Gandhi and friends
Mushirul Hasan brings to life less-known sides of well-known personages from the freedom movement
The story of India’s freedom struggle has been recounted and debated over endlessly and indefatigably in independent India, and so is the life of the Mahatma. Serious researches have gone into these themes, although the circulating images of the freedom India won and the partition it suffered are often available for uncritical celebrations and cynical denunciations respectively. Gandhi too has suffered on account of his Mahatmahood, both at the hands of his hagiographers and those who looked upon him as a failed thaumaturgist.
Faith and Freedom is, for a change, not a familiarly told linear and teleological story of Indian freedom, nor is it a routine ‘He-brought-us-freedom’ type of celebration of Gandhi. Instead, what Mushirul Hasan, one of the best and sure-footed historians of modern India, has done is to situate Gandhi, respectfully but critically, within the context of different forces at work and the men who represented them in India’s struggle for freedom.
The book assumes that the freedom movement was propelled and at times thwarted by many ideologies, hopes and frustrations, which fit ill with the nationalist image of Gandhi leading the nation like Pied Piper of Hamelin. Yet the signature of Gandhi is unmistakably visible in the story, which even the binder of the book has appropriately acknowledged.
The freedom movement itself is the firm context of the book, not so much of narration as of rich dialogue with it. Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements get greater focus, but the more illuminating parts there are the exchanges between their protagonists and doubters, between enthusiasts and those who could not sustain their enthusiasm or those who felt letdown. There are exchanges with intimate outsiders and critical insiders, with Gandhi’s faith or his idea of freedom, with his idiosyncratic, shifting and sometimes exasperating idealism and experiments and irresistible charisma.
The book throws up many less known sides of well-known personages, — of friends of Gandhi, of converts to Gandhism and of those who parted company with him. Life in and functions of Gandhi’s many ashrams, in South Africa or in India, his own curious obsessions, some of which he was ever keen on imposing on others, his views on religions, of his own and others, all are tabled for free but serious discussion in the book.
However, it is a measure of Gandhi’s greatness that he could charm even those who disagreed with him. The Nehrus, both Motilal and Jawaharlal, had many occasions to differ from him, but they stood by Gandhi, and were emotionally attached to him. Many British became Gandhi’s firm supporters or followers: Horace Alexander, C.F. Andrews, Verrier Elwin, Mirabehn, Edward Thompson, and others. Many foreigners became his admirers: Romain Rolland, Halide Edip, among others. He disapproved the industrial civilisation of the West, and wanted the British to leave India, but loved their people and valued their friendship.
Gandhi’s attitude towards Hinduism, caste system and untouchability, or his differences with Ambedkar go into discussion in the book, as do his views on Islam and his relations with its various political exponents like the Ali Brothers, Mohammed Jinnah, Dr. Ansari or Maulana Azad.
The Hindu-Muslim relations during the freedom struggle were not ordered by individuals only. They were sadly built into the making and unmaking of our nationalist idioms as, for example, the Hindi-Urdu controversy had shown. Although language and religion do not necessarily converge, the image conjured up was that they do. The Mahatma’s misfortune was that when the communal passions could be whipped up, his Ram-Rahim recipe turned distasteful to all but the sanest. As the author points out, “The Christians disapproved his stand on conversion; the Sikhs did not think of him as their friend; the RSS brigade addressed him as ‘Mahmud Gandhi; some others said that his reading of the Quran defiled a temple.”
If the story of our freedom struggle show-cases phases and examples in which Gandhian moral power seemed to gain exceptional ascendancy, there were no fewer instances or indications of it losing appeal or having impact on the course of things. After the Non-cooperation-Khilafat phase of the movement the Gandhian mystique was less evident among the Muslim masses, and arguments, parleys or bargains with the Muslim League were not the best ways to achieve integrative nationalism. When the League and the Congress were driven by political interests, Gandhi’s moral recipe was politely brushed aside. “They placed him on a high pedestal, listened to him respectfully, but bypassed him on serious policy matters. On Partition, he was told to retire to the Himalayas.”
Faith and Freedom offers a fine intellectual menu on Indian freedom movement as well as Gandhi’s place in it. Mushirul Hasan draws extensively from the archival sources, from the best of the primary and secondary accounts on the subject, and he sensitively prises out historical wisdom from the poetry and literature of the period. Akbar Ilahabadi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and others illumine the themes and times. He is aware that while historical reality cannot be ‘objectively’ presented, nor its value determined by a victory in a plebiscite, its complexities can be honestly confronted and explained. Freedom struggle was not all about driving the British out of the country. It was about constituting the nation in the context of the colonial rule in which the various stake-holders struggled to be heard and adopted ideologies and strategies that did not necessarily conform to those of the Congress or of the Mahatma. Colonial modernity provided the site for nationalist definition and use of both faith and freedom, with its concomitant clashes, truces and violence.
Faith and Freedom is a scholarly book which brings out the richness and complexities of India’s struggle for freedom and of Gandhian leadership, without quite equating the two. Instead, it raises the issues that they grappled over and the people who were drawn into them, which both enlarges and enriches the canvas of our understanding.
( B. Surendra Rao was formerly Professor of History, Mangalore University)