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Gandhi 'touched' soul of India's masses as Communists 'failed' to offer alternative

By Harsh Thakor* 

Seventy three years ago Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic who made an impact on humanity at large as few individuals ever did in the history of mankind. Arguably there is no man in this millennium in India who could understand the language or idioms of the masses and relate to them in the depth of Gandhi. He could encompass every part of India to touch the very core of the soul in the masses.
Yet, Gandhi has been analyzed from different perspectives. One of them classifies him at the level of a prophet, a great champion of non-violence and thus as a liberator of mankind. Another one is critical of Gandhi's opposition to capitalism, caste and landlordism, but recognizes Gandhi as a truly anti-British mass leader who won independence for India.
No doubt, Gandhi has been criticised for twisting or even attempting to suppress genuine peasant struggles and workers’ strikes. He propagated trusteeship of workers with big industrialists like GD Birla and peasants with landlords. There was no agenda in his programme for confiscation of land or no-rent protest. He did not side with any movement, let alone revolutionary resistance, that did not fit into his scheme of non-violence.
The view is also strong that the crumbling British economy the British rulers were compelled to leave India. The verdict of Indian Independence was not because of Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose but because of the disintegration or collapse of the British economy with Britain virtually unable to afford to keep India as a colony.
Yet, writers like Louis Fisher hailed Gandhi as some kind of a prophet or crusader for liberation. Journalist Edgar Snow, who earlier criticised Gandhi “supporting” the big bourgeoisie, later glorified Gandhi’s role in the very house of industrialist GD Birla. Albert Einstein said, “Scarce has anyone with such flesh, blood and bones ever existed on this earth.”
Gandhi’s ideology of satyagraha took its birth in South Africa, where he took up only the cudgels of only the Indian business community. Indeed, he won concessions for the India business class, yet he showed little concern for the black people. On his return to India, Gandhi he set off from where he took off in South Africa to pursue his path of non-violent resistance.
In Champaran, in 1917, Gandhi closed all avenues for the abolition of tax payment or receiving the promised wages at market rates. Indeed, he made no call for non-payment of rent or boycott of Indigo cultivation. He repeated the same same experience in Kheda area when the struggle took the shape of a no-rent payment protest, or for the reduction in land revenue.
In Ahmedabad in 2018 Gandhi was responsible for making compromise between the struggling mill workers and the owners for rise in wages by holding repeated meetings during the three week long lockout. Advocating non-violence, the workers had to agree to receiving less than the 35% per day promised to them.
Following the Salt March of March 1930 for three continuous weeks, several peasant movements sprouted. Armoury was raid in Bengal and there was army revolt in Peshawar. There were no-rent strugglesin Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There was tribal armed struggle in Nasik and confiscation of land in Kheda. A huge contingent of workers went on strike in Sholapur and attacked law courts, police stations, railway stations and municipal offices. In Peshawar the struggle grew so intense that the British resorted to aerial bombardment.
The civil disobedience movement, which began after the Salt March, led to the arrest of 90,000 people. However, all through Gandhi, who was himself in jail, expressed dissatisfaction with the militancy that entrapped the whole nation. At the 1931 round table conference he entered into what came to be known as Gandhi-Irwin agreement, which suspended a massive movement.
At the time of the Quit India Movement of 1942, a flurry of peasant struggles broke out encompassing all over India in Bihar, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Midnapore in Bengal, parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Orissa, with parallel governments set up in 1943. At that time too Gandhi called for the struggle to maintain non-violence.
Many consider Gandhi indirectly responsible for the death sentence to Bhagat Singh and his comrades, who were genuine nationalists. Criticised for opposing the Hindu and Muslim soldiers laying down their rifles protesting an order to fire on a mob in Garhwal, Gandhi in 1946 he condemned the naval ratings strike which hit British. These incidents are cited as his testimony of dual nature of non-violence.
Gandhi told journalist Charles Petrasch on Garhwali soldiers:: "A soldier who disobeys an order to fire beaks the oath which he has taken and renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey, for when I am in power I shall in likelihood make use of the same officials and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when in power."
On the naval ratings strike of 1946, Gandhi said, "I might have understood if they had combined from top to bottom. This would have meant handing India over the rabble. I would not want to live up to 125 to witness that consummation. I would rather perish in the flames."
Marxist historian Rajni Palme Dutt said, Left-wing critics of 1930-40s hardly recognized Gandhi’s role in raising the national movement, inspiring most backward inactive masses
Gandhi has been criticised his view on caste system: "A healthy division of work based on birth, a very beautiful and beneficial thing and not a bad one a unique contribution of Hinduism to the world. Varna is the recognition of a definite law that govern shuman happiness. We must treasure and conserve all the good qualities we inherit from our ancestors, and that therefore each one should follow the profession of his father so long as the profession is not immoral."
On untouchability, Gandhi said, "The only pure way of self-purification is not by use of physical force, nor a renunciation of Hinduism, nor non-co-operation, with the caste Hindus. Only by ridding themselves of your vices like drinking and eating meat. You will be able to obtain your uplift and overcome prejudices of caste Hindus."

Gandhi’s relevance

Be that as it may, the relevance of Gandhi, who was a complex personality, cannot be set aside in the present context. Indeed, Gandhi would have condemned the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the post-Godhra riots in 2002, as also the recent Supreme Court judgement favouring the building of the temple. Probably Gandhi would have been a thorn in the flesh to the Hindutva forces who have penetrated every sphere of society in India as never before.
He may well have also been a crusader to defend people’s right to dissent with proto-fascism at its crescendo today. Within boundaries, he would have been an opponent of globalisation and condemned Operation Greenhunt in Dantewala, or arrest of urban intellectuals like Varavara Rao or incarceration of Prof GN Saibaba.
Gandhi would have been a most vocal opponent of the war mongering pro-nuclear policies of the current BJP regime and championed movements against nuclear missile bases. He might well have also raised his voice against India’s policies and behaviour on Kashmir. He might have been mascot for civil rights movement. Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar today plays a major role in opposing Operation Greenhunt.
Without Gandhi the independence movement would never have attained its national character A great architect and connoisseur in crystallizing or building liaison with all the movements prevailing, the non-cooperation movement in 1920-21 and the Dandi march in 1930, and the later the Quit India embarrassed the British in their very den, adopting most creative methods.
Gandhi depicted more mastery over the idioms of the masses or creativity in building movements than any Communist leader in India in his time. The methods he deployed to mobilise masses or galvanize movements are even a lesson for Communists or social revolutionaries and in preliminary stages similar to the mass mobilisation adopted in the revolutionary movements of China and Vietnam.
Ranji Palme Dutt
Not without reason, well-known Marxist historian Rajani Palme Dutt in book ‘India Today’ said, “No other leader could have bridged the gap during the transitional period, between the actual bourgeois direction of the national movement and the awakening, but not yet conscious masses. Both for good and evil Gandhi created it. The role only comes to an end in proportion as the masses begin to reach clear class consciousness of their own interests and the actual class forces and class relations begin to stand out clear in the Indian scene, without need of mythological concealments.”
Palme Dutt added: “Left wing critics of the 1930-40s hardly recognized Gandhi’s role in raising the national movement and the Congress from its previously relatively narrower range to an all-India national mass movement, inspiring the most backward inactive masses with national consciousness and awakening them to struggle.”
In 1947 in Delhi Gandhi literally risked his life to save the lives of thousands of Hindus and Muslims which proves his relevance in India today when the nation is gripped by the clutches of Hindutva. A champion of secularism defying communal forces challenging the Mountbatten award, even Maoist historian Suniti Kumar Ghosh praised Gandhi’s work in thwarting the communal forces in his book “India and the Raj.”
Like Marx, Gandhi had great respect for manual labour, encouraging students to perform menial work and not look down on it. He depicted mastery over the idioms of the masses or creativity in building movements than any Communist leader in his time. The practices of social labour in his Ashram or even spinning and weaving cloth and his constructive programme had Marxist overtones even if he resolutely opposed class antagonism.
Gandhi incorporated programme of manual labour in students’ curriculum. His village industries plan had subtle similarities with Marxist goal, even if idealistic. A communist would be proud of emulating the lifestyle of Gandhi. Not for nothing even Lenin classified Gandhi as a Tolstoy in 1920. Ho Chi Minh stated, “I and others may be revolutionaries but we are disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, directly or indirectly, nothing more nothing less.”
Gandhi was essentially an anti-colonial reformer. Whatever the defects that were obvious in Gandhi's role, one must ask ourselves why no revolutionary alternative was built by India’s communists party or other revolutionary sections, apart from those like Bhagat Singh or the Ghadar Party.
---
*Independent journalist who has been covering mass movements

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