ON October 1, 2018, on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, a lecture was delivered by Irfan Habib at the Constitution Club in New Delhi. This was the first lecture in the series being organised by Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) to commemorate the 150 years of Gandhi.
K M Shrimali was the chairperson of the event. In his introductory remarks, he stated that it is very relevant to observe this series as the very vision of Mahatma Gandhi is now distorted. Indian citizens are threatened and the vocabulary of the present discourse is alarming. Mob lynching etc., has turned the principle of “ahimsa” upside down. The RSS has always believed in fragmented nationalism and adopted a monopolist ideology which is detrimental to the interests of the people.
Irfan Habib shared the concept of nation as envisaged by Gandhi and how it developed and evolved in the due course of freedom struggle.
Excerpts from his speech:
Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of nation was of a ‘free nation’, free from the enslavement of the British rule. But this concept evolved and developed as he got engaged with the people, their struggles and building their movements.
There are many definitions of the concept of nation getting developed. The country becomes a nation with a political entity – a sovereign state, a government of its own as it was envisaged during the French revolution.
In the bulk of the world like India, China etc., there was colonial domination and the concept of nation grew up in struggle against colonialism. This was in total difference to the development of national entity in Europe. The nationalism of colonial powers and nationalism of enslaved was at variance.
The economic nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji played a revolutionary role and took up the issues of the enslaved countrymen. This important fact of national question was missed by the Left in Europe. Though Marx explains about this phenomenon explicitly in Capital Volume 1, where he explains the primitive accumulation of capital, which greatly helped the western wealth. This essential truth was revived by the Indian nationalists; to have a strong force which demanded a very wide unity of the people. Secondly the nation should be large and should have a political entity of its own and hence all possible unity should be developed to create such a nation. Two essential aspects follow; larger nation and all possible unity.
Gandhi was mentored by Dadabhai Naoroji. But once he went to South Africa he realised the racist policy of the white towards the black. Still his act was of pessimist resistance. There is no earlier version of his concept of nation. It is only in 1909, while in South Africa, he writes ‘Hind Swaraj’ and a nation concept is envisaged. The title ‘Hind Swaraj’ itself is explanatory. It is not ‘Bharat’ but ‘Hind’ derived from the Arabic and Persian version. It is an indication of Gandhi’s care to ensure that his ‘India’ should not signify any association with single tradition. It conceived a country free from the British. This was a departure from his predecessor like Dadabhai Naoroji who always eulogised the British at the beginning of his speech.
In ‘Hind Swaraj’ Gandhi compares the western civilization with his concept of nation. Unlike the West that stood for freedom for women, labour etc., he glorifies the caste system and is anti – labour. According to ‘Hind Swaraj’ the nation should be without western influence; no doctors, engineers, railways etc., the country should remain poor. It seems as if poverty represented the greatness of India! ‘Hind Swaraj’ is religious but not sectarian, also not secular. Though, he emphatically writes that if Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland.
In fact, Gokhale rejected his idea of ‘Hind Swaraj’ and recommended its withdrawal. However, when Gandhi arrives back in India from South Africa his picture of ‘Hind Swaraj’ fails. Though he was loth to contest property rights; but in his very first real agitation in India, Champaran Satyagrah of 1917, he was pitted against the property rights and privileges of European indigo-planters. And then next year his hunger strike was for the sake of increase in wages of Ahmedabad mill workers. This was just after nine years of ‘Hind Swaraj’ set out to abolish modern machine industry and apathy towards workers.
He passed instructions to the UP peasants in February 1921 of a no rent/no tax campaign if the call was given for civil disobedience. For the first time the peasants are brought to the movement. For him ‘we’ meant peasants and ‘they’ meant landowners. Property rights were challenged. Constructive programme of 1920s involved the use of khadi-clad men and women moving to villages to promote hand spinning, spread education and fight untouchability. Gandhi himself moved away from his vision of ‘Hind Swaraj’ and gave a more ‘state owned capitalism’ concept. He was more concerned with truth rather than non-consistency.
The Karachi resolution that was moved by Gandhi himself gave a picture of the Indian nation. This committed the Congress to establish a modern democratic state, ‘neutral’ in religious matters, committed to agrarian reform, equality for women, workers’ rights and state control of industry.
There were many difficulties however. Left became suspicious about the world issues on national question. The communist manifesto gave the slogan of workers of the world unite. National question was a contention. But Lenin corrected it. Lenin in 1920 gave his famous thesis on the colonial countries. He saw the need for formulating a separate theoretical framework in his theses on ‘the National-Colonial Question’.
The linking of the word ‘national’ with ‘colonial’ contained a recognition that nation-formation in the colonial countries was a necessary part of the anti-colonial struggle. For this purpose, the communists were called upon to support the national liberation movements in the colonial countries. ‘Let us combine’ was the slogan. Communists participated in the Congress sessions.
The Karachi resolution envisioned a free India in a way which the communists, harried by continuous and severe government repression (a large number of conspiracy cases Kanpur, Lahore, Meerut etc.) could accept as offering an intermediate stage of transition to socialism. This led to the famous formulation of Dutt-Bradley thesis of 1936 which recommended that communists should work with as well as inside the Congress. Widest possible unity was created.
There were no major differences in the 1930s between the Congress leadership and the communists over the communal question or over opposition to the Muslim League’s self-alienation from the national movement. It was after the break with the Congress over the Quit-India resolution of 1942 when as Nehru noted, nationalism prevailed over internationalism, the Communist Party’s position changed in respect of the League’s demand. The Adhikari thesis invoked that since India contained several nationalities they should have the right to self-determination. However, it was at the intervention of R P Dutt in 1946, who decried the theory of Pakistan and the dismemberment of India, which finally led the Communist Party to correct its course and oppose the partition of the country.
The Communists played an epic role in opposing communal carnage in the country. In it the communists stood with Gandhi and his endeavours to save India and its people from mutual acrimony and disaster. Remember in the name of ethnic cleansing 5 million Jews died; in India near 1 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs died during the partition period.
He did not celebrate independence, rather was on a fast in Calcutta. Because of the outrage when he shifted to Delhi he was once again on fast and this time raising the two important demands: (i) Muslims and their homes should be protected and (ii) Rs 55 crore be given to Pakistan. This was the nationalism of Gandhi not of subjugation but that of brotherhood. And he emphatically said “I belong to both the countries”
Slanderous campaign was unleashed by the RSS. They never condemned the riots rather criticised and denounced Gandhi.
Now, the present ruling dispensation has turned Gandhi into a ‘senior sanitary inspector’. Gandhi taught us that genuine ‘nationalism’ consists in striving for the welfare of people, not hatred of others. For his consistency and courage in standing up for the message, he fell martyr to Godse’s bullets.
The semi-fascist terror unleashed by the BJP in the name of nationalism is the very anti-thesis of what Gandhi taught us. And it is this that has to be fought for a democratic, humane Indian nation, which is as much a part of Gandhi’s vision as of communists and all other democratic forces.