Gandhi, Religion and Indian Nationalism

by Ram Puniyani,

The Gandhi anniversary this year has been very special (2007). With UN declaring 2nd October as the International Day for Non-Violence, with the renewed interest in Gandhi all over the globe one needs to revisit the Father of Indian Nation and his yeomen contribution in the articulation of the concepts of non-violence and nationalism in Indian context. At another level his own unique definitions and practice of religion and definition of God as truth and non-violence have their own matchless place in the history of human thought.

Support TwoCircles

Even before coming to India, the Mahatma had sharpened his philosophy and political methods. When he returned from South Africa, India was in the grip of religiosity and broad masses were part of the churning process due to the on going social changes. Broadly they were not yet major part of freedom movement. Gandhi on one hand had the exposure to liberal British political system and on the other had experienced the repressive South African regime, which was practicing apartheid. In India the social changes were slow to come by. The elite through different political formations dominated political process at that point of time. We had Indian National Congress, mainly espousing Indian nationalism, where the elite were the main participants. In Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha, the landlords and princes were the core participants, later they were joined in by those few who came from the background of modern education. They were not from the landed gentry but they did develop political ideologies suiting the interests of feudal classes. Gandhi’s decision, to launch non-cooperation movement, and to involve broad layers of society, alienated some of elites from within Congress. Those from communal organizations were not concerned about freedom movement anyway. Some from the Congress left in due course of time to join the communal formations. Gandhi was firm on the involvement of whole nation in the process of national movement.

This ensured that our freedom movement would emerge as the biggest mass movement not only of India but any time in the World. This had the participation of people of all the religions, castes and of both the genders. This movement was also to define the contours of Indian constitution while laying the path to freedom from British colonialism. His major opponents
were in Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha, which later were joined in by the RSS. These formations were reflecting the interests of landed gentry and upheld the birth based caste and gender hierarchies. He faced the tough task of taking all the sections of society along to the path of Independence of the nation. In this, those on the side of secularism and democracy had some differences with him, but their common point of acceptance was the values of democracy and secularism His differences with Ambedkar and Bhagatsingh are highlighted by sections of society to the limit of exaggeration. They deliberately overlook that the grounds of agreement on major fields of political terrain did exist and were and are crucial in understanding the diverse paths towards modern India. The Poona Pact with Ambedkar did deprive the dalits them separate electorate, but it also kept them in the fold of emerging India. The separate electorate to Muslims did in a way led to the foundation of Pakistan.

He did not make efforts to save the life of Bhagat Singh who was given the death penalty by the colonial powers. Here he was sticking to his principles of non-violence, which for him was the central credo of value system.

His differences with Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS were more on the fundamental issues. These political formations were for Religion based nationalism, Muslim and Hindu. Subtly they were also upholders of birth based caste and gender hierarchy. These were the differences, which were used by the British to partition India. His central place in the freedom movement and his espousing the cause of all did get hostile reaction from Muslim communalism and Hindu Communalism both. These formations projected him to be against their religion, while his opposition was not to religions but to the politics in the name of religion. Nothing could be more contradictory in the approach to religion, than the approach of communalists and Gandhi. The communalists, both Muslim and Hindu, used the religious identity of their religion, by-passing the issues related to values and social reform. They used it to exclude the ‘other’, while Gandhi on the other hand saw religion mainly as a moral force, a set of values, which should guide the individual in her/his life. He hardly talked of identity and his religion was innovatively inclusive of the other.

While Muslim League talked of Islamic Nation, Pakistan, and Hindu Mahasbha/RSS talked of Hindu nation, Gandhi talked of secular India, articulating the aspirations of majority of the country. He wanted religion to be a private matter for the individual, “In India, for whose fashioning I have worked all my life, every man enjoys equality of status, whatever his religion is. The state is bound to be wholly secular”, and, “religion is not the test of nationality but is a personal matter between man and God, and,” religion is a personal affair of each individual, it must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs”. It is clear that while communalists saw religion as the dividing institution, Gandhi in his unique way, more in continuation with Bhakti and Sufi
traditions saw religion as the ground which united people, “I consider myself as good a Muslim as I am a Hindu and for that matter, I regard myself as equally good a Christian or a Parsi” This quote of his has to be seen along with his two other more often cited quotes,” For me, politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt, ever to be shunned”, and “politics divorced from religion is like a corpse, fit only to be burnt.” (all quotes from Gandhi and Communal Problems, CSSS, 1994 pg 6). This again is so exceptional in its innovation in understanding. Here by religion he meant its morality aspects not just the ones related to external identity.

While he had differences from Ambedkar, he took up the cause of untouchables in his own way. Ambedkar hammered his point in an uncompromising way and Gandhi did his all to take the eradication of untouchably far and wide. As secularization process had not gone far in the country which was/is in the grip of religiosity, he realized that policies and values laced in the language of religion will reach the people in an effective way. His contribution in the eradication of this evil of untouchability cannot be underestimated. His use of the word Harijan for the untouchables was again in tune with his language, which he devised to communicate with the masses. It was not that he wanted to humiliate them by using a separate derogatory term for them. It was to lift them up in the popular perception.

At the same time Ambedkar correctly rebelled against the rigid chains of prevalent Brahminic Hinduism, Gandhi wanted to take along the majority of social sections towards the process of reform. At this point the Hindu communalists were talking of values of Manusmiriti, we are already having the best of social laws in this book, they claimed. There are also incidents when people like Savarkar also worked for temple entry for untouchables, but such moves are mere exceptions. His impact on the process to improve the condition of women reached all over, at a time when the communalists were putting all obstacles for women coming out for education and to participate in social life. It is no surprise that we do not see women’s participation in the communal organization while National movement led by Gandhi has huge participation by women, and there are illustrious women who led by example in the fold of national movement.

The divide between Gandhi and communalists, both Hindu and Muslim, was not merely for the political goals; it ran deeper, to the way of looking at society. It was about the approach to the social and human values. A section of Hindu communalists perceived Gandhi as the “biggest enemy of Hindu”. Nathuram Godse symbolized this section. He killed the father of nation. He began his career as the trained pracharak of RSS and was later to become the Secretary of Pune Branch of Hindu Mahasabha. The paper he edited had the title, Agrani and was subtitled as Hindu Rashtra. Even today while Hindu right pays lip service to the Mahtama, they do not regard him as the father of the Nation, and look down upon his principles of non violence as being emasculating to Hindus and so should be forgotten. Their discomfort during the present revival of interest in Gandhi’s values is palpable through their reaction as seen in number of list serves and web sites run by them, and through other expressions of theirs’.

Today sixty years down the line, the world has come far. The increase in violence all over the world, the politics wearing the clothes of religion has intensified the ‘Hate other’ ideology. Can we look up to Gandhi to confront the misuse of religion for political agenda of the mighty at global as well as local level? Can we pick up some of the values from him rather than just bypass him or merely pay lip service to his ideals?