Gandhi and Communal Unity

Mg Fri, 09 Oct 2020

Gandhi and Communal Unity

Gandhi and Communal Unity

- Anil Dutta Mishra

India is a land of diversity having heterogeneous people of multifarious languages, religions, castes and creeds. Despite all such diversities of character, there is an underlying unity among them since times immemorial.  The fact remains that there is always a threat of narrow communal feelings.

In modern India, Gandhi and Nehru were one of the greatest champions of communal unity. They lived their whole life striving for it, insuring it, stood firm for it, and finally sacrificed their life in the pursuit of communal unity. For Gandhi, the issue of communal unity was greater than that of Swaraj. Communal unity was the first and foremost concern of Gandhi. Gandhi said that ‘Swaraj was impossible without Hindu-Muslim Unity’. Mahatma Gandhi devoted his entire life for propounding communal harmony. Gandhi left no stone unturned in his efforts to bring about Hindu -Muslim unity. He preached, he wrote, he negotiated, fasted and prayed for communal unity. In his constructive programme, he gave the first place to communal harmony among the people of different faiths.

Gandhi pleaded for the cause of better understanding among individuals and communities. Everywhere in the world, individuals and groups are divided because of fear, suspicion, and hatred towards each other, which further depends on whether the division expressed itself along religious, economic, political, caste, or color lines. Whatever is the form, insecurity is perhaps the major cause of individual or social dissensions. A person, who is integrated and sure of himself, fears none and consequently provokes no fear. We have examples of such heroic individuals. But we do not have till now instances of societies or communities that are fully integrated and therefore, fearless.

Gandhi felt the need of community unity during his stay in South Africa. The principal question before him was that of the harmony between Hindus and Muslims who inhabited this country. Gandhi felt that if Hindu-Muslim unity was established, unity with other communities which was already there, could easily be strengthened. He never found serious differences between Hindus and Muslims and other minority communities. Naturally, therefore, he turned to the question of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Gandhi insisted that the Hindus who are in a majority in the country should help the Muslims and should never entertain any idea of enforcing their rights but try to win the hearts of the minority community. He wrote: “I am striving to become the best cement between the two communities. My longing is to be able to cement the two with my blood, if necessary. There is nothing in either religion to keep the two communities apart. In nature, there is a fundamental unity running through all the diversity. Religions are no exception to the natural law. They are given to mankind so as to accelerate the process of realization of fundamental unity. The need of the moment is not an establishment of a Universal religion but there is a greater need to develop mutual respect towards the different religions.”

In Young India, February 25, 1920 Gandhi wrote that ‘Hindu-Muslim unity consists in our having common purpose, a common goal and common sorrows. It is best promoted by co-operating to reach the common goal, by sharing one another’s sorrows and by mutual toleration.’ Further, in December 2, 1920 in Young India, he writes that ‘That unity therefore, cannot be a mere policy to be discarded when it does not suit us. We can discard it only when we are tired of Swaraj. Hindu Muslim unity must be our creed to last for all time and under all circumstances’.

Before the coming of Britishers in India, the Hindu and Muslim masses, on the whole, lived together, without antipathy or bitterness though there existed certain religious trends which were exclusive and antagonistic. Even in the 1857 revolt, Hindus and Muslims fought together side-by-side and their anger was directed against the common enemy, the foreign rulers at whose hands all India suffered alike. But during this early phase of Indian nationalism, Muslims lagged behind. Nationalist ideas spread among the Hindu middle and lower middle classes but not to an equal extent among the Muslims.

As the national movement spread and grew, there was the threat that it might unify the people and pose serious problems for the empire. “A united people cannot be kept under subjugation for a long time.” The British decided to do all they could to keep the people disunited and quarrelling and competing among themselves. They decided to divide the people in the name of their different religions and to encourage communal and separatist tendencies in Indian Politics.

However, with the rise of the Indian National Congress, Sayyid Ahmed became apprehensive about the position of the Muslims. The British also pulled strings behind the scenes. Now he declared that “the interests of Hindus and Muslims were different and even opposite”. He told his followers that “if the British withdrew, the Hindu majority would dominate over and be unfair to the Muslim minority.” He advised the Muslims not to join the Indian National Congress. He also declared that if the educated Muslims remained loyal to British, they would reward them with government jobs and other special favors.

A concrete shape and setting to the communal theory, was given in 1906 when the ‘All India Muslim League’ was set up under the leadership of Aga Khan, Nawab Salimullah of Dacca and Nawab Mohsin-ul-mulk. The league supported the partition of Bengal and demanded special and separate electorates. The British were waiting for just such an opportunity. They made full use of it and announced that they would protect the ‘special-interests’ of Muslims. League said that “the interests of the Muslims were different and divergent from those of the rest of the nation”. One major objective of the league was to keep the Muslims away from joining the Congress. Its activities were directed against the Congress and not against the British government.

Viceroy Minto decided to play the game of ‘divide and rule’ once again. The Morley-Minto reforms introduced a system of separate electorate and representation for the Indian Muslims. It provided for separate constituencies from which only a Muslim could stand as candidate and for which only Muslims would vote. The main feature of this reform was its emphasis upon the principle of community and group interests. It encouraged separatist tendencies. The real purpose of this move was to divide the nationalist movement and to check the growing unity among the Indians by encouraging the growth of Muslim communalism.

The communal view of politics was unscientific and irrational, but it played upon the fears from which a minority tends to suffer. Under these circumstances, it was very important to tie the loose knot of unity strongly and tightly. Gandhi’s understanding of the communal problem was of momentous consequence. His main concern was not only to free the country from British rule but also to establish communal harmony.

Gandhiji emerged as an undisputed Leader of the Indian national movement. He returned to India in January 1915 from South Africa. In the course of his struggle against racialism in South Africa, he had developed his unique philosophy of action—‘Satyagraha.’ Its two major elements were—truth and non-violence. Gandhi said, “If satyagraha was successful in Africa, why not try it in India? I have no doubt that British government is a powerful government, but I have no doubt also that satyagraha is a sovereign remedy.” He experimented with it in Champaran, Kheda and Ahmedabad.

On 18 September, 1924, Gandhi started a 21-days fast for Hindu-Muslim unity. “The fast was dictated by duty to the highest cause... the universal brotherhood of man.” The fast was an adventure in goodness. The stake was one man’s life. The prize was a nation’s freedom. “If Indians were united as brothers, no outsider could long be their master.” But Hindu-Muslim problem defied Gandhi’s efforts. “I am helpless” he admitted. “I have now washed my hands. But I am a believer in God... something within tells me that Hindu- Muslim unity will come sooner than we might care to hope, that God will one day force it on us.”

On 15th August, 1947, India got independence, but Gandhi considered partition “a spiritual tragedy”. He stated, “Thirty-two years of work have come to an inglorious end”. India would become independent. But the victory was a cold, political arrangement. It was the hollow husk of freedom. It was victory with tragedy, victory that found the army defeating its own general. Independence brought sadness to the architect of independence. He did not take part in the independence celebrations. He issued no message to the nation. He was sad. He wrote to Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur “There is disturbance within”.

Instead of participating in the celebration of independence, Gandhi walked bare-foot from village-to-village in Noakhali to restore peace and harmony in that area. Then, he proceeded to Bihar and Calcutta to establish amity and peace. It was the fast of Gandhi for 72 hours that brought about the change of atmosphere in Calcutta. In the words of Lord Mountbatten”, “What fifty thousand welt- equipped soldiers could not do, the Mahatma has done-he has brought peace. He is a one-man boundary force”. Gandhi’s visit to Noakhali was more than a visit of mercy and empathy. It was his resolve to do or die. Gandhi stated that “He would not be at peace unless he visited the disturbed areas”. Gandhi’s appeal for peace in Bengal was totally self-abnegating. He went there as a servant of the people and he met Hindus and Muslims alike and appealed for unity. Gandhi’s presence eased tension, assuaged anger and softened tempers. He cautioned the public that if they repeated violence, it would mean that they were killing him. Gandhi’s fast was more than penance and self-purification. It was the totality of commitment for human values. He was committed to die so that communal amity could survive and get consolidated.

He saw truth, love, compassion, service etc. enshrined in all religions, which led him to accord equal respect to all faiths. All religions insist on equality of human race and on developing a harmonious relationship with the entirety of creation. Any violation of the principle of equality gives way to conflict and violation.

Gandhi had never accepted in principle, the theory of the Hindus and the Muslims being two distinct nations and he tried to convince both of them of the pernicious character of this principle. It is remarkable that how by his honest and fearless advocacy of communal unity he had enraged many of the Muslims and a negligible few among the Hindus. The Muslims looked upon him as an enemy, while some Hindus felt that by showing humility, respect, regard and partiality for the Muslims, he was jeopardizing the cause of the Hindus. 

Without unity between Hindus and Mussalmans, no certain progress can be made by the nation. That ‘Unity is Strength’ is not merely a copybook maxim but a rule of life, is no case so clearly illustrated as in the problem of Hindu-Muslim unity. Divided, we must fall. Hindu-Muslim unity means not unity only between Hindus and Mussalmans, but between all those who believe India to be their home, no matter to what faith they belong. Hindu-Muslim unity is nothing, if it is not a partnership between brave men and women. We must trust each other always, but, as the last resort, we must place our trust in ourselves and in our God. We Indians, of whatever religion, have to live together. We are of the same soil, we are nursed by the self-same Mother and we cannot go on killing each other if India is to live.

He always emphasized upon the necessity of openness of mind for the unity and harmony of society. It was not a question of failure or success. Gandhi realized that the only alternative to violence, coercion, retribution, distrust and chaos, was restoration of sanity among misguided individuals. To counter frenzy and vindictiveness, Gandhi sought rehabilitation of balanced social interaction among the masses and the resolve to put the cause of the nation above all denominational prejudices.

Today, India is a secular nation. Democracy is mature. Muslims got equal rights and opportunities and feel more secure in India than any other country. The credit goes to founding fathers of Indian constitution and particularly Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

Author is a renowned Gandhian scholar
and the author of “Reading Gandhi”.