By Ashu Vaishnav
“I am a Hindu not merely because I was born in the Hindu fold, but I am one by conviction and choice. As I know it and interpret it, it gives me all the solace I need both here and hereafter” – Mahatma Gandhi
This essay looks at the rise of Mahatma Gandhi in context of India’s struggle for freedom. Starting with an introduction, the author takes us through a summarized journey of the freedom struggle, with Gandhi at the center of it. The main theme of this essay is understanding the reason for an uprise in anti-Gandhi sentimentality throughout the country. Furthermore, this essay looks at the creation of Pakistan, and Jinnah’s and Gandhi’s role in it, possibly understanding why Gandhi is considered to be such a controversial figure.
The tale of India’s independence is a bloody one. Leaving almost a million dead in its wake, and even more people displaced and without identity, it was certainly one of the worst reflections on The Great British Empire. The Indian subcontinent had seen countless regimes and rulers from all over the place. From the Great Ashoka to the Mughal Empire, to the English East India Company, the people of this land have seen exploitation, plunder, deceit and genocide in the name of trade. However, none of it is as fresh as the Independence Struggle of India. Some of the people alive today have seen this part of the history with their eyes. In some ways, the struggle for freedom is still going on. Whether it’s the issue of Kashmir’s status in the country, or the rampant casteism and class divide. The country still struggles to feed its poor, and basic amenities are not available to a large chunk of the population. The only people who care about religion and independence are those who can afford to do so. For some people, their lives aren’t all that much affected by freedom – simply because they have none of it still.
Started as early as the 1850s, the fight for freedom has tested the citizens to their limits. While the list of freedom fighters goes on and on, and the contribution of each of them is irreplaceable, on a global platform, the name that echoes and lingers is that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He’s transcended from a national leader to an international inspiration. His name is immortalized throughout the world, and in some cases, his name is synonymous with the identity of being Indian.
Background – India’s path to Independence
A lawyer by profession, Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps one of the most recognized names worldwide. With his never-seen-before teaching of non-violence, he was certainly a very influential figure in the eyes of the common people, both during the pre-independence times, and today. There were many ideas behind the name – a saint, a freedom fighter, a leader, an influencer, a wise man. While he may not be the first one at anything, the faith which he had in his beliefs and his conviction to his goal gave hope to millions of people that freedom can be achieved. He did a lot to bring the people together, and attach them to the mainstream movement. Imagine you’re living in the pre-independence age. You, your parents, your ancestors, all of them have only known the British Raj for as long as they can remember. The idea of a sovereign and independent government is alien. The people are ruled by the British, the rich and privileged get by somehow, and the poor have to work inhumane hours in fields, factories and houses. At that time, when you hear of a man, resisting the realities of the day and giving ideas of a free land, a sensible and representative governing body, and a sense of equality with the Gore Saabs and Gori Memsaabs, it’s going to catch your attention one way or the other.
Now, some would argue that Gandhi was not the only one, and that his contributions pale in comparison to the likes of the leaders of the Radical faction within the Congress like Savarkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai, as well as martyrs like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad. Even social media’s trending hashtags are claiming that independence wasn’t achieved by charkha.
Gandhi – A Phenomenal Presence
Born in a Vaishnava family of Gujarat, he was born and brought up a Hindu. As an ardent proponent of non-violence, his ideas at the time were anachronous with the long-held beliefs and societal norms. Some may claim that his empathy for the down-trodden people may have stemmed from the discrimination he himself faced in South Africa, when he was studying and working there. While his stay in South Africa, he was instrumental in leading the movement against racial discriminations. After returning in 1915, he quickly became involved in the nationwide movement for independence. However, he quickly realized that the momentum would be lost if the commoners did not feel attached to the movement. The heroic acts of other freedom fighters, and the tales of the First War of Independence (1857), 60 years previously, were certainly good for radicalizing the minds of the youth. However, in order to make a difference, there should be more structure to the movement. And he figured that the way to do it would be through the unification of masses.
Nationalism was on the rise, throughout the era. The Russian empire had fallen, stories of the French revolution were told, aristocracies were being demolished all over the world, and amidst all that chaos, the leaders of the era were formulating the idea of India, the country. However, the people did not identify themselves as Indians. They were still very divided on the basis of region, language, caste, occupation, and perhaps the most, religion. The contemporary stories often tell of the atrocities committed on the poor, people of lower caste and downtrodden, by those in power. Even among the exploited Indians, not all were equally unhappy with the British Raj, this was perhaps the biggest point working in the favor of Britishers. The zamindars, landlords, and the members of the high caste, were treated marginally better than the Dalits and others, both by other Indians and Britishers alike. Gandhi envisioned that to achieve true freedom would mean, freedom from the norms of such a divisive society. What good freedom be to a worker in a field, he’d still be exploited by the landlord . In order to create a truly equal society, these norms would have to be challenged. He worked with Dalit leaders of the time, such as Periyar and Ambedkar. This created an image that he was for the abolition of Hinduism altogether, and that image is carried to this day. On the flip side, Gandhi first coined the term Harijan, and even started journals in multiple languages by the same name. However, this term was strongly objected by the Dalit leaders, because it was considered to be very condescending towards the members of the community. So much so, that the term is still frowned upon, and is restricted to use towards people, or outside of academic contexts.
Partition of India
The years leading up to the formation of Pakistan were perhaps the worst in Indian history. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives on both sides of the border, and much more were displaced. The idea of a separate country certainly created a lot of ripples in the fabric of society. In the past, people had seen what horrors can partition bring to the country – during the partition of Bengal in 1905. Communal riots broke out all over the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people across all religions. Millions of people were displaced, thousands of women were raped, brutalized and hacked, and pregnant women were killed along with their infants. The need for a separate state rose out of clash between various politicians of time, particularly Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of All India Muslim League, and Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – leaders of Congress. The clash between Jinnah and Gandhi steadily grew since the 20s, after the popularity of Gandhi within Congress and the country increased. In response, Jinnah and the Muslim League’s demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims of South East Asia. This stance escalated the tensions between the Hindus and Muslims, and things progressed from bad to worse.
The reaction of Gandhi to this demand was surprisingly predictable. During the Quit India movement in 1942, when Gandhi and Nehru were arrested and put in jail, Jinnah worked hard to turn the public opinion in his favor – proclaiming to be the last voice of Muslims against Hindu domination. With time, violent riots broke out in multiple places. One of the earliest accounts of it was in Bengal in 1946. Eventually, the bloodshed got to the other members of Congress, and they caved – thinking that partition is the only way to cease this madness. That led to formation of Pakistan, under careful puppeteering of the British.
Perhaps Gandhi’s inaction during this period has drawn the most flak to his name. People claim he could have easily saved the integrity of the nation by letting Patel do what he pleased. While Vallabhbhai Patel was indeed the Iron Man, he was not restricted by any means. Gandhi was not a man to be looked up to, for religious guidance. He was a political leader till the end, and blaming him for not being as polarized as Jinnah is the main reason why Gandhi was considered to be biased towards Muslims. Conveniently, Jinnah is left out of most criticisms as being an outsider – Pakistani. People do not realize today that at that time, there was no Pakistan at all. This shows a further lack of situational awareness by the people.
There are some valid criticisms of Gandhi’s lifestyle. Some of the stories and excerpts of his sexual misconduct, and his views on topics like feminism, gender equality, gender roles, and planned parenthood, are problematic in today’s standards and even by the societal norms of those days.
The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Vinayak Godse in Birla House, Delhi shortly after Independence of India. Godse fired three shots point blank, and stood there as he was arrested. He was later sentenced to death. However, the origins of Godse spark a row of controversies. He was a prominent member of Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindu Mahasabha, and a self-proclaimed nationalist. He also had close ties with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The enmity between Savarkar and Gandhi was well known since before beginning of any of this. Savarkar was also accused in the trial of Godse, however he was acquitted later.
For this very same reason, often, the RSS is blamed for being against Gandhian philosophy and being the killer of Gandhi. This controversy is now morphed to a standing row between the right-wing, and the center and left-wing political parties. In recent times, since the rise of right-wing nationalism in the country, anti-Gandhi ideology is rearing its head in many places. Temples idolizing Godse have been built in multiple places across the country. Leaders are calling Godse to be a nationalist. Godse’s acts are being justified and he’s deemed to be a misunderstood patriot. Partly due to the rise in social media, partly due to the rise in extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. Some view it as the reconnaissance period of Hinduism, while others see it as a threat to the integrity of the nation. The elections in 2024 will certainly be telling as to where the country is heading. The future historians would tell the tales of these times with great interest.
Lately, the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for independence has been questioned a lot. His methodology of Non-Violence has been questioned, his defining role in creation of Pakistan has been blamed for the trouble Pakistan has caused for India later, and his collusion with Nehru on the Kashmir controversy has brought a lot of damage to the name he once held. There isn’t enough context present today to make a judgement of the Mahatma. Moreover, there is not a single valid criticism against Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy. It was impactful, and it did achieve enough solidarity to ignite a spark in the populous. People seem to turn a blind eye towards the facts that don’t conform to their biases. The name of Gandhi is eternal in world and Indian history, but it’s a name riddled with controversies and varied opinions.
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