Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Flu

Let me join Primary Red in expressing regret at our collective absence. The flu hit me bad in hot and humid Colombo.

I just went through Robert Eric Frykenberg's "Religion, Nationalism and Hindu Fundamentalism: The Challenge to Indian Unity." in Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. XI, No.2 - Colombo, Sri Lanka. Frykenberg attacks Mohandas K. Gandhi as a "latent Hindu fundamentalist" and as "No friend of democracy, representative government, social or political equality, nor even of constitutionalism...". He dismisses Gandhi as "a caricature invented by Louis Fisher, dramatized by Richard Attenborough, and proudly subsidized by Indira Gandhi's government...", who in addition "so completely alienated" the Muslims". He adds that Gandhi had a "closed Hindu perspective....". Frykenberg's rhetoric can be refuted in depth but given the massive nature of such a project, I will address select points.

M.K Gandhi did not alienate the Muslim population in pre-partition India. He helped integrate them. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to mention a few, supported Gandhi's endeavors to retain a united India. Gandhi had conceived of the Khilafat movement as far back as 1919 to mobilize Muslims and Hindus on a shared platform against the Raj. The intent was to reverse the eviction of the Ottoman Caliph although the agitation unfortunately deteriorated into an anti-Hindu pogrom in the Malabar.

Mohandas envisioned India as a commonwealth of village republics. To depict him as anti-democratic is devious. He worked against social and political injustice. He organized a campaign in 1924-25 to combat caste discrimination against untouchables in Vaikom, Travancore. Gandhi resisted the insidious British proposal to introduce separate electorates on the basis of caste. He correctly viewed this as a prelude to even further political fragmentation. He recommended that seats be reserved for untouchable caste candidates running for legislative elections in otherwise joint electorates.

The Mahatma attempted a process of inter-religious dialogue. He supported the Sikh struggle in 1921-22 to re-take the management of their shrines from the Hinduized Mahants. While Gandhi focussed less on Black Africans during his South African sojourn, subsequent statements in support of African and African-American rights suggest a person who evolved and learnt with time. Martin Luther King based his thought and political strategy upon Gandhi's example. Nelson Mandel followed suit albeit in a lesser manner. To dismiss Gandhi as caricature ignores the real estimation others had for him. These include George Bernard Shaw, Reverend C.F Andrews and Rabindranath Tagore.

Albert Einstein commended Gandhi in the aftermath of Europe's "world war" and holocaust as, "a man who had confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior. Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

Gandhi re-introduced the term "harijan" to designate the untouchable castes. This was not an attempt to coopt the untouchable castes into the Hindu framework and make the religion a "permanent majority" as Frykenberg wrongly supposes, given the pre-Gandhian origins of the word "harijana". Ramanuja, the 11th century Vaishnavite philosopher, suggested the Tamil term Tirukulattar (God's people) to dignify the impoverished and oppressed untouchable castes of the Tamil lands. Narasimha Mehta, the Gujarati saint of the 15th century, coined the term "harijana" to refer to the untouchable castes as God's people, in his attempt to reverse the ritual stigma imposed upon them in the name of religion. Gandhi merely continued such endeavors at removing the social humiliation imposed upon the untouchables. Dr. Ambedkar considered this patronizing. But Gandhi had positive intentions. His life was a constant and committed fight against untouchability.


blackpanther said...

the flu seems to have affected your thinking.
"M.K Gandhi did not alienate the Muslim population in pre-partition India. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to mention a few, supported Gandhi's endeavors to retain a united India. Gandhi had conceived of the Khilafat movement as far back as 1919 to mobilize Muslims and Hindus on a single platform against the Raj. The intent was to reverse the eviction of the Ottoman Caliph."
gandhi did not alienate muslims, he was appeasing them. muslims ghettoised themselves even more. and hindus didnt realise that they were being kicked in their butt by gandhi. gandhi set the benchmark for minority appeasement. frykenberg is dead right about gandhi. i like that where he says gandhi was subsidised by indira.
and stop that nonsense that gandhi is great because x, y, z said so. tell us if u have anything better to offer.

doubtinggaurav said...


Hope you are well. I (and other reader) can wait some more time for your posts (The goose who lays the golden egg......)

While I do not share the strong feelings of previous commentators, I do think that Mahatma Gandhi bend over backwards to apprease Muslims, going to the extent of advising Hindus to submit their and honour of Hindu women to the Muslim mobs.
His intentions were noble, but his methods were unsatisfactory to say the least.

To me it seems Mr Frykenberg is from a long line of Hindu-Baiters ,or the polite term Secularists.
(But you always know my leanings :-))


Jaffna said...

Blackpanther, Gaurav,

I respect what you have to say. But I disagree.

Here's why. Gandhi was at the forefront of social reform and the emancipation of the untouchable. He stood for the empowerment of women. He agitated for the rights lf landless agricultural workers in Champaran, Bihar. He identified himself with the Sikh cause to liberate their gurudwaras. It is important to reach out to different segments of the population.

M.K. Gandhi broadbased the Indian National Congress by mobilizing the masses. The party had earlier been a mere fora for elite highly westernized constitutionalists and was removed from the heat and dust of the Indian grassroots. Gandhi democratized the party and made the villagers part and parcel of the Indian freedom strugge - in contrast to the Indian Muslim League of the pre-independence era. The mobilization of the grass roots empowered and politicized the poor.

The Khilafat movement was symbolic. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the Muslim community in pre-partition India had experienced a leadership vacuum. (I would argue that they still suffer from that in independent post-partition India). Muslims in British India had lost their earlier aristocratic priveleges and their lands given the commercialization of agricultural produce - a concept that they had not been familiar with until then given the recency of the monetary economy. Muslim landlords lost their lands enmasse in Bengal since they could no longer pay the agricultural tax. Enterprising Hindu Bengalis bought the land rapidly.

Syed Ahmed Khan advocated loyalty to the British crown. The Aga Khan sponsored the Muslim league. The seeds of separation were being sowed. Gandhi attempted to use the khilafat platform, albeit a flawed one, to bring the disempowered and rudderless pre-partition Indian Muslim community into the national mainstream.

The Khilafat was an inappropriate cause. Modern Turkey had rejected the obsolete and backward Caliphate. It was not India's business whether the Khilafat be retained or not. Gandhi should have perhaps conceptualized another issue to unite Hindus and Muslims on a shared agenda.

Perhaps the emancipation on Hindu and Muslim women would have atleast brought the women of the two communities out into the public domain and helped ensure national integration.

Gandhi was a devout Hindu. His entire political philosphy of Satyagraha, Sarvodaya and personal piety represented a strong Vaishnavite inheritance. It provides me a model for what responsible political activism should be, one guided by moral principles despite the mistakes that he did.

And there were several. For one he promoted the incompetent and highly ideological Jawaharlal over and above more senior Indian National Congress leaders such as Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Jinnah and Subhas Chandra Bose. Jinnah, one of pre-partition India's best lawyers and a highly westernized one at that too, left the Indian National Congress to support the Indian Muslim League. Subhas Chandra Bose turned to the revolutionary forward bloc to emancipate India from colonial rule through armed revolution and alliance with Britain's enemy. The rest was history. This to me was Gandhi's biggest failing.

Gaurav: thanks for your good wishes. Always good to hear you.

Best regards

cynical nerd said...

Dear Jaffna:

Hope you have recuparated well-enough. The weather must be warm and sultry in Colombo. Well atleast you can take a dip at the nice beaches there!

About the post itself: Your points about taking the freedom struggle to the masses (INC under Motilal Nehru was hopelessly elitist), Dalit and peasant empowerement are well taken. His blunder on handing over the leadership to Nehru to is right on.

I would be more harsh on him on the Khlilafat movement. The ensuing massacre of Hindus by the Islamists in Mopplah left an indeliable scar. Ofcourse it looked foolish at the end of the day when the Turks themselves opted for a republican secularism.

About your source: I was wondering why you chose Frykenberg, quick search reveals that he is a historian of Christian missionaries in India. I don't know how objective will that be.


Jaffna said...

Dear Cynical Nerd,

Thank you for the kind words. I agree with you completely on the Khilafat movement. It only served to fuel the Moplah riots in the Malabar.

The Caliphate was irrelevant to Turkey. Ataturk did right to abolish the senile institution that had presided not only over the Armenian genocide but over the loss of Ottomon territory in Europe, the Middle East and almost in Anatolia itself (until Ataturk reversed that by pushing back Greek troops from Izmir/Smyrna and Konya/Iconium). So your point on the Khilafat is accepted.

I agree with you on Frykenberg. He has written a harsh note on Hindu fundamentalism, a positive note on Christian missionary activity and a study on the historical antecedents of caste structure in Tamil Nadu. While I dislike his Secular-Left ideology, the last study on caste in Tamil Nadu was fascinating. I might do a post on it.

This said, Fryckenberg falls into the same category of India baiters such as Witzel and India's very own Marxist historians such as Romila Thapar. They have an ideological hatred for Hinduism.

Returning to M.K. Gandhi, he used non-violent civil disobedience to effectively bring British administration to a halt. Martin Luther King used the same methods to roll back segregation in the United States and so did Mandela to a lesser extent. Gandhi had popularized a hugely powerful political tool. One half-naked fakir effectively brought the British empire to an end - through Satyagraha.

This can be contested by several. For one, Subhas Chandra Bose threatened the British military by trying to ween away the sepoys. The Indian Naval Mutiny is a case in point. The strategic alliances that Bose had in mind effectively internationalized the Indian freedom struggle.

But I think that M.K. Gandhi had a lot to do with independence as well.

Best regards

cynical nerd said...


Well Armenian genocide still remains a thorny issue - for all its moderatenate, it is still not allowed to talk about that in Turkey. More than the Armenians themselves, it is the expats in EU/US who raise this periodically.

On Satyagraha bringing the Empire to a standstill, I am not so sure. The mainstay of British power - the Royal Bavy was pretty much decimated by the German U-boats.

I read an old article of the Atlantic monthly which documents the conversation between Churchill and FDR. Churchill as we know had a uncharitable (read racist) view on Indians, who he thought were incapable of self-governance.

The Americans made it clear that they have no intention of funding the British empire. FDR was very particular about granting India's independence. So aid for Marshall plan was contigent about Britain vacating India and other places. The fact that they themselves got out of being a British colony might have influenced them.

So, I think it is a variety of factors which brought the empire down.

I look forward to your post on Frykenberg.


Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd,

Point well taken. A number of factors led to the weakening of empire. It was M.K. Gandhi's moral persuasion - in part - that helped make FDR - a Liberal Democrat insist that Britain step back. But Churchill was not part of the equation. He had lost the elections and Atlee, a Labor Prime Minister, had taken over. Labor's first constituency was local, not imperial. You are right in that a variety of factors led to the decline of empire - but M.K.Gandhi's role was significant.

The French tried to re-establish control in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the defeat of Japan. They lost. The Dutch tried to re-establish control in Indonesia after the defeat of Japan. They lost too. Likewise with Britain - although England did not suffer in the war to the same extent as France and Holland.


doubtinggaurav said...


You are right.
Mahatma Gandhi's role was significant, I will go on to say even most important.
I am amused by the historical revisionism, while in past Mahatma was lifted on a pedestal, today he is being dragged from there. This only tells about human fraility.

Khilafat movement was a big embarassment. Ali brothers who were key players went as far as to say that they would support Afgan if Afganistan attacked India

What you say about crisis of Muslim leadership is correct.
Muslim intellectuals could not reconcile to the rule by Hindu Majority.

I had written previously about this.


Jaffna said...


I will read your piece.

I think one shortcoming of Gandhi was his lack of vision for industrialization. He had no sense of that.


history_lover said...

@Jaffna, The Ottoman caliphate had support from the indian muslim elite even before the khilafat movement. During the Balkan wars of circa 1912, funds were raised for the Turks.In fact Allama Iqbal's classic poem - Jawab a shikwa was first recited at a public meeting held to support Ottoman Turkey.
No wonder Gandhiji raised the Khilafat issue to gain Muslim support.
Even before the World War I ,the Caliph was increasingly a figure head with power passing on to the Westernized Young Turk movement.
Among some Indian muslims Gandhiji and Jawahar Lal Nehru rate higher than Sardar Patel.
Moulana Abul Kalam Azad describes Sardar Patel's negative role in his book India Wins Freedom.

Jaffna said...


There are many Hindus who like Sardar Vallabhai Patel whom they see as a man of steel. I am aware that many on the ideological left do not view him in high regard.

While M.K. Gandhi reached out to the Muslim community through the platform of the Khilafat movement, the advisability of this could be questioned. I think he could have instead championed a more local cause to unite Hindus and Muslims on one platform. But I agree that the Khilafat had a symbolism to the Muslims of pre-partition India.

Turkish modernists did not want the Khilafat. And it was Ataturk who protected what remained of Turkey. Otherwise, Istanbul itself would have reverted back to Greek control and renamed Constantinople not to mention large tracks of Anatolia. The Caliphate had become singularly effete and ineffective.

blackpanther said...

you missed the point again. and your argument is based on associating positive intentions to his actions while conviniently ignoring his blunders.
he identified with all except hindus. and you too have implicitly stated that in your post. this is exactly the point. he asked hindus to grease up and bend over.
and your other point that gandhi mobilized the masses is probably true but the greater issue is he did this by suppressing other mass movements like subash chandra bose's. and what is superior his ideology of non-violence or india? gandhi fought for his mahatmahood. nothing less. he called off civil disobedience because people got violent. he did not support bose or any others who were also fighting for india but using different ideology. the second aspect of this which is equally important is what legacy did gandhi leave? spineless indians, hindus who are still being led to slaughter house by marxists and muslims, a disaster of a political system, etc.
khilafat was flawed and no wonder gandhi supported it. thats precisely the point. several of gandhi's actions have caused tremendous damage to india. and in between, there were few inconsequential, symbolic gestures. you are clutching on to these straws.
and then your final point that he was a devout hindu. excuse me, but i thought he was a christian. read brilliant analysis by agneya panja on sulekha blogs.
i cant believe any hindu in his right mind would think the christian concept of non-violence(christ's mount sermon - show your other cheek when slapped) is the same as what is said by krishna. gita in fact asks arjuna to fight for dharma.

and here is my stance on gandhi in simple terms. gandhi is so strongly associated with non-violence that gandhi myth cannot survive without it. his idea of non-violence is highly idealistic, impractical and the greatest disaster to any civilization. so if india must survive, gandhian myth must die. and so it is in our country's best interests to demonize gandhi. the alternative is to disassociate gandhi from non-violence, which i think is impossible.

Jaffna said...


The Christian missionaries argue that M.K. Gandhi had been influenced by the New Testament. But in Gandhi's own words - he always described himself as a "Sanatana Hindu" and never under-estimated the influence of the Bhagavad Geeta on his life. Much of his non-violence had Indic roots - Jain to be precise. A significant portion of Gujarat had been Jain and had gradually been Hinduized, if you may. M.K. Gandhi probably belonged to that.

He did defend Hindu society. The fast unto death to prevent the British from introducing separate electorates for the "untouchables" is a case in point. The aim of the colonialist was to further fragment Hindu society. M.K. Gandhi prevented that.

He genuinely believed in a Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. You may or may not agree with him on that one but his fasts did stop the rioting both in Naokhali where Hindus bore the brunt of the violence and in Calcutta where Muslims largely suffered.

I think him to be a complex figure. Much of what you say is correct. But to confine M.K. Gandhi to how you stereotype him is perhaps doing injustice - a caricature to use Frykenberg's words in ways unintended by him.

Best regards


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