Deconstructing Gandhi: Confusing stands

Gandhi could not speak contemptuously of Tilak, not when Tilak’s public respect, reverence and adulation was at its peak. So the Mahatma, like Brutus, spoke from both sides of his mouth soon after Tilak was sentenced to six years in prison and was transported out of India.

In perfect imitation of Brutus who praised Caesar from one side of his mouth and damned him with the other side, Gandhi made laudatory remarks about Tilak in one breath and damned him in another.

The sentence passed on Tilak, the great patriot, is terrible. The few days’ imprisonment which the Transvaal Indians suffer is as nothing compared to transportation for six years. The sentence is not so much surprising as terrible. At the same time it is nothing to be unhappy about. It is not surprising that the government we seek to defy should inflict oppressive measures on us. Mr. Tilak is so great a man and scholar that it would be impertinent in this country to write about his work. He deserves to be adored for his work in the service of the motherland. 

Yet we should not blindly follow the policies of those whom we regard as great. It would be casting a reflection on Mr. Tilak’s greatness to argue that his writings had no bitterness in them or to offer some such defense. Pungent, bitter and penetrating writing was his objective. He aimed at inciting Indians against British rule. To attempt to minimize this would be to detract from Mr. Tilak’s greatness. The rulers are justified from their point of view in taking action against such a man. We would do the same in their place. If we look at the matter thus, we realize that we need not feel bitter towards them.

Mr. Tilak however deserves our congratulations.What we need to consider is whether Indians should accept the views of Mr. Tilak and his party. We submit, after great deliberation, that Mr. Tilak’s views should be rejected. It will be harmful, even useless, to use force or violence for uprooting that rule. If the same workers who went on strike in protest against the sentence on Mr. Tilak were to become satyagrahis, they would be able to get the government to agree to any reasonable demands. (Indian Opinion, 1-8-1908, CWMG Vol. 9, pp 28-29, Eclipse of the Hindu Nation, pp 138-139)

Reasonable demands. Not total political freedom. Gandhi was faithfully parroting the lines given to him by the same powerful clique of empire loyalists in the INC who were promoting him and grooming him as future leader. “Reasonable demands” was greater participation within the government and gradual movement towards Home Rule. Total political freedom, by inference was an unreasonable demand.

Gandhi about Bhagat Singh privately to Lord Irwin

What Gandhi told Lord Irwin privately, during backroom negotiations before signing the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, and as recorded by Gandhi’s private secretary Mahadev Desai and which was not known to the INC and to the ordinary people of the country: 

I said about Bhagat Singh: “He is undoubtedly a brave man but I would certainly say that he is not in his right mind. However, this is the evil of capital punishment, that it gives no opportunity to such a man to reform himself. I am putting this matter before you as a humanitarian issue and desire suspension of sentence in order that there may not be unnecessary turmoil in the country. I myself would release him, but I cannot expect any government to do so. I would not take it ill even if you do not give any reply to this issue. (Eclipse of the Hindu Nation, page 273)

And this is what Gandhi said publicly from the other side of his mouth:

Brave Bhagat Singh and his two associates have been hanged. Many attempts were made to save their lives, and even some hopes were entertained, but all was in vain. Bhagat Singh did not wish to live. He refused to apologize; declined to file an appeal.

These heroes had conquered the fear of death. Let us bow to them a thousand times for their heroism. But we should not imitate their act. I am not prepared to believe that the country has benefitted from their action. I can see only the harm that has been done. We could have won swaraj long ago if that line of action had not been pursued and we could have waged a purely non-violent struggle.

By making a dharma of violence, we shall be reaping the fruit of our own actions. Hence though we praise the courage of these brave men, we should never countenance their activities.

And what Gandhi said at the Karachi Congress in March 1931 is also worth recalling:

There can be therefore no excuse for suspicion that I did not want to save Bhagat Singh. But I want you also to realize Bhagat Singh’s error.

I declare that we cannot win swaraj for our famishing millions, for our deaf and dumb, for our lame and crippled, by the way of the sword.

A political culture of sycophancy which equates dissent with disloyalty has not enquired why political freedom won for the whole country by the sword should not include the famishing millions, the deaf and the dumb, the lame and the crippled unless Gandhi’s swaraj was not political freedom but something else, something that was different from what Tilak and Aurobindo wanted for us.

Now contrast this to what Aurobindo said in 1906: 

Justice and righteousness are the atmosphere of political morality; but the justice and righteousness of a fighter, not of the priest. Aggression is unjust only when unprovoked; violence unrighteous when used wantonly for unrighteous ends. It is barren philosophy which applies a mechanical rule to all actions, or takes a word (in this case non-violence or Gandhi’s ahimsa) and tries to fit all human life into it. The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Therefore says Srikrishna in the Mahabharata, God created battle and armour, the sword, the bow and the dagger.  


Congress turns away from political freedom and towards social reform

Almost all English educated Hindus in the INC with the exception of Tilak and Aurobindo, were empire loyalists and therefore independence from colonial rule was not the objective of the INC. The only political objective of these Hindus and Parsis (and also Gandhi’s objective until 1942) was greater Indian participation in the colonial government with some degree of self-rule. In a farsighted move which plagued the INC during the Gandhi years, and which weakened the political character of the INC vis a vis the Muslim League, Imperial London persuaded the Hindu leaders of the INC to push for social reforms in Hindu society.

The farsighted British move to turn the INC away from political objectives and towards social reform began with the Age of Consent Bill, 1891. London hoped that after the major breakthrough achieved with the passing of the Age of Consent Bill, the new breed of Hindu social reformers would keep the INC preoccupied with reforming their society with other issues – child marriage, widow remarriage, and fighting the “evil of caste system.” The list was long and hopefully the INC would have little time for politics. Imperial London created the Indian National Congress which was political enough to serve the British Empire but which was fast becoming a social reformist vehicle.

Under Gandhi, the list of issues which needed “social reform’ grew longer and the Indian National Congress would take up handspun cloth symbolized by the charkha, untouchability, and temple entry too as its agenda. Gandhi would also use the INC to promote Hindi as national language. Gandhi’s swaraj, as early as the beginning of the 1920s decade, was not Tilak’s and Aurobindo’s swaraj. It was certainly not political freedom. Gandhi’s swaraj was a mixed bag of social reform, self-reform and other related issues to take the focus away from the goal of total political freedom. 

Real Home Rule is self-rule or self-control. The way to it is passive resistance: that is soul-force or love-force. If we bear in mind the above fact, we can see that, if we (the individual) become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of swaraj. It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.

But such swaraj has to be experienced by each one for himself. Now you will have seen that it is not necessary for us to have as our goal the expulsion of the English. (Hind Swaraj, Chapter XVII, How can India become free, Eclipse of the Hindu Nation, page 196) 

Much later, Gandhi would exhort the Bengal revolutionaries to become farmers and grow more food for the “famishing millions” just as he exhorted every member of the INC to spin cloth to clothe the naked. As Gandhi enmeshed the INC and ordinary Hindus of the country who had no political vehicle other than the INC, deeper and deeper in social reform issues, the country’s sarkari historians never asked the question how many hours did Gandhi spend in the fields growing food, how much cloth did he weave on the charkha, how many toilets did he clean and which of his four sons married a harijan.

Gandhi told ordinary Hindus that social reform and self-control alone would get us swaraj which ordinary Hindus thought was political freedom and while these misguided Hindus spun furiously on the charkha, and came to the streets for Gandhi’s swaraj and were killed or jailed for the freedom that never came, Gandhi alone in the INC did politics while other luminaries stood by silently in mindless admiration or utter helplessness.


In the light of Gandhi’s definition of swaraj, his call for swaraj during the Nagpur Congress in 1920 held in the wake of Tilak’s passing away and his repeat call for “purna swaraj’ at the Lahore Congress in 1929, held in the wake of Bhagat Singh’s arrest for throwing a bomb into the Central Assembly where Gandhi declared he will have swaraj within one year exposed Gandhi for what he was: an empire loyalist until 1942.

For three decades, the INC under Gandhi’s leadership wanted to remain within the British Empire. Gandhi confused the nation by giving different names to Tialk’s swaraj – first self-rule, then Home-Rule and in the end Dominion Status. None of these was total political freedom as desired by Aurobindo and Tilak, the last of the Hindu nationalists.

The Dandi March

Just as Gandhi undertook the meaningless Dandi March to distract the nation’s attention away from Bhagat Singh who was languishing in jail and almost certainly to be hanged, Gandhi was forced to issue his “Quit India” call in August 1942 because he had expelled Subhash Bose from the INC.

After 1942, both Gandhi and the INC became irrelevant to the course of events which overtook them. A determined Muslim League took the lead and pushed and manipulated Gandhi’s “freedom struggle” towards creation of Pakistan. The Muslim League succeeded in its objective because important Hindu leaders in the INC remained more loyal to Gandhi than to the nation and ordinary Hindus inside and outside the Congress never knew where Gandhi was leading them – not until Pakistan became a reality.

The so-called freedom struggle under Gandhi’s leadership, not surprisingly tap-danced in the same spot from 1915 when Gandhi returned to India and until 1942. After the defeat of Imperial Japan in 1944 and consequently the defeat of Subhash Bose’s INA, the British Indian Mutiny and the Naval Mutiny of 1946 forced Imperial London to send the Cabinet Mission to India with the blueprint for transfer of power.

Contrary to popular rendition of history, Gandhi did not bring down the British Empire and he did not get India her independence. If anything, he entangled the Indian National Congress in the web of social reform, and in the process disarmed Hindus in the INC forcing them to stand by and watch the Muslim League successfully tear the Hindu nation into three bleeding parts.

To be continued…'

Radha Rajan is a Chennai-based political analyst. She is also author and animal activist.