By: Ramin Jahanbegloo
Never before in post-independence India have political elections have created this sense of alarm and fear from religious fanaticism. But fear of religious fanaticism is nothing new to a secular, liberal India. Fear, ignorance and violence are common elements that encourage fanaticism. Fanaticism occurs when monism outweighs pluralism. Mahatma Gandhi who himself was a victim of religious fanatics, struggled all his life against fanatical zeal and monistic impulses.
When Mahatma Gandhi arrived on the political scene of India in 1915 his nonviolent and pluralistic approach to religion and politics brought him in direct conflict with the issue of communalism and religious fanaticism. So far as the question of Hindu- Muslim unity was concerned, Gandhi had to confront two major perceptions in the Indian National Congress party.
On the one hand, there was a group of Hindus within the Congress party which believed that the Indian Muslims were not sufficiently patriotic so far as the Indian Nationalism was concerned. On the other hand, there was a great feeling of Pan-Islamism among some of the Muslims leaders of the Congress, intensified with a color of doubt and skepticism in regard to the future of Islam in India. Viewed in this perspective, the divergence between Gandhi and communalists was very deep from the very beginning of his entrance on the Indian political scene.
The reason is simple: for Gandhi the power of the nation was vested with the people, rather than religion. And the reason why Gandhi saw religion in the Indian intra-civilisational context rather in an ideological dimension was that he believed in the inherent harmony of the Indian cultural and social order, which had been disrupted by modernity.
Gandhi was a pluralist in religious matters, though he was not a relativist. His equal respect for all cultures and religions implied the idea of mutual learning and inter-faith dialogue. When Gandhi affirmed: “I do not want my house to be walled on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible”, he was essentially talking about a spirit of openness in the quest for the sacred which transcends religiosity and organized form of religion. Thus, Gandhi did not privilege any one religion over another, not even Hinduism. Religion for him was a matter of soft spirituality, rather than hard rituals and hard institutions. Gandhi’s pluralist attitude towards God and spirituality developed over time through his study of different religions and his friendships with individuals of faiths other than his own.
Already as a young student in London, he believed that every religion can shed light on a seeker’s path. Later he realized that self-centredness in religious matters as in political matters created prejudice and misunderstanding. This is the language he used in an article in Indian Opinion in 1907: “If the people of different religions grasp the real significance of their own religion they will never hate the people of any religion other than their own…there may be many religions, but the true aim of all is the same.”
For Gandhi, God was not a monopoly of any religion. Already during his time in South Africa, he wrote: “The time has passed when the followers of one religion could stand and say, ‘ours is the only true religion and all others are false’’. As such, there is no trace of proselytizing or dogmatism in Gandhi’s proclamation of his spirituality. He truly believed in Hinduism as a religion of nonviolence and regarded the Bhagavad- Gita as the philosophical foundation of his nonviolence. But his openness to other religious sources and his particular study of the New Testament and the Qur’an helped him to view Islam and Christianity as partners in his search for Truth.
As such, Gandhi’s critique of an ideologized religion lead him to a concept of the spiritual which found its expression in the “spiritualization of politics”. For Gandhi, the aim of spiritualizing politics was constructing the future of “human living together.” He, therefore, understood religion as a morally conscientious and socially responsible exercise of spirituality. He believed that every social and political opportunity must be made use of to forge a harmony among communities.
His dialogue with Indian Muslims must be understood in this conceptual network. He sought to practically demonstrate this need of dialogue with Islam when he answered to a number of his critics in a speech at Sholapur in 1927 when they accused of being partial to the Muslims. He said: “You may say I am partial to the Mussalmans. So be it, though the Mussalmans do not admit it. But my religion will not suffer by even an iota, by reason of my partiality. I shall have to answer my God and my Maker if I give anyone less than his due, but I am sure that He will bless me if He knows that I gave some one more than his due. I ask you to understand me.”
While in South Africa where he started to work in 1893 as a lawyer for a Muslim merchant from Porbandar, Abdullah Sheth, Gandhi was able to establish close ties with the Indian Muslims. He felt familiar with the cultural identity of the Indian Muslims and shared a common life with them. “When I was in South Africa”, he affirms, “I came in close touch with Muslim brethren there… I was able to learn their habits, thoughts and aspirations…I had lived in the midst of Muslim friends for 20 years. They had treated me as a member of their family and told their wives and sisters that they need not observe purdah with me.” It was Abdullah Sheth who suggested Gandhi for the first time to read Sale’s translation of the Qur’an. Gandhi’s first approach to the Qur’an developed his basic understanding of Islam that was strengthened by a second reading during his prison time in January 1908 in Transvaal. But previous to this adventure, Gandhi had forged a broad resistance movement largely based on the participation of Indian Muslims and in alliance with the Hindus against racial discrimination in South Africa. In his very first week in Pretoria, Gandhi called a meeting at a Muslim merchant’s house. “It was a largely Muslim gathering with ‘a sprinkling of Hindus’’.
The bringing together of Hindus and Muslims in the Gandhian experience of Satyagraha in South Africa was Gandhi’s first important step toward the idea of communal harmony. This experience strengthened in him a powerful motivation in the joint commitment of Hindus and Muslims to truth and justice irrespective of their differences. By navigating easily between different religious traditions and communities, Gandhi convinced his fellow Indians of the validity of inter-faith solidarity. There is no doubt that Gandhi’s action in South Africa and later in India was shaped by his conviction that all religious boundaries are arbitrary and false. That is why Gandhi’s view of religion brought under its fold people belonging to different religions. Though deeply religious by nature, Gandhi did not believe in rituals, customs, traditions, dogmas and other formalities observed for the sake of religion. Like Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi’s religion was not confined to Temples, Churches, books, rituals and other outer forms. Thus Gandhi’s concept of religion was not bound by any dogmatic behaviors.
Gandhi was convinced that a mere doctrinaire approach in the field of religion does not help to create inter religious fellowship. Dogmatic religions do not help to promote creative dialogue. The religions dogmas directly or indirectly breed an attitude of dislike towards other religions. Mahatma Gandhi’s mission was to find a common ground based on nonviolence among religions. He wanted not only to humanize religion but also to moralize it. He would reject any religious doctrine, which was in conflict with morality. This is how he challenged people of faith to recognize their religious hypocrisies. He argued that a person who believes in Truth and God cannot go to a mosque, synagogue, temple or church one day, and the next day foster hatred and violence. He made no exception in the case of Islam. Gandhi did not hesitate to declare that “even the teachings themselves of the Koran cannot be exempt from criticism. Every true scripture only gains by criticism. After all we have no other guide but our reason to tell us what may be regarded as revealed and what may not be.” At another occasion, Gandhi completed this argument with an observation that takes us to heart of his position on religious fanaticism and interreligious dialogue: “My effort should never be to undermine another’s faith but to make him [or her] a better follower of his [or her] own faith.”
Gandhi knew that independence could not come about by the efforts of the Hindus alone. He, therefore, involved the Indian Muslims in the struggle. Discontent with the “us-and-them” divisions and mutual disregard between the Muslims and the Hindus, Gandhi engaged in an open dialogue with Islam and the Muslims. He never accepted the argument that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate elements in Indian society. That is why Gandhi’s willingness to go out of his way to win over Muslims to the Congress won him many friends and admirers among the Muslims. On his return to India, Gandhis’s increasingly involvement with the Khilafat movement helped him secure a political authority in the Indian Congress and strong legitimacy in the eyes of the British Raj.
Gandhi’s involvement with the fierce believers in a pan-Islamic movement surprised most of his friends and followers, but “his stance was essentially a natural progression from the status he had prized in South Africa as spokesman for Muslim grievances, and from his championship of the Ali brothers during the war…” It is true that the Muslim leaders like Abdul Bari, Maulana Azad and the Ali Brothers had already initiated and developed the Khilafat movement when they were joined by Gandhi in April 1918, but there is no shadow of doubt that Gandhi’s arrival gave a new strength to the agitation. Gandhi expressed his sympathy for the Muslims and the Khilafat movement at the Delhi Imperial War Conference in 1918 and later followed it up by a letter to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford. “As a Hindu”, he mentioned, “I cannot be indifferent to their cause.
Their sorrows must be our sorrows.” Evidently, Gandhi’s sympathy for the Khilafatists was more than a simple fellowship, since he was trying to invite the Muslim leaders to join his satyagraha and adopt nonviolence. Moreover, by joining the Khilafat movement Gandhi wanted to consolidate the fraternization of Hindus and Muslims. As such, two years later in response to Maganlal, who was troubled by Gandhi’s involvement with Muslims, he wrote: “If I had not joined the Khilafat movement, I think, I would have lost everything. In joining it I have followed what I especially regard as my dharma…I am uniting Hindus and Muslims…”
Gandhi’s deliberate attachment to the Muslims and the Khilafat movement had helped him in reaching broader groups in Indian society and rising as a non-elitist leader in the Congress. However, the main line of division between Gandhi and the Khilafat leaders was that of violence. “The Muslim violence on the Malabar coast and the incipient violence of the extremer Khilafat leaders generated fear and resentment in other communities…” Many Muslim leaders like Shuakat Ali or Jinnah refused to accept nonviolence as a moral absolute though they accepted it as a temporary strategic device to overcome the British. Jinnah was among the Muslim leaders of the Congress Party who in 1915 welcomed Gandhi on his return from South Africa, but the variations on the non-cooperation campaign produced certainly some early divergences between the two men.
Jinnah, whose opposition to Gandhi’s non-cooperation was well-known to the British and to other members of the Congress Party, was especially perplexed by the fact that by 1920, the Congress, like most of Muslim India, had accepted Gandhi as their charismatic leader. “Your methods have already caused split and division in almost every institution that you have approached hitherto,” proclaimed Jinnah, “and in the public life between Hindus and Hindus and Muslims and Muslims and even fathers and sons; people generally are all over the country and your extreme programme has for the moment struck the imagination mostly of the inexperienced youth and the ignorant and the illiterate. All this means complete disorganization and chaos. What the consequence of this may be, I shudder to contemplate…I do not wish my countrymen to be dragged to the brink of a precipice in order to be shattered.”
For Gandhi, the questions of Indian home rule and the Hindu-Muslim unity were not separate issues, whereas for Jinnah the opposite was true as he mentioned in response to Gandhi: “We maintain and hold that Muslims and Hindus are two major nations by any definition or test of a nation. We are a nation of a hundred million, and what is more, we are a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of values and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, aptitudes and ambitions, in short we have our own distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law we are a nation.”
Ever since his first writings in South Africa, Gandhi replaced the divisive view of religion by a pluralist and tolerant one by equating religion with ethics. This, of course, was how Gandhi reacted against the specter of the “Hindu raj” and the cry of “Islam is in danger” that widened the communal gulf in India and created the climate of hatred between the Hindus and the Muslims. For Gandhi, the difference between the Hindus and the Muslims was not confined to religion. It was due, according to him, to the lack of truthfulness and transparency in the political realm. He once declared that a true Muslim could not harm a Hindu, and a true Hindu could not harm a Muslim. It was probably in this spirit that Gandhi developed a friendship and a great esteem for both Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. In 1939, during his third visit to Ghaffar Khan, Gandhi proclaimed: “If you dissect my heart, you will find that the prayer and spiritual striving for the attainment of Hindu-Muslim unity goes on there unceasingly all the twenty-four hours without even a moment’s interruption whether I am awake or asleep…The dream [of Hindu-Muslim unity] has filled my being since the earliest childhood.”
Gandhi was certainly influenced by the tolerant Islam of Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad and their non-fanatical reading of the Qur’an, but it is also true that the spiritual teachings of the Mahatma and his political pragmatism captivated the minds of these two men. Azad was “the Muslim on whom Gandhi relied for advice” and was “a prominent example of the communal inclusiveness of Congress.” In this respect Gandhi’s friendships and disputes with Indian Muslim leaders remains deeply instructive for the understanding of his critique of religious fanaticism. Gandhi required Muslims to recognize that Islam like any other religion was neither the whole truth nor nothing but the truth. That is why Gandhi rejected the idea that there was one privileged path to God and he encouraged inter-religious dialogue, so that individuals could see their faith in the critical reflections of another.
One of his notable innovations was the inter-faith prayer meeting, where texts of different religions were read and sung to a mixed audience. If this provides an evidence as to what sort of cultural pluralist Gandhi was, we can add that for him the sacred texts of all religions had contradictory trends and impulses; sanctioning one thing, but also its opposite. Gandhi, however, urged that people recover and reaffirm those trends that oppose violence and discrimination while promoting justice and non-violence. For him a culture or a religious tradition that denied individual freedom in the name of unity or purity was coercive and unacceptable. When some women were stoned to death in Afghanistan for allegedly committing adultery, Gandhi criticized it, saying that “this particular form of penalty cannot be defended on the ground of its mere mention in the Koran.” and he added, “every formula of every religion has in this age of reason to submit to the acid test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent.”
Gandhi’s approach to the problem of Hindu-Muslim relations in India was based on the view that it is not an ingrained and ineradicable enmity. Gandhi, it hardly needs to be repeated, believed in a plural political and religious society. Therefore, his vision of communal harmony and his critique of religious fanaticism went hand in hand with his theory of participative democracy and shared sovereignty. He wrote: “Mutual respect for one another’s religion is inherent in a peaceful society. Free impact of ideas is impossible on any other condition. Religions are meant to tame our savage nature, not to let it loose…” Thus it could be said that in the case of Gandhi religious pluralism and struggle against fanaticism was not of mere political agenda, but a matter of faith in the dynamism and potentiality of the Indian society to tackle the evil of communalism at the structural and mental levels. Elections will come and politicians will go but India will always look back at Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle against fanaticism.
Jahanbegloo is the author of ‘The Gandhian Moment , Harvard University Press 2013’. He is associate professor of political science at York University, Toronto
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