Gandhi’s sympathy for Jews did not blind him to injustice against Arabs
Mahatma Gandhi leads the Salt March with Sarojini Naidu in 1930 (Photo: Alamy)
ADOLF HITLER, CHANCELLOR and Fuehrer of Germany between 1933 and his suicide in 1945, had a simple solution for Britain’s most difficult problem: kill Gandhi.
Hitler told Lord Irwin in November 1937, ‘All you have to do is shoot Gandhi. If necessary, shoot more leaders of the Congress. You will be surprised how quickly the trouble will die down’ (Gandhi 2007, 422, quoting from The Eden Memoirs by Sir Anthony Eden, 1962).
The British were imperialists, not fascists. They met India’s nationalist upsurge with guile, subterfuge and harsh authority but, exceptions apart, stopped short of supremacist brutality after the wanton, indiscriminate and unforgivable massacre of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. Gandhi’s unique code of non-violence made state violence that much more repugnant, so the viceroys generally restricted themselves to coercive whip, torture and mass penal imprisonment.
The cycle of protest and arrest that followed the salt march paused with the suspension of civil disobedience in April 1934. Thereafter Gandhi turned his attention to social reform of Indian society with particular emphasis on the emancipation of ‘Depressed Classes’ as he sought to give practical meaning to his pact with Ambedkar in 1932. On occasion, even friends found his passion grating. Tagore was upset when Gandhi suggested that the devastating Bihar earthquake of January 1934 was divine punishment for ‘untouchability’. The poet suggested that such superstition suited Gandhi’s opponents more than him. Nehru continued to wonder whether the diversion of Gandhi’s energies would dilute the focus on imperialism.
Most Indians accepted the necessity of change but few had an appetite for thorough cleansing. For outraged conservatives, Gandhi’s denunciation of set caste beliefs was a bigger sin than British rule. On 25 April in Bihar and on 25 June 1934 in Poona, attempts were made on Gandhi’s life, the first by lathis and the second by a bomb. Gandhi, popularly called Bapu, or Father, commented that he was not aching for martyrdom, but if it came his way in pursuit of his ‘supreme duty’, he would have earned the epithet.
In September 1934, Gandhi resigned from Congress. The caveat that he remained at everyone’s disposal was not very reassuring to the startled Congress leaders. Gandhi argued that he wanted to lift the ‘weight that had been suppressing’ his myriad lieutenants, preventing their rise to the level of command, but the limitations of suddenly upgraded generals were exposed soon enough. There was an open split on economic policy, with Nehru leading the socialist tendency and Patel opposing it. A chorus of worthies offered to resign. Gandhi described the mess as a tragicomedy and rebuked both factions for intolerance.
His own crusade concentrated on the rejuvenation of Hinduism. He even considered asking for the government’s help. On 18 December 1936, he wrote to the influential industrialist G.D. Birla wondering whether the viceroy could force open the Guruvayur temple in Travancore to ‘depressed classes’ through legislation. This did not mean that he welcomed gratuitous criticism from foreigners. That same week, he castigated Dr J.W. Pickett, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, for claiming at a London gathering presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury that Christianity had raised standards of cleanliness and honesty to new heights in the Telugu areas of the Madras province. Pickett, who clearly found hyperbole irresistible, called this ‘one of the greatest miracles of Christian history’. Gandhi was arch: ‘I have rarely seen so much exaggeration in so little space.’ The true miracle, he said, was that 2,000 temples in Travancore had been opened to ‘Harijans’.
As early as in 1938, when much of the British establishment believed that a Faustian rapprochement with evil could prevent a conflagration across Europe, Gandhi foresaw not merely the war but a holocaust against the Jewish people by an ‘obviously mad’ Hitler. Gandhi was unequivocal. He described the persecution of the Jewish people in Germany as unparalleled insanity
Gandhi kept aloof from the 1937 elections. Nehru, as party president, took the lead in canvassing. Congress won an emphatic victory, but an overconfident Nehru underestimated Jinnah’s potential after the Muslim League’s underwhelming performance even in a system of separate electorates in which only Muslim voters could elect Muslim candidates. Nehru rejected a proposal to accept the League as a minor partner within a coalition government in the United Provinces. It would prove a costly error. Jinnah’s argument that a ‘Hindu’ Congress wanted to dominate Muslims rather than share power began to get traction.
In March 1938, Gandhi sought a meeting with Jinnah to rectify the damage. There was much public excitement at the prospect. Gandhi explained that he was going through the Slough of Despond for the first time in fifty years but remained optimistic because of ‘a prayerful and religious spirit’. His Hinduism was not sectarian; it included all he knew of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. He would talk to Jinnah in his personal capacity as a ‘lifelong worker in the cause of Hindu–Muslim unity’ and would not ‘leave a single stone unturned’ to achieve amity.
The imperious Jinnah would not deign to call on Gandhi, whom he routinely dismissed as merely the presumed leader of Hindus. The Mahatma swallowed the insult and went to Jinnah’s palatial Bombay residence. He ruefully concluded at the end of three and a half hours that Jinnah was a ‘very tough customer’. It was another glimpse at the steely character of his greatest foe.
THE FORTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Scotsman Victor Hope, 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow, reached Bombay on 17 April 1936 to take over as India’s 18th viceroy. He met Gandhi in July and was impressed but not disarmed by the Mahatma’s ability to separate the personal from the official. Their confrontation began at the outbreak of the Second World War.
As early as in 1938, when much of the British establishment believed that a Faustian rapprochement with evil could prevent a conflagration across Europe, Gandhi foresaw not merely the war but a holocaust against the Jewish people by an ‘obviously mad’ Hitler. Gandhi was unequivocal. He described the persecution of the Jewish people in Germany as unparalleled insanity: ‘My sympathies are all with the Jews…. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close.… But the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone.… The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.… Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism.… [Nazism is] hideous, terrible and terrifying.’
The forty-nine-year-old Scotsman Victor Hope, 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow, reached Bombay on 17 April 1936 to take over as India’s 18th Viceroy. He met Gandhi in July and was impressed but not disarmed by the Mahatma’s ability to separate the personal from the official
Gandhi had no illusions about the Munich Pact signed on 29 September 1938 between Britain’s Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier of France and the dictators of Italy and Germany, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. He wrote to Nehru on 4 October 1938, ‘What a peace at the cost of honour.… Europe has lost her soul for the sake of seven days’ earthly existence. The peace Europe gained at Munich is a triumph of violence; it is also its defeat. If England and France were sure of victory, they would certainly have fulfilled their duty of saving Czechoslovakia or of dying with it. But they have quailed before the combined violence of Germany and Italy’.
In contrast, some of the most powerful voices in the British establishment were advocating some form of accommodation with Hitler. Lloyd George, Britain’s victorious prime minister in the First World War, ‘left his 1936 meeting with Hitler likening Mein Kampf to the Magna Carta’ and equating the Fuehrer with the resurrection of Germany.
On 26 November 1938, the non-violent Gandhi again justified war against Hitler. However, his laboured advice the following year to deploy satyagraha against Nazis for the soul would prevail against the sword seemed whimsical even to admirers. His letter to ‘Herr Hitler’, written on 23 July 1939, seems the very height of naiveté.
‘Dear Friend,’ it began, and continued: ‘Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth. It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Anyway I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you’.
The anticipation was irrelevant. Hitler never got the pacifist’s letter. The government blocked its transit.
Gandhi’s deep sympathy for Jews did not blind him to any injustice against Arabs in Palestine under British rule: ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.… The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred’. There was inevitable criticism from Jewish intellectuals. Hayim Greenberg, managing editor of Jewish Frontier published from New York, accused the ‘spiritual leader of young India’ of being influenced by ‘the anti-Zionist propaganda being conducted by fanatic pan-Islamists’. Gandhi, he added, had become partial towards Arabs as part of his efforts for Hindu–Muslim unity.
Gandhi left no space for ambiguity in his letter to Bose dated 23 November 1939. He criticised Bose’s attitude and rebuked him for calling the disqualification a ‘vendetta’. Gandhi was clear: ‘As to action by the working committee, I dissent from you. Your way is not mine. Some day I shall find you returning to the fold, if I am right’
GANDHI’S ZIGZAG IDEAS had domestic consequences. The fiercely anti-British Subhas Bose, elected Congress president in 1938, worried that Gandhi might lend tacit or active support to the British war effort, and wanted a civil disobedience campaign that would effectively undermine any cooperation. Bose decided to seek a second term as party president to ensure this.
A consecutive term was unusual but neither unknown nor irregular. Nehru was the president in 1936 and 1937 to provide continuity during elections. Gandhi could not use precedence to deny Bose. His response was flimsy. The environment, Gandhi suggested, was not right for civil disobedience; there was too much violence in the air.
The real issue was control of the Congress. Gandhi did not want a party chief who might deviate from his prescribed line. He preferred Maulana Azad, who would also serve as a counterfoil to Jinnah as the Congress sought to bolster its support among Muslims. Undeterred, Bose filed his nomination papers, thereby challenging Gandhi’s supremacy in the party that the Mahatma had moulded into a colossus. Azad, unnerved, backed out. The relatively unknown Pattabhi Sitaramayya became Gandhi’s candidate. In the elections held on 29 January 1939, Bose got 1580 votes and Sitaramayya 1375.
Gandhi was in Bardoli when he learnt of his defeat. On 31 January he issued a statement, which was more disingenuous than it seemed at first glance. He readily accepted his opposition to Bose ‘for reasons I need not go into’. He then specified a few of them: ‘I do not subscribe to his facts or the arguments in his manifestos. I think his references to his colleagues were unjustified and unworthy. Nevertheless, I am glad of his victory.’ He took full responsibility of the defeat: ‘[T]he defeat is more mine than his [Sitaramayya’s]. I am nothing if I do not represent definite principles and policy. Therefore, it is plain to me that the delegates do not approve of the principles and policy for which I stand.’
‘I rejoice in this defeat,’ he continued, rather improbably, adding that Bose had won the right to choose his Cabinet [as the CWC was called since 1930] and ‘enforce his programme without let or hindrance’. He did not hide his pique: ‘[T]he Congress is fast becoming a corrupt organization in the sense that its registers contain a very large number of bogus members.’ Having accused the party of electoral malpractice, Gandhi refrained from asking for another ballot.
He was planning a putsch, not a purge. The stakes were too high for Gandhi to step aside. He hinted that Congress office-bearers might resign if they found Bose’s directions unpalatable since they had no moral right to obstruct an elected president: ‘After all Subhas Bose is not an enemy of his country. He has suffered for it. In his opinion his is the most forward and boldest policy and programme. The minority can only wish it all success’. As an exercise in faint praise, this was in a class of its own.
Gandhi sought a meeting with Jinnah to rectify the damage. There was public excitement at the prospect. He would talk to Jinnah in his personal capacity as a ‘lifelong worker in the cause of Hindu–Muslim unity’ and would not ‘leave a single stone unturned’ to achieve amity
Patel, Azad, Rajendra Prasad, Sarojini Naidu and Badshah Khan resigned from the fifteen-member CWC on 22 February. Within four days, the resignations were accepted. Bose, ill with high fever, was absent from the 52nd Congress session at Tripuri in March 1939. Instead, his portrait was placed on a chariot driven by fifty-two elephants. The presidential address was read out by his brother Sarat Bose.
BY THIS TIME, THE Congress delegates were suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse. Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant’s resolution reaffirming the party’s commitment to its Mahatma and demanding that the CWC be ‘in accordance to the wishes of Gandhi’ was passed by an overwhelming majority. After much correspondence and having made his point, Gandhi told Bose on 31 March to go ahead ‘unfettered’. The false détente was unsustainable. In late April, Bose’s enthusiasts nearly beat up Pant at a Congress session in Calcutta.
On 29 April 1939, Bose resigned as president but remained head of the party in Bengal, his political fiefdom, from where he began to needle his replacement, Dr Rajendra Prasad. On 13 July, Bose criticised the Bombay Congress government over defects in its prohibition scheme, property tax and sales tax. Gandhi reacted the same day in ‘pain and sorrow’, accusing Bose of trying to ‘discredit the Bombay Ministry in a manner the avowed opponents of prohibition could never hope to do’. He also accused Bose of playing ‘a most dangerous game by mixing up the communal question with such a purely moral reform as prohibition’. The festering stalemate took another acrimonious turn in August when Prasad dissolved the Bengal Congress committee and disqualified Bose from holding office for three years.
Gandhi left no space for ambiguity in his letter to Bose dated 23 November 1939. He criticised Bose’s attitude and rebuked him for calling the disqualification a ‘vendetta’. Gandhi was clear and concise: ‘As to action by the Working Committee, I dissent from you. Your way is not mine. For the time being you are my lost sheep. Some day I shall find you returning to the fold, if I am right and my love is pure’.
Gandhi’s love may have been pure, but his ‘sheep’ was headed for non-Gandhian pastures. Bose had already set up an alternative organisation, Forward Bloc, on 3 May 1939. He asked every member to sign a pledge in blood taken from the finger never to turn their backs upon the British. The first seventeen to do so were young women. A newspaper, Forward Bloc, began publication in August. Bose waited till the following summer to complete the break with the Congress after being elected president at the first national conference of the Forward Bloc at Nagpur 20–22 June 1940.
Gandhi tried some gentle sarcasm on his lost sheep. On 29 December 1940, he wrote to Bose, ‘You are irrepressible whether ill or well. Do get well before going in for fireworks.’ He was surprised that Bose could not distinguish between ‘discipline and indiscipline’, agreed that Bose was popular and could carry on without the Congress in Bengal, but ‘the Congress has to manage somehow under the severe handicap’. Gandhi made it very clear that he did not want Bose’s cooperation in civil disobedience since there were ‘fundamental differences between them’. On 10 January 1941, Bose asked Gandhi to reconsider this decision, but the Mahatma was inflexible.
Gandhi had no idea of the kind of fireworks that Bose had in mind. Within a fortnight came information that Bose had ‘disappeared’ from his home in Calcutta. Gandhi sent a telegram to Sarat Bose: ‘Startling news about Subhas. Please wire truth. Anxious. Hope all well’. Subhas Chandra Bose had eluded the police and slipped out of Calcutta on the long road to Afghanistan, Russia and Berlin with plans to proclaim the first free Indian government-in-exile with help from the anti-British Axis Powers.
(This is an edited excerpt from MJ Akbar’s Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns)