Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi demystified

(Written on request for the Mumbai daily DNA, sent in on 17 Feb. 2018, heard nothing about it after that.)

On 30 January 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, India’s political landscape changed dramatically. In the preceding year, the Hindu Nationalist movement had received a strong boost due to Congress’s confused stand on Partition. But then, Nathuram Godse’s bullets squandered its newly-gained political capital in one go. It would need decades to recover.

Prelude to Partition

Until the end of 1945, Partition had seemed to be a mirage existing only in the minds of some Muslim League diehards. With the British, the Congress and even, as per the 1937 elections, most Muslim voters lined up against the Muslim League’s plan, India’s unity seemed assured. But the League understood the essence of politics: “making the inevitable possible”. By fully using the possibilities created by the British need for friends during World War 2, it changed the power equation. The elections of that winter threw up an unexpectedly large majority in favour of the creation of Pakistan among the Muslim electorate. Now, Partition became the central question of Indian politics.

The British began to waver in their resolve to keep India united. Contrary to the Congress propaganda that most Indians swallow till today, the British had not imposed the Partition on India, on the contrary: they wanted to keep their empire in one piece even if they had to abandon it. But like Congress, they were sensitive to changing circumstances. The dawning Cold War made them see the advantages of a divided Subcontinent, with one part joining the Western camp. And after the Great Calcutta Killing in August 1946, they understood that opposing the Muslim League would come at a cost for which they did not have the stomach anymore. When Louis Mountbatten became Viceroy in March 1947, it was with the single purpose of transferring power to a bifurcated India.

Fortunately for the Hindus in West Panjab, Sindh and East Bengal, there was at least the Indian National Congress you could count on; or so they thought. But one after another, top Congress leaders were crossing the floor to a hesitating acceptance of Partition. Yet even then, Mahatma Gandhi stood firm. Had he not promised that India would only be vivisected over his dead body? And with his record of fasts unto death, was this not a solid assurance?

Karmic price

However, by June 1947, the Mahatma too gave up. He justified this broken promise with a weasel explanation: if one of the shareholders withdraws from the joint account that is India, no Mahatma could coerce him to do otherwise. Pray, what had all his other fasts been but successful attempts to coerce the other party into doing what it would otherwise have refused to do? Now that numerous lives were at stake, he refused to stake his own because his tender conscience suddenly had discovered how evil it is to pressurize people.

With that, Gandhi conceded defeat to Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It was a karmic come-uppance: in 1920, he had humiliated Jinnah on the dais of a Congress meeting where the still-moderate Muslim leader had opposed the plan to involve Congress in the Khilafat movement. Jinnah had pleaded against mass politics and especially against mixing religion with politics, warning that this would bring disaster. Gandhi’s cheering crowds had sent him packing, and when he returned to politics years later, he had learned his lesson. 

Mind you, the Partition plan could have been reasonable, as in the version thought up by Dr. BR Ambedkar immediately after the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution of 1940. He had worked out a peaceful exchange of population, with all Muslims resettling in Pakistan and all non-Muslims in India. That lucid scheme would have avoided the massacres of 1947 and also those of 1971 and of all the smaller-scale communal riots. But some decision-makers seem to prefer bloodbaths clothed in high principles to this modest and pragmatic accommodation of the inevitable.

Godse’s achievements

There had been lots of criticism of Gandhi during his lifetime, now obscured and tabooed by his halo of martyrdom. For a single example, it was clear to all that he himself became the killer of Gandhism as a political vision when he dictatorially foisted Jawaharlal Nehru on the Congress, and therefore as national leader, as if he didn’t know what this “last Viceroy” stood for. The democratic alternative would have been to nominate Sardar Patel, Congress’s own preference. Later developments confirmed that Gandhi’s choice had been a Himalayan blunder, giving India the Kashmir problem and the proverbial poverty resulting from Nehru’s option for socialism.

When you read Godse’s speech delivered during his trial, you will notice that many of his criticisms were widely shared. In many respects he had been a Gandhian himself, such as activism against untouchability. In others, he simply agreed with many observers, e.g. in frowning on Gandhi’s irrationality. He was an extremist not because of his views, but because he tied the consequence of murder to his views.

That act was indeed unforgivable. Perhaps Godse could not have been dissuaded by its inherent moral evil. But at least he could have retreated before its formidable strategic foolishness. It spectacularly smashed the windows of his own movement for decades to come. But it also achieved something else he would not have wanted: it turned a fallible politician into an immortal saint elevated above normal human judgment.

Dr. Koenraad Elst is a Belgian scholar of India’s ancient as well as contemporary history, presently working at the Indus University in Ahmedabad. Rupa has freshly published a new edition of his detailed review of Nathuram Godse’s stated motives.


Arun said...

This is not an unbiased article. Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru conceded that Partition was a practical necessity after their experience with the Muslim League in the interim government.

Do look up here:
Mountbatten and Sardar Patel
April 24-27, 1947

SARDAR PATEL then made the following statements:-
(a) Congress would not accept any suggestion for a further degree of parity in the present Central Government.
(b) If the Muslim League did not accept the Cabinet Mission's plan, Congress desired partition.
(c) Congress had reached the maximum limit of their concessions.

The choice was really between a moth-eaten Pakistan and a Pakistan that included all of Assam, Bengal, and in the west, the whole of Punjab and Delhi.

Look it up, read it up, scholar that you are.

madh said...

Well said. Read review of your book in the Sunday Mag.
In 'New India' dated 6th October 1921, that is some time after many important attacks on the British Empire institutions happened in parts of northern Malabar in the Khilafat agitation, Manjeri Ramaier, a moderate, wrote an article titled "Khilafat Expansion".
Excerpts from it,
"....... In this article, I shall try to bring the history up to date, so that the man in India who runs, may read the moral, so that other parts of India may profit by the lessons that have been burnt into the heart of merry Malabar in suffering and agony in looting and arson, in cold-blooded and forcible conversion......
The following must certainly interesting to read being extract from a leaflet in Malayalam widely distributed in April 1920 at the Manjeri Conference.
...... This leaflet has done its deadly work in the fanatical area, and here are the extracts from the leaflet entitled, The Manjeri Conference and the present plight of the Khilafat
"Among the problems that agitate the world, the Khilafat is one of the most important. This is a question which vitally affects every Mussalman, and at the coming Manjeri Conference the Khilafat will be one of the important items taken up for consideration.
"The Prophet Muhammad has given three injunctions which are binding on all Mussalmans and they are to see
(1) that all holy places (names mentioned including Jerusalem and the shrines in Mesopotamia) are always under the Khalifa
(2) that no foreign influence dominates 'the island of Arabia' including Palestine and Mesopotamia
(3) The Khalifa must be an independent Sovereign of great power in the world .......................... "
There is not in this leaflet a single word about non-violence. The Mapilla naturally inferred that if Palestine and Mesopotamia and Arabia ceased to be ruled over by the Khalifa, i.e., the Sultan of Turkey, they must boycott the Government in everything as directed.
In the Mahatma's Hindu sheath of non-violence, rattled the violent sword of Islam audibly. The Mapilla understood it in the only way possible to him. He went home and began to think of forging his plough-share into the sword, his saw into many war knives. Non violence was only the cover, to be cast away when the moment for action came, if the Allies refused to take the Khalifa's temporal power at the Islamic estimate......"

Gururaj BN said...

For all the mouthing of non-violence, his movements, which occurred once in a decade resulted in great deal of violence, loss of life and limbs. 1921 for Khilafat Movement, 1931 for Dandi March and 1942 for Quit India. All these movements resulted in violence and untold hardship to participants and other people. His violence is not the Hindu kind found in scriptures, but christian kind found amongst the Christians who suffered martyrdom in the hands of Romans, before the time of Emperor Constantine. One sought glory in suffering. Hinduism has never adopted this principle or practice. His non-violence was always practiced at the cost of others. Mahatma himself never suffered a lathi blow, or the boots of the police.

I.M.Sharma said...

I think Gandhi's espousal of and the almost unanimous support of entire Congress including Lajpat Rai, Malaviya, et al for the Khilafat movement was a great mistake which in fact tried to turn the wheels of history backward. It really annoyed and agitated Jinnah very much who till then was aloof from Islamic practices and religion and was quite a modernist and in fact admired and respected Tilak and even defended Tilak in one of his cases. When Ataturk Kemal Pasha was bent on doing away with the stinking system and even abolished Khilafat eventually, it was very sad that Indian, and even the overwhelming Hindu opinion of the day was for continuance of that Turkish monarchical and reactionary system. I think that was the poisonous essence which gradually destroyed real feelings of camaraderie between rational and progressive sections among Hindus and Muslims and eventually led to the communal riots and then communal war or genocidal atrocities.

Krishnakumar Ramamoorthy said...


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Jijnasu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ghost Writer said...

Dr Elst,
In commending Dr. Ambedkar’s partition plan (perhaps rightly so), are you not presuming that the populations thus exchanged would be willing participants in such a plan?
Let us hypothesize that Dr. Ambedkar was handed the reins of power, and proceeded with Mr. Jinnah’s help, to implement the plan; how many Hindus and Muslims in the sub-continent would have taken up Dr. Ambedkar on his offer? I suspect not a whole lot. Even after the bloodbath of 1947, there yet remained Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India. What makes you think that under a peaceful partition everyone would have wound up their lives in an orderly fashion and meekly proceeded to beyond the border? I feel that Dr. Ambedkar’s plan looks good on paper, but would have had few takers.
Most certainly, it would not have prevented ongoing riots / violence arising from communal politics – as you seem to suggest. Once Gandhiji (and it was Gandhiji first, Jinnah only later) took the genie of communal politics out of the bottle, it could never have been put back in.

NK said...

Dr. Elst, on that new study that came out claiming to debunk OIT, what evidence do we actually have that steppe pastoralists actually spoke IE? Also, there seems to be the genetic anomaly that Iranians and Indians are genetically different when it comes to the putative IE genetic marker (R1a). Additionally, we have the Uralic anomaly pointed out by Talegeri:

Do you think there is any chance that maybe the mainstream opinion has got it wrong and it may have been IVC that imparted some form of IE to steppe peoples?