Ever since 15 Dec 2019 when a peaceful protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that turned into disruption and arson around the Delhi Jamia Millia Islamia campus, posters or placards featuring Gandhi were widely displayed.
At the Shaheen Bagh and other protest encampments, along with Gandhi, the images of Gautam Buddha, B. R. Ambedkar and Maulana Azad were also shown by the side of the national tricolor.
The protesters, largely members of or driven by the political parties opposed to the ruling BJP or the Islamists and Leftist/Communist organizations, were interestingly seen falling over each other showing their love and loyalty to Mahatma Gandhi. Some Gandhians, for their own reasons, also jumped on the bandwagon.
The enthusiasm of Muslims and their leadership at the forefront of the anti-CAA protest and their loud incantation of Gandhi made me curious to examine what had been the Muslims’ attitude towards the leader who, at the behest of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, was named the Father of the Nation.
First of all, at the time of Partition - let this be understood clearly - when mass migration was taking place on religious lines, promises were made to the non-Muslims of Pakistan that, if they wanted, they could cross over to India. In fact, Maulana Azad had expressed his apprehension that Hindus couldn’t stay in Pakistan because Western Pakistan was ‘militant.’ He foresaw the Hindus would either flee or would be made to run away.
Echoing the same sentiments, Gandhi had also asserted that Hindus and Sikhs who did not want to live in Pakistan, had the right to come to India. In that situation, “the Government of India is bound to provide them citizenship, employment and facilities to live a comfortable life,” wrote Gandhi.
As Gandhi cared for the non-Muslim population in Pakistan, both East and West, he also dedicated his life toward forging Hindu-Muslim communal unity. His attachment to the Muslim community was well known from his South African years when he had taken up the legal cases on behalf of the Muslims of Indian origin. In India, he supported the Khilafat movement and, after independence, went on fast on one occasion to have a large amount of financial compensation delivered to Pakistan.
On the side of the Muslims or their elite leaders, however, Gandhi wasn’t held in very high regard. Certainly, he wasn’t revered by the Muslims in the same proportion as the Hindus did.
Mohammed Ayoob, in a Foreign Affairs (19 Oct 2017) article, pointed out that “the Muslim elite felt their identity under greater threat with Gandhi at the helm of the Congress than they had before he became the undisputed leader of the party.”
A large number of them considered him “to belong to the implicit Hindu nationalist tradition. In their view, Gandhi imperceptibly equated Hinduness with Indianness by his dress, vocabulary, and demeanor and his obsession with the protection of cows, considered sacred by Hindus.”
In the opinion of the Muslim leaders, with the appearance of Gandhi at the helm, what was by then a ‘national’ movement turned into a ‘populist’ one.
“As a leader interested in mobilizing the masses,” writes Ayoob, “Gandhi couched part of his political terminology in Hindu religious idioms. He used the term ram rajya (governance by the Hindu deity Ram), for example, to signify that a just order would prevail after independence. But that alienated much of the Muslim elite because it alluded to a mythical Hindu golden age before the advent of Islam in India. Gandhi’s deliberate adoption of the attire of a Hindu holy man, or 'sant', also repelled large segments of Muslims. The use of the term mahatma - great soul - by Gandhi’s acolytes as his title introduced Hindu spiritual terminology into the political arena and further increased Muslim alienation.”
Gandhi’s incorporation of the Khilafat movement with his non-cooperation movement against the British was staunchly opposed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League. According to Jinnah, the Khilafat movement was ‘antediluvian’ that sought to preserve the authority of the Ottoman Sultan as the Caliph of Islam after World War I. Restoration of the Ottoman caliphate was a retrograde step in history that was initially supported by the Khilafat Committee formed in 1920 by another stream of Muslim leaders with the two -- Shaukat and Muhammad -- “Ali brothers” in the vanguard.
With the extension of Gandhi’s support, the Khilafat Committee turned into a movement that too fizzled out by 1924, but not before it had caused irreparable damage to his expressed goal of Hindu-Muslim unity and the freedom struggle.
Gandhi was distrusted by the Muslims as much as by a section of Hindus. At the time he broke his 21-day fast (in 1924) which Gandhi had decided “to start and complete in a Mussalman house” of Muhammad Ali, the Muslims showed utter lack of respect by staying absent. Later, the Khilafat Muslim leaders also broke away from Gandhi accusing him of being too much dependent on “non-violent means”. Some of them foul-mouthed him too.
Factionalism among the Muslim leaders with a strong pull toward Muslim League, the Hindu-Muslim riots in different places and suppression with a mighty hand by the British were also the reasons for the Khilafat movement to fade away. But, by this time, Jinnah and not any other Muslim leader or Gandhi had become the rallying face of leadership for the majority of Muslims. There were exceptions like Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and others.
Much later, close to the granting of Independence to India, when Gandhi had traveled to Noakhali (in former East Pakistan and now Bangladesh) to help put down another widespread fire of violence between the Hindus and the Muslims, his stay was resented by the Muslims and their leadership. A BBC documentary recorded that Gandhi’s routes to peace marches were deliberately dirtied with animal bones (most likely of the cow’s) and the Muslims boycotted his meetings. On 12 Feb 1947, A. K. Fazlul Huq, who later became the first Prime Minister of Bengal, declared at a rally that Gandhi’s presence in Noakhali had “harmed Islam enormously.”
The conditions in Noakhali became so ugly that Gandhi had to discontinue his mission halfway, he headed for Bihar on 2 Mar 1947. A month later, Gandhi received telegrams from Congress party workers in Noakhali briefing him on the attempts to burn Hindus alive. On receiving such reports, Gandhi was reported to have responded that the situation in Noakhali demanded that “the Hindus should either leave or perish.”
Coming back to the Shaheen Bagh protests, if the organizers were so fond of Mahatma Gandhi, they should have prayed and observed fasts, worked toward greater understanding between the Hindus and the Muslims. Instead, the participants were lured to the feast of biryani and masala-tea and a City Councilor like Tahir Hussain was found mobilizing all resources for the protest site (In March 2020, Tahir Hussain was arrested in connection with the Delhi riots).
The Gandhian protesters would not have allowed the venue to be used as the disguised forum for the militant Islamists.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.