In terms of the national movement, Mahatma Gandhi was undoubtedly the undisputed leader of the masses. He alone could enter the house and hearts of the Indian poor and create a movement from the heap of sand. This is not to say that he was beyond limitations. One could differ with him on his ideas, but with deference to him. Apart from Hinduism, Christianity and Jainism shaped his mental and spiritual development. Though he was referred to as a sanatani Hindu, Gandhiji believed in religious toleration, with no faith in conservative and orthodox Hinduism.
His support to the movement of untouchables to enter temples reinforces this spirit. By infusing the spirit of monotheism and tolerance in Hinduism he tried to bring to light its accommodative and absorbing character. Like Rammohan Roy, he also tried to reconstruct Hinduism with a rational and ethical vision that had been lost over the centuries through the unfortunate influence of Brahmin priests. Gandhiji was undoubtedly a religious man, but his religiosity was based on humanitarian values and morality. It has been argued that Gandhiji asserted traditional instead of modern values because he rejected modern Western civilization. But this is an unconvincing assertion.
He rejected it because it was marked by capitalism and imperialism that bred immorality, oppression and exploitation. He was against the large-scale industrialization because it would provide the scope of accumulation of money in the hands of the few and cause damage to the country’s rural industry. He was in favour of rural reconstruction and to give it a concrete shape he established the All India Spinners Association (1925) and the All India Village Industries Association (1934). These were not a reflection of archaic, traditional values, but modern values in’traditional terms’ which are far more complete and pervasive. Gandhiji had an important role in making India modern.
He united the political and economic issues in the national movement, and brought together the moderates and the extremists, the Hindus and the Muslims, the peasants, workers and zamindars, and the elite and the subalterns for the struggle for independence. He brought’women out of the kitchen’ for taking part in the socio- political movement. More importantly, he compromised with the radicals and the left within the framework of the Congress. None before Gandhi had demonstrated such a capability to act as a unifier of different forces of India in the anti-colonial struggle.
Though iconic and widely acclaimed, Gandhi has become a controversial figure. It has been alleged that sometimes he acted as a clever politician or an antimodern bourgeoisie thinker; sometimes he supported Hindu or Muslim communalism or sided with the zamindars not with the peasants because he was against the no-tax movement, or his non-violent ideology checked the revolutionary spirit of the anti-British movement in India; it is also alleged that sometimes he used the benefits of modern science and technology and sometimes opposed them.
Though he championed the cause of secularism, he failed to oppose those who stood for communal hatred and communal division. As the Father of the Nation he went against his own country when he consented to the Partition of the country and demanded that India would pay Rs 55 crore to Pakistan. These are not wholly baseless allegations. Yet we cannot marginalize his contributions to the national movement and to the making of India as a nation. One of his great qualities, often misunderstood, is that he was constantly changing and growing. There was a continuous evolution in his thought and action.
There is a difference between the early Gandhi and later Gandhi. His ideas on such issues as inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, landlordpeasant relations, socialism, and so on changed radically and drastically. He was not opposed to the modern largescale industry so long as it did not exploit human labour. His attitude towards acts of violence also underwent a change. He hardly condemned the armed uprisings of the rebels in many places in 1942. In reply to the question of an American journalist, Louis Fischer, on his seeing the impending movement in 1942, Gandhiji said,’In the villages, the peasants will stop paying taxes.
Their next step will be to seize the land’ even if there could be violence. Behind an idealist stood a pragmatist. He was a good strategist and used the existing circumstances in the best possible way to reach the goal. He was a champion of civil liberties. But his commitment to human values remained unchanged throughout his life. He prioritized peace and humanity when he consented to Partition. Had he refused to accept it, there could have been horrible massacres in the subcontinent. Gandhi never claimed that he was the inventor of satyagraha or non-violence.
He imbibed this idea from the Bhagavad Gita, the New Testament and also from the works of Tolstoy and Ruskin. Satyagraha is as old as Indian culture and civilization. Gandhiji had used it in the political sphere and he hardly deviated from this belief. His non-violence can be justified in the sense that armed struggle was no match for the British soldiers. Indian leaders did not have an army of their own like that of George Washington and any armed fight against the British might possibly have caused a colossal catastrophe. He demonstrated his political shrewdness in his dealings with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938-39 when he realised that his leadership had been threatened.
There were differences of opinion relating to the strategy of a national struggle between the two, but no jealousy, disrespect and hatred. In his conversation with Louis Fischer, Gandhiji described Subhas as “a patriot of patriots”, albeit “misguided”. Though Subhas disassociated from the Congress and Gandhi’s leadership in 1939, he wholeheartedly stood by Gandhi’s call for the Quit India movement. Subhas told the INA that Gandhiji would be their leader once they reach the borders of India. There is no denying that Subhas was more ‘popular than Nehru, and in certain circumstances had a stronger appeal than Gandhi’. But he was never disrespectful to Gandhiji for not favouring him in 1939. What greatness! Both of them contributed equally to the achievement of India’s independence. Gandhi was the Mazzini of India, while Subhas was the Cavour.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is Professor of History, University of Burdwan)