Jinnah’s dream of having a separate country for Muslims seemed to be creating a situation where, if people like Patel had not intervened, Muslims just might have got many countries within India and not just a Pakistan outside of it.
New Delhi: Seasoned author and Rajya Sabha member, M.J. Akbar’s tome, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam, is a brilliant read and offers some of the most interesting, exclusive details of events leading to India’s independence, including how Mahatma Gandhi—the iconic crusader of non-violence—wanted to stay at Noakhali in East Pakistan after the 1947 partition.
Gandhi, claims the book, told Pathan leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan—popular as Frontier Gandhi—on 31 May 1947, that he wanted to visit the North West Frontier and live in Pakistan after Independence.
Writes Akbar: “He (Gandhi) wanted to be in Noakhali, East Pakistan, where Hindus had suffered bitterly in the 1946 riots and prevent any recurrence. Gandhi was still struggling to build hope from the incendiary debris of communal violence.”
Gandhi is quoted in the book as saying: “I don’t believe in these divisions of the country. I am not going to ask anybody’s permission. If they kill me for their defiance, I shall embrace death with a smiling face. That is, if Pakistan comes into existence, I intend to go there, tour it, live there and see what they do to me.”
Historians have repeatedly said Gandhi had some strange ideas to get the British rulers out of the subcontinent. His curious point of entry into the Indian freedom struggle was an offer to enlist recruits for Britain in World War I. The decision was based on the rationale that if Indians provided unconditional aid in an hour of need, Britain would accord dominion status to India out of a sense of moral obligation. But it did not work, ostensibly because Britain’s immediate concern after the war was the prospect of a strike into India from Afghanistan spearheaded by Raja Mahendra Pratap, Abdul Hafiz Mohamed Barkatullah, and Ubaidullah Sindhi. And then, in February 1919, the colonial government imposed the Rowlatt Act against “sedition”, triggering an immediate nationwide strike called by Gandhi. Martial law was declared in Punjab and police fired on a crowd gathered for Baisakhi in Jallianwala Bagh, killing close to 1,000 people. Gandhi shifted his goal post and designed tools—non-cooperation and civil disobedience—which will, eventually, help India win freedom. The issue of Hindu-Muslim unity was his obsession, so was reform of Hinduism. Sadly, none worked after the partition, which unleashed one of the worst calamities of the 20th century. Reports say no plans were made for a population exchange and the very thought of segregating the two regions was totally preposterous. A devout Hindu, Gandhi’s ideological commitment was ravaged by communal violence. The borderlines, announced on 17 August—two days after Independence—caused unforeseen turmoil. There is still a mystery at the dark heart of partition, over a million died, mostly from ethnic violence and the rest from diseases rife in makeshift refugee camps.
Yet, claims Akbar, Gandhi was convinced that faith could nurture the civilizational harmony of a land where every religion had flourished. The author says Jinnah, a political Muslim rather than a practicing believer, was determined to carve up a syncretic subcontinent in the name of Islam. Jinnah’s confidence came from a wartime deal with Britain, embodied in the August Offer of 1940 but Gandhi’s strength lay in ideological commitment, which was, in the end, ravaged by the communal violence that engineered partition. The price of this epic confrontation, paid by the people of the subcontinent, has stretched into generations, says Akbar’s book, meticulously researched from original sources.
The author claims these were India’s historical, astonishing blunders, lapses and conscious chicanery that permeated the politics of seven explosive years between 1940 and 1947. What is fascinating is that these very facts emerging from archives now challenge the conventional narratives. The facts also rattle what many claim was a conspiratorial silence used to protect the image of famous icons.
The book—an essential read for those interested in modern Indian history, it’s past as a prelude to the future—says Gandhi’s decision to live in Pakistan after the partition was neither tokenism nor a gesture of support for a country carved out of multifaith India in the name of one religion, Islam. “It was a promise of defiance. Gandhi simply did not believe in the partition of India, and the creation of new, unnatural borders by an arbitrary scalpel in a fit of what he described as momentary madness,” writes Akbar.
The price of this epic confrontation, paid by the people, has stretched into generations, the book says. According to the author, Gandhi’s immediate concern after Independence was the fate of partition’s principal victims, the minorities: Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India. Gandhi remained consistent through the long and turbulent roller-coaster ride of high-voltage events. Gandhi’s genius was his ability to recast the Independence struggle as a moral crusade and not as a political battle. “For more than 50 years, he sang, literally, from the same hymn sheet. Religion, said his hymn, was a catechism of love, tolerance and unity. Whether in South Africa or India, for over half of a century till the end of his public career in 1948, he explained why he was proud to be a Hindu,” writes Akbar.
Gandhi made this vast subcontinent his home like any other community, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis; his personal and political life, writes Akbar, were fused by a humanism which believed that the unity of India lay in acceptance of religious and cultural diversity, and its geography was a natural evolution of shared space.
But what Jinnah did was interesting, claims Akbar. “Jinnah, in contrast, adopted a chameleon persona to suit his political objectives. For more than six decades, he was a nominal rather than practicing Muslim. After 1937, he became the standard-bearer of Islamic separatism, and suddenly acquired plumes of the devout Muslim that he had never been, and never was.”
The book, in many ways, is about the creation of Pakistan and examines the role of Jinnah and Gandhi in the events leading up to the Partition. Two countries were formed for specific religious groups in the mid-20th century. One was Israel for the Jews, the other was Pakistan for Muslims. Sadly, millions were sacrificed for the belief that specific religious groups needed a separate country for these groups to be safe. The emergence of Pakistan was the first victory of pan-Islamism in 1947, writes Akbar, over the Indic way of looking at the world. The pan-Islamists got a country for Muslims, even when the majority of Muslims in India rejected them. “Millions of Musalmans in this country come from Hindu stock. How can their homeland be any other than India?” Gandhi asked on the eve of urging Indians to launch a movement to force the British to quit India. “My eldest son embraced Islam some years back. What would his homeland be—Porbander or the Punjab?” he asked his followers and claimed all Indians were one in their fight against the British. The British, though, writes Akbar, tried to create an alternate reality in India as they claimed that “the ‘ninety million’ Indian Muslims were fundamentally opposed to the Congress and deserved the right of self-expression”.
The book says Jinnah and his Muslim League, though, persisted with their insistence that Muslims did not belong to India and continued to counter the cries of Jai Hind with “Pakistan”. And eventually, these very cries transformed into murderous assaults on Hindus. In the heat of communal violence in Calcutta, on Bakr-Id of 1946, the Muslim League urged the Muslims of Calcutta to sacrifice cows to assert themselves while Gandhi insisted on going to Noakhali to sympathise with victims of communal violence. He was harsh towards those Muslim leaders who tried to convince him that “99 per cent of Muslims” disapproved of violence. Gandhi demanded that they join him in moving from village to village and urge people to shun violence, writes Akbar.
Akbar delves deep into history and writes as Mountbatten pushed India towards Partition, Churchill’s only concern was that both India and Pakistan remain within the ambit of the Commonwealth. Nehru felt Partition would initiate the Balkanisation of India, add to the violence and breakdown of the authority of the State, but Churchill was in no mood to listen. The book says as Pakistan was created, the ruler of Bhopal, Hamidullah, “moaned that Bhopal stood alone ‘in the midst of Hindu India surrounded by…enemies of Islam’.” The Nizam of Hyderabad, too, pleaded for being allowed to retain an independent Muslim country within India. Jinnah’s dream of having a separate country for Muslims seemed to be creating a situation where, if people like Patel had not intervened, Muslims just might have got many countries within India and not just a Pakistan outside of it.
The book vividly describes how the British set about prosecuting a Hindu, Muslim and Sikh for joining the INA, and the Congress got ready to defend Captain P.K. Sahgal, Captain Shah Nawaz Khan and Lt G.S. Dhillon for their right to fight for the liberation of India. Around that time, writes Akbar, the Director, Intelligence Bureau, reported to the government of the sympathy within the British Indian Army towards the INA heroes and the spread of disquiet against the British within the military. “This particular brand of sympathy cuts across communal barriers,” the DIB had warned.
Wrote the Guardian: “Do you foresee any mass transfer of population?” one journalist asked Mountbatten at a press conference in Delhi, after the plan was announced. “Personally, I don’t see it,” he replied. “There are many physical and practical difficulties involved. Some measure of transfer will come about in a natural way…perhaps governments will transfer populations. Once more, this is a matter not so much for the main parties as for the local authorities living in the border areas to decide.” But, claimed the daily, people took fright and, in the face of mounting violence, took matters into their own hands. Many did not want “minorities” in their new countries. Others did not want to become “minorities” with all the attendant horrors this now implied.
The Guardian said, there are evident parallels with Rwanda and Bosnia, in the collapse of old communities and the simplification of complex identities. Militant leaders tried to make facts on the ground by carving out more land for their own ethnic group. They used modern tactics of propaganda and bloodshed that are familiar today. Many newspapers had caricatured the “other” community for decades. Compared with the way Germans look with clear eyes at their past, South Asia is still mired in denial, said the Guardian.
And Gandhi, insisting on dharmic ways of conducting politics, got killed by a Hindu who was too perturbed by the insistence on dharma even after the Islamists had won their victory. “India choked and slumped into silence” concludes Akbar.