M.J Akbar’s latest book, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam, is a study of events leading up to the Partition of India and its immediate aftermath. The book particularly focuses on the seven turbulent years between 1940 and 1947.
While the Indian independence movement and Partition have been written about countless times, Akbar takes a novel approach in contrasting the two colossal figures of Indian Independence Movement: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah in terms of their respective religions and how they followed it in practice. The author reasons that since the partition of the country took place on religious lines, it might be useful to look at these leaders from that perspective.
The author’s principal argument is that while Gandhi was a devout Hindu who believed faith could nurture the civilizational harmony of India where every religion has flourished, Jinnah was an unconventional Muslim for the most part of his life who embraced religion when it was convenient for his personal ambitions and for the fulfillment of narrow self-interest of his community.
Starting with Gandhi, the author traces his childhood experiences. Gandhi’s Hinduism came from his mother Putlibai, who followed the Satnamis, a religious sect that focused on a syncretic blend of teachings of all religions, especially Hinduism and Islam. For the sect, the idea was to perform good deeds and lead a morally disciplined life. Gandhi’s mother was a strict adherent and would often take vows like shunning food for a day or not eating salt for a week and then keep those vows even at the cost of risk to her personal health and well being. This had an immense impact on the young Gandhi and inspired and somewhat trained him for how he would come to practice resistance during the independence movement. On a related note, he was also greatly inspired by the passive resistance put up by Dutch women against the British during the Boer Wars in South Africa.
His experience with the Islamic faith, however, went beyond his mother’s religious sect. He mingled with many of his family’s Muslim friends while growing up in Rajkot and lived amongst the Gujarati Muslim community during his time in South Africa. This led him to believe that he understood the Islamic faith quite well and given that Hindus and Muslims had lived together in peace for so long, there was no reason why he wouldn’t succeed in dissuading Jinnah from his demand for Pakistan.
The author also traces certain other events to show Gandhi’s conviction in his beliefs. When violence broke out in eastern Bengal in 1946, he chose to visit Noakhali, the place that had witnessed ghastly and horrific violence against Hindus. There he tried to reason with local Muslims to get them to understand the futility of violence. When they agreed and regretted the violence committed in the heat of the moment, he got them to accompany him to the marches through Hindu areas to show their sincerity and inspire confidence among Hindu community. Gandhi was successful in restoring a degree of harmony in Noakhali and surrounding areas. On his way back to Delhi, he made a stop in Bihar where there had been retaliatory violence against Muslims. There he spoke to Hindus about doing their part in fostering harmony between the two communities.
But while his intentions were noble, he failed to see the writing on the wall. He failed to accept the reality of the spiral of violence engulfing the country and the inevitability of Partition. Even after Independence, he wanted to spend August 15th in Pakistan as a show of his defiance of the Two Nation theory. But due to security concerns, he ended up fasting and praying at Hyderi Manzil, a Muslim dominated area in Calcutta. He declared that Muslims of India and Hindus of Pakistan should stay put where they were even if they had to face violence. Then came to his demand of India paying 63 crore rupees in settlement to Pakistan even as the latter was busy invading Kashmir. This created extreme alienation and anger among sections of Hindus.
Jinnah is a study in contrast, who is described by the author as a political Muslim. He ate pork and drank alcohol, both of which are not permissible as per tenets of Islam. He was always dressed like an Englishman and switched to sherwani only after the creation of Pakistan. A highly educated lawyer, who had spent a considerable amount of time abroad, he joined Congress as a secular man. But the pursuit of political relevance drove him to become the most vocal proponent for Pakistan on the basis of Two Nation Theory. As per the theory, Hindus and Muslims were two separate people and could not live together peacefully as one nation. He argued, then, for a Muslim majority Pakistan just as India remained Hindu majority. But given all his refinement, he had no compunctions about the horrifying violence that was unleashed as a result of this demand. Both the nations continue to bear the brunt of that animosity even today.
The book also discusses Nehru’s Historic Blunder, detailing the series of events that led to the Direct Action Day. On this, Maulana Azad is quoted as saying, “I have nevertheless to say with regret that this was not the first time that he (Nehru) did immense harm to the national cause…Jawaharlal is however very vain and cannot stand that anybody else should receive greater support or admiration than he.”
Azad is also shown to have warned Gandhi against giving credibility to Jinnah by engaging with him, which was of course ignored. Sardar Patel, on the other hand, was the pragmatic leader who often kept his opinions to himself out of respect for Gandhi.
The book also discusses the role of the British in the Partition of India. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain at that time was infamously hostile towards Congress and Gandhi. About the former, he remarked that it was not the sole representative of the people of India. About the latter, he is known to have made many distasteful remarks and insinuations, including writing to Viceroy Linlithgow to ask if Gandhi was adding glucose to water when Gandhi was on a three-week fast at Poona. In the same note, he added that Gandhi should be left to die, as he was an enemy of the Empire.
In addition to that, Churchill also signed a deal with the Muslim League and Jinnah in 1940 whereby he agreed to look at the demand for Pakistan sympathetically in exchange for Muslim League’s support during WW2. This was called the ‘August 1940 Offer’ which gave Jinnah immense confidence in his designs for a separate nation and the reason why he refused to compromise with Congress leaders.
While the author delves deep into the events leading to the partition, he fails to go beyond the prevalent narratives about India’s independence movement. For one, he doesn’t question Gandhi’s dogma about absolute non-violence or ahimsa, often touted as the Hindu view. A careful reading of Hindu texts such as Mahabharata reveals that it is anything but the Hindu view. When Shri Krishna fails to prevent the war after making every possible effort, even going to the extent of pleading with Duryodhana to give Pandavas only five villages rather than the entire kingdom, he advises the Pandavas to go ahead with the war even if that means killing their own relatives in the process. One might draw parallels to this with the Indian independence movement and understand that the Hindu view states that in the face of abject injustices, violence itself becomes the last resort to restore peace. It is a lesson that Gandhi should have been able to learn but failed to.
Lastly, the book fails to look at Nathuram Godse and his compatriots in an alternate light. In India, we respect even Ravana for his knowledge and devotion to Shiva while we continue to revile him for abducting Sita. In a similar way, Nathuram Godse must be rightfully reviled for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi but a clear assessment as to why he did what he did might lead us to a better understanding of both him and Gandhi. In doing so, we will be merely following the age-old Indian tradition of respecting the diversity of views.
Gandhi’s Hinduism is available for purchase from Amazon.
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