Did Gandhi's Ahimsa get India freedom

  • Savarkar, Subhas Bose and Bhagat Singh left a legacy that India can be proud of. A re-evaluation of Gandhi’s role in India’s independence is necessary to give other leaders due credit.

IN HIS article, ‘Our violent streak’ (Sept 7), Ramachandra Guha would have us to believe that India got freedom because of Gandhi’s Ahimsa, that violent revolution is bad and its advocates-cum-practioners, Veer Savarkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh, though adored by large sections of today’s society, were mere revolutionaries who could not have brought the democratic reforms that non-violent politicians brought to independent India. 

This article contradicts Guha’s rendition of history. It tells you why the British gave India freedom, enunciates (i) the philosophy of Ahimsa, (ii) Veer Savarkar’s contribution to freedom struggle and his vision of India. It looks at the contribution of Bose and Savarkar factually and not through the prism of the left or the right.

Firstly, did Ahimsa give India independence? No.

It was none other than Lord Clement Atlee, the British Prime Minster responsible for conceding independence to India, who shattered the myth that Gandhi and his movement gave India freedom. Chief Justice P.B. Chakrabarty of Calcutta High Court, who had also served as the acting Governor of West Bengal in India, disclosed the following in a letter addressed to the publisher of Dr. R.C. Majumdar's book ‘A History of Bengal’. The CJ wrote: “My direct question to him was that since Gandhi's "Quit India" movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave? In his reply Atlee cited several reasons, the principal among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji. Toward the end of our discussion I asked Atlee what was the extent of Gandhi's influence upon the British decision to quit India. Hearing this question, Atlee's lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, "m-i-n-i-m-a-l!” ((Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian National Army, and the War of India's Liberation-Ranjan Borra, Journal of Historical Review, no. 3, 4 (Winter 1982)).

Atlee’s thoughts were echoed by Mr. Fenner Brockway, political secretary of the Independent Labor Party of England, “There were three reasons why India became free. One, the Indian people were determined to gain independence. Two, was the revolt by the Indian Navy. Three, three Britain did not want to estrange India, which was a market and source of foodstuffs for her”. 

By the way, what did the concept of “Ahimsa” as expounded by Gandhi mean? “When a person claims to be non-violent, he is expected not to be angry with one who has injured him. He will not wish him harm; he will not cause him physical hurt. Complete non-violence is complete absence of ill-will against all that lives”. (History and Culture of Indian People Vol 11).

Sri Aurobindo said on Ahimsa, “You can live it in spiritual life, but to apply it to all life is absurd”.

Gandhi did precisely that and more by stretching the ideology of Ahimsa to a ludicrous extent. Few know that when Great Britain braced itself to face a German invasion in the mid-1940 Gandhi published an ‘open letter’ to ‘every Briton’ urging "cessation of hostilities". Excerpts: "No cause, however just, can warrant the indiscriminate slaughter that is going on minute by minute...I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength...I want you to fight Nazism without arms”. (H.M.Seervai, noted constitutional authority, in “Introduction” pp. 143-144 of his book “Constitutional Law of India”, Supplement to Third Edition, 1988)

Speaking on the Defence Budged in the Lok Sabha in 1957 noted Gandhian Acharya Kriplani said in the Lok Sabha, “The mounting expenses on the Army must be cut down. The followers of Gandhi and adherents of universal peace should not increase military expenditure”. What followed was the humiliation of 1962 in the war against China’s invasion of India. 

Now turn to Savarkar whom Guha portrays as a violent revolutionary and nothing more.  In reality, Veer Savarkar was a strategic thinker, author, social reformer and rationalist. 

It was Savarkar who, during World War II, encouraged Indians to join the army, firmly convinced that Indians must be strong in military terms. In a manner of speaking, he was the forerunner of Bose. It was he, not Gandhi, who first lit the swadeshi bonfire of foreign clothes in Pune on 7th October 1905. (Ironically, Gandhi criticized that action from far away in Phoenix, South Africa although he himself did precisely that 16 years later.) 

To pull down the steel walls of orthodoxy, Savarkar brought untouchables into the hall of the Vithoba temple in Ratnagiri district. Being a rationalist he asked Indians to test the knowledge of their ancient books on the touchstone of science. If modernists love him, as Guha concedes, it is not because of Savarkar’s violent defiance of the British rulers but because he suffered unimaginable mental and physical torture as their prisoner in the cellular jail in the Andaman Islands; it was suffering of the kind that Gandhi never had to undergo. Even after the British left, Nehru was grossly allergic to the man and falsely implicated him in the Gandhi assassination case without even prima facie evidence.

It is because Indians admire courage and bravery that Savarkar, Bose and Bhagat Singh continue to be revered. Our failure to admire them would mean disowning the legacy of Chandragupta Maurya (a Jain), Maharana Pratap, Shivaji, and Guru Gobind Singh!

Guha makes it out that leaders like Savarkar and Bose had narrow views on democracy or economics. Excerpts from Savarkar’s writings on independent India show that he was a realist and democrat, “In India, all citizens would have equal rights and obligations irrespective of caste, creed, race or religion provided they avow and owe an exclusive and devoted allegiance to the State. The key industries or manufactures and such other items would be altogether nationalized if the National Government could afford to do so and could conduct them more efficiently than private enterprise”. Veer Savarkar by Dhananjay Keer.

Bose was more than a thoughtless, violent revolutionary as Guha implies. Wish he had read Mihir Bose’s biography on Bose titled The lost hero: A biography of Subhas Bose” Quartet Books (1982). The author shows that of all the leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, it was only Bose who had the foresight and vision to think of a viable liberation struggle and plan for the country's development in the post-independence.   

Gandhi had admirable qualities but the problem was that he wanted to be everything to everyone. With Tilak’s death in 1920 he assumed leadership of the Hindus. Through the Khilafat Movement in 1921 he tried to enlist the Muslims. When Ambedkar championed the cause of the Depressed Classes he sought to become their leader too, coined the term Harijan. For a brand to be successful the consumer must be clear about its attributes, what it stands for. So also for a leader!

This article appeared in Hindustan Times Mumbai on September 24 2007.

Also read

1 Gandhi, Ahimsa and Christianity

2. How Netaji Bose's Indian National Army contributed to India's Freedom

3. Lal, Bal, Pal the Tridev of India's Independent Movement in the early 20th century 

4. The Triveni Sangam of the Independence Movement in Tamil Nadu

5. Karnataka Goddess of Courage - Kittur Rani  

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