Gandhi’s contribution to Communal Harmony

First published on:  23 Aug 2019

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi began his meetings with an all faith prayer, reciting portions from various religious texts. Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea of communal harmony. From his childhood, as he nursed his father, he got an opportunity to listen to his father’s friends, belonging to different religions including Islam and Zoroastrian, talk about their faiths. Interestingly, he was prejudiced against Christianity, as he had heard some preachers criticise the Hindu Gods, and believed that drinking and eating beef were an integral part of this religion. It was much later, in England, when a Christian, who was a teetotaller and a vegetarian, encouraged him to read the Bible, that Gandhi gave a serious thought to this religion. Once he started reading the Bible, especially the New Testament, he was enthralled, and particularly liked the idea that ‘if somebody slaps you on the right cheek, offer your left cheek.’ 

Mahatma Gandhi

Even before reading the Bible, he had got this idea from the perusal of different religious texts, that evil should be countered, not with evil, but with good. He was exposed to different religions, but he doubts whether he was a believer in his childhood. In spite of this, he was of the firm view that all religions deserved equal respect. Hence, seeds of communal harmony were sown in him at a young age. In fact, he became more atheistic after reading Manu Smriti, as it supported non-vegetarianism. The essential learning he imbibed from these religious texts was that this world survives on principles and principles are subsumed in truth. Thus, from his childhood, truth was a highly held value, which became the basis for living his life and for various actions that ensued.

Gandhi is wrongly accused of having supported the Partition of the country whereas, in reality, it was people like the famous poet Iqbal and fundamentalist Hindus like Savarkar who made public pronouncements supporting the idea of the Two Nation theory. Hence, it is ironical that he is questioned by the fundamentalist Hindus for not having undertaken a fast to prevent the Partition of the country. The fact is that the decision about Partition was taken by Mountbatten, Nehru, Patel and Jinnah, marginalising Gandhi, and he was only informed of the decision as a fait accompli. Had Gandhi supported the idea of partition, why would he choose to remain absent from the ceremonies of transfer of power from the British Crown to India and Pakistan? When India was becoming independent, Gandhi was fasting in Noakhali to stop communal riots.

In fact, Gandhi realised that he had been marginalised, and he had publicly expressed his frustration about people not heeding to his advice of practicing tolerance, non-violence and communal harmony. The only role he could play was to bring moral pressure on people to desist from communal thought and violent action. He undertook a fast in Delhi in January 1948, upon returning from Bengal. This fast was in support of the minorities – Muslims in India and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. Hindu fundamentalists were furious and tried to defame him by spreading a rumour that he was fasting to force Indian government to give Rs. 55 crores to Pakistan – a sum which was actually due to Pakistan, as part of an agreement with Mountbatten on the division of assets of the Government of undivided India. His fast received a positive response from Muslims in India and Pakistan. He was hailed in Pakistan as the one man in both the countries who was willing to sacrifice his life for Hindu-Muslim unity.

Some people say that Gandhi could not speak as harshly to Muslims as he could to Hindus, and hence practised Muslim appeasement. This is also not true. During his fasts, he convinced nationalist Muslims visiting him to condemn the treatment of minorities in Pakistan as un-Islamic and unethical. He beseeched Pakistan to put an end to all violence against minorities there, if it wanted the State in India to protect the rights of minorities here. When some Muslims brought rusted arms as a proof to him that they had given up violence, probably out of concern for him so that he could give up his fast, he chastised them and asked them to cleanse their hearts instead.

Gandhi’s towering personality could contain communal violence to some extent. His assassination had a more dramatic impact and brought all such violence to an end. The ban on Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh by Sardar Patel also helped. But, four decades later, communal politics bared its fangs again when Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya. What followed was a downward slide of the nation into communal frenzy. For the first time, a right wing party, practising outright communal politics, is in power, with full majority at the centre and in most states of the country. Incidents of mob lynching on suspicion of Muslims having partaken beef, their marginalisation in social, economic and political life and treating them as second rate citizens are the new normal. Majoritarian thinking, which is contrary to the idea of democracy, is dominating and the minds of people have been communalised, as never before in the history of the country. Communal politics has brought out the worst in us.

It appears that the seed of communalism was buried is us. Probably, the seeds of good and bad, both, are buried in us. The atmosphere in which we grow up determines which thinking flowers. Communal politics in the post-Babri Masjid demolition era fanned communal thinking, and it started dominating. By this time, the generation influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas, and who had seen Gandhi in flesh and blood, was on its way out. Hence, the thought and practice of communal harmony waned.

I was once invited by a respected gentleman, belonging to Jamat-e-Islami, for a meeting on communal harmony. I told him that if he was inviting me as a representative of the Hindu religion, then he should rethink about it as I was an atheist. He opined that I need not come for the meeting. I argued with him that only an atheist can truly practice the concept of communal harmony because he is equidistant from all religions. Anybody practising a faith would always be more attached to his own religion. Hence, it appears that we have not even given a serious thought to what communal harmony is all about, and have paid only lip service to the idea.

No wonder we have landed is such a messy situation today.

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