On the evening of October 30, 1947, exactly three months before Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was shot dead, one person who had come to the prayer meeting on the lawns of Birla House objected to verses from the Quran being included in the prayers. The majority of the people present were in favour of the entire multi-faith prayer and they compelled the person who had objected to leave.
The entire episode deeply pained Gandhi. First of all, he said, all are welcome to the prayer meeting “but after coming here it is not good manners to raise any objection”.
This was no mere difference of opinion on some fleeting issue of the moment. The objector was striking at the very heart of what was most dear to Gandhi — prayer and acknowledging that all faiths are paths to the same divinity.
Yet even this did not prevent Gandhi from approaching the objector with empathy and seeing that there was pain behind his anger. At the same time, Gandhi firmly stood his ground: “…I am helpless because it (verses from Quran) is an inseparable part of my prayer.” Gandhi vowed to continue to persevere, despite this disagreement, strictly within the boundaries of nonviolence.
This story does not offer any easy copy-paste solution for our times. But it is potentially an entry point for reflecting on the delicate art of disagreement. Before we look more closely at that incident on the lawns of Birla house, 72 years ago, there is merit in re-stating some well-known fundamentals.
To be human is to disagree. Diversity of views and convictions has been an essential part of what has brought our species this far. The scale of viciousness and open hatred over social media may be new but the problem itself is very old.
Historically, disagreement has led to a wide range of responses — from killing, shouting down or ignoring the opponent to listening and attempting dialogue with the “other”.
In India, at present, it is easy to mistakenly believe that religion, caste and other forms of social identity are the main causes of violent disagreement. But some of the most famous murders in recent history have happened within the same ideology. For example, Stalin not only commissioned the murder of Leon Trotsky, his rival within the communist movement, he also presented the assassin a medal in absentia.
Nathuram Godse and Gandhi both had an abiding love for India but Godse was so deeply offended by Gandhi’s idea of India that killing Gandhi was, for Godse, the most satisfying way of settling this disagreement.
Today it is common to hear praise for Godse’s idea of India. Those who hold this view will sympathise with the person who objected to the inclusion of verses from the Quran in the evening prayer meetings led by Gandhi.
Usually this is seen as a disagreement between the advocates of Hindutva and those who believe that to support Godse is to betray both the legacy of the freedom struggle and the very essence of what it means to be a Hindu.
January 30, Gandhi’s martyrdom day, is commonly recognised as a stark marker for this on-going dispute in Indian society. Gandhi was indeed killed for his refusal to give up his respect for all faiths. But the political urgency of this dispute can obscure the core significance of this day. Gandhi’s assassin was, above all, striking at the art of disagreement which Gandhi had so assiduously cultivated.
Gandhi’s life and his politics brought forth a truth that ordinary people knew instinctively — namely, that a mat-bhed, difference over an issue, need not become a man-bhed, a division of hearts. Among the millions who lined up to pay respects to Gandhi’s ashes, many would have disagreed with him on many specific issues but that paled in comparison with the glow left behind by his art of disagreement.
Current projections of Godse as a hero are essentially about obliterating the vital difference between disagreement over an issue and a division of hearts. In this context what are the key lessons from Gandhi’s experiments with the art of disagreement?
First and foremost we must recognise, if not celebrate, that Gandhi’s practice was not perfect. This is why it is human, accessible and replicable. For instance, Gandhi’s differences with B R Ambedkar over separate electorates are perhaps the best-known instance where Gandhi fell short. Gandhi’s fasting onto death on this issue had an internal and authentic logic, but it acted upon Ambedkar as a form of coercion and laid the grounds for a lingering bitterness.
Here then is just one version of Gandhi’s key gains in the art of disagreement.
One, engagement with the other’s views is always possible and worthwhile — no matter how obnoxious that view may appear at first glance. Two, this can and must be done while being true to the fundamentals of your own conviction. Three, this requires a willingness to both listen deeply to the “other” so as to decipher their underlying concerns and anxieties and to respond accordingly.
Of course, all of the above is possible only if we seek power with others rather than over them. When there is confidence in power with others then there is potentially strength in agreeing to disagree. It is when we crave power over others that disagreement veers towards fatal conflict and any reduction in the polarisation seems threatening because a resolution of the conflict becomes anathema.
Gandhi was able to cultivate the art of disagreement not because he was drawing on modern liberal values but because he located himself in the spiritual traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Seeing all faiths as different paths leading to the same truth was only one part of this legacy. More importantly, he was rooted in the conviction that when primacy is given to the spiritual domain then our worldly disagreements become proportionally small and fleeting.
Therefore, the shouting down of the man who objected to the Quran verses was a form of violence. That evening, on October 30, Gandhi refused to have the prayer meeting. But he was clear that “disappointing 300 persons for the sake of two or three is also a kind of violence.”
So the next day the multi-faith prayer gathering proceeded complete with verses from the Quran. In case anyone objects, Gandhi had said earlier, the rest of those gathered must put up with the objection without anger: “Because you are in the majority, you should not think that you can ignore the people who are protesting. If you think you can ignore them, you would be following the path of violence. We must be more concerned about the people who are in the minority.”
Having refused to drop the Quran verses from his prayers Gandhi invited the objectors to meet him later and explain how they were harming the Hindu religion. “Personally, I think I have only done some good to Hinduism. Through this practice of reciting from the Quran I am able to draw my Muslim friends nearer to me. I have not done anything wrong in this.” After the prayer meeting, Gandhiji thanked the objectors for remaining silent and also complimented the rest of the gathering for tolerating their protests.
Three months later, the objector took the form of Nathuram Godse and killed Gandhi.
Godse’s disagreement with Gandhi ended in murder. When the court found Godse guilty and passed a death sentence, Gandhi’s family and followers pleaded that the assassin’s life be spared.
It is for each one of us to decide whether it was violence or ahimsa that was victorious on the lawns of Birla House on January 30, 1948. As individual beings, as members of a family and as a society — we cannot hope to resolve differences of issues if we are caught in the quicksands that divide hearts.
This is an abridged text of the 46th Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar Memorial Lecture delivered at Ruia College, Mumbai on January 24. Abridged and translated from Hindi by the author