Gandhi Is Now ‘Important’ to Pakistan PM. Is This a Silver Lining?

Gandhi Jayanti: Sudheendra Kulkarni clarifies many misconceptions about Gandhi that both Pakistanis & Indians hold.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Image of Pakistan PM Imran Khan and Mahatma Gandhi used for representational purposes.
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(This is Part-I of a two-part series on Gandhi and Pakistan. Read Part-II here.)

(Peace between our two Nuclear-armed nations is impossible without both re-discovering the cause for which Mahatma Gandhi sacrificed his life)

Something unexpected happened after the Narendra Modi-led BJP government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in early August, making Jammu & Kashmir a full-fledged state of the Republic of India. Pakistan’s angry reaction was, of course, expected. However, most unexpectedly, its Prime Minister Imran Khan invoked the name of Mahatma Gandhi, with evident respect and admiration, to argue how the Modi government’s action was wrong. He has done so not once, but on many occasions.

In his address to the nation on 26 August, Imran said, “The RSS believed that Hindus were supreme and there was a hatred for Muslims in their ideology. This was the ideology that assassinated Mahatma Gandhi after Independence.”

Four days later, the Pakistani PM lamented that India, once inspired by the “secular” ideals of “great men like Nehru and Gandhi”, had now accepted ‘fascism’. On 23 September, in a conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, Imran said: “It’s not the India I know of Gandhi and Nehru.” Again, five days later, in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, he repeated that the RSS’s “ideology of hate” against Muslims, “murdered Mahatma Gandhi”.

Pakistan PM Discovering Gandhi’s Relevance: A Welcome Development

Politicians, intellectuals and journalists in India have picked many holes in what Pakistan’s Prime Minister has said on Jammu & Kashmir since 5 August. Several of his utterances are indeed questionable. For example, Imran Khan took a lot of liberty with historical facts when he said, in his address to the nation on 26 August: “Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah saw through this anti-Muslim ideology of the RSS and worked towards the creation of Pakistan.” The truth is, Jinnah was vehemently opposing the very person — Mahatma Gandhi — whom Imran is now eulogising. The RSS was hardly a decisive voice, much less a major player, in India’s freedom struggle.

Nevertheless, in all the current acrimonious “tu-tu-main-main” between New Delhi and Islamabad, one welcome development is that the Prime Minister of Pakistan has discovered the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi, and even thought it necessary to repeatedly acknowledge his greatness.

Never in the past 72 years, since the creation of Pakistan, has one of its top leaders so publicly, and so genuinely, paid tribute to the ideals for which the Father of the Indian Nation sacrificed his life. These ideals were — Hindu-Muslim harmonisation and India-Pakistan normalisation. I see this as a silver lining in the dark clouds of heightened animosity that are now hovering over our common skies.

Kashmir Problem’s Link With Muslim League’s Flawed Theory

One hopes that the Pakistan’s ruling military, civilian, intellectual and religious establishment continues to re-assess its own understanding of India’s freedom movement, Mahatma Gandhi’s pivotal role in it, and the serious flaws in the ‘Two-Nation’ theory advocated by Jinnah and the Muslim League, as the basis for the creation of Pakistan.

The Kashmir problem is, to a large extent, a logical outcome of the Muslim League’s deeply defective stand that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations, thereby justifying their demand for an independent and sovereign homeland for the “Muslims of India”.

Has ‘Modi’s India’ Followed Gandhian Path of Truth & Non-Violence?

If Pakistanis were to indeed conduct such an honest reassessment of their own troubled history, they would surely see many virtues in the philosophy and praxis of Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, we Indians also need to honestly examine whether we have remained true to the Gandhian path of Truth and Non-Violence:

  • in harmonising Hindu-Muslim relations within our country
  • in extinguishing caste and gender discrimination
  • in evolving a model of equitable, eco-friendly and sustainable socio-economic development
  • in people-centric, decentralised and cooperation-enhancing democratic governance
  • in contributing our utmost to a just and peaceful new world order, devoid of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction

The need for such sincere introspection has become even more pressing in Modi’s India, when, at best, the Mahatma is confined to the role of a “brand ambassador” for the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ and, at worst, his killer Nathuram Godse — and the latter’s bigoted ideal of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ — are being publicly glorified.

In short, both Indians and Pakistanis need to truthfully and critically appraise their own misunderstandings and prejudices about Gandhi.

It is by no means necessary, nor is it ever possible, that all of us agree with everything he did and stood for. But if we are honest about wanting peace and rapprochement between our two countries, the Mahatma is our common source of light, inspiration and guidance.

Why Pakistanis (And Many Indians) Have Misunderstood Gandhi

I once asked a prominent businessman in Lahore when I visited Pakistan a couple of years ago — “Who was the first Hindu martyr who sacrificed his life for Pakistan?” 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’s personality and politics are largely falsified in Pakistan, just as Jinnah, for all his faults, is misrepresented – indeed, villainised – in the Indian narrative of the freedom struggle.

Pakistanis’ misunderstanding about Gandhi is rooted in two factors. First, he is seen as the Hindu leader of a “Hindu party” (Congress) that wanted to establish “Hindu Raj” after the British left. This is patently false. As Imran Khan’s own praise for the Mahatma shows, he (and the Congress) stood for a secular India standing firmly on the foundation of Hindu-Muslim unity. 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.

Gandhi’s Stance on ‘Two-Nation’ Theory & ‘Two-State’ Theory

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 they should know why Gandhi, who once famously said that India’s division would take place “over my dead body”, disfavoured India’s division on the basis of the ‘Two-Nation’ theory. It is well explained by noted scholar Bhikhu Parekh in his book Gandhi's Political Philosophy - A critical examination.

“Gandhi defined India in civilisational — not territorial — terms, and was far more concerned about the integrity of civilization rather than its territorial boundary. Indian civilization was for him plural and synthetic, and not only tolerated and respected but positively cherished diversity and differences... Since for Gandhi this was the ‘truth’ about India, partition was a ‘lie’. It denied the deepest truths about Indian civilization and history, including Muslim rule, and contained a profound ‘untruth’.”

Notwithstanding his opposition to the ‘Two-Nation’ theory, what both Pakistanis and Indians should know is that Gandhi was agreeable to the ‘Two-State’ 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 9-27 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.

‘My Life’s Mission Is Hindu-Muslim Unity’: Gandhi

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.”

In Gandhi’s view, Jinnah’s argument that Muslims constituted a separate nation was untenable, because the latter simply took it for granted that the Muslims in Muslim-minority provinces also constituted the “Muslim Nation” — without explaining the absurd situation that his formula would leave this part of the “Muslim Nation” behind in Hindustan. Similarly, if, according to Jinnah, the Hindus constituted a separate nation, he also did not care to explain how the Hindus in Hindu-minority provinces in the north-western and eastern zones of India would cease to be a “Hindu Nation” once they became a part of his “Muslim Nation” — Pakistan.

Therefore, on 15 September 1944, Gandhi wrote to Jinnah in a tone of dismay: “You must admit that the (Lahore) Resolution itself makes no reference to the ‘Two-Nation’ theory… I find no parallel in history for a body of converts and their descendants claiming to be a nation apart from the parent stock. If India was one nation before the advent of Islam, it must remain one in spite of the change of faith of a very large body of her children.”

(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 sudheenkulkarni.gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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