M K Gandhi’s life is well-documented, thanks, in part, to his autobiographical accounts and the frequent interventions he made in his own publications, including Harijan and Young India. But on his 150th birth anniversary, it is paramount that we look at his influence on others.
What does Gandhi mean to the independent India that he never lived to see? How should today’s Indians see Gandhi? Most importantly, what do we learn from Gandhi in these times of majoritarianism?
In the wake of the horrors of Partition (in the last few months of his life), Gandhi undertook his last satyagraha. This satyagraha, like the Chauri Chaura incident, demonstrated Gandhi’s commitment to his own principles and his willingness to stand against the mob — regardless of how expedient it would be to look the other way.
Gandhi began his satyagraha on January 13, 1948. The fast was in light of the tense communal atmosphere that had gripped large parts of India. There were large-scale reprisals against Muslims (especially those in Delhi). Gandhi, by then, was already sick and frail but said his fast would go on till he was “satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities brought about without any outside pressure, but from an awakened sense of duty”.
He set seven conditions for breaking the satyagraha, and all of them pertained to the safety of Delhi’s Muslims and security of their property. It was his fast that would result in a mass of Sikhs and Hindus taking a pledge for the protection of Delhi’s Muslims.
It takes courage to stand up against majoritarian fervour, and to stand by those who are most vulnerable. Gandhi did not concede to the prejudices and anger of the mob, he used his political and social power to protect the rights of Muslims. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson for today’s secular parties as they choose to distance themselves from Muslims while the community faces widespread majoritarian exclusion and violence.
However, this does not mean that Gandhi’s life must not be read critically, or that his politics was above criticism. In this regard, we must not forget how Babasaheb Ambedkar saw Gandhi — during, and after his life.
If the fast of January 1948 was to remind the majority of their commitment to minorities, the fast of Poona 1932 was to prevent separate electorates for Depressed Classes. Gandhi had agreed to separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, but was unwilling to concede the same for Depressed Classes. This, he saw, as separating “untouchables” from the broader Hindu identity. For Ambedkar, political power for his community was “indispensable” for their “survival”. He would tell Gandhi “I wish to tell the Hindus that I should be assured of my compensation”.
To demand an organic leadership that is independent of dominant class considerations would have been essential for those communities who had faced historical injustice. Gandhi used a tactic meant to speak truth to power against the weakest, most under-represented class of the time. This legacy of Gandhi’s has, unfortunately, only strengthened in India after his death.
The unwillingness to see the link between independent leadership and emancipation has resulted in a situation where only pliant or token “faces” of Dalits or Muslims can think of being elected on a major party’s ticket today.
What did Gandhi’s absence mean for those closest to him? In March 1950, the then prime minister wrote to Gandhian K G Mashruwala. They were corresponding over the criminal act of placing idols inside the Babri Masjid in 1949. Jawaharlal Nehru minced no words, admitting that the Congress government in UP had done little to either prevent or “taking definite action” against the miscreants.
Towards the end of the letter, Nehru confessed: “Today many Congressmen have become communal [.] I just do not know what we can do to create a better atmosphere in the country. Merely to preach goodwill irritates people when they are excited. Bapu might have done it, but we are too small for this kind of thing” (emphasis added).
Nehru understood how little one could do when majoritarian passions reigned supreme. More importantly, even the first prime minister of India knew of Gandhi’s will and determination, his ability to single-handedly fight the mob.
Lastly, we must not forget who killed Gandhi and why. Gandhi’s unflinching stand when it came to Indian Muslims was unacceptable to Nathuram Godse, independent India’s first terrorist. In Gandhi’s assassination, the role of V D Savarkar, Hindutva’s tallest leader, was also recorded by the Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry report.
It was hatred of Muslims that fuelled Gandhi’s murder. In his 150th year, Gandhi’s murderer is embraced as a “patriot” by a Member of Parliament from the current prime minister’s party. We must keep Gandhi’s memory alive — not as an idol — but as a man who lived (and died) for India and all Indians.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 23, 2019 under the title ‘When Gandhi took on the mob’ The writer is president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and a Lok Sabha MP