Three mistakes of Mahatma Gandhi !!!
Gandhi is not just another leader - he is an institution, he is an ‘era’, he is above all a symbol of peaceful crusade. Leaders and movements around the world have drawn inspirations from Gandhi - be it Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid or Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement, Gandhi inspired people all over the world. For Indians, he is a living entity for generations to come.
Gandhi is probably the only person, if not in the entire world but definitely in India, who had never occupied an office of power but still exerted such an influence on masses and governance in general. Earlier this year in January, Supreme Court of India rejected a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) seeking conferment of Bharat Ratna on Mahatma Gandhi. Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of Republic of India. Supreme Court in its ruling said “Gandhi is above any formal recognition and people hold him in high esteem”. He is called father of the nation for a reason !
So why this article, why am I calling out ‘mistakes’ of Mahatma Gandhi, a person larger than the life? As a student of history, I am always fascinated by various historical events that shaped our past and keen to figure out how they might impact our future. These are three such events where I believe had Gandhi acted differently, the repercussions could have been less damaging OR may be its my sheer lack of knowledge of English language that I am using the word ‘mistake’. In either case, lets look at these events and my respective rationale :-
1. Khilafat movement and the communal riots (1918–21)
Khilafat movement was an agitation by Indian Muslims (led by Ali brothers) after the World War I. It was a political protest against the sanctions placed on Caliph (or Khalifa) of the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey) by the Allies. Khilafat movement aimed to restore the Caliph, considered as the supreme religious leader of Muslims (Sunni), and its territories.
Muslims in India at large didn’t share any special bond at that time with the Ottoman Empire (and Caliph). The bond, whatever it was, was limited to the elites of Muslim community. That’s the precise reason why the movement wasn’t a real success initially. It picked up bit of momentum when Gandhi joined the Khilafat committee. Later on when Gandhi launched the Non-cooperation Movement (NCM) in 1920, Khilafat question got merged with the Punjab repression (Jalliawala Bagh massacre, Rowlatt Act, etc.) and the demand for Swaraj (self-rule). Gandhi had high hopes that this would herald Hindu-Muslim unity but it did more damage than expected.
Several parts of the country witnessed communal riots during the movement. The most talked about was Mappila Genocide of Hindus or Malabar Rebellion of 1921. It started as resistance against the British colonial rule but ended in rather ugly communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi, in response to general criticism and Annie Besant’s scathing attack on him, described the genocide of Hindus (Nair caste) as the act of “brave, God-fearing Moplahs” and called them as patriots “fighting for what they consider as religion”.
Khilafat movement had absolutely no relation whatsoever with India’s struggle for independence. This was the first time religion and politics were mixed at a national level in India. It gave Muslims a distinct entity other than being Indian, they were made to feel that being Muslim was more important or different than being Indian Muslim. And since it had the blessings of Gandhi, it became the norm thereon. Gandhi’s justification of Mappila genocide gave way to the appeasement politics which was later practiced by Congress party for decades after independence. Country has suffered a lot and continue to pay huge price for this mistake till date.
2. Pant Resolution, 1939
1939 was an interesting year, not only for India but for the world at large. It was the time when various ideologies were at war in Europe - with fascist, communist and democratic participants, which eventually led to one of the most significant events of the modern history, World War II. Congress party in India also experienced something peculiar during this time.
Subhash Chandra Bose, one of the tallest leaders, was an incumbent and seeking re-election for Congress presidency in January 1939. He won the election by narrow but clear margin (1580 vs 1377) against Dr. Pattabhi Sitamarayya. Bose believed in militant politics and was convinced that Gandhi’s path of non-violence was not sufficient to gain complete independence from British empire. And to achieve this, he wanted to align with the anti-imperialist forces even though it meant shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. Gandhi and Bose always had differences but there was mutual respect for each other. But Gandhi took Bose’s re-election as a personal blow. He said, on Pattabhi’s defeat, “ …the defeat is more mine than his”. Bose could not be removed as it was against the constitution of Congress but Gandhi insisted that Bose should appoint his Working Committee members separately.
It was then, Govind Ballabh Pant moved his historic resolution at Congress session. The last lines of the resolution read “In view of the fact that Mahatma Gandhi alone can lead the Congress and the country to victory during such crisis, the Congress regards it as imperative that the Congress Executive should command his implicit confidence and requests the President to nominate Working Committee in accordance with the wishes of Gandhiji”. This resolution was passed with an overwhelming majority in an open session. These developments eventually led to Bose’s resignation and Dr. Rajendra Prasad became Congress President.
Here what’s important is not that Bose was one of the most charismatic and popular leaders of the country, but the manner in which he was made to resign. Gandhi in a way re-established his dictatorial image by this action (or inaction) - rejecting the rightful candidate his place who was democratically elected by the members. It is ironical given Congress was fighting for indeed a democratic and an independent India. When today Congress party is often blamed for lack of transparency, not promoting merit and supporting dynasty politics - I firmly believe that somewhere the wrong precedent was set in 1939.
3. Fast unto death, January 1948
India was an infant nation way back in January 1948, an independent dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations. With the promulgation of the Constitution of India in January 1950, it transformed into the Republic of India. As a new nation, it was fighting wars at multiple fronts - war with poverty, illiteracy, food shortage, communal tension and many more. Around the same time, it was also fighting a conventional war with Pakistan in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
State of Jammu & Kashmir was one of the princely states which decided to remain independent after British announced their plans to leave India. It was only when the state faced an uprising in the western part by local tribal militias (supported by Pakistani forces), Maharaja Hari Singh, decided to join India. The Instrument of Accession was signed on 26th October, 1947. Indian troops were then immediately airlifted to Srinagar (state capital) to support the state forces. The war was inconclusive with a formal cease-fire came in effect on 1st January 1948 after India’s Prime Minister Nehru approached United Nations.
As part of partition plan, it was agreed that India would transfer INR 75 crore ($10mn) to Pakistan in two installments. India had paid the first installment of INR 20 crore ($2.6mn) but it withheld the second tranche because of the war. Sardar Patel, then Home Minister, made a statement to the press on 12th January, 1948, where he said “I made it quite clear to Pakistan that we would not agree to any payment until the Kashmir affair was settled”. Next day morning, Gandhi went on a ‘fast unto death' demanding release of the second installment to Pakistan. He was apparently advised by Lord Mountbatten (then Governor-general of India) and Maulana Azad (first Union Education Minister). Within a week’s time, Cabinet decided to release the amount after an emergency meeting was called.
Historians have differed on facts here. Many argue that Gandhi undertook the fast to restore communal harmony in Delhi, not to release the payment. The reality is the payment was released during the fast hence some historians have blamed Gandhi to compel the Govt. to release the payment in spite of Pakistan’s aggression. I am no ‘fact-finder’, but various accounts of Sardar Patel also suggest that he wasn’t very happy with Gandhi’s approach on this matter. We don’t know whether INR 55 crore ($7.3mn) would have helped us solved the Kashmir problem. But it was definitely a chance worth taking, given both the nations are still bleeding even after 70 years. Gandhi should have timed it better, that’s all I can say!
I would just end with this. In 2020, we are celebrating 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and we should all, as responsible citizens, strive to emulate his values and principles. Gandhi stands tallest among the personalities who had maximum influence on India in the 20th century. As a student of Indian history, I also believe we should read the personalities in totality and then derive our own learning and lessons from each one of them. There is a lot to learn from Gandhi but there are few incidents where you wish Gandhi should have acted differently. We tend to forget at times that he was a human after all and as they say ‘to err is human”!
Thanks for reading and as usual I appreciate your feedback / comments / observations.