WEDNESDAY marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Interestingly, his was one name that sprang up in the speeches that the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers made at the UN last week. Narendra Modi indicated to the august assembly that he was a devotee of India’s apostle of peace. Modi didn’t wince, however, when Donald Trump, ignorantly or perhaps perversely, described the Indian prime minister as the ‘Father of the Indian Nation’, a sobriquet reserved by tradition for Gandhi.
Imran Khan, on his part, recalled the fact that followers of Modi’s ideology of Hindutva had assassinated “the great Mahatma Gandhi”. To call Gandhi great was an unusually generous epithet from a Pakistani leader, so unusual that a Pakistani paper, which produced the full text of Khan’s UN speech, deleted the word from its version of the address.
Be that as it may, Imran Khan’s speech touched several urgent issues, but chiefly the military occupation and an inhuman lockdown in Kashmir. He expressed a chilling fear shared by many Indians: what would happen when the siege is lifted, and the people come out on the streets?
A truer tribute to Mahatma Gandhi’s memory on his birthday would be to prevent the bloodbath that Imran Khan and many fear could happen if people vent their stifled anger before hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers. An equally noble tribute to Gandhi on his landmark anniversary would be to do everything possible to dismantle the prospects of war breaking out between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
Imran Khan expressed a chilling fear shared by many Indians: What would happen when the siege is lifted, and the people come out on the streets?
A group of Indian women activists recently visited the region under siege. They returned with an extremely worrying picture of Kashmir’s sleepless mothers keeping vigil at their doors for young sons to be returned by the army who had taken them away from their homes. “Boys as young as 14 or 15 are taken away, tortured, some for as long as 45 days. Their papers are taken away, families not informed. Old FIRs are not closed. Phones are snatched; ‘collect it from the army camp’ they are told. No one in his senses ever went back, even for a slightly expensive phone. A woman recounted how they came for her 22-year-old son. But since his hand was in plaster they took away her 14-year-old instead.”
This singular brutality seems a far cry from the day in early August 1947 when Gandhi arrived in Kashmir to verify for himself what the people of the erstwhile princely state desired for themselves since Partition was now imminent. Following a warm reception in Srinagar, where he had to take the boat to cross the Jhelum because the cheering throng had blocked the bridge, Gandhi felt that only the people of the state could determine the future of Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah, who the ruler Hari Singh had put in prison, had ensured the goodwill of all Kashmiris — Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs — for India, Gandhi concluded.
In the absence of her jailed husband, Abdullah’s wife escorted Gandhi to his meetings during the three-day trip to Srinagar followed by two days in Jammu. These are humane points beyond the grasp of ordinary politicians on both sides of the Pakistan-India border. Things didn’t go the way Gandhi expected, and the tribal raid, which he concluded was possible only with Pakistan’s help, saddened him.
A few days before his death in January 1948, a heartbroken Gandhi was pleading for a peaceful way out of the mess, which he blamed on both sides.
He was preparing to visit Pakistan when he was killed at a prayer meeting in Delhi. Supporters of his assassin Nathuram Godse are MPs from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In their opinion, brazenly and publicly voiced, Gandhi’s killer was a Hindutva hero.
Gandhi believed in bilateral talks with Pakistan and supported India’s approach to the UN as a desperate way to avert war between the two countries both of whom he felt emotionally close to.
“Today there is talk of war everywhere. Everyone fears a war breaking out between the two countries. If that happens it will be a calamity both for India and for Pakistan. India has written to the UN because whenever there is a fear of conflict anywhere the UN is asked to promote a settlement and to stop fighting from breaking out.”
Gandhi saw Sheikh Abdullah as a unifier of Kashmiris of different religions, always a sacred mission for him. Talking of “raids from outside the frontier of Kashmir”, Gandhi said “whatever might have been the attitude of Pakistan, if I had my way I would have invited Pakistan’s representatives to India and we could have met, discussed the matter and worked out some settlement.”
A last message from Gandhi to Pakistani leaders can yet be given new life by both sides as possibly the finest tribute he would want. Though Gandhi was addressing Pakistan at the time, in today’s context he might have been speaking also to Modi’s India.
“They keep saying that they want an amicable settlement but they do nothing to create the conditions for such a settlement. I shall, therefore, humbly say to the responsible leaders … that though we are now two countries — which is a thing I never wanted — we should at least try to arrive at an agreement so that we could live as peaceful neighbours.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2019