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The Peace that failed

The Peace that failed

Chhanda Chatterjee |

Ever since the 1960s, political thinkers had been debating on the ideas of ‘consociational democracy.’   Beginning with Arend Lijphart&’s debut book The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands from Berkeley in 1968, the debate had been carried on endlessly by 

E Nordlinger (Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1972), 

A Pappalardo, S Halpern and B Parry in the context of the survival and success of multi-cultural democracies in the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland. Rakhahari Chatterji has tried to interpret Mahatma Gandhi&’s experiment of bringing about a consensus with the Muslims on the national question by trying to espouse the Khilafat Movement spearheaded by the Ali Brothers within the ambit of the consociational model. Gandhi believed that a nation was a community of communities. Like Tagore he wanted national identities to be transcended by a universal human identity and Mohamed Ali&’s statement that ‘all communal interests had to be adjusted to harmonise the paramount interests of India’ had held out high hopes for him. This inclined him towards the working out of a new synthesis, ‘a federation of faiths.’

 Gail Minault has already familiarised us with Gandhi&’s attempt to forge an alliance with the Muslims by supporting their demand for according due respect to their religious head or Khalifa in the post-war settlement in Europe. The Khilafat came handy to Gandhi and he tried to subsume this Pan-Islamist movement of the Muslims within his larger movement for non-co-operation against the British. Muslim resentment against Britain’s short shrift to Turkey provided Gandhi with an opening to win over the Muslims for an anti-British front ever since Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan had taken the Muslims on a path of close cooperation with the British. Gandhi&’s friendship with the Alis reached a crescendo between October 1917 and January 1925 and began to decline between January 1925 and April 1931. While in the former phase Gandhi mentioned the Alis as many as 651 times in his writings, for the latter phase,  Chatterji could trace only 163 references to the Brothers by the Mahatma.

The Khilafat question soon became irrelevant with its abolition in Turkey and the importance of this movement declined. Mobilisation on communal lines revived its appeal to the Muslims leaders and there were outbreaks of riots in Delhi, Gulbarga and Kohat. Gandhi made a last-ditch effort to arrest the drift towards communalism by fasting in Mohamed Ali&’s house. But by this time the situation had gone out of hand. The tail had now started wagging the dog and the leaders had to respond to the communal upsurge among the Muslim masses to be able to retain their grip on their community. Mohamed Ali shed his mask of liberalism in fighting with the Government against the Sarda Act of 1929 against Child Marriage and successfully kept his community out of the ambit of the Act.

Chatterji has quoted Dilip Kumar Roy&’s adverse assessment of the character of the Alis to understand why they failed to measure up to Gandhi’s high expectations. Mushirul Hasan blamed Mohamed Ali&’s lack of balance and a sense of proportion for the failure. Mohamed Ali had indulged in the high rhetoric of calling the Congress the  aman sabha  (committee of peace) and became its President. The Aligarh intellectual, Shan Muhammad, regretted his exit from the Congress in 1928. But none of these writers and theorists would admit that Gandhi&’s attempts to bring the two communities close to each other was foredoomed to failure from the very beginning.

Tagore, who had maintained a steady friendship with Gandhi since 1915, had doubted Gandhi’s ability to bring the two communities together in such a superficial manner. He wondered if centuries of mistrust and distance could suddenly be bridged by a movement which did not even have its roots in the soil of the country. In a letter to Andrews in 1921 he had described Islamic culture as ‘aggressively antagonistic’ to India&’s own culture. Islam had been born in a desert in hostile surroundings, breeding a fighting spirit among its adherents. Hinduism on the other hand was born in the congenial environment of the forest. It was therefore not easy to reconcile the two. In his Hindu- Mussalman in Kalantar (which was a letter addressed to Kalidas Nag), he deprecated how the prophet&’s original teachings to eliminate greed, hatred and pride was later distorted and narrowed by later interpreters to deal a death blow to the cause of communal amity.

Chatterji himself has shown the ambiguities in Gandhi&’s behaviour in participating in the inaugural meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha in Hardwar in 1915 and encouraging Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai and Swami Shraddhananda. Gandhi had been a great enthusiast for cow protection and would preside over many campaign meetings of the Cow Protection Society. He was extremely anxious to placate the pro-Hindu lobby. The Muslims were not far wrong when they interpreted Gandhi&’s support to Khilafat as a ploy to win them back from the British and bring their movement within the fold of majoritarian interests. The subsequent Congress ban on cow slaughter in all the provinces, where it had assumed power in 1937 after winning the elections,  will amply illustrate this thesis.

Gandhi and the Congress leaders all suffered from this dilemma of trying to put up a secular face when at heart they believed in the importance of majority sentiments. These false pretences of the Congress have been pathetically exposed in the recent political developments in the country when the majority has turned its face from it in the hustings.  

The reviewer is Professor, Dept of History, Visva-Bharati University.