William Crawley on a book that sheds new light on the political giants who helped shape the destiny of today’s subcontinent
A focus on religion as a motivating factor in the battle for independence is something of an embarrassment for historians of both India and Pakistan. For many Indian nationalists the religious divide between Hindu and Muslim is sufficiently explained as a consequence of sustained British policies of ‘divide and rule’. The sentiment and movement for independence, and resistance to imperial rule, was backed by Indians of all religious persuasions. For Pakistanis the ‘two nation theory’ and the threat of ‘Islam in danger’ are regarded as the ultimate justifications for the creation of a separate Muslim state. Gandhi himself embodied the belief in, and a life-long commitment to, independence for all Indians.
But for Gandhi Hinduism was also ‘an intensely personal and eternal truth’. He wrapped his advocacy of independence in Hindu imagery, to the dismay of many of his political allies who deplored its use but recognised its political power. In Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam, M.J. Akbar invokes a parallel with the nationalist philosopher Sri Aurobindo, citing a (2007) paper by Sugata Bose, which argues that Aurobindo has been traduced by ‘secularist’ historians who have failed ‘to understand the relevance of religion both to Indian philosopher and peasant’. For Jinnah, Akbar argues, religion was a ‘political invention’.
The founder and leader of Pakistan had little personal commitment to Islamic religious observance. But he used the protection of Islam and of Muslims to great effect in his campaign for Pakistan. He was relentless in his opposition to the Hindu ideals that, for him, characterised Gandhi’s whole political platform. In short, Gandhi and Jinnah represent ‘two different models of the application of religion to politics’.
In stepping into this controversial territory M.J. Akbar is true to form. He has been in turn one of India’s most successful journalists, and founder-editor of not one but two thriving English language newspapers, The Telegraph and The Asian Age. He moved from journalism into an eccentric political career, first with the Congress party and then – to widespread astonishment – as spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading political vehicle for unapologetic ‘Hindutva’ or Hindu nationalism, now led by prime minister Narendra Modi.
Akbar had inherited the mantle of a nationalist Muslim. Like the much respected pre-independence Congress party leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Akbar’s family had stayed in India after partition. Jinnah, as self-proclaimed ‘sole spokesman’ of the Muslim community, had always refused to acknowledge Azad’s political legitimacy or that of other Muslims who did not support his demand for Pakistan.
Akbar recalls Gandhi’s family background: a childhood spent like Jinnah’s in Gujarat; his mother’s piety and his father’s administrative experience in several small princely states. He explores Gandhi’s ‘Hindu’ belief in religious tolerance and the scriptural basis of his evolving concept of satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence) as a political strategy. Though Gandhi was dubbed a Mahatma – in effect a saint – there can be little doubt that he also had highly developed skills as a political strategist and did not hesitate to use them.
Interestingly, Akbar addresses this issue in the context of Gandhi’s frequent and successful strategy of fasting to achieve a political objective. There were 17 such fasts altogether, varying in length from one to 21 days. Akbar points to the fact that in all but one of these, Gandhi was fasting not to put pressure directly on the British government but on other Indians, both critics and friends. In 1932 he fasted to reject the terms of what was called the ‘communal award’, in which it was proposed to give separate representation to the so-called ‘Untouchables’ outside the Indian caste system. The term ‘caste Hindus’ was also unacceptable to Gandhi as ‘it touches the political mind of Hindus in its sensitive spot and carries with it political repercussions’.
Gandhi’s principal antagonist then was the ‘untouchable’ leader Dr B.R. Ambedkar. The then British prime minister Ramsay Macdonald called this an act of ‘political blackmail’, an accusation that comes up from time to time in the ongoing debate on Gandhi’s legacy. At a 2010 performance in Delhi of Rajesh Kumar’s powerful play ‘Ambedkar aur Gandhi’, there was a drama within a drama as the audience divided into two warring camps. On one side were those who argued that Ambedkar had been right to oppose Gandhi (though he eventually gave way), and on the other those who protested that the play disrespected or misrepresented the Mahatma.
Both sides were very angry, and the producer ultimately withdraw the play from the competition in which it had been entered.
More recently (May 2019) and in another context, the novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote: ‘When he did not get his way, Gandhi began his fast from prison. This was completely against his own maxim of satyagraha – it was pure blackmail.’ M.J. Akbar reserves judgment. ‘Gandhi’s response to the charge of coercion was, well… Gandhian; he writes: “The same kind of coercion that Jesus had exercised from the cross”.’ Gandhi did not underestimate his own place in the moral universe.
The refusal by Congress leaders to share power with the Muslim League in the United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh) after provincial elections in 1937 is often seen as the decision which, more than anything, sealed Muslim opinion in favour of a separate autonomous Muslim state. Jinnah blamed Gandhi for that decision. But perhaps the most telling judgment expressed in this book is in the chapter titled ‘Nehru’s historic blunder’. Nehru had taken over as Congress president from Maulana Azad in July 1946, after both the Congress and the Muslim League had reluctantly accepted the Cabinet Mission plan which would have avoided partition.
A majority of the All India Congress Committee would have preferred Sardar Vallabhai Patel. But Gandhi had committed his support to Nehru. Though Gandhi ‘had discovered that his wish was no longer his command’, the other leaders bowed to his choice. Nehru went on to give a press conference in which he said that Congress was not committed either in the short term or the long, to observe a key element of the Cabinet Mission plan – the grouping of Muslim majority provinces. Jinnah had been under fire from his own supporters for apparently wavering in his insistence on an independent Muslim state.
Nehru’s blunder threw him a lifeline, to put an independent Pakistan back on the agenda. Jinnah never retreated from that again. The ‘Direct Action’ or ‘Islamic jihad’ that followed in Calcutta and elsewhere in Bengal cost thousands of lives,
Akbar stresses that the record repeatedly shows Jinnah’s dependence on British cooperation to deliver his vision of an autonomous Muslim state. After the Muslim League had in March 1940 endorsed the Lahore Resolution demanding ‘Pakistan’, the British had committed themselves to securing Muslim consent to whatever successor regime was to be put in place. That promise was confirmed by the 1942 Cripps mission, whose failure had allowed Jinnah to ‘wait on events’. Maulana Azad blamed Gandhi for giving Jinnah too much importance – a view shared by the Governor of Punjab Sir Bertrand Glancy and many other British officials who were deeply opposed to the partition of India, despite their alleged belief in ‘divide and rule’.
Akbar cites Jinnah’s one-time assistant, the Muslim lawyer MC Chagla, who was later a senior minister in governments of independent India. Chagla had once asked Jinnah about the fate of Muslims outside Pakistan, to which Jinnah is said to have replied: ‘They will look after themselves. I am not interested in their fate.’ There are many other such anecdotes which had been included in Hector Bolitho’s officially commissioned biography of Jinnah (in 1951), but were eliminated by the Pakistani government censor because they did not fit well with the image of Jinnah as father of a Muslim nation and Islamic state that the government wished to project. They were unearthed and published by a Pakistani scholar in 2007.
The further division of Pakistan 24 years later and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh is another story. By then the issue was neither Hinduism nor Islam but linguistic, ethnic and social divisions between East and West Pakistan. Yet those divisions were rooted in the original partition of Bengal, and ideas that emerged in 1946-47 of an independent Bengali state but were stifled both by Jinnah and the Indian National Congress in concert. Akbar sheds light on the role of the Bengali Muslim leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, later briefly a prime minister of Pakistan.
As chief minister of Bengal Suhrawardy was much criticised for his handling of the riots in Calcutta of August 1946. Though in public he preached ‘peace and brotherhood’, he was held responsible for arranging the release of hundreds of thugs who carried out many of the brutal killings, while there was minimal police intervention. A few weeks later, however, Suhrawardy was praising Gandhi for his success in bringing at least a temporary halt to the communal violence in Calcutta, and working closely with him in a way that he had dismissed as ‘mad’ when Gandhi had first suggested it.
Much later the Bangladesh leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who as a student leader had been a close ally and political protégé of Suhrawardy, wrote in his unfinished memoirs of his own enormous admiration for Gandhi at that time and since. Gandhi’s moral influence, though often ignored in India, has extended globally far beyond his own Hindu cultural roots. Jinnah’s inspiration for later generations in the nation he founded has also been huge. But it has been a more secular and nationalist influence and it often struggles to be heard among the specifically Islamic cultural and religious influences which have come to the fore in Pakistan today.