Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, on 30 January 1948.
The article was first published in July 2019 and has been replugged for M K Gandhi's birth anniversary.
“Who was the first Hindu who sacrificed his life for Pakistan?” I asked a prominent businessman in Lahore when I visited Pakistan a couple of years ago. He is a proud Pakistani and also passionate about peace and friendship between our two countries estranged since birth in 1947. He did not know the answer, and was startled when I said, “It was Mahatma Gandhi.”
Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, on 30 January 1948. The place was Birla House in New Delhi, where the Mahatma (which means “a great soul”) held all-religion prayer meetings every day.
The British had left barely six months earlier, ending their colonial rule of nearly 200 years and dividing the ancient land into two independent and sovereign nations. The reason for Partition (that “Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations”), and the manner in which it took place, had produced a horrendous communal bloodbath and the largest cross-border migration in human history.
Delhi at the time was teeming with Hindu-Sikh refugees from West Pakistan, just as Muslim refugees were pouring into Lahore, Karachi and other places. The atmosphere in India’s capital was charged with not only anti-Pakistan but also anti-Muslim anger.
In one of the manifestations of this anger, many Hindus and Sikhs strongly objected to the Holy Quran being recited, along with hymns from scriptures of other religions, at the Mahatma’s prayer meetings. An anguished Gandhi had undertaken an indefinite fast for the protection of Muslims – it was to be the last of numerous fasts he had undertaken in his life.
Among the conditions he put for ending his fast were: (a) All the mosques in Delhi converted into homes and temples should be restored to their original use; (b) Muslims should be allowed to move freely in the city, and also to travel without danger in trains; (c) No economic boycott of Muslims.
He ended the fast after six days, and only after the leaders of Hindu and Sikh communities accepted his conditions. A peace pledge signed by nearly 200,000 people read: “We the Hindu, Sikh, Christian and other citizens of Delhi declare solemnly our conviction that Muslim citizens of the Indian Union should be as free as the rest of us to live in Delhi in peace and security and with self-respect and to work for the good and well-being of the Indian Union.”
Earlier, on 15 August 1947, when India was born as a free nation (Pakistan had come into existence the previous day), Gandhi was not in Delhi to participate in the celebrations. He was in Calcutta in a bid to extinguish the flames of deadly communal violence. His comrade in this successful endeavor was Muslim League leader Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, who later became Pakistan’s prime minister.
In a city where Hindu and Muslim mobs were previously attacking each other, many of the same people jointly took out peace marches in its streets and by-lanes, shouting “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai”. Nearly seven hundred thousand people attended his prayer meeting on the 21st of August held at Park Circus. Here is an unbelievable fact: At the Mahatma’s urging, the flags of both India and Pakistan were flown side by side by the Congress and the League volunteers at the meeting.
Before his peace mission in Calcutta, he had gone to Noakhali (now in Bangladesh), which had become another cauldron of communal killings. For many weeks, he travelled barefoot from village to village preaching the message of peace and harmony. The somber song that he and his small band of followers sang was ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ (Walk Alone), by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.
If no-one heeds your call — then walk alone
If no-one looks back towards your unpredictable path,
Then with thorn-pricked and bloodied feet, walk alone.
About this epic effort, Lord Mountbatten, Britain’s last viceroy (he briefly continued as India’s first governor-general) wrote to Gandhi on 26 August 1947: “In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large-scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man and there is no rioting. As a serving officer, as well as an administrator, may I be allowed to pay my tribute to the One Man Boundary Force, not forgetting his second in command, Mr Suhrawardy?”
To this, Gandhi replied: “Am I right in gathering from your letter that you would like me to try the same thing for Punjab?” On the last day of his life, he received a Sindhi delegation and said to its members, “Tell Khuhro (Mohammed Ayub Khuhro, chief minister of Sindh at the time of Partition) I want to visit Sindh to re-establish peace. Let him consult Jinnah and inform me telegraphically.” Alas, he died before he could go to Karachi and meet Jinnah.
But not every Hindu was happy about Gandhi’s call for Hindu-Muslim unity and India-Pakistan amity. Militant Hindu groups had never accepted his philosophy of Satya (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence) and communal harmony, and had even accused him of being pro-Muslim and pro-Pakistan.
In a statement before the court (‘Why I Killed Gandhi’), Godse flayed what he called “Gandhi’s persistent policy of appeasement towards the Muslims”. What he said further explains why I regard Mahatma Gandhi as the first Hindu who laid down his life for Pakistan.
“Gandhi is being referred to as the Father of the Nation. But if that is so, he had failed his paternal duty inasmuch as he has acted very treacherously to the nation by his consenting to the partitioning of it. I stoutly maintain that Gandhi has failed in his duty. He has proved to be the Father of Pakistan. His inner-voice, his spiritual power and his doctrine of non-violence of which so much is made of, all crumbled before Jinnah’s iron will and proved to be powerless,” said Godse.
Godse was hanged for his crime on 15 November 1949.
This year (2nd October) marks Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. I do not know whether this anniversary has any significance for the people or the government of Pakistan. Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have followed a troublesome trajectory since 1947 in which the people of one country hardly pay tribute to great personalities from the other. Nevertheless, Pakistanis who care for an objective understanding of their own history cannot be indifferent to the life, legacy and teachings of one whose name is inseparable from the making of Pakistan.
My guess is that just as Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah is misrepresented – indeed, he is villainised – in the Indian narrative of the freedom struggle, Gandhi too is largely falsified in Pakistan. Barring those who have studied his life to a reasonable extent, popular misunderstanding about him owes largely to two factors. First, he is seen as a Hindu leader who was the supreme guide to a party (Congress) that was, in the eyes of those who campaigned for Pakistan, a “Hindu party” that wanted to establish “Hindu Raj” after the British left. The fact that he looked and behaved like a Hindu ascetic, and sometimes used Hindu religious idioms (“Rama Rajya” to connote his idea of an Ideal State), was held against him by pro-Pakistan campaigners.
Sadly, it is largely ignored that his Hinduism was diametrically opposed to that professed by the likes of Godse. He was uncompromisingly against the claim made by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, whose political affiliate BJP is now ruling India) that India is a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu Nation). His allowing recitation of the Holy Quran in his daily prayer meetings, despite threats from Hindu fanatics, is just one of the many proofs that his Hinduism was tolerant, inclusive, liberal, and respectful towards all other faiths. Indeed, in the history of our subcontinent – rather, in the history of the entire world – no leader made inter-religious harmony as central an agenda in his or her political struggle as Gandhi did.
What did Gandhi think about Islam? Pakistanis – indeed, Muslims around the world – should listen to his following words. “Islam enjoins an admiration for the Creator of the World and His works. As the West was in a dreadful darkness, the dazzling star of Islam shining in the East brought light, peace and relief to the suffering world. The Islamic religion is not a mendacious religion. When the Hindus study this religion with due respect, they, too, will feel the same sympathy as I do for Islam. I have read the books telling about the life-style of the Prophet of Islam and of those who were close to him. These books generated profound interest in me, so much so that when I finished reading them I regretted there being no more of them. I have arrived at the conclusion that Islam’s spreading rapidly was not by the sword. On the contrary, it was primarily owing to its simplicity, logicality, its Prophet’s great modesty, his trueness to his promises and his unlimited faithfulness towards every Muslim that many people willingly accepted Islam.”
The second factor that has prevented many Pakistanis from having an unbiased view of Gandhi is his perceived opposition to India’s Partition – and hence to the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation. To proud and patriotic Pakistanis, this is understandably unacceptable. But the historical truth is more complex than how it is perceived.
True, Gandhi did not favour India’s division – and certainly not on the basis of the ‘Two-Nations’ theory. The reason for this is explained by noted scholar Bhikhu Parekh in his book Gandhi's Political Philosophy — A critical examination. It says: “Gandhi defined India in civilisational, not territorial, terms and was far more concerned about the integrity of civilisation rather than its territorial boundary. Indian civilisation was for him plural and synthetic and not only tolerated and respected but positively cherished diversity and differences. With all its limitations and occasional quarrels, India had been a ‘happy family’ to which all its children were privileged to belong.”
Gandhi was however agreeable to the ‘Two-States Theory’ – that is, Pakistan as a separate State with a confederal link with India on the basis of equality. Nothing illustrates this better than the lengthy talks he held, at his own initiative, with Jinnah between 9 and 27 September 1944. Gandhi met Jinnah as many as 14 times at the latter’s residence in Bombay. Simultaneously, the two leaders also exchanged as many as 24 letters, which are of immense educative value for both Indians and Pakistanis.
In his very first letter to Jinnah on 11 September 1944, Gandhi stated: “My life mission has been Hindu-Muslim unity, which I want for its own sake but which is not to be achieved without the foreign ruling Power being ousted”. Unimpressed, Jinnah wrote back: “The only solution of India’s problem is to accept the division of India as Pakistan and Hindustan.”
Gandhi then endorsed the principle of sovereign states on the basis of self-determination, in areas predominantly inhabited by Muslims in the north-western and eastern parts of India. “You can call it Pakistan if you like,” he told Jinnah. To this extent, he accepted the kernel of the Lahore Resolution. “I have therefore suggested a way out,” he said. “Let there be a partition as between two brothers, if a division there must be.”
The talks broke down because Jinnah did not yield. History might have been different if those talks had not broken down and similarly, history would have been different if some Congress leaders at the time, especially Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, had not been utterly dismissive about the Muslim League, and offered to have serious talks with the League on the future constitutional arrangement for post-British India. Thus, both sides were responsible for the grave trust deficit that developed between them. As a result, both failed to imagine, mutually agree on, and peacefully implement an indigenous concept of an inclusive India-Pakistan Family-State different from the west’s Westphalian model of a Nation-State. Such a concept, rooted in our common spiritual-civilisational wisdom, could have avoided the division of Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir, and could also have averted mass killings and panic cross-migration of populations. Had both Gandhi and Jinnah lived longer, some of the mistakes could still have been corrected. Alas.
The rest is history, full of tragedies – India-Pakistan wars; Pakistan’s own division and the blood-soaked secession of Bangladesh; problems faced by the minorities in both countries; the rise of religious extremism and terrorism; ceaseless hostility between two nuclear-armed neighbours and their ever-rising military spending; total absence of socio-economic and cultural cooperation; poverty and deprivation afflicting large sections of the two populations; and, above all, the agony of Kashmir.
This birth-defect of the two nations was foreseen by the great Pakistani-Indian poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who mournfully wrote in August 1947:
Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa, ye shab-gaziida sahar,
Vo intizaar thaa jis-kaa, ye vo sahar to nahin
These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light –
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
We had set out in sheer longing.
I have described Faiz as a Pakistani-Indian poet because he had himself said Pakistan was his mankooha (one he was wedded to) and India was his mahbooba (beloved). He had deep respect for Mahatma Gandhi.
On February 2, 1948, two days after Gandhi’s assassination, he penned a heartfelt tribute in The Pakistan Times, Lahore, (he was then the editor of the newspaper). “[We] are convinced,” he wrote, “more than ever before that very few indeed have lived in this degenerate century who could lay greater claim to immortality than this true servant of humanity and champion of downtrodden….Though he is dead, he will live through ageless life.”
In his insightful book Jinnah vs. Gandhi, Roderick Matthews writes: “Jinnah and Gandhi have each been acclaimed as the ‘father’ of a modern state, but parenthood has not been kind to either of them.” Today’s Pakistan is a far cry from what Jinnah had envisioned. Similarly, Gandhi would have been deeply concerned at the prevailing socio-political and economic realities of India. Narendra Modi’s ruling party has even got a person who praised Godse as a “patriot” elected to parliament.
Yet, any hope of ‘aman’ and amity between India and Pakistan can be realised only if the people and ruling establishments in our two countries rediscover the core principles and visions of Gandhi and Jinnah. They were both leaders of immense courage, and both were driven by lofty ideals of humanism. A few days before his assassination, Gandhi had the audacity to declare at his prayer meetings: “Both India and Pakistan are my country. I am not going to take out a passport to go to Pakistan… Though geographically and politically India is divided in two, at heart we shall be friends and brothers helping and respecting one another and be one for the outside world.”
Similarly, Jinnah was far from being an “anti-Hindu” and “anti-India” leader he is prejudicially made out to be in India. During his 1948 visit to Dacca, the capital of then East Pakistan, he had assured the Hindu community: “Do not be afraid, do not leave Pakistan because Pakistan will be a democratic state and the Hindus will have the same rights as the Muslims.” More astonishingly, in his address to the All India Muslim League Council meeting in Karachi in December 1947, he stated: “I tell you that I still consider myself to be an Indian. For the moment I have accepted the Governor-Generalship of Pakistan. But I am looking forward to a time when I would return to India and take my place as a citizen of my country.”
It is well documented that he wished to return to Bombay and live in the beautiful mansion (‘Jinnah House’) he had built for himself. “You do not know how I love Bombay,” he had told Sri Prakasa, India’s first high commissioner to Pakistan. (I would like to reiterate here my longstanding demand before the Government of India. It should hand over ‘Jinnah House’ to the Government of Pakistan, so that the latter can establish its consulate in that historical building. The building should also house an India-Pakistan Friendship Centre.)
Gandhi was in favour of an innovative solution to the Kashmir dispute by making it belong to both India and Pakistan. On his part, Jinnah wanted India-Pakistan ties to be as close and cooperative as those between USA and Canada. “Nothing was nearer to his heart” than friendly relations with India, the Quaid-i-Azam told Paul Alling, the first US ambassador to Pakistan, on 26 February 1948. He also informed the ambassador that he had told Nehru, Gandhi and others that “Pakistan desired defensive understanding with India on a military level…with no time limit, similar perhaps to the (US) arrangements with Canada.”
Surely, we Indians and Pakistanis owe it to our common past to revisit the lives of these two great men – both, coincidentally, Gujaratis – who, despite differences, dreamt of a harmonious future for our two countries, claiming, moreover, both to be their own.
Lest I be misunderstood, I would like to state categorically that what is proposed is not ‘Akhand Bharat’, a merger of India and Pakistan. Partition cannot be undone. Pakistan is, and will remain, a separate, independent and sovereign nation. Indians must not only accept this reality but also sincerely wish Pakistan to remain united and become more stable, cohesive, democratic and prosperous. But must we, Indians and Pakistanis, not learn the right lessons from history and begin to live as good neighbours, remaining true to the dreams of Gandhi and Jinnah, and never forgetting that there is, and will always be, a good lot of Pakistan in India and India in Pakistan?
Sudheendra Kulkarni served as a close aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. He is the founder of ‘FORUM FOR A NEW SOUTH ASIA — Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’.
He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at email@example.com
This piece was published on Dawn.com on July 22, 2019