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Gandhi’s critics, dissenters and foes have not been a major focus for my research. True, Sardar Patel and Rajaji, whom I have studied in some detail, were oft-dissenting Gandhi allies. Jinnah, whom I studied for my Understanding the Muslim Mind, was for a while Gandhi’s ally and an adversary for much longer, whereas Ghaffar Khan, also the subject of a biography by me, was a non-dissenting ally for life.
Nonetheless, having looked fairly closely at Gandhi, I have a picture of the thread of dissent in his story.
During his student years in London (1888-91), after two eminent leaders of the Vegetarian Society he had joined, Alfred Hills and Dr Thomas Allinson, disputed over Allinson’s Book for Married Women, which advocated artificial birth control, Gandhi opposed the bid of Hills to remove the doctor from the society. However, as Gandhi would put it, “Dr Allinson lost the day,” and “in the very first battle” of this kind, Gandhi found himself “siding with the losing party”.
Some years later, during Gandhi’s South Africa phase, a young white associate named Symonds “often humorously assured (him) that he would withdraw his support” if Gandhi was “ever found…in a majority”. In 1906, when Gandhi journeyed to London on behalf of South Africa’s Indians, Symonds joined him there, took down Gandhi’s dictation, typed countless letters, affixed stamps and posted the envelopes.
In Gandhi’s words, he had “toiled for us day and night without payment”. Not long after this, Symonds suddenly died. He became, one might say, a loved bead on Gandhi’s thread of dissent.
Returning to India in 1915, Gandhi anticipated not merely dissent but opposition. A young Gujarati named Indulal Yagnik (who would become an ally, albeit an oft-critical one) asked him if he expected a following for civil disobedience in India. Gandhi replied (in 1915) that “a following will come in due course. But I do anticipate that a time may come when my large following may throw me overboard on account of my strict adhesion to my principles—and it may be that I shall almost be turned out on the streets and have to beg for a piece of bread from door to door.”
Only a few years later, Gandhi’s campaigns indeed found an immense following. The 1919 satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act, which threatened free speech, and the 1920-22 non-cooperation movement (triggered by the Empire’s wrongs in Punjab, including Jallianwala, and by British policies in the Middle East) aroused unprecedented levels of participation, marked by Hindu-Muslim partnership.
“Inasmuch as a single person is compelled to shout ‘Jai Hind’...a nail is driven into Swaraj’s coffin,” said Gandhi (1946).
Dissent duly came. In May 1921, Tagore urged Gandhi to strive to unite East with West, not merely Indians with one another, and expressed disapproval of “the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others”. Tagore’s critique elicited Gandhi’s well-known response: “Young India, June 1, 1921: I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Wherever the truth lay, all of India was treated to a stimulating and open debate even as the non-cooperation tide swept across India, leading to the arrest of tens of thousands who broke their ties with the Empire and non-violently defied its laws.
Weakening, however, from indiscipline, the tide in effect died when Gandhi suspended the non-cooperation movement because an angry mob near Gorakhpur in eastern UP had hacked 22 of the Empire’s Indian police to death. What followed was a Hindu-Muslim blame-game and a drift towards polarisation, even though Muslim leaders such as Ajmal Khan, M.A. Ansari, Abul Kalam Azad, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Zakir Husain remained with Gandhi and the Congress.
Top Congress leaders in 1942, the year of Quit India.
Released in 1924 after two years in prison, Gandhi was criticised by both sides. Hindus alleged that Gandhi’s backing of Muslims offended by the Empire’s Middle East policies had enhanced the prestige of “the Maulvis”, who had now “proclaimed a kind of jihad against us Hindus”. Muslims complained that Hindus had tricked Muslims by quietly returning to the Raj’s courts, colleges and councils, whereas Muslims had stayed out.
In his response, Gandhi urged Muslims not to think of Hindu leaders like Pandit Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai and Swami Shraddhanand as enemies. Hindus were given identical advice regarding Muslim leaders such as Maulana Muhammad Ali and his older brother Shaukat Ali.
Acknowledging that figures on all sides had on occasion spoken unwisely, Gandhi asked Indians not to expect perfection from leaders. The Ali brothers were “not faultless”. Yet, added Gandhi, “being full of faults myself, I have not hesitated to seek and cherish their friendship.”
In 1927, a year before his death, Lajpat Rai wrote about Gandhi in a letter to Ghanshyam Das Birla: “The best man to learn manners from is Mahatma Gandhi. His manners come very near perfection, though there is nothing perfect in this world. Great as he is, the greatest of us all, he is very particular in his behaviour towards his friends and co-workers.”
Gandhi urged Muslims not to think of Hindu leaders as enemies, and identical advice to Hindus on Muslims.
Gandhi’s ability to welcome dissent may have been part of his appeal for Lajpat Rai.
In 1936 and 1937, Gandhi succeeded in getting leaders like Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalachari, Azad and Prasad to put aside sharp, publicly-aired differences over socialism as a long-term goal and over an immediate question: should the Congress accept provincial office when the centre remained Empire-run? Dissent continued, but so did unity, and the Congress captured office in most provinces.
But Gandhi’s magic failed conspicuously in the first quarter of 1939, when, with Europe moving towards war, Subhas Bose, who with Gandhi’s backing had become Congress president a year earlier, rejected Gandhi’s advice against seeking a second term in the chair. Running again, Bose also called for an end to the Congress’s participation in provincial office.
He was re-elected, defeating Pattabhi Sitaramayya of the Telugu country, whom Gandhi had backed. The Congress split. While most remained with Gandhi, Bose and his followers left to form the Forward Bloc.
Gandhi in South Africa; a triptych by Leela.
Bose’s departure from the Congress forms an unpleasant knot on Gandhi’s thread of dissent. Not letting Bose, the electoral victor, lead the Congress the way he wished was not very democratic. On the other hand, forced into a stark choice, the Congress may have been farsighted in preferring Gandhi over Bose in 1939, when an ideological war between democracy and fascism was turning into World War II.
In August 1942, when Gandhi’s Quit India call was overwhelmingly endorsed at a Congress assembly in Mumbai, a small group of 13, most of them sympathetic to the Soviet Union, voted against it. Speaking after the voting, Gandhi started with the dissenters. “I congratulate the 13 friends who voted against the resolution,” he said.
Gandhi’s magic failed when Subhas Bose ran for a second term as Congress president against his wishes.
Three years later, after Germany and Japan were defeated, Quit India’s imprisoned soldiers, tens of thousands of them, were released. Independence was merely a matter of time now. (So was Partition.) In February 1946, when over-enthusiastic patriots insisted that people they met on the street shout ‘Jai Hind’, Gandhi promptly objected, saying, “Inasmuch as a single person is compelled to shout ‘Jai Hind’, or any popular slogan, a nail is driven into the coffin of Swaraj, in terms of the dumb millions of India.”
National independence was not going to be enough. As Gandhi saw it, the individual Indian had to be free—free to dissent. Two months before freedom, Gandhi, who called God Rama and loved that name, said: “If someone comes to me and says, ‘Will you or will you not utter Ramanama? If you do not, look at this sword.’ Then I shall say… I will not utter Ramanama at the point of the sword… If someone comes to me and wants to make me recite the Kalma at the point of the sword, I will never do so. I will defend myself with my life.”
Shortly before independence, Maharaja Chithirai Thirunal of Travancore (the princely state that eventually became the southern foundation for Kerala) and his dewan more than toyed with the idea of Travancore as an independent nation. Skilled in law, the dewan, C. P. Ramaswami Iyer (1879-1966), possessed one of India’s acutest minds. Three decades earlier, he had been general secretary of the Congress when Annie Besant was the president. More a Gandhi critic than ally, he joined the Empire’s councils in Madras and Delhi as Member for Law. In 1936, not long after Iyer became the Travancore dewan, after centuries of exclusion, the maharaja opened the state’s temples to Dalits, eliciting wide praise, including from Gandhi.
However, on June 11, 1947 Iyer announced that Travancore would declare its independence as soon as Britain transferred power. He also named a Travancore agent to the Pakistan that was to emerge. A month later, on July 11, the maharaja declared over the radio: “On and from 15th August 1947...Travancore will reassume its independence and sovereignty in full measure.”
Realism dawned, however, and on July 30 the maharaja informed Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, that he would sign the instrument of accession to India. Just five days earlier, on July 25, someone had assaulted Iyer with a knife, but his thick angavastram saved the dewan’s life. On August 14, he resigned, and left Travancore five days later.
Perturbed by the independence gambit, Gandhi was at first disinclined to believe the assault story. On August 27, from Calcutta, he wrote Iyer a remarkable letter of apology that shines on Gandhi’s dissent thread: “You will forgive me for this belated solicitude…. I was perplexed about your attitude on Travancore…. When I heard about the attack on you, I regarded it as of no consequence. ‘It must have been a mere scratch, probably a made-up affair.’ But Krishna Hutheesing and Manibehn opened my eyes to the serious attack…. I am amazed at my unbelief. Pardon me for it.”
As freedom and Partition approached, the old man who for three decades had steered the freedom movement was almost reduced to becoming a one-man army.
On the critical question of Partition, Gandhi’s advice was turned down. Except for Ghaffar Khan, all his principal colleagues—Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, Prasad, Azad, Kripalani, everyone—supported Partition, none more keenly than Patel. They firmly rejected Gandhi’s last-ditch proposal that to save Indian unity Jinnah should be offered, on agreed conditions, the country’s premiership.
Rebuffed by younger colleagues whom he had mentored for 30 years, Gandhi chose to back them in their dissent. They were going to run India, not he. He would not undermine them. Moreover, although he defended his positions with conviction, he knew he was not infallible. As far back as 1909, he had written in Hind Swaraj: “No man can claim to be absolutely in the right, or that a particular thing is wrong, because he thinks so.”
Exceptional though not limitless, Gandhi’s embrace of dissent was at heart a recognition of human imperfection.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is an author, historian and professor, and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Views are personal.)