January 30, 2021 was when we remembered once again, for the 73rd time, the passing away of the greatest Hindu Patriot that India has given birth to in modern times. The memory, as always, is tinged with regret and a tinge of pain in the heart. Because, in a bitter irony of history, Gandhiji died at the hands of a young Indian, who was also passionate about his devotion to Hinduism and to his country, who was a Hindu patriot according to his understanding.

How would Gandhiji have understood the irony? We do not need to speculate. We know his reaction when, in 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated Dr Lalkaka and Sir Curzon Wyllie in London in a fit of patriotic fury. Gandhiji was then on his way to London, leading a deputation to England on behalf of the oppressed Indians of South Africa. He reacted strongly to the murders. But he did not doubt Dhingra’s patriotism or his sacrifice. In Hind Swaraj, which Gandhiji wrote a few months later, he says, “I count Dhingra as a patriot. But his love had gone mad. He has sacrificed his body on the wrong path.” This is a literal translation of what Gandhiji wrote in Gujarati. It reads even more empathetic in the original.

In the Indian Opinion of that time, Gandhiji wrote, “In my view, Mr. Dhingra himself is innocent. The murder was committed in a state of intoxication. It is not merely wine or bhang that makes one drunk; a mad idea also can do so…”. That intoxication arose, as always, from a failure of intellect. Gandhiji continues, “…one can only pity the man. He was egged on to do this act by ill-digested reading of worthless writings. His defence of himself, too, appears to have been learnt by rote. It is those who incited him to this that deserve to be punished. …”

Gandhiji could appreciate and empathise with the “mad patriotism” of a Dhingra, and perhaps also of a Godse, because patriotism, based in a deep understanding and love of his religion, was the defining virtue of Gandhiji. Tolstoy, with whom Gandhiji was in correspondence around the time of the writing of Hind Swaraj, was somewhat put off by what he perceived to be the “Hindu Patriotism” of Gandhiji. Henry Troyat, in his scholarly biography of Tolstoy, records that in the months before his death in 1910, Tolstoy was in correspondence with Gandhi, whom he deeply admired, ‘except for his Hindu patriotism, which spoils everything’.

Gandhiji was aware of this opinion of Tolstoy about his ‘Hindu Patriotism’. Writing to a correspondent in 1926, Gandhiji admits of a fundamental difference between him and Tolstoy on this issue, saying, “…My patriotism is patent enough; my love for India is ever growing but it is derived from my religion and is therefore in no sense exclusive.”

In his brief correspondence of 1909-1910 with Tolstoy, Gandhiji takes issue with him on his understanding of not only patriotism, but also of some of the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism like reincarnation. Gandhiji around that time was translating Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindoo”. In this Letter, Tolstoy while appreciating several aspects of Hinduism urges the Hindus to give up some of their irrational beliefs, among which he includes the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Gandhiji wrote to Tolstoy, asking him for permission to translate and publish the letter, and also requesting him to reconsider his opinion on re-incarnation: “Re-incarnation or transmigration is a cherished belief with millions in India, indeed, in China also. With many, one might almost say, it is a matter of experience, no longer a matter of academic acceptance. It explains reasonably the many mysteries of life. With some of the passive resisters who have gone through the gaols of the Transvaal, it has been their solace…”

Tolstoy did not appreciate what would have seemed to be an impudence on behalf of then young and largely unknown Gandhiji. He told Gandhiji that he stood by his views on reincarnation, but he could do what he liked about it. Gandhiji omitted the reference to reincarnation from his translation of Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindoo”.

He could stand his ground on his understanding of both Hinduism and Patriotism, and the close relationship between the two, against the legendary Tolstoy, because he had learnt his religion and his love for his country through extensive study and great personal suffering. Fundamental tenets of Hinduism, like reincarnation, were already ‘a matter of experience, no longer a matter of academic acceptance’ for him. The tenets explained ‘the mysteries of life’ for him.

The great suffering that Gandhiji, along with his wife, his sons and thousands of his compatriots, went through in the jails of South Africa is not widely known. At the time of his correspondence with Tolstoy, he was acutely conscious that many Indians were even then undergoing unimaginable suffering in a country where they were treated as vermin.

Gandhiji himself had undergone three imprisonments in the eighteen months preceding his visit to England in 1909. During two of those imprisonments, he was made to perform hard labour, which included breaking stones on the roads of Volksrust with the prison gangs. In the course of his second imprisonment, he was made to walk through the streets of Volksrust and Johannesburg in a convict’s garb carrying his belongings on his head. In the Johannesburg jail, he was made to spend a night with hardened criminals, where he could not sleep a wink for fear of being sodomised. During his third imprisonment, he was put in an isolation cell with rapists and murderers as his neighbours. He was given unpalatable food in such an undignified manner that he nearly starved for the three months of his imprisonment. He was made to sew torn blankets hunching on the floor and was refused the use of a stool and even the luxury of sitting in the fresh air outside his cell.

Gandhiji took this suffering as a form of penance, Tapas. He came out of this passage through hell with his faith deepened. He ends his narration of his experience of his third imprisonment not with any expression of pain or rancour, but with that of the joy of seeing the creator all around him, of hearing the ‘name of the Invisible’ echoing through the skies and of sitting rapt in this ‘world-temple’ with his heart filled with gladness. It is this intense penance that turns him into a Mahatma, according to Pranjivan Mehta, his close friend and benefactor, who spent several weeks with him at that time.

But Gandhiji was no ordinary Mahatma, he was a Mahatma who was passionately in love with his people and his country; a Mahatma, who kept chanting: “My country is good, my land is good; It is always dearer to me than my life.”

After having studied the major texts of Hindu learning and gone through intense struggle and suffering, he had come to the firm conclusion that the religion and patriotism are in fact the same. Concluding his narration of his experience of his third imprisonment, he says: “I wish that everyone who reads this account of experience should cultivate patriotism, if he does not have it, and learn Satyagraha therefrom, and if he has it already, be more firm in it. I am growing more convinced every day that no one who does not know his religion can have true patriotism in him.”

It is this confluence of religion and patriotism that makes Gandhiji special. It is this confluence that Tolstoy sees in him when he refers to his Hindu Patriotism. It is this that makes the Indians in South Africa refer to him as the Deshbhakta Mahatma in the formal farewell address presented to him, when the time comes for Gandhiji to leave South Africa for the greater struggle in what he calls his karma-bhumi, India.

In our recent book, we have tried to tell this story of the evolution of Gandhiji as a Hindu Patriot, as the Deshbhakta Mahatma through his decades-long struggles and sufferings in South Africa. Commenting on it, Shashi Tharoor, the great public intellectual of our time, has said that Gandhiji was indeed a “Hindu” and a “Patriot”, but not a “Hindu Patriot”. That, of course, is erroneous. Because Gandhiji, through his erudition and his struggles and sufferings had learnt that being religious and being patriotic were the same. For him, his patriotism was not separate from his religion, it was derived from his religion. He was also convinced that “no one who does not know his religion can have true patriotism in him”.

Other commentators, Shri Karan Thapar and Prof. Faizan Ahmed among them, have drawn lists of Hindus who have been traitors to their country. But that means nothing. Gandhiji, in the course of his Satyagraha in South Africa, came across several Hindu, as also Muslim and Christian, Indians who did not stand by the Indian cause, who betrayed the Satyagraha, some of them even actively collaborated with General Smuts. For Gandhiji, it only meant that those who went astray did not know their religion. It only confirmed his opinion that only those who know their religion know how to keep faith with their brethren, how to be patriotic.

Mahatma Gandhi is an exemplar of great patriotism anchored in a deep understanding and intense practice of Hinduism. By knowing Gandhiji you know Hinduism, and by knowing Hinduism you know Gandhiji. The two together teach us what it means to be patriotic and why patriotism is an essential attribute of religion.

(Dr J.K. Bajaj, along with M. D. Srinivas, is the author of Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj, published recently by Har Anand. Dr Bajaj can be reached at jatinderkbajaj@gmail.com)