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George Paxton, Glasgow (Editor, The Gandhi Way)

In Milan Rai’s article “If you meet Gandhi on the road ... “ (PN 2526) he draws our attention to what he regards as some troubling aspects of Gandhi’s career, in particular his effect on Muslim-Hindu relations, and also, he claims, Gandhi’s acceptance of a phase of inter-communal violence that might result if Hindus and Muslims were left to settle their own relationship in the lead up to an independent India.

While Gandhi was not a politician in the conventional sense he did operate in the complex field of politics and his decisions were not always wise. However, some of Milan Rai’s particular accusations might be questioned.

The issue of how Muslims could be given due weight in a country that was about 75% Hindu was something that was considered by the British in the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 where the solution proposed was the creation of separate electorates, and not just for Muslims but for other minorities also (Sikhs, Christians, etc). This was accepted by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League in the Lucknow Pact of 1916. Although Gandhi was not politically active in India until a little later these arrangements were not the kind that appealed to him. Nor did the 1927 concessions to Muslims mentioned by Milan Rai – reserved seats for Muslims in the Muslim majority provinces of Bengal and the Punjab, and in the national assembly one-third of seats in spite of Muslims forming only about one-quarter of the population. After all why should Muslims need to have reserved seats in areas where they form the majority of the electorate? And are not all of these arrangements assuming that the electorate will vote according to their religion? Something which I do not think Gandhi would have considered desirable. While the dropping of special concessions may have been perceived by many Muslims as anti-Muslim it could more reasonably be seen as an egalitarian measure. Throughout his life Gandhi made strenuous efforts to achieve harmonious relations between the Muslim and Hindu communities. Post WWI he supported the retention of the institution of the Caliphate in Turkey (perhaps somewhat questionable in itself) as this was something that Muslims desired. But this soon lost its point when the Turks themselves abolished the Caliphate. Another unifying element was that Gandhi established, even before his return to India in 1914, religious services in which scriptures and music from different religious traditions were incorporated, including readings from the Qur’an. Also the Indian National Congress, although inevitably consisting mainly of the majority group, always had support from leading Indian Muslims. In later years Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pathan, was possibly Gandhi’s most staunch supporter. It is true that Gandhi, born a Hindu, often used Hindu cultural language but not exclusively and he incorporated many features of the other cultural traditions of India and the West in his thinking and language. It was Gandhi, as much as anyone, who wished for a secular state in which there would be no discrimination against individuals or communities.

Regarding Gandhi’s apparent willingness to accept the possibility of communal violence he did sometimes say things that were at odds with his deepest beliefs. He also at times changed his mind especially when it was something he had said in personal conversation in the heat of the moment. But with Gandhi his actions were always the best guide and the enormous efforts he made towards the end of his life to stop communal violence including undertaking life-threatening fasts in Calcutta in 1947 and his last in Delhi in 1948 reveal his true self.

Editor Response: 

Milan Rai writes: Thank you for your letter, George. On your last point, it is clearly the case that Gandhi consistently and repeatedly, over many years, expressed a preference for the resolution of Muslim-Hindu communal tensions without outside interference, fully accepting that this would mean civil war. This was not a passing fancy, or an issue on which Gandhi vacillated, changing his mind in the heat of a particular conversation.

In my article, I cited not only Gandhi's conversation with Evelyn Wrench (December 1941) and his separate conversations with Woodrow Wyatt, Lord Pethwick-Lawrence and Lord Wavell (1946), but his letter of 29 April 1928 to C. Vijayaraghavachariar, and his statement to the press of 25 April 1941. Throughout this 18-year period, he seems to have held to the same sentiment: “I am more than ever convinced that the communal problem should be resolved outside of legislation and if, in order to reach that state, there has to be civil war, so be it. Who will listen to a proposal so mad as this?” (letter, 29 April 1928)

I can't pretend to know what Gandhi's “true self” was or what his “deepest beliefs” are - he seems to have been an extraordinarily complex as well as an extraordinarily courageous person. But if we are to judge him by his actions, then we must weigh up not only his historic 1947-48 fasts for Hindu-Muslim unity (which I acknowledged in my article, as well as a 1924 fast for Muslim-Hindu unity), but his support for the Nehru report (which helped to divide the Indian nationalist movement) and his disturbing record during the final negotiations with the British (to be discussed in a forthcoming article in Peace News).

The point about the Nehru report was that it broke an agreement that had been forged between Hindu and Muslim political forces in India, creating the basis for a long-sought unity. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the formula that was agreed (giving Muslims guaranteed proportions of regional and national parliaments, in return for Muslims giving up their separate elections and separate parliaments), it was clear that abandoning the pact would reinforce Muslim fears for their future in an independent Hindu-majority India.

Gandhi played a critical role in getting the Nehru report adopted by the Hindu-dominated Congress party. He made no apology in his speech to Congress for ditching the previous agreements on Muslim representation, and was unstinting in his support of the report. This is only one of Gandhi's many actions on communal issues, but it was significant in reducing Muslim involvement in the independence struggle, and in sowing the seeds of later conflict.

I have no doubt that Gandhi was sincere in wishing Hindu-Muslim unity. At the same time, some of his actions tended to undermine this possibility. For example, he tended to blame Muslims rather than Hindus for communal violence: “the Mussalman [Muslim] is at least equally guilty with the Hindu, if not on the whole more so.” (Letter to Shaukat Ali, 30 November 1928)

Those of us who are committed to nonviolence, and indeed the wider public, often have a distorted picture of Gandhi, based on our desire to reduce his contradictions and complexity to something simpler, something that we can be comfortable with. That is a disservice to a remarkable man, and an obstacle to learning from him.