Former member of Rajya Sabha (1990-’92) and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Rajmohan Gandhi led the Indian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1990. He has worked consistently for India-Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. Since 9/11, he has also tried to address the divide between the West and the world of Islam. Currently Research Professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois (USA), his new book Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten from Rupa Publishers talks about the evolution of the Sikh state from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Rajmohan Gandhi spoke to SUCHAYAN MANDAL on how Gandhi remains relevant today and other issues. Excerpts:
Satyagraha and Ahimsa were the principles of Gandhi’s life. From the contemporary perspective, how useful is this approach with regards to the Indo-Pak relationship?
If you practice non-violence and face the facts, it will be helpful. Whenever there is a dialogue or discussion or even negotiation, those things are absolutely crucial. The other aspect of Gandhian philosophy is that the poorest and the weakest person should be kept in mind and not just the rich. If we can follow Bapu’s teachings in both countries, there won’t be much fighting with each other. I think loving (and not hurting) others should be our motto. No one, neither the USA nor China, can help. If relations between neighbours have to be improved, we have to do it ourselves.

In your book, you talk about ‘United Muslim-Hindu front’ in the context of Congress’ Shimla meeting in the pre-Independence era. It was followed by the partition of Bengal. At present, Bengal is in a crisis with the Gorkhaland issue being in the limelight. What do you prescribe to maintain unity?
These are very tough issues and have come up again and again in our history. One lesson that I underlined while doing the research for my new book is that neighbouring groups need to find an agreement between themselves. If the Sikh leaders of Congress or Muslim leaders of Muslim League had come together ~ that could have been a lasting solution. How can Jinnah, Churchill or Gandhi solve Punjab’s problems if Punjabis themselves aren’t interested? In the case of Gorkhaland, if possible, the people have to have a mind-set of resolving the issue. Today, Delhi may say ‘Ok Telangana’ or ‘Ok Gorkhaland’, but eventually, the people of the region have to have a desire to resolve disputes among themselves. It’s not easy, but that is what practical statesmanship requires. Today, leaders say one thing and tomorrow just the opposite. Moreover, discussions from far-off locations won’t work. Critically, ground-level settlements between people are essential. People from the neighbourhood have to voice their opinions.

The recent riots in Muzaffarnagar have upset India’s harmony. Many have apprehended that communal tensions will rise in the run-up to the Lok Sabha poll. What do you think might be the reason behind it? And what does the government need to do keep riots in check?
All political parties should come together on this. And it is essential for the media to focus on this matter. I think the media has a very important role to play here by disallowing the wave of incidents from taking place. And if something is resolved, say for example in Muzaffarnagar, apart from reporting on the bloodbath, reports about families returning or some events leading to betterment of the situation need to be highlighted.
Some people think that division and violence will benefit them. So they provoke violence and support it. There is political gain as well as commercial gain. Commercial gain because in case of land disputes, grabbing land is eased through violence.

With Narendra Modi being declared the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, do you, as someone who hails from Bapu’s homeland, think he can perform well if elected?
I was disappointed by one of Modi’s speeches where he politicised the Army. That was unfortunate. If he becomes the PM, I hope that he won’t do such things. His rhetoric is troubling. I do not know how the Indian public will react, but I think Indians hate friction, communal tension. Earlier, I’d heard he would stick to governance and developmental issues, but that doesn’t seem to be the case so far.

You have visited Pakistan. What are the attitudes of people there regarding Indo-Pak relations?
At the moment, Pakistan has many shades of opinion. Many people have swallowed the anti-Indian propaganda. But many are in fact very fond of India. The locals there look up to India. I was glad to find that they are aware of India’s achievements. They also know Muslims can freely worship in India and ‘azaans’ can freely be announced from the mosques. Besides, they know very well that the rumours of Muslims in India being hurt because of Hindus are all false.
Though incidents of communal riots have happened, many Pakistanis have admiration for India and are looking for the day when their leaders will act on similar policies because it would just transform life there.

A few days back Pakistan cricketers were ‘expelled’ from a hotel in Chandigarh because their visa was valid only for Mohali, where they were supposed to play a match the next day. Would you like to share your views on this?
I haven’t read the news, but what I can say is that it was a grand chance to build relationships. It might become an issue. One stupid incident has the potential to damage the relationship between two nations deeply. Similar things do take place at the other end, also but an apology isn’t that difficult for either nation as it will help make things better.

What do you think would have been Bapu’s reaction to the present scenario in the country, when both internal and external crises are on the rise?
Bapu would have been unhappy on many grounds. Issues of corruption, money, would have been his primary reasons for unhappiness. If Gandhi was ever to travel by plane and arrive at the Delhi Airport ~ all he would see was these huge shops inside the terminals with whisky bottles. This is no suggestion or hint of India. It looks like any other part of the world. So on many fronts he would have been disappointed. But he would also have been pleased to see that poor people are getting some kind of better food than before. He might have been happy on some issues, but no doubt many elements would have utterly disgusted him.

Are you working on a new book?
My next book is about Gujarat. Not about today’s Gujarat or Modi’s Gujarat. It is about an important and interesting historical figure, Durbar Gopal Desai, who died in 1951. He is a lesser-known personality. I will be writing about him.

What made you think of writing about Punjab?
Punjab and Bengal were the worst sufferers of Partition. And I chose Punjab in this sense because I have seen it myself, how all of a sudden everything changed. My house in school, which was called ‘Akbar House’ overnight changed to ‘Subhash House’. As a boy, I noticed the impact. At that time, Delhi was not a ‘Punjabi’ city, so to say. There were a variety of communities and they were influential as well.
But the life of Delhi changed suddenly. One has to go deep into the roots of events. The Congress movement that was so effective everywhere didn’t affect Punjab much. I wanted to delve deep into the story of Punjab and I got a chance to do it now.

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