It was a wet and windy September in London. The year was 1931.
M.K. Gandhi, almost 62 years old then, was there to attend the Second Round Table Conference (RTC) as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. Called by the British government to discuss the prospect of political changes in India, the conclave was showing up the fissures in India’s polity. In two other Indian barristers — M.A. Jinnah, leading the Muslims at the Conference, and B.R. Ambedkar, the clear leader of the Depressed Classes — the divides stood out.
The only political change Gandhi and the Indian National Congress required was complete independence. Jinnah, Ambedkar and representatives of India’s princes, Sikhs, zamindars and other ‘minority interests’ sought to tear up Gandhi’s claim that the Congress represented an inclusive India which wanted nothing more and could do with nothing less than Swaraj for all Indians, in equality.
On September 18, he penned a statement for The Daily Mail describing the genesis and goal of the Indian National Congress: “The Indian National Congress is over forty seven years old. It was conceived by an Englishman, Allan Octavian Hume. It has had, besides Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsi and Christian Presidents. It had two women as Presidents, Dr Annie Besant and Mrs Sarojini Naidu. It has zamindars too, as its members.
“The Indian National Congress… knows no distinction between classes or creeds or sexes. It has always championed the cause of the so-called ‘untouchables’...
“But the unchallenged and unchallengeable claim of the Indian National Congress consists in its representing the millions of dumb paupers living in the seven hundred thousand Indian villages who constitute over 85% of the population.
“It is in the name of this great organisation that I claim complete independence for India.”
An all-important session of the Minorities Committee was to meet on October 8. Waking up at 3 a.m. that morning, after a very strenuous night and only half an hour’s sleep, he wrote out a statement to be read at the Committee: “The Congress has, since its inception, set up pure nationalism as its ideal. It has endeavoured to break down communal barriers… Congress assures the Sikhs, the Muslims and the other minorities that no solution… in any future constitution will be acceptable to the Congress that does not give full satisfaction to the parties concerned.”
Eighty-five years ago
It was a season of excitement. The year was 1937.
In the elections which came about under the Government of India Act, 1935, a fruit of three Round Table Conferences, the Congress won spectacularly in eight provinces on its own or with allies. Independence with minority rights protected was its motto. The Muslim League failed to win any province but it installed Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Praja Party at the head of a Muslim coalition in Bengal. It had done well in Muslim seats (reserved for the community) in Hindu-majority provinces. Its plank was: ‘Congress domination is Hindu domination’. Likewise, Ambedkar’s candidates did well in the Maharashtra region of Bombay. Their plank was: ‘Congress domination is Caste Hindu domination’.
In October of that year Jinnah was asking Muslims in Hindu-majority provinces to recognise ‘Hindu domination’. The Congress’s concept of swaraj and ‘minority satisfaction’ was under strain.
Seventy-five years ago
It was a hot and humid August. The year was 1947.
Amid unparalleled bloodshed, dispossession and tragedy, Jinnah walked away with Pakistan. He had, according to his lights, stopped Hindu domination in its tracks. Ambedkar had reason to be pleased that his supporters had made it to legislatures in good numbers. The Congress, assuming power at the Centre in an independent if truncated India, had unveiled a secular democracy and was moving towards becoming a federal Republic, where religion was separated from the State, caste was not going to be an obstacle for democratic representation. Minority satisfaction was to be the new democracy’s signature.
Today, this topsy-turvy August of 2022, 75 years after Independence, Jinnah’s Pakistan is in an electoral shambles, with Bangladesh having loosened itself out of its untenable yoking to Pakistan. India’s Dalits, as the Depressed Classes of Ambedkar’s time are now more appropriately called, have won a visible political profile in India, though social and economic deprivations remain a torment.
But what about Gandhi’s and the Congress’s ideal of pure nationalism, representative democracy and minority satisfaction? That ideal is in trouble, dire trouble. And this is not just because the Congress as a party today is a shadow of its past self, or because Savarkar’s 1937 ‘warning’ influences several more now than it did in the past. That ideal of pure nationalism is in trouble because majority domination, with caste domination subtly folded into its vocabulary, is being seen by increasing numbers as natural, proper and wholly unexceptionable. ‘If democracy is not majority control, what else is democracy?’ seems to be their understanding of the political dynamics of our nation. That a democracy is meant to re-assure the smallest, the weakest and the most vulnerable is seen as nursery-rhyme idealism.
But who are ‘the minority’? Not just the religious minority but the ecological, ideological, linguistic, ethnic, communities living in the margins of fear, insecurity, uncertainty. But not them alone. Also those who are culturally out-numbered, the life-style singular, the ‘different’, the ‘distant’, the ‘dissenting’ as well. Those who, for instance, would want parity in matters of gender and make the Indian woman feel she is man’s equal, our courts to be completely insulated from executive influence, our media to be free, our economy to be purged of monopolies.
A religious majority is only one among majorities, albeit a politically determining one. India, as Menaka Guruswamy has so memorably put it, is a majority of minorities. India is not about Hindu India and non-Hindu India. It is about the aspirations of peninsular India, Himalayan India, forest India, desert India, littoral India, coastal India. And the India of the two mountain fastnesses that political geography has made distinctive — Kashmiri India and Northeast India.
Gandhi in London in 1931 spoke for all of these Indias. As did his colleagues in the Congress of that time. Can the Congress or any political party make that claim today? We have splintered our thinking, split up our feelings. We have become a fractious family. On this defining anniversary we have to face this searing truth. And retrieve the ‘we’ in us as in ‘we the people of India’, the life-stream of the Constitution of India which protects us and is, in turn, preserved by us. We have to retrieve our unity in freedom and justice. The tricolour being unfurled today on home after home, with its blue in the central wheel of dharma tells us India is home to all Indians equally. ‘But how do we do this?’ is the question. ‘Who is to guide us, lead us?’
The ‘salt of the earth’
I started this article by citing Gandhi in London in 1931. I will close by citing him in London again, in 1914. He and Kasturba Gandhi had come there at the conclusion of the highly successful satyagraha in South Africa, on their way back home. Speaking to a galactic audience which included visiting Indians such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Sarojini Naidu and M.A. Jinnah, he said: ‘We had got the limelight in South Africa but if we merited any approbation, how much more did those who went into the struggle with no thought of appreciation! Harbut Singh was 75 years of age when he joined the struggle and entered prison and died there. The young lad, Narayanaswami, was deported to Madras and on his return, starved and died.
Another Tamil youth, Nagappen, was imprisoned and worked on the African veldt in the bitter cold of winter and died. And Valliamma, a girl of 18, went to prison and was discharged only when she took very ill and died shortly thereafter. Twenty thousand workers had left their tools and work and gone out in faith. Violence was entirely eschewed. It is on these men and women, who are the salt of the earth that the Indian nation that is to be will be built. We are poor mortals before these heroes and heroines.’
Those heroes and heroines have not disappeared. They have only been covered by the dust of neglect and condescension. They are the salt of India’s earth we must salute today in hope, faith and solidarity. It is they, as Gandhi said, who got India her freedom. It is they who will keep it free — and just.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and Governor