Mahatma Gandhi, circa 1935 | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, circa 1935 | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Gandhi’s proposal to visit cities such as Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi after Partition had a symbolic political value.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is often held responsible for the Partition of India. Many people, particularly Hindu essentialists, accuse Gandhi of following the Muslim appeasement policy and accepting Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s demands for an independent Muslim homeland and helping create Pakistan. Gandhi’s desire to visit Pakistan is also presented as evidence for this fatal pro-Muslim and pro-Pakistan politics.

But this is a simplistic understanding of his wish that obviously suits the Hindutva-led revisionist readings of Gandhi. In fact, his desire to go to Pakistan may have had more to do with Gandhi’s critique of the prevalent ideas of political representation and nation-state in the subcontinent.

The Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress, which emerged as the sole proprietor of Gandhi’s legacy immediately after his death, defended Gandhi’s attitude towards ‘minorities’. His ideas on tolerance, non-violence and sarv dharm sambhav were invoked to legitimise Congress’s version of secularism.

Despite this overwhelming acceptance of Gandhi as an icon, his proposed visit to Pakistan was not given any serious attention at that time by prominent leaders. Even Nehru, who conceptualised the principles of ‘Panchsheel for his foreign policy based on the peaceful coexistence of all nations, did not find any inherent symbolism in this unfulfilled desire of Gandhi.

Does it mean that even Nehru was also apprehensive about Gandhi’s proposed visit to Pakistan? Was Gandhi posing a serious challenge to the prevailing political correctness of his time?

Also read: Could Gandhi assassination have been stopped? New film raises question

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Why Gandhi wanted to visit Pakistan

Gandhi’s desire to visit Pakistan should not entirely be seen in the violent political context of 1947-48. It is true that Gandhi travelled to a number of riot-affected places during this period—primarily to restore peace. But, his proposal to visit cities such as Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi after Partition had a symbolic political value. Gandhi often used his presence at areas of conflict as an unspoken political signal and critique.

A look at Gandhi’s prayer meeting of 23 September 1947 is relevant to understanding this.

This meeting began with the recitation of holy books, including the Quran. It was not an unusual practice in Gandhian ashrams. But invoking Islamic principles of peace and tolerance in a highly communalised environment was a radical move. Gandhi, it seems, was aware of it. That was the reason why Gandhi asked his audience whether anybody had any objection to the recitation from the Quran. No one objected.

Gandhi then said:

What the Muslims have done is not good, but what harm has the Koran done? If one devotee of God commits a sin, shall we stop repeating His name? ….If the devotees of God say that what the Hindus have done is bad, does it also mean that the Gita is bad?(Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, VOL. 96: 7 JULY, 1947 – 26 SEPTEMBER, 1947, p. 410)

Gandhi elaborated this point and added:

I want to go to Lahore. I do not want to go with any police or military escort. …I want to go with faith and trust in the Muslims there. Let them kill me if they want. …Let the Government stop me if they will. But how can the Government stop me? They will have to kill me if they want to stop me. If they kill me, my death will leave a lesson for you.(Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, VOL. 96: 7 JULY, 1947 – 26 SEPTEMBER, 1947, p. 410)

This comment takes us to Gandhi’s known critique of modern civilisation: the nation-state and the idea of representation.

Also read: Why Ghanaians are removing Gandhi statues

 Nationality of an Indian

In Hind Swaraj, the seminal book that Gandhi wrote in 1909, he argued, “India cannot cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it. …If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dream-land. …In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India’ (Hind Swaraj, Navjivan, 1938, pp. 44-46).

The Partition of India on a religious-communal basis went against this core political belief of Gandhi. The Indian Independence Act 1947 actually created two modern nation-states—India and Pakistan. It was certainly in line with the Muslim League’s imagination of a Muslim homeland, which Gandhi had always opposed. But Gandhi was also not very comfortable with the Congress’s uncritical acceptance of the western model of political institutions.

Although the Nehru-led Congress adhered to the principle of ‘unity in diversity’ in defining Indian national identity, the approval of European style nation-state as the determining structure of future Indian polity was not compatible with Gandhi’s political thinking. The constituent assembly was all set to adopt the first-past-the-post system of election and the parliamentary form of democracy.

So, it was inevitable for him to challenge the emerging modern states of Pakistan as well as India in his own unique ways. This might have been one of the reasons behind his enthusiasm to visit Pakistan.

He appeared confident that his powerful presence in the territory of Pakistan without any ‘official security’ would create an unprecedented impact—not only on the displaced Hindus and Muslims, but also on the governments of the two states. There is a strong possibility that Gandhi wished to use this opportunity to propose a radical plea for the re-imagination and reconstruction of political institutions in the subcontinent.

Also read: Pakistan doesn’t give citizenship on religion, but India is dangerously tilting towards it

Not to be a Hindu Qaid

The Gandhi-Jinnah debate on the question of political representation is also very relevant to the question of Gandhi’s desire to visit Pakistan. It is worth noting that Jinnah’s growth as the Quaid-e-Azam (the supreme leader) of Muslims was contingent upon two related sets of arguments. First, Muslims and Hindus constitute two separate cultural nations and therefore, they should have two nation-states. Second, the Muslim League is the sole representative of Muslims, while the Congress, led by Gandhi, is a Hindu party.

Gandhi never accepted this simplistic formulation. He always described himself as a proud Hindu, yet he never asserted leadership as a Hindu Quaid.

He remained doubtful about the western idea of representation itself. In his political thinking, representation of any community by a few nominated or even elected representatives cannot be an end in itself for achieving democratic participation of masses. He once remarked, “If the national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation is necessary.”  (Harijan, 2 December 1938)

Gandhi’s proposal to visit Pakistan as a proud Hindu is consistent with his critique of representation. His lifelong commitment to practicing his belief and ideas could have been tested and indeed achieved by practicing his version of Hinduism in a ‘Muslim homeland’.

After all, for him, practice was more important than ideas:

“My writings should be cremated with my body. What I have done will endure, not what I have said and written.” (Harijan, 1 May 1932)

Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

(ThePrint is publishing three series on minorities in India by Hilal Ahmed. The ‘Sarkari Muslim’, Minority Report, and Line of Law will trace the political journey of Muslims in the country. This is the fourth article under Minority Report.)

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