji’s personal financial problems, but you will never realise
from Seal that Dadabhai Naoroji wrote papers over time which, collected
together, became almost the nationalist bible on the economic role of
imperialism. He has no explanation why Dadabhai Naoroji continued to be
supported by Bombay mill-owners even when he supported and urged the passage of industrial labour legislation. That ideas have a momentum of their own is a fact which the Cambridge school and its supporters so easily overlook. There are thus obvious imperfections in their approach to Gandhi on which I need not dilate further with the general imperialist approach to the National Movement.

We are then favoured also by the psychoanalysis of Gandhi, e.g. undertaken
by Erikson and Kakar, where particularly his relations with his .another are
emphasised, and for some reason Indian culture is itself described as
feminine. I have not been able to see how this gender characterisation of
any culture is possible. Such an approach, which is Eurocentric, and
psychological, results in an obvious depreciation and belittling of Gandhi’s

The literature containing the Gandhian or nationalist adulation of Gandhiji,
is considerable; some of it is also academically important and contains
criticism here and there. Tarachand’s book on the Freedom Movement has
certain criticisms for example, on Gandhi’s role in the Second Round Table
Conference. So one can not dismiss this entire body of literature as mere
adulation. But by emphasising Gandhi’s immense achievement as a person and not relating it, I think, to the social environment and the historical
situation, this body of literature though important (and one must remember
that most of the massive literature on Gandhi comes from this large body of
literature) is not very satisfying to me in its total perception. Partly
this is because its conception of social development is not one which I
share. But essentially I think one has an inward reservation about it,
because the focus is so much on Gandhi that the people of India whom he
worked and died for, appear merely as obedient admirers.

Now with the rather arrogant criticism, for which I apologise, of various
historical interpretations, I would like to go on to my provisional views;
and as I describe these I think the major questions that I pose would
basically appear.

First of all, I would argue that Gandhiji autobiography My Experiments With
Truth is very important for us. It is so honest that perhaps of all great
figures in modem history Gandhi becomes easily the victim of Freudian
psychoanalysis. But while I would accept every fact that Gandhiji gives of
himself, and as he gives it - and of the most dramatic events he is perhaps
the dullest narrator - yet I would argue that he is perhaps not the best
authority for our own perception of the genesis of his thought. For example,
he always described himself as a Sanatani Hindu; yet he did not pray in a
temple. (This hesitation to bow before images may have come from his mother who belonged to a Bhakti sect in which image worship was condemned.)

The basic point is that the serious body of thought that Gandhi first came
into contact with was modem, western thought. It was not traditional Indian
thought. It was after his modem education at Rajkot and at London that he
even read the Bhagvad Gita (in England). While he may have joined a
vegetarian society, and might have come into contact with Theosophists -
although one understands that his major contact with Theosophists, that also of not a long duration, was in South Africa, in Durban - essentially it was liberal values that Gandhi assimilated when he was in England. These
influences were strong enough for him to go to France when the centenary
celebrations of the French Revolution were taking place. We know that when
he went to South Africa in the early 1890’s to stay there with some small
breaks for twenty-one years, he began reading Ruskin and Tolstoy and other western thinkers. His criticism of certain features of both western and
Indian civilizations did not come from a reading of modem European writing.

I do not think there is in the entire body of Indian tradition such an
emphasis on dignity of labour as he obtained from, and which he himself
attributed to, a reading of Ruskin, whose book Unto This Last he also
translated into Gujarati.

His emphasis on peace, and not war, as means of settling political issues
came from Tolstoy rather than any Indian tradition. In the Indian tradition
ahimsa is seen more as abstaining from taking of life and, therefore, a
logical early stage to vegetarianism. It has not been in traditional Indian
thought perceived as a means of carrying out a revolution. Therefore the
essential strands in Gandhi’s own intellectual make-up are certainly modem
and this is a very important point to remember. Gandhi recognised the debt
he owed to these thinkers. He was too honest a man not to extend this
recognition. But ’his own belief that these writings merely strengthened,
merely underlined, merely reinforced what was present in his mind, perhaps
dormant, from India’s own tradition, must be doubted.

’ Now clearly having found this body of thought which appealed to him, which rejected capitalism, which was the creation of the modem western
civilization, which rejected imperialism that had established itself through
war and massacres, Gandhi rejected western civilization itself nearly
wholesale. This rejection became the starting point for asserting the
superiority of Indian civilization which neither possessed capitalism, nor
possessed imperialism. So the very poverty of Indian civilization in
material terms became for Gandhi the ground for asserting its superiority.

This process was a very complex one, and the complexities, and the
contradictions are apparent in Gandhi’s major work Hind Swaraj, written on a voyage from England to South Africa in 1909. Already by the time of Hind
Swaraj, Gandhi’s internal perception of the genesis of his own thought is
complete. He reads into the Bhagvad Gita that, which it seems to one is not
there. He reads a message of duty, he reads a message of dignity of labour,
and he reads a message of peace. He was similarly to assert equally
unhistorically that the message of peace can be read as strongly in the
Quran. Gandhi’s words often seem much more a restatement of the New
Testament than either of the Bhagvad Gita or the Quran. They are not to be
seen as an assertion of the traditional against modem values. What we get is the assertion of modem values in traditional garb, a re-reading of Indian
culture in a totally ahistorical way, but extremely creative fashion.
Something of it was there in the Bengal Renaissance, in Ram Mohun Roy’s
appeal to the Upanishads, and in his appeal to certain legal books which
gave inheritance rights to women. In Gandhi’s case the convergence of
statement of modem values in traditional terms was far more complete and far more extensive, although, for this reason, the contradictions within it were also very glaring.

Gandhi’s reading of Indian culture cannot be justified by any reading of
historical texts. But what he was ascribing to Hinduism or Islam - his
ascriptions to Islam were, of course, comparatively fewer - were the
principles he had in mind with regard to Hinduism, which led to the
remoulding of Hinduism in its present form. One of the achievements of
Gandhi is, I think, that he changed the course of Hinduism or at least gave
a new face to Hinduism, even when all the time he was saying that he was
merely asserting its ancient values. Ultimately, and over a long process, he
Would accept a position of traditional Hinduism, only to undermine it; for
example his acceptance first of the vama principle in the Hind Swaraj and
then his steady undermining of it until almost nothing remained of it by the
1940s. Or, his acceptance first of a special position for women in the house
as implied in the Hind Swaraj and then his undermining of it till in the
1940s he was arguing - I still remember an interview of a newspaper
correspondent with Gandhi in 1945-46 - for the equality of women. Gandhi
clearly said that he not only believed in the equality of men and women but
that women could do all the things that men could do, and men would not be able to do all the things that women do. The correspondent asked Gandhi that if ahimsa permitted war, could women be soldiers; and Gandhi said they would be better soldiers and generals than men. So this was a man who by the 1940s was not prepared to accept any difference, any disability, in women in relation to men. May be there are certain statements which militate against this but generally the tone of Gandhi’s later thought is to reject any kind of inequality between man and woman.

Then there is his emphasis on monotheism when he was all the time denying this emphasis. He would say that he was a Sanatani Hindu and on this basis he would support the movement of the untouchables to enter temples, and yet, unlike today’s politicians, in his personal life he never gave concession to anything short of monotheism. Therefore, he tended to make Hinduism more of a monotheistic religion than even the Arya Samajists with whom he did not agree. He also ascribed to Hinduism a degree of tolerance which perhaps in its history it had not possessed, and, therefore, tried to make it a more tolerant religion. In this sense he was perhaps working on the same lines as his precursors like Ram Mohun Roy and Keshavchandra Sen and Justice Ranade. Perhaps he was the last of these men: he is greatest of them undoubtedly. By attributing all his statements to roots in the Indian civilization, and particularly in Hinduism, he created a picture of Hinduism which made it possible for its followers to accept modem values. It is a religion which has nothing in common with the ’Hindutva’ cult. Gandhi’s Ram was God, and his Ram Rajya did not relate to something that was remotely sectarian. ’God’s Rule’ would be a better translation of it. It bore the same sense in which Kabir referred to ram. Clearly then even Gandhi’s religiosity is based on an extension of humanitarian values and their application to perhaps the most ancient of all surviving religions, resulting in a vast transformation of its beliefs. Those who in the 1880s thought that the caste system was basic to Hinduism, by the year of Gandhi’s death would have been ashamed if anyone were to refer to it as an essential part of Hinduism. This was the extent of Gandhi’s achievement in relation to the theological tenets of Hinduism.

My main point here is to assert that Gandhi is a modern thinker. Those of
you, who would like to designate thought in class terms, are welcome to call
him a bourgeois thinker. But I would like to remind you of a peculiar
idiosyncrasy of Karl Marx, which Prof. Patnaik may have noticed. When he
encounters an economist who has not thought properly, who is a vulgariser,
he always calls him a bourgeois economist. But as far as, the two principal
bourgeois economists Adam Smith and Ricardo are concerned, it is always of their classical political economy that he speaks. I would, therefore, rather
think of Gandhi as a classical modem figure. If still bourgeois, then not in
the sense of a personal classification, but defined by the end to which his
social and political strategy, despite his own subjective intentions was
bound to lead. ’Bourgeois’ in any case, even as a designation represents no
single body of thought; and I think we are beginning to recognise that
socialist proletarian thought cannot be a single body of consistent thought
either. There could be, and were different strands of classical bourgeois
thought - his was one strand. Although Gandhi’s thought-content was
anti-imperialist, and subjectively anti-capitalist (because anti-industrial), nevertheless since he did not extend his aims to socialism, he essentially remained within the bourgeois framework.

With regard to the National Movement I think, again, some points need to be stressed. The National Movement had already begun, already established
itself, when Gandhi entered the political field in South Africa. The
founding fathers of the National Movement had a level of critique of
imperialism which one can only admire today. Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C. Dutt wrote critiques of imperialism, which later Marxist writing largely followed without any major improvement during the British rule. They underscored the modem imperialist exploitation of India. But they underscored one other important point - that the National Movement can only create a modern India.

There cannot be any going back to Ancient India and, therefore, India did
not only need education, it needed a new ideology. This ideology they sought to create through various kinds of movements like the Brahma Samaj; and I would like to recall here that in 1830 Ram Mohun Roy said that India cannot be a nation because it is divided up among many castes. If India had to be a nation then the caste system had to be rejected. I think Keshavchandra Sen must be particularly respected because he extended this view also to the repression of women, and in 1870 propounded the idea that as India reformed itself it would become a nation. So India was not historically a nation. It was making itself into a nation by rejecting its past as a divided society, a society divided according to castes and religions. It was making itself into a nation by rejecting the traditional oppression of women, by absorbing modem thought and trying to develop a modem capitalist economy. The swadeshi or the development of the internal Indian economy in their minds was directed towards an industrial capitalist economy, the only kind of advanced economy they saw functioning around them. Dadabhai Naoroji may have been drawn towards the socialists because the socialists were anti-imperialists, and he might also have been drawn to labour legislation, but essentially his notion of the future of India, and of R.C. Dutt, was what can be called capitalism ’with a human face’ - in Mr. Narsimha Rao’s terminology, but with more substance.

The second important thing about Gandhi was his desire to unite the National Movement with economic struggles. The earlier thinkers among the Moderates had provided intellectual material. They had shown how India was being exploited by England, but in their actual politics they acted merely as spokesmen. They made demands on behalf of the Indian people but they were unable to spread these very ideas among the masses whose cause they espoused. They spoke of banning exports of Indian food grains, but there were no demonstrations of hungry famine-stricken people supporting their demands. There was practically no popular mobilisation. With Gandhi one enters an important phase in the National Movement where mobilisation for economic demands became a part of the National Movement. It seems to me that this is an extremely important achievement which is not actually diminished by the fact that the earlier demands behind such mobilisations were extremely limited.

Nowhere in the world does a trade union start with the most radical demands. We always start with the demand, say, that temporary employees be made regular employees; it is only later that we gain in confidence and begin to make further demands about pay and promotion. Certainly any trade union which, according to the wishes of the subalterns and other such radicals, has a strike everyday would have a very short life in the working class movement. Clearly, the necessarily limited nature of day-to-day demands and the ability to compromise are an inalienable part of any serious peasant and working class movement. When we say that Gandhi in the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 was merely leading rich peasants, this is an important point to consider. Certainly it should be found out who were mainly affected; but first of all we ought to recall that Gandhi did not lead them because he thought they were rich peasants. Second, it was clear that the demands had
to be narrow because without any partial success the Satyagraha would have had a totally demoralising effect. So also in the Kheda Satyagraha and the Ahmedabad working class strike. Criticisms that the demands were limited, that compromises were entered into are not very serious criticisms. Even the greatest Marxists would have done the same. They may perhaps have not gone on hunger strike, but at some stage they must have compromised. You cannot in one agitation overthrow the landlord system in India, or the capitalist system in Ahmedabad or the British rule in Champaran or in Kheda district.

Another important achievement, as I see, in Gandhi is his immediate
identification with the peasantry. He might use religious language for it,
which one may deplore, but the essential point remains that to him peasants were those with whom he identified himself most. I have been amused to read in Subaltern Studies, Volume I, an analysis of a document in which Gandhi is supposed to have abandoned the peasants and made a compromise with the zamindars. Although the subalterns did not quote R.P. Dutt, the approach here is identical: Gandhi had made a compromise with zamindars, he had surrendered to zamindars in 1922, forced the peasant to retreat and so on. But in interpreting this ’discourse’ - and these are interpreters who look very closely at each word, the subalterns forget that when Gandhi used the word ’we’ in this document he meant peasants and when he used ’they’ he meant the zamindars, thus indicating essentially an element of differentiation from the zamindars and solidarity with the peasant masses of the country. Now you can argue that this was false identification, that he was not in fact representing the peasants’ long term interests. (Let us forget about the temporary compromise, because as far as compromises are concerned, I have argued that they are essential in any movement.)

Compromises will always be subject to criticism, but in the long term even
when Gandhi was talking about zamindars as trustees, as custodians of
peasants who should be paid rent so that they open schools and hospitals, he
was still raising a fresh issue. First of all, rent could be reduced, a
matter about which Ram Mohun Roy had also written, but very cautiously. For Gandhi rents could be reduced by peaceful methods, by negotiation, but he was to be justified only if it was spent on health and education. Why should a zamindar collect rent if he was not able to enjoy it? This meant that even the idea of trusteeship brought into question rights of the zamindars in an indirect manner. And one should also remember that in the 1920s while peasants might rise here and there, the general situation was not of unrestrained revolt. One cannot, read into the peasant movement of 1919-22 what was the creation of the Left in the 1930s. It would be absurd and it would be belittling the contribution of the Left and of Gandhi’s own
’constructive’ programme in the 1920’s and 1930’s to consider peasant
consciousness in the 1920s at level with peasant consciousness in the 1930s.
Given that position, obviously a totally hostile attitude to the zamindars
would have made the situation for the National Movement even more complex in
the early 1920s. But peasants did come into the Civil Disobedience Movement
in 1930. They came to the Civil Disobedience Movement, in far larger numbers
than during non-cooperation where their participation was relatively
scattered and fragmentary. Perhaps class analysis would show that most of
them were rich peasants and small zamindars. But one of the important facts
doesn’t come out well even in Sumit Sarkar. This is that when we are talking
of imprisonment in the civil disobedience of 1930 and are sneering about the
fact that the number of prisoners did not exceed 100,000 even by Congress
estimates, we are again reading into 1930 what is the position in 1994.
Imprisonment in 1930 was not like ’political’ imprisonment today when going
to prison hardly matters. It is a kind of good certificate for a political
career. In fact I know of political parties who say a local leader is judged
by the number of people he can bring in his trucks to court arrest for one
day. I remember an agitation when we had brought peasants promising them
that they would be kept in prison for only one week, and unfortunately the
government kept them in prison for a month. They were not angry with the
government. They were angry with us. But in 1930 prison meant one could
never get employment and could well lose one’s property in the bargain; and
therefore, I am surprised that even 100,000 went into civil disobedience
under such circumstances. Consider losing your land, being thrown out of
your family, and if you look at this, certainly, the peasant participation
in the civil disobedience movement all over India and even in the NWF
Province, is an important fact.

This was soon followed by the Karachi Resolution which povided a blueprint
for industrial development of India - which was totally opposed to Gandhi’s
views - the public sector, the government ownership of key industries,
working class rights, and, in rather cautious terms, land to the tiller with
some compensation to the zamindars, universal adult suffrage already
promised in the Motilal Committee Report, equal rights to women, separation
of religion from state - every modem political idea of a bourgeois welfare
state is there in the Karachi Resolution. The basic idea of bourgeois
welfare state happens to coincide fairly extensively with the concept that
the communist movement developed of people’s democracy as a first stage
after revolution. Therefore, clearly the Karachi Resolution is an important
platform for the Left also. It united Gandhi with centrist radicals like
Nehru and with the Left. And Gandhi’s acceptance of it, and his position
that although the Karachi Resolution didn’t represent his views,
- represented the Congress views and therefore he would not have any quarrel with - the Congress governments which implemented it, must certainly be recognised. This was an important concession, the work of a person who could lay aside his own views, and accept contrary views, because the peasants had served the civil disobedience movement and had to have their reward. The working class had largely kept away and so workers had to be attracted back to the National Movement. Women had come out to participate, and they too had to have their share in the future of India. The Karachi Resolution was a kind of recognition of the requirements of a situation that Gandhi himself had helped to bring about. And so far as Gandhi allowed this to stand as part of the Congress programme he must be credited with a very important share in giving to the Congress, a leftward direction.
Gandhi’s subsequent life, in which it became clear that free India would not
be as he saw it, moved inexorably towards tragedy. He had unleashed forces the direction of whose movement was so different from what he wanted it to be. I think in this tragedy one also recognises his greatness, because Gandhi accepted, as I have said, in the Karachi Resolution and later, the promises that the Congress had made to the Kisans and to the Trade Unions. Gandhi recognised the direction, while he criticised it. In one particular respect, in the communal divide which tended to intensify again from the late 1930’s, Gandhi was constantly on the side of moderation. Gandhi had not taken the view which the Left adopted in the 1930s that if the National Movement was to be secular then Hindu or Muslim communalism could have no place within it. It was an important position, a bold position. But it was not Gandhi’s position. Tilak before Gandhi had brought the Congress and Muslim League together, on that classic compromise, the communal electrorate for Muslims in exchange for Muslim League’s acceptance of Home Rule. My friend Professor Bipan Chandra decries it. Yet, I think it was one of the notable landmarks in the development of the National Movement. Gandhi himself invoked Khilafat Committee - Abbas Tyabji was one of Gandhi’s very close followers. But Gandhi felt the Khilafat Movement would extend the scope of the National Movement. On this there could always be discussion. Gandhi felt that he could ally with Muslim communalism or indeed with Hindu communalism also on particular issues to enlarge the National Movement. Given this argument, the Khilafat Movement was a logical development of Gandhian strategy.

The criticism of separate electorates, and so on, came more vocally from the Left than from Gandhi who while standing up for a general electorate was willing to give concessions. Indeed, in 1931 on all the major points,
Jinnah’s demands had been conceded, but unfortunately Jinnah and the Muslim League now looked to British imperialism to give them these concessions than to the National Movement. This is a very important point which some historians miss while they tend to blame the Congress and the League equally for the course that led ultimately to the partition. It seems to me again that in the UP Cabinet issue of 1937 it was Nehru and the Left who took a more rigid position, than Gandhi and Abul Kalam Azad, who were willing to induct the Muslim League ministers, perhaps in order to modify the anti-zamindar edge of Nehru’s supporters. Certainly the people who mismanaged the UP cabinet formation were not Gandhi’s supporters who were indeed urging a compromise. Subsequently in 1944, C. Rajagopalachari entered into negotiations with Jinnah and the Desai-Liaqat formula of 1945 conceded parity, that is the very unfair position that Muslim League which was in a minority should have a parity in the central cabinet with the Congress. Gandhi went to extremes in giving these and other concessions, in order to preserve the unity of the country.

Yet the question remains whether Gandhi, in identifying himself with Hindu
social reform and with Hindus generally, antagonised Muslims. This is a
question that is very difficult to answer because clearly if the National
Movement was to be allied with social reform which was so deeply wedded to religion, it could not be separated entirely from religion. One, to speak
within the religious framework for social reform as Gandhi did, and the
other, to reject religion altogether, which is what the Left did.

One would not know which device would have been more successful given the Indian situation. But certainly Gandhi adopted the first one: he sincerely
adopted it - he was himself religious. It became clear that one position he
had was that of a Hindu social reformer. Gandhi found it very difficult to
speak of social reform to Muslims, to condemn bigamy, to demand share in
inheritance for daughters among Muslims and so on. If he had emphasised such reform the alienation of the Muslims from him would have been still greater. And therefore it is not easy to condemn him on this score. He did all that could be expected of him to do to assert that all religions were true, but that all religions had some errors. They should exist together. Moving away from his controversial terminology of the late 1930s, he argued by 1947 that Hindustani was the national language of India in both Devnagri and Urdu scripts. He was a promoter of equality of Hindi and Urdu as separate forms of that language. I don’t know how many know that he wrote Urdu also and that his spelling was fairly correct. He didn’t make mistakes in Urdu words, and to my aunt his letters always ended with ’Bapu ki dua’. He promoted Hindustani, a language to which Hindus and Muslims could both respond. By this, and by emphasising monotheism, he was trying to bring together people of various faiths. He had recitations from different scriptures, in his ’prayer’ meetings. Nevertheless it was clear that he was a Hindu: but if Muslims were not to accept a devout Hindu as their leader, then does it not mean that they had already in their minds become separatists? Why should a devout Hindu leader be rejected by Muslims - a Hindu who is saying that they are like brothers to him, who is. saying that the Muslims’ religion is the Muslims’ business, who is saying that in the national wealth of India they would have an equal share? The real question is, why should Muslims feel that way? I am not ready to accept R.P. Dutt’s position that because Gandhi said that he was a devout Hindu it alienated the Muslims. When Badshah Khan said he was a devout Muslim, it did not alienate the Hindus of the North West Frontier. Muslim separatism did not arise, nor Hindu communalism, for the reason that Gandhi said that he was a devout Hindu. There are other reasons. There could be two paths to social reform, the Hindu language framework of Gandhi and the totally secular framework of the Left, but the point is we can’t judge between them today because it is the Gandhian language which succeeded; the Left was only marginally in competition in this area.

Now I would take up two last questions. One is that of Quit India. I feel
certain in my mind that Gandhi’s decision to give the call of ’Quit India’
then was a mistake. The communist party was quite right in opposing this
resolution. It was clear that Gandhi’s perception of the world at that time
was not as clear as his perception of India. It seems to me that he thought
the Allies were having a very hard time,in the war, and therefore this was
the time to get concessions. The Left also thought that the Allies were
going to have a very bad time, and therefore if Soviet Russia was to be
saved, this was the time to come to its assistance. Same perception of the
world, but opposite inferences. The whole question is whether a temporary
advantage for India was to guide the National Movement or the future of the world as a whole. These two opposite strategies were in conflict. Today we know that the Allies position, although bad, was not so bad as it appeared to Gandhi and his colleagues in the AICC and to the communist leadership. However, if you read Stalin’s letters, Stalin was writing to Churchill and Roosevelt that Russia has lost so much territory that it could be defeated or be so weakened that it could no longer be of any assistance to the Allies. This was an extremely difficult time, between the offensive on
Moscow and the battle of Stalingrad. There are times when national interest
comes into conflict with larger interests of world peoples, and if the
larger interest weighed with the communist dissenters, I would, even at this
time, when it is fashionable to regret it, hold it to be the right decision.
I would also not condemn Gandhi for his position. The Indians had waited too long and had been patient. Gandhi had described the Extremists and the Moderates as the patient and the impatient lot, and patience had now run out for all. But it was clear that Gandhi’s perception of the world situation, as of the communists, were wrong. The Russian people and the Soviet system was strong enough to defeat Hitler and this being so the Quit India exercise became meaningless. Accordingly it is obvious that Gandhi never expected that there would be a rebellion or a violent agitation: he wanted to tell the British that if you really want to make peace with Indians, when faced with such continuing Axis Successes, then you must offer substantive concessions to the Indian Congress leaders. But the Red Army changed the situation by defeating Hitler at Stalingrad. The result was that British imperialism did not need to talk with the imprisoned leaders. I do not think Gandhi was so ignorant of the Indian situation as to have thought that there would be a rebellion of the Indian people and the situation for the British in the war would worsen and there would be a compromise.

My last point; I think Gandhi’s finest hours’ were his last months-that when
massacres broke out, Gandhi stood by his principles; and here he could
forget the narrow national interests for the larger cause. If you remember
he said in so many words: T am not for the moment concerned with the
massacres in Pakistan. I am basically concerned with the massacres in Delhi
and its neighbourhood therefore, I am going on hunger strike here. When I
succeed here, I would go on hunger strike there in Pakistan, which is also
my country’. The second demand he made was that India must pay Rs.55 crore to Pakistan. For the Father of a Nation to take a direct position against
his own nation, and in support of another country whose goverment was
showering abuse on him and the entire Indian people, I think that was
Gandhi’s finest act. It was an action for which he ultimately gave his life
at the hands of one of the heroes and precursors of the present Sangh
Parivar. It seems to me that there is a message in this particular action
for all serious political movements - a message that there is a point at
which to compromise with principle is fatal. Gandhi’s own success in
stopping the massacres in India was achieved by frontally opposing the
"mainstream" communal perceptions. One must take a position which is right even if it is opposed to the national "consensus". How many of us could remember it in 1962 or 1965?

When we had a small war with Pakistan in 1965, our University had a meeting and our Chancellor said that if he had been young he would have gone to war with the Indian jawans. Then we had a compromise at Tashkent and the same Chancellor at a meeting held thereafter told us it had been a very "foolish war" and in effect quoted EMS Namboodiripad. One realises that in these national enthusiasms of the moment, particularly of the kind that we have been through just now over Babri Masjid, and perhaps we will be going through such moments again and again, it is extremely important to stick to a principled position and to keep to it. I particularly wish to say that when SAHMAT adopted a certain position in respect of Ayodhya and when the Speaker defied all rules of the book, to direct that the SAHMAT exhibition must be removed from the premises of a public institution, then I think it was a mark of honour for SAHMAT to be so favoured. What SAHMAT did was precisely in accordance with what Gandhi had done; and therefore it is fitting today that while commemorating Safdar Hashmi, we also celebrate Gandhi.