One of the most fascinating puzzles of the Indian freedom movement against British colonial rule was the (almost) universal recognition of Mahatma Gandhi as one of the best men with his. Healed wounds inflicted on bleeding humanity, profoundly ethical strategy of nonviolence and satyagraha (power of truth). While such strategies turned the clever British on the backside, his rival Mohammad Ali Jinnah managed to thwart the former’s mission to unite India and thereby win Pakistan. Both leaders used religions to achieve their political goals. How do we explain why Gandhi’s Hinduism failed against Jinnah’s Islam?
In order to move forward with plausible explanations, MJ Akbar undertakes in his book “Gandhi’s Hinduism – The Fight Against Jinnah’s Islam” an in-depth study of the two titans, ie their personal and public life, and analyzes their political movements and counter-movements in the light of this information and knowledge the British in the central role by favoring one or the other. My own recent study on Jinnah is similar.
The great advantage that the author enjoys over many other scientific and popular publications is his systematic, comprehensive and holistic comparative study of the political careers of the two protagonists; both gujaratis come from trade and trade roots. One was a Hindu Baniya, steadfast and unwavering in his belief that Hinduism was the best religion, but also recognized Islam and other religions as legitimate alternative paths to God, while the other was a Khoja Ismaili Shiite who decided to to Ithna Ashari. Shiism, but later for all practical purposes, was associated with the proverbial religious ceremonies and festivals of Sunni Muslims and led Muslims of all sects to partition India and found Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, looking back at Gandhi’s family background, his pluralistic beliefs, and his own intellectual, ethical, and moral concerns is simply fascinating.
Unsurprisingly, looking back at Gandhi’s family background, his pluralistic beliefs, and his own intellectual, ethical, and moral concerns is simply fascinating. Gandhi’s ancestors had served as “divans” or prime ministers of the princely Porbandar state and grew up in a family of Orthodox Sanatana Dharama Hindus. His father had Muslim friends and acquaintances with whom he frequented, while his mother belonged to a sect that deeply revered Islam. Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and other beliefs formed the cultural milieu of Gandhi’s formative phase with lasting effects until the end. In such a rich, diverse, and nuanced background, Gandhi found great solace in Hinduism, but he never held on to blind faith.
He found the ubiquitous Manusmriti absolutely degrading because it stigmatized part of “Hindu society”, the so-called a’choots (untouchables), and denied them a place in the Varna hierarchy. It incorporated them into the social order to perform the most degrading and unclean tasks, such as cleaning up the human waste of the Varna Hindus. Such a stark contradiction between his belief in Hinduism and the prevalence of an evil practice that made Gandhi feel suicidal. Under such circumstances, one reaction might have been an aversion to Hinduism, but Gandhi remained a devout Hindu on a mission to filter out any evil and corrupt practices that were against the sanctity of Hinduism.
Gandhi learned again and again from the world and embodied the best ideals of humanity. On the basis of such ideals, he wanted Hindus and Muslims to cultivate close and fraternal bonds, and also wanted Hindus to unlearn the marginalization of the untouchable. Both goals remained paramount in Gandhi’s political priorities. We encounter many times in history when Gandhi praised Islam and its great leaders. Whenever Hindu-Muslim relations became strained due to conflict between the communities, Gandhi always protested against such events. For the “untouchables” he developed a respectable status of harijans or children of God. While Jinnah rejected his advances, Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar not to let the Dalits win separate electorate. Ambedkar reluctantly agreed to the Poona Pact, which kept the Harijans within the Hindu community, and accepted Gandhi’s promise to alleviate their historical handicaps through social and economic reforms.
In one case, Gandhi lost his life to fanatical Hindus accusing him of appeasing Muslims, but he managed to prevent the forced eviction of Muslims from India after the partition. For the Dalits, the Poona Pact of 1932 has proven to be a slow but steady path to social mobility, and now a Dalit intelligentsia has emerged that can vent the grievances of their community with confidence and authority.
On the other hand, the author’s concerted efforts to deepen the life of Jinnah to a similar extent to that of Gandhi have not yielded to the discovery of a reflective mind deeply immersed in the study of Islam or religion. generally. Jinnah’s Islam remained a political tool that he used as a shrewd lawyer with deadly effects to convince the British that leaving India was the just solution to the self-determination of Muslims, who were a nation in their own right because of their Islamic beliefs. This would serve the British interests in the politics of the subcontinent better, said Jinnah obliquely.
In the wake of the Jinnah-British Nexus and the review of the steps and counter-movements of the Indian National Congress, the All-India Muslim League ended, especially after World War II, and gave philosophical insights and observations. This part of the book will continue to be a source of controversy, which is inevitable and to be expected. Either way, MJ Akbar’s book is a labor of love steeped in enviable erudition.
The author is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University.