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What If Gandhi Had Lived On?

The Indian state might have become less a master and more a servant of the Indian people and the hierarchies in the society might have become less steep.

What If Gandhi Had Lived On?
What If Gandhi Had Lived On?
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We know that there was a perfection to Gandhi’s death. On January 30, 1948, within months of independence, he was gunned down as he walked to pray, his hands folded in a greeting to his assassin. On his lips as he fell was his favourite name for God, Ram. Surrounding him were hundreds who loved him and had joined him for the daily prayer-meeting.

We know too that the killing discredited the doctrine of hate that had gathered new strength following the carnage in West and East Punjab in August-September ’47. Across the subcontinent Hindu and Muslim extremism suffered a severe blow.

Yet though Providence used the death designed by his killers to frustrate their goals and to advance those of Gandhi, a Gandhi living in the late ’40s and ’50s would have helped (a) to heal India-Pak relations and (b) to correct the sarkar-janata equation in India and in doing so give the Congress a role very different from what was seen after independence.

Right from August 1947, Gandhi had wanted to visit Pakistan. On September 23, he said, "I want to go to Lahore...I want to go to Rawalpindi." He wrote about this wish to Jinnah, the Pakistan governor general who continued to be the president of the Muslim League.

Carrying messages from Gandhi to Jinnah and back, Suhrawardy, the former premier of Bengal, shuttled between Delhi and Karachi, the Pak capital at the time. Three Parsis, the Bombay businessman Jehangir Patel, nature-cure doctor from Poona Dinshaw Mehta and Karachi’s khadi-wearing mayor, Jamshed Mehta, also travelled between Delhi and Karachi to prepare Gandhi’s visit to Pakistan. On January 27, it was agreed that Gandhi would arrive in Pakistan on February 8 or 9. To make things easier for the hosts, Gandhi dropped his objection to being protected in Pakistan by armed Pak police. Jinnah had said this was essential.

What he would say in Pakistan was spelt out by Gandhi and his emissaries: the Pak government should protect minorities and ask those who had fled to India to return to their homes. "I know what is happening to the minorities in the Punjab, in Sind and in the Frontier province," Gandhi had written to Suhrawardy. To India and Indians, he was already giving a similar message.

Given Jinnah’s emphatic rejection of the terms Gandhi had offered during their lengthy talks in September 1944, is there any basis for thinking that a Gandhi visit to Pakistan in February 1948 would have yielded results? There is, for the February 1948 visit would have come right after Gandhi’s remarkable fast from January 13 to 18. Undertaken for the rights of minorities in the two countries, this fast had touched many in Pakistan, not least because on Gandhi’s urging the Indian government had allowed Pakistan to have its agreed share, worth Rs 55 crore, of the money owed (and paid) by the departing British to India as a whole.

If Pakistani goodwill was won by the fast, which also ended the economic boycott of Delhi’s Muslims and restored the annual fair at the mazaar of Khwaja Qutbuddin, Jinnah personally had reason to be more open than before to Gandhi. For in April 1947, in a bid to preserve a united India, Gandhi had suggested Jinnah’s name as independent India’s first premier.

Because Nehru, Patel, Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Rajagopalachari had opposed Gandhi’s proposal (only Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was in favour), the Congress never put it to Jinnah. But the latter knew that Gandhi had thought of him as India’s premier.

The ground seemed ready for "an honourable settlement of all the differences between India and Pakistan"—including Kashmir. At any rate, this was Gandhi’s view, expressed on January 16. He would have built on this ground, and perhaps helped alter subsequent history, had he been alive to visit Pakistan in February.

As for the government-people equation, Gandhi’s response in January 1948 to a letter about corruption from an old Andhra leader, Konda Venkatappayya, indicates what he might have done. Describing himself as "old, decrepit, with a broken leg", Venkatappayya had written that Congress legislators were "making money by the use of influence" and "obstructing justice in the criminal courts".

"Too shocking for words," as Gandhi put it, Venkatappayya’s letter was a factor behind Gandhi’s January fast. It also sparked off Gandhi’s radical proposal of January 29 that the Congress, its role fulfilled with independence, should dissolve itself as a political party and "flower into" an association for empowering the people of India. It would tackle illiteracy, ill-health, unemployment, untouchability and communal intolerance in every village in India.

In proposing this a day before he was killed, Gandhi’s aim was two-fold. While Congressmen would be prevented from encashing for themselves their new-found power, the people of India would be strengthened in their equation with the state. Aware that the state of independent India retained a colonial and feudal mindset, Gandhi wanted yesterday’s freedom fighters to empower the citizen; and he was confident that parties old and new, from the left to the right, would fill the vacuum created by the Congress’s exit as a political body. Congressmen unable to live without politics could join another party, he said.

Just as the Jinnah proposal was never put to Jinnah, Gandhi’s proposal regarding the Congress was never put to the body, even though, in Nehru’s words of 1942, the post-1919 Congress was Gandhi’s "creation and child". Gandhi had written the Congress constitution in 1920, designed the party’s many-tiered structure from village level up to the national working committee via district and provincial units, infused purpose into the body and teamwork among its leaders, and sharpened the Congress into a fighting instrument. The truth is that the "old" man of 78 was in 1948 mentally and even physically more vigorous than many of the Congress leaders, and more willing than the rest to launch radical measures.

We do not know how Nehru, Patel and others who had dissented from Gandhi over Partition would have reacted to the proposal regarding the Congress if an alive Gandhi had pressed it. We know that Nehru and Patel had turned down Gandhi’s end-1947 idea that either Jayaprakash Narayan or Narendra Dev, another leader of the Congress socialists, should take over as Congress president; the office had gone instead to Rajendra Prasad.

But we know also, from the January 1948 fast if from nothing else, that the 1947-8 Gandhi was capable of fighting for his beliefs. If he had remained alive, the Indian state might have become less a master and more a servant of the Indian people, empowering them might have become a mainstream rather than a marginal exercise, and the hierarchies that continue to mark India’s society and polity might have become less steep.


Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, is the author of The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi and Understanding the Muslim Mind.


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