Gandhi, more or less, lived an Islamic life
No part of Gandhi’s life has escaped scholarly attention in a corpus of a little over a century. Literature on him is abundant.
Two lines, in my opinion, stand out as the profoundest words ever spoken on the Mahatma.
First, Einstein, in 1944, said generations might not believe that a great man like Gandhi ever “walked upon this earth”. Second, Orwell’s 1949 piece on Gandhi opens with a rational probe: “Saints should always be judged guilty until proved innocents…” In the end, Orwell gracefully exonerates Gandhi: “…how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.”
A fair amount of questioning of Gandhi’s ideas has gained currency among western writers, who see him as self-conceitedly left-leaning, and as disavowing industrial progress for bucolic poverty. “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed,” Mahatma Gandhi famously said. Some of Gandhi’s greatest challengers were, however, compatriots of his time – Jinnah, Savarkar and Ambedkar.
With his new book, “Faith and Freedom, Gandhi in History”, Prof. Mushirul Hasan, the internationally renowned historian and former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, turns his gaze to an intriguing aspect of Gandhi’s life and legacy: his engagement with Muslims. Intriguing, because Gandhi’s overly ‘drift’ towards Muslims is said to have cost him his life, when a Hindu militant assassinated him in 1948. Why could Gandhi not mitigate the ferment of Muslim nationalism that culminated in the creation of Pakistan?
Hasan acknowledges Gandhi’s immense love for Muslims. Once, in jail, he anxiously stuck his neck out – you may choose to ignore the pun — for a glimpse of the Eid moon, along with some Muslim inmates. Gandhi enjoyed great personal rapport with Muslim leaders but, Hasan argues, he had a “limited or a specific understanding” of Islam. It was shaped by his early experience of the mercantile South African and the Gujarati Muslim community. His approach would later lead him to a “dead end”.
What made Gandhi ‘Gandhi’ was his faith, the bedrock of his ideas. His ‘moral heroism’ was inherently anti-secular. So, for him, the unhindered rise of Islam had to do with its normative messages of “equality, tolerance and simplicity”, as found in the chapters 5.48 and 11.118 of the Quran, which also enjoins People of the Book to work for common good (3.64). This is exactly what Gandhi’s faith told him; his concepts rooted in religious scruples. Where else have some of the greatest ideas of mankind, such as justice, compassion and righteousness, come from, but religion?
Much as he was a bulwark against colonial nationalism, Gandhi could not assuage inter-communal rivalry because of one community’s suspicion of being dominated by the other. As one who views the world not from the “prism of faith” and opposed as he is to Muslim sectarianism, Hasan explores these as Gandhian infirmities.
However, if Gandhi failed in successfully repressing Muslim nationalism, it is because Hindu fundamentalism had also been concomitantly rising. The Mahatma’s battle was spiritual; Jinnah’s and Savarkar’s were temporal.
Savarkar felt Hindus were losing out and Ambedkar succeeded in pulling Dalits out of Hinduism’s fold, much to Gandhi’s annoyance. Gandhi could not prevent the Partition – he supported a newly formed Pakistan’s rights – not because of his flaws, but that of others. This concession has to be made for whom Romain Rolland called “a mortal demi-god”.
An essential Everyman historian, Hasan writes history with flourish. “Faith and Freedom” is a tale told to make history vivid, amid his fine intellectual tradition suffused with secularism, in the Western liberal sense.
Hasan’s speaks from a position of western liberal secularism, where religious values are derided. That makes Gandhi’s relationship with Muslims posthumously look like a disaster in parts. That western concept of secularism does not work for India.