Gandhi and the politics of religion

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  1. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

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    Gandhi and the politics of religion
    —Ishtiaq Ahmed

    Gandhi opposed the creation of Pakistan. Such opposition was based on his conviction that Hindus and Muslims and other communities could live together and make their particular contributions to building a multi-religious, multi-cultural nation with equal rights for all citizens. However, when partition did take place he took positions that have no parallels, historically or contemporaneously

    There is no doubt that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi brought religion into politics in a big way, but religious revivals were underway among all religious communities of India since the late 19th century. He wanted religion to play a positive role in bringing India’s myriad of religious, sectarian, ethnic and caste-based communities into an inclusive grand composite nation.

    Gandhi was by no means an advocate of fundamentalism. He did more than any other upper-caste Hindu to speak out against the curse of untouchability. On a number of occasions Hindu fundamentalists attempted to assassinate him because of his campaign against untouchability. The first such attempt took place in 1934 when a bomb was thrown at him in Pune. While critiquing untouchability, he did find arguments for the justification of the caste system. According to him and other Hindu reformists, the castes were based on the division of work and equal dignity of all professions. Such an explanation may not sound convincing to many of us since caste is hereditary in practice. However, such a middle position helped him bring Hindus from all sections behind the anti-colonial struggle and therefore compromises were necessary.

    However, India was home not only to the Hindus but millions of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other groups as well. He developed a novel idea, Sarva Dharma Sambhava: equal respect of all religions. His daily morning sessions began with prayers and hymns and recitations from the Bhagwad Gita, Quran, Bible and other religious scriptures to underline the common moral roots of all humanity. I have a recorded interview with Syed Ahmed Saeed Kirmani, a staunch Muslim Leaguer and a prominent Muslim student leader of the 1940s. He attended one such morning session in Delhi in 1946. It deeply moved him, though he remained convinced that a separate state for Muslims was the solution to the Hindu-Muslim problem.

    When Gandhi was asked to explain his idea of good government or Ram Raj, he said it would be inspired by the governments established by Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Umar. About Imam Husain he said, “My faith is that the progress of Islam does not depend on the use of the sword by its believers, but the result of the supreme sacrifice of Husain, the great saint.” In saying so, he was not supporting blind devotion to each and every act of these illustrious Muslim leaders but to their historical roles as champions of good government and justice.

    On the other hand, when some Muslims told him that they were bound by their faith to submit to each and every word in the Quran he disagreed with them. He said that religious texts should also be subjected to the changing standards of morality and conscience. Therefore, Muslims have to interpret their sacred scriptures with an open mind and distinguish between the core ideas of their faith and the literal texts. He was unreservedly in favour of India becoming a secular state with equal rights for all citizens. In fact, the idea of affirmative action or positive discrimination on behalf of the Dalits was his way of keeping his word given to Dr Ambedkar that his Dalit community will not be subjected to the humiliation and degradation it had suffered down the centuries. Consequently, preferential treatment in educational institutions, legislative assemblies and in government jobs was constitutionally guaranteed for the Dalits and Adivasis. Without it the Dalits stood no chance of getting education or getting elected to the legislatures.

    Today, a Dalit intelligentsia and political class exist and contribute to intellectual and political debate. Some Dalit intellectuals and leaders are very critical of Gandhi, accusing him of denying them their liberation by insisting that they were an integral part of the Hindu community, and going on a fast-unto-death when the British were considering giving them separate representation just as the Muslims had been granted in 1909. It is a debatable question whether separate electorates for Dalits would have gotten them a separate state because unlike the Muslims they were not in a majority in any region of the subcontinent.

    Gandhi opposed the creation of Pakistan. Such opposition was based on his conviction that Hindus and Muslims and other communities could live together and make their particular contributions to building a multi-religious, multi-cultural nation with equal rights for all citizens. However, when partition did take place he took positions that have no parallels, historically or contemporaneously. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs who fled West Punjab arrived in Delhi to find that large numbers of Muslims were still around. This infuriated them and they began to harass and terrorise the Delhi Muslims. A delegation of prominent Muslims, which included among others Dr Zakir Hussain (later president of India) and Dr Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi (later education minister and vice-chancellor Karachi University) approached Gandhi for help. He promised to do his best. Dr Qureshi has written that Gandhi and his volunteers went around Delhi and to the tomb of Emperor Humayun to see to it that the Muslims were not harmed. Further attacks on Muslims ceased.

    The second case is about the last fast-unto-death of Mahatma Gandhi. The background to it was that the Indian government was withholding Rs 550 million due to Pakistan as its share of the cash left behind in the common kitty of the colonial state. India and Pakistan had been drawn into a military conflict over Kashmir, and the Indian government took the stand that Pakistan will purchase weapons with it. Gandhiji did not accept such reasoning and started a fast-unto-death to compel the Indian government to pay Pakistan its share. That infuriated Hindu nationalists. On January 30, 1948, Gandhiji was assassinated by Nathuram Godse.

    The outpouring of grief in Pakistan was no less than in India. In fact, I was told by a senior Lahoriite that Lahore Radio’s programmes that day were even more moving than what was relayed elsewhere in the subcontinent. Muslim women who had safely arrived in Pakistan from Delhi because Gandhiji would not let Hindus and Sikhs take revenge for what happened to their women in West Punjab, broke their bangles and beat their chests. It is important to remember such facts when sitting in judgement on Gandhi. Without intellectual honesty and an open mind, political analysis degenerates into mere propaganda.

    The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected]
     
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