For Gandhi, religion was a moral force, a quest for truth, a unifying force. For his detractors, it was a tool to divide
Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Getty Images
In a self-explanatory note written in Young India, Mahatma Gandhi pictured his own persona aptly. “The politician in me has never dominated a single decision of mine, and if I seem to take part in it, it is only because politics encircles us like the coils of a snake from which no one cannot get out easily, and I have been experimenting with myself and my friends by introducing religion into politics.”
Becoming one among the masses, a majority of whom followed age-old caste/class-ridden practices, and embracing poverty as a philosophy of life, he converted a huge mass of people and made them his spiritual soldiers, making imperialist war weapons look hollow and breaking the jaws of the religion of power.
From Yeravada Jail in 1932, he sent a cable to his biographer William L Shirer. “My politics is derived from my religion. Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Though Gandhi, an unorthodox but devout Hindu, absorbed within himself the truths of other religions, he never believed ‘Heaven’ reserves a definite comfortable place to only those who believe in “my faith”. Though influenced by the New Testament, he writes in his autobiography that he would not believe that Jesus alone was the son of God. “If God should have sons, then all men are God’s sons. I accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of supreme sacrifice, a great and divine teacher, but it is impossible for me to regard any religion as perfect, and I am convinced that Hinduism, with such defects precisely piercing into my eyes, is equally imperfect.” Neither did Gandhi accept the Muslim theory of the Last Prophet and the Final Book.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who wore a badge of secularism on his sleeve, was unsentimental in his homage to Gandhi when he was killed. Jinnah’s dry tribute that “Gandhi was one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community” drew an aptly titled caption in New York Times, “Jinnah sorrows for his Hindu foe”. Jinnah started out as a constitutionalist who initially considered the idea of Pakistan an impossible dream, but gradually transformed himself to become so fanatical that against the pleadings of Lord Wavell, Gandhi’s several walk-ins into his grandly carpeted house, and many of his own followers’ requests, declared that he would prefer a moth-eaten Pakistan to living in Hindu-majority India. The atheist Jinnah wrote a new chapter in the history of India, making religion a great divider of hearts and minds.
As the Pakistani-origin writer Ishtiaq Ahmed noted in his well-researched book on the founder of Pakistan, “Jinnah, with his unexplainable malice, bordering on psychopathic disorder, against Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru, declared almost a war against whoever opposed the creation of Pakistan…Jinnah’s disenchantment with Congress and Gandhiji were not ideological but personal and strategic-tactical. With Gandhiji’s rise, the Congress was inclusively harmonised and became such a mass movement that he found it difficult to adjust and was not willing to play second fiddle and allow a Hindu like Gandhiji to become the ‘leader of Muslims’.”
Jinnah was supported by Churchill who, too, hated Gandhi. Ishtiaq Ahmed makes several references to rumours of a secret arrangement that Churchill had with Jinnah, promising to “reward him with Pakistan for the support to the war effort” and giving him his private postal address! Churchill, who did not “become the King’s First Minister to liquidate the British Empire” had a congenital dislike of Gandhi. He repeatedly mocked Gandhi as “a malignant subversive fanatic and seditious Middle Temple lawyer posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice Regal palace.”
As Louis Fischer aptly put it: “Churchill loved social traditions, Gandhiji smashed social barriers. Churchill lived in his own, and Gandhiji lived with everybody. To Gandhiji, the lowest Indian was a child of God. To Churchill, all Indians were a pedestal for the British throne. He would have died to keep England free, but also against those who wanted India free. But Gandhiji would not have hesitated to die to keep both England and India free.” Churchill could not “pardon” Gandhi even in death, for freeing India, the jewel in the British crown. But to Gandhi, Churchill was inconsequential, as his fight was not against the British but against British colonisation.
Gandhi was not killed by a lone misguided Hindu as his murder was meticulously planned. The role of the Hindu Mahasabha and V D Savarkar come up again and again for discussion, though it could not be proved in the court of law that Savarkar was part of the plot. What is undeniable is that Savarkar, another ‘atheist’, vehemently opposed Gandhi’s tolerant, all-embracing ideology and his path of Ahimsa to achieve freedom. But Gandhi never failed to acknowledge Savarkar’s role in the freedom movement. Gandhi wrote a touching letter to “Bhai Savarkar” condoling the death of his brother G D Savarkar. He took exception to the British government not releasing the Savarkars when other political offenders had been discharged.
Gandhi’s three powerful contemporaries who opposed him ideologically and even his ‘personal looks’ — Jinnah, Churchill and Savarkar — perhaps never knew that Gandhi never hated them. All of them, with their so-called modern attitudes, abhorred this “half-naked fakir.” He was a spiritual challenge to them! He was too deeply religious to hate anybody. To Gandhi, “There is no other God than truth. I worship God as truth only, but I have not yet found him.” Perhaps he, to whom “religion means self-realisation or knowledge of self,” was always in search of the Absolute Truth.
Gandhi believed that politics had to be guided by religion which treats all beings as equal and removes excessive greed from life. To many today, deeply sucked into comfort-seeking lifestyles, Gandhi may look impractical and too naïve for the complicated ‘modern’ world. But no one, not even his worst enemies, would deny that he was a “simple soul”, yet a gritty one, who became a powerful weapon to make colonialism history.
Gandhian ideals are not easy to follow, but to forget them or to find fault in him for the social divisions of India for narrow political messaging is a sin. Political parties are never tired of shamelessly using him as a marketing tool. “Gandhi’s India” is a much-invoked phrase on foreign soil. But as the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock wrote: “Crowds gather/for a glimpse of you/Who can see the soul?
The Mahatma, neither a saint nor a politician, is a challenge even today for bigoted power-seekers!
(The writer is a scholar and educationist, and a former vice president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee)