Below are excerpts of an insightful conversation with Shri Upendra Prasad, a senior journalist, that followed publication of my article in this journal on 9 May 2020. A scholar on Gandhi from the post-Independence generation, Shri Prasad also leads a movement, Voice of OBC, through a facebook page which has India-wide 74000 membership.
Upendra Prasad: Before the advent of the Britishers in India, India had witnessed a great movement called Bhakti movement. The movement was restricted not only to the Hindi speaking states, but it had engulfed the whole of India and in almost all language groups. The tone of the movement was Bhakti or devotion. It was a kind of liberation movement. Though it lacked political overtones, we can see some traces of the wish of (political) liberation as were found in the writings of Kabir, Raidas and Tulsi.
The Bhakti movement was broadly a Vaishnava movement and Gandhi was a vaishnava of the Bhakti tradition. What he did was nothing, but the extension of the Bhakti movement with a political overtone. He succeeded in mobilizing mass support only because of his vocabularies of the Bhakti movement. He was not a Bhakti writer of such high standing as Kabir and Tulsi, but he too had composed bhakti songs. The secret of success lies in the fact that he was of the tradition of Bhakti, which had already shaken the length and breadth of India.
Binoy Shanker Prasad: Thanks Upendra-ji. But do you not think Gandhi’s affiliation to the Bhakti tradition couldn't save him from being cheated in geo-political sense and also in the sense of being a strict follower of his Faith (i.e., a Sanatani Hindu) -- a shrewd learned barrister hoodwinked by the Islamists of the types of Jinnah and the Ali Brothers. What do you think of Ambedkar's assessment of Gandhi? Did Gandhi really mean to unite the Hindus -- across the caste lines?
UP: Jinnah and Ambedkar were in an environment which was created by Vaishnav Gandhi. Ambedkar was also a product of Gandhi. It was Gandhi who gave Indians a sense of unity and a sense that they belonged to a nation called india.
BSP: Also, how far were the Muslim elites justified in accusing Gandhi of equating Hindu-ness with Indian Nationalism or vice versa? His use of prayers and the concepts of Ram rajya etc. were disliked by the Muslims. Right?
UP: It is true that Gandhi was not 100 percent successful in uniting the whole of the subcontinent, but what we have today is because of Gandhi.
You cannot think of India without Gandhi and you cannot think of Gandhi without the Bhakti movement. A Pakistani historian has rightly observed that the Indian subcontinent has only three countries (today) because of Gandhi. Otherwise, it would have been fragmented in dozens of nations. Ambedkar had also predicted in his book, Thought on Pakistan, that India would be fragmented into more than a dozen nations after the British had left.
You are right in your observation that Muslim did not like Gandhi because of his Hindu-ness, but it was their problems. They abhorred Gandhi because they abhorred the Hindus. Gandhi never abhorred the Muslims.
BSP: Why does this impression still linger that Gandhi was too soft to the Muslims despite their aggressive behavior? Or, was his yield to the Muslims' manipulation tactical or a sign of his weakness? Do you say because of the Bhakti sentiments, Gandhi could keep India intact? Some say, the British left India in haste because of the German bombing on the UK and then after they abandoned India, it was stitched together by leaders like Patel and others. This is true that by virtue of his negotiating power, Patel was successful in securing amalgamation of quite a number of princely states -- some of them belonging to the Muslims as well. Right?
UP: Patel was able to unite India because the ground for such a political unity was already prepared by the national movement under the leadership of Gandhi. Of course, Patel was part of the movement. The Bhakti movement had already culturally united the whole of India. Gandhi used cultural unity to bring the sense of national belonging to people of India. Muslims were not the part of the Bhakti movement; hence they might have felt alienated in the process.
Nehru, Patel and even Ambedkar were the product of Gandhi movement. You cannot discuss their success or failures by isolating them from Gandhi.
You must have heard about the Viacom Satyagraha of Gandhi. That movement paved the way for the emergence of Ambedkar. Patel emerged because of the Kheda movement of Gandhi and Rajendra Prasad emerged from the Champaran movement.
Gandhi himself emerged because he had appropriated the legacy of Bhakti movement. Using the vocabulary of Bhakti was not the strategy of Gandhi, it was his intuition inherited from his family. You can say Gandhi's success of creating a mass movement was because of his intuition as a saint of Bhakti and his failures to convince Muslims were also due to the same reason.
In one sentence, we can say that Gandhi succeeded because of Bhakti and failed because of Bhakti.
BSP: So please explain how Bhakti (that will mean devotion to god) could be redirected towards achieving freedom for the country? How can a historian or a political scientist be convinced that the couplets of Kabir, Raidas or Tulsi could liberate a country from the colonial rule? If they were able to afford success to Gandhi, maybe because the country got emotionally united. How did Bhakti contribute to Gandhi's failure as well -- as you point out?
UP: They gave cultural unity to India. They united India in a cultural sense and the liberation from political domination was a political issue. Gandhi used the words of cultural movement in his political struggle. In fact, he was using religion to arouse the political consciousness among the masses, who were apolitical for the last many centuries. RSS is also using the same cultural unity for its politics. The difference is that Gandhi did not use that cultural unity against Muslims, but against the British rule, while RSS is using it against the Muslims.
Gandhi used the Khilafat movement to cement Hindu Muslim unity, but he failed, because he could not remove apprehensions of Muslim against the domination of Hindus in Independent India. As I mentioned earlier, his Vaishnav legacy made Muslims suspicious of him and he failed to convince them that his Vaishnavism was not against Muslims. This was his failure.
But he could not have succeeded in launching a national movement without his Vaishnav leanings.
Let me make it clear that the mass national movement in India started only after the arrival of Gandhi. Before him, the movement was limited only to the elite class and elite class did not represent the aspirations of the masses. The masses did not care for whether they were ruled by the Britishers or Muslims or the Marathas.
The movement became national only after the arrival of Gandhi. Champaran Satyagraha was the starting point of the national movement.
BSP: Thanks, Upendra-ji. We will continue our discussion.
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.