Gandhi-Enigma By N S Rajaram
INTRODUCTION PROLOGUE PART I PART II APPENDIX I APPENDIX II APPENDIX III INTRODUCTION: ‘A fable agreed upon’ History in the service of the Party
"What is history" Napoleon once asked, "but a fable agreed upon?" This is as true of Indian history as of Europe. A historical fable is usually concocted to serve the interests of a favored few.
In India after independence in 1947, history was made to serve the beneficiaries of the Congress Party that came to power — of a political dynasty in particular. (Ancient and medieval history was also distorted, but that is not the concern here.) Of immediate interest to the Congress Party was the creation and propagation of a version of history of the Freedom Movement in which the role of the Congress Party and its leaders was made all important, while the contributions of others were minimized. As part of this, some figures like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who gave everything while getting nothing in return were vilified and even persecuted.
But even here, in the exaltation of the Congress, one can discern a distinct pattern. It was not the Congress as a whole that was exalted, but the leadership and the movement following the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, coinciding roughly with the death of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. This prominently included the Nehru clan and equally prominently excluded earlier stalwarts like Sri Aurobindo and later rivals like Subhash Bose. The Nehru clan, which came to hold power for nearly forty of the first fifty years in independent India, acquired Gandhi’s name also through the fortuitous circumstance of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter Indira marrying a Zoroastrian by name Feroze Gandhi who had nothing to do with the Mahatma. Through another fortuitous marriage, this legacy — and name — is now wielded by the staunchly Catholic Italian woman Sonia Maino with close ties to her Mother Church. So the Congress party, which sprang from the Hindu Renaissance of the nineteenth century, is now for all practical purposes in the hands of a Catholic clique.
This extraordinary turn of history demands serious study, particularly how Gandhi’s name and his ‘legacy’ came to be invoked in this venal exercise. The problem is not merely Gandhi the Saint protecting Gandhi the Politician, but a more recent phenomenon — of safeguarding Gandhi the Capital Investment. Gandhi the Saint demands a life of utmost simplicity and service; Gandhi the Politician — now turned Capital Investment — has become a convenient conduit for acquiring wealth without limit and power without accountability. His saintliness is invoked only to shield venality and stifle debate.
A no less disturbing trend is the inquisitorial atmosphere that has come to prevail in India as regards Gandhi and his role in history. Any academic, journalist or even writer who raises doubts about him is likely face the wrath of powerful interests for ‘hurting the sentiments’ of people. In reality, it hurts only the prospects of politicians and a multitude of individuals and institutions that thrive in his name; there have been no protests by the people, but only of Congress party workers. As an example, a Marathi play based on the testimony of his assassin Godse was banned because it raised some questions about the ‘authorized’ version of Gandhi. The objection to the play came entirely from the Congress workers and not any ‘people’. It ran without incident for several weeks in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat. Is Gandhi’s greatness so delicately poised that even the statement of his assassin is enough to topple it?
The present effort is intended to serve as a corrective in this stifling atmosphere. It seeks to initiate a fresh debate about Gandhi and his contributions by focusing on two areas in which his role has remained all but unchallenged over the past fifty years: nationalism and the freedom movement. In reexamining these, I have drawn my material from two little known sources — Gandhi and Anarchy by C. Sankaran Nair, and the three volume History of the Freedom Movement by R.C. Majumdar. The former is a contemporary account by a leading Congressman from an earlier generation, while the latter is a magisterial account by one of modern India’s greatest historians. It is a telling commentary on the intellectual and political climate in independent India that the Congress Government made a serious effort to suppress Majumdar’s great work; Majumdar himself in an Appendix gave an account of it. (Majumdar’s books are published by Firma KLM of Calcutta; Nair’s book is out of print.)
The present work makes no claims to being a scholarly study; it may in fact be seen as an extended summary of the two works cited above, especially Volume III of Majumdar’s trilogy. Several generations of Indians — including my own — have grown up on a diet of history that serves only the interests of a narrow clique. In addition, it ignores the enormous contribution made by the Swadeshi movement before Gandhi arrived on the scene — by leaders like Surendra Nath Bannerji, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, and, above all, Sri Aurobindo and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. It can be argued that this Swadeshi movement was the real national movement, and the Congress after the death of Tilak fell into the hands of careerists and opportunists who happened to reap the benefits of historical events — like World War II and its fallout. Even this they botched with timid policies and unprincipled compromises leading to the holocaust of the Partition and the Kashmir problem. This, even more than independence, is the legacy of the Congress Party; independence would probably have come, but lack of both vision and strength of purpose led to problems that have remained unresolved even after fifty years.
Subhas Bose’s contribution suppressed
Upon careful study of these sources one thing becomes quite plain: there has been a systematic campaign by successive Congress Governments to diminish Subhas Bose and his contribution to Indian independence. Two examples should suffice. When Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, all copies of a film on Bose prepared under Sardar Patel were confiscated and destroyed. In addition, the film ‘Subhas Chandra Bose’, with the renowned actor Abhi Bhattacharya in the lead role, was banned by the Government during the emergency. (Earlier, Nehru’s Government had forbidden display of Subhas Bose’s photographs in all offices of the defense establishment. Happily this is no longer true.)
Bose’s contribution, however, cannot permanently be ignored. After supplying some startling evidence, in the second edition of Volume III of his work, Majumdar observed:
It seldom falls to the lot of a historian to have his views, differing radically from those generally accepted without demur, confirmed by such an unimpeachable authority. As far back as 1948 I wrote in an article that the contribution made by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose towards the achievement of freedom in 1947 was no less, and perhaps, far more important than that of Mahatma Gandhi…"
The ‘unimpeachable authority’ he cited happened to be Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time of India’s independence. (This is discussed in Part II.) This will no doubt come as a shock to most Indians brought up to believe that the Congress movement driven by the ‘spiritual force’ of Mahatma Gandhi forced the British to leave India. But both evidence and the logic of history are against this beautiful but childish fantasy; it was the fear of mutiny by the Indian armed forces — and not any ‘spiritual force’ — that forced the issue of freedom.
(Also, if Gandhi’s ‘spiritual force’ really brought independence from the British, it would tend to make the British rulers a lot more spiritual than what history tells us. For example, there were no ‘spiritual’ considerations when King Henry VIII broke from Church of Rome; nor any in evidence in the recent problems afflicting the English royal family or relationships with Ireland. The British seem to a singularly unspiritual race.)
Lessons of history
This reexamination of history holds important lessons for the future. First, spiritual principles, no matter how noble, are usually helpless in dealing with a ruthless adversary. But a dogmatic belief in the efficacy and effectiveness of such a principle invariably leads to self-delusion and results in misery for its believers. In the Khilafat for example, had Gandhi frankly told his followers and the Government that he would do his best to keep his movement nonviolent, but could not promise that it would remain so, he would have put people on guard, and the scale of the tragedy might have been reduced. Instead he refused accept failure or responsibility and kept insisting that the Government suspend all activities against the Mopla rebels as they went on their destructive spree.
An objective analysis of history shows also the failure of nonviolence as a political tactic. There are times when violent methods have to be used to counter violence. There is a famous Sanskrit line: ahimsa paramo dharmah, dharma himsa tathaiva ca — "Non-violence is the highest principle, and so is violence in defense of the righteous." Pacifists are fond of quoting only the first part. Its real meaning is that in order to establish peace one should be prepared use force to defend dharma. Mindless attachment to pacifism inflicts untold suffering on the innocent, while sheltering cowards and opportunists — as with the Congress Party today. Recognizing this, John Stuart Mill wrote long ago:
War is an ugly thing, but it is not the ugliest of things. The ugliest is that man who holding that nothing is worth defending or worth fighting for would let better men than himself protect him.
And Sri Aurobindo said:
The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice as the holiness of the saint. To maintain justice and to prevent the strong from despoiling, and weak from being oppressed is the function for which the Kshatriya was created. Therefore, says Krishna in the Mahabharata, God created battle and armor, the sword, the bow and the dagger.
Votaries of pacifism do not wish to face this truth, for it demands too much of them. But innocent people who trust their leaders to protect them are made to pay the price. This has been the tragedy of India under its supposedly pacific leaders.
Since some of the things I have to say in these essays are bound to raise the ire of many Indian (and non-Indian) admirers of Mahatma Gandhi, I should perhaps make my own position clear. I regard Gandhi as a great man, but not a constructive political leader, much less a statesman. I see him as a crusader after causes with no consistent vision embodying either nationalism or national policy. I see his career as a succession of crusades in causes that were sometimes totally unworthy — like the Khilafat. On the other hand, important causes like the Swaraj in 1920 and the national movement in 1932 were abandoned on a personal whim, leaving his followers in the lurch. Above all he embodies for me two viewpoints that have done immense harm in the world, especially India — theocracy and moral relativism.
His ‘saintliness’ was an anachronism — a medieval idea mixing religion and politics. Unlike Sri Aurobindo, who left politics to pursue a spiritual life, Gandhi remained a politician to the last. His saintliness often magnified the sufferings of the innocent while absolving the aggressors of any accountability or even guilt. His moral relativism manifested itself in the slogan of sarva dharma samabhava, which could be, and was, used to equate evil and good — the murderer and the victim. Going by this measure, as an extreme case, Gandhi and Godse were morally equivalent for each being true to his own dharma. As we shall see later, this was the principle applied by Gandhi himself during the Mopla Rebellion, and also in defending the behavior of the Ali brothers when they invited the Amir of Afghanistan to invade India in defense of Islam. This is hardly consistent with a vision of nationalism.
Gandhi’s real greatness lies outside politics — in social work and the inspiration he provided in the fight against oppression worldwide. And it was no small achievement. From Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, every leader fighting oppression and injustice has drawn his inspiration from Gandhi. If we take away his contribution as a political leader, Mahatma Gandhi loses nothing in greatness. If anything he gains considerably. Gandhi the Man was much greater than Gandhi the Politician but the latter represents a much more valuable asset to those exploiting his name. (Gandhi the Man demands also a great deal from his followers in the form of simplicity and service, and promises little reward.) And that is India’s tragedy.
More fundamentally, it is important that Indian thinkers outgrow the habit of uncritical acceptance of the ideas of someone simply because he is considered ‘great’. The ideas and actions of everyone must be judged on their own merits — not against the background of his real or imagined greatness. As Karl Popper said: "If our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men make great mistakes"
And this applies to Gandhi no less than it does to Lord Rama, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad — and to every man and woman that ever lived. I will be more than satisfied if the present work leads to some reexamination of the history of the period dominated by Mahatma Gandhi.
I have included three Appendixes, the first two relating to the Mopla Rebellion, and the third on the treachery of the Communists during the freedom struggle. My goal in these is to highlight important facets of history that have been whitewashed by politically motivated scholars to serve their own interests.
Germination of the idea leading to this work, I owe to S.R. Ramaswamy who brought Nair’s important work to my attention and also provided me with a typed copy of this hard to obtain book. My friends Michel Danino and Patrice Marot of Institut de Recherches Évolutes of Paris and Mira Aditi Centre of Mysore generously sent me copies of Majumdar’s books which have just been reissued. To all these I express my gratitude. But I alone am responsible for the views expressed in these articles.
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