On the 30th of January, 1948, a lone assassin, Naturam Godse, shot and killed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, otherwise known as the Mahatma (great soul) , and considered by some, the father of the Indian nation. 

By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inqilab  –  October 2, 2021

On that day, the whole country fell into mourning. In the last 3 years of his life, Gandhi would stand witness to the country he loved broken up, and descend into a state of civil war, then into war with one another, as Hindus and Muslims, once united against British imperialism, now ended up fighting each other, while their former imperialist overlords watched from safety. By 1948, India had annexed most of Kashmir, and the state of Hyderabad, both required military force, something Gandhi detested. For all his life, he had attempted to win independence for India through peaceful means, by the time his life ended, that was all but a naive dream, rendered impossible by the force of history, by the realities of class struggle and imperialist geopolitics. 

Gandhi had always attempted to reconcile with the landed gentry and caste elite in order to build up the bourgeois political force of the Congress, for this he would go against any sincere efforts at directing the Congress party towards socialism and compromise the cause of independence in favour of the British. Today, criticism of Gandhi is not easy, India today is ruled by the BJP, and it is no secret that they are related with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization to which Gandhi’s assassin belonged. Among the followers and supporters of the party, many speak openly of ‘honouring’ Naturam Godse. Gandhi was clearly a victim of Hindutva reactionaries, the same who are rulers of India today. Thus, many would grow defensive when any criticism of Gandhi is given because, after all, we “need Gandhi” to fight the Hindu chauvinists, they would reason. 

Gandhi is not above criticism, but there is a difference between our criticism of Gandhi and the criticism of the Hindutva right. 

Why the right-wing hate Gandhi

The aim of the Hindutva political movement is to transform India into a “Hindu Rashtra”, in other words, a nation founded on the philosophy of Hindutva, where the Hindu faith would have primacy, this would be a theocratic state where society would be organized along a strictly patriarchal, and caste-ridden society, bounded by a sense of Hindu nationalism, committed to the notion of ‘civilizational’ conflict against Islam and Christianity. The philosophy of Hindutva and the Hindu Rashtra was laid down by Savarkar and Golwalkar, both founding ideologues of the Hindutva movement. Both these individuals were staunchly opposed to the national movement, and at various times cooperated with the British Empire, most openly so during the second world war. 

During the second world war, while most of the country was openly opposed to Britain dragging India into the war, and without any preparation or consulting the people, two political forces chose to support the British Raj, the Hindutva forces, under the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha (meaning the Grand Association of Hindus)  and the Muslim League. Both these forces were opposed to the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity, which was essential to winning independence from British Imperialism. Naturally the British were very much in favour of it. Anything that could weaken the independence movement was welcome to the British Empire. 

Gandhi, for all his flaws, still remained committed to the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity, though his agenda and leadership fell short of achieving this in any meaningful way. The core of communal divisions in India stemmed from the existence of landlordism and the adverse socio-economic system created by the British which led to the political and economical marginalization of the Muslims of India while guaranteeing the rise of a tiny upper-caste Hindu elite who quickly monopolized the lower and middle ranks of the colonial bureaucracy. Far from addressing these problems, Gandhi steadfastly opposed radical land reforms, attacks on the caste system, and always focussed on finding ways to reconcile with the British government for concessions. His outreach to the Muslim community came in the form of support for the Khilafat movement, which saw Indian Muslims rally behind the defence of the Ottoman caliph. The movement died when Kemal Attaturk abolished the post of the Ottoman Sultan and the caliph with it. This was not a movement that had the core interests of Indian Muslims at heart, but one founded on mere identity and detached from the urgent task of Indian independence. Nothing came of Gandhi’s support, and the alienation between Hindus and Muslims remained. However, through such failed attempts at reconciliation, Gandhi had cemented his position as an enemy of the Hindutva movement. 

On the face of it, one might think it is ironic that Gandhi, who talked about Ram Rajya, and used Hindu spiritual symbolism in his political mobilizations, and remained opposed to the emancipation of the Dalits and the working class, would be an object of such visceral hatred of the Hindutva right. To understand this, one must understand the context in which the politics of Hindutva was framed. During the period of partition violence in 1946, Calcutta and Noakhali, both in Bengal, were two of the worst affected regions in all of India. Gandhi sought to bring peace to the region, for this he visited Calcutta and then Noakhali. His presence had a calming effect on the populace and rioting eventually stopped after weeks of carnage which claimed thousands of lives in just those two districts alone. For all his faults, Gandhi was steadfastly opposed to the partitioning of India into two independent domains, and for the sake of unity, he was willing to compromise with Jinnah, conceding to him the post of Prime Minister. At this point, Gandhi had lost the leadership of the Congress, and while still respected, had his power diminished. Nehru was not willing to concede on the question of prime ministership, or on conceding anything to Pakistan. Ultimately, partition went through, and Gandhi had failed. However, in these actions, he had won the ire of Hindu Chauvinists, and in particular the ire of the RSS. 

On the 30th of January, a karsevak of the RSS plotted his assassination. While one may argue he acted alone, the philosophy he espoused came directly from Golwalkar himself, and the inspiration to assassinate Gandhi as well. Today, followers of Hindutva lionize Naturam Godse and admire Golwalkar and Savarkar, despite the comprador role of these two individuals. Our criticism of Gandhi has nothing in common with these reactionaries, nor do we make common cause with them against the Congress Party, which we acknowledge is a party of capitalist reaction.

Our criticism of Gandhi 

Over the course of the 1940s, the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Burma and Ceylon, had drafted several key polemical documents against Gandhi and the Congress Party. Two of these stand out for their clarity and directness. The first is Gandhi on the Road to Betrayal, which criticizes Gandhi and the Congress Party’s decision to form a national government, and the second is The Politics of the Indian Bourgeoisie. Gandhi on the Road to Betrayal summarizes the political arc of Gandhi and the Congress up to 1944 in the following way: 

“How Gandhi dammed, diverted and betrayed the mass movement in 1922 and 1931 is too well known to need repetition. How he swung it again into action in 1942 with his “Do or Die” slogan is also of public knowledge. But what the masses did not realize in 1942, in spite of their experiences of 1922 and 1931, was that the Mahatma was once again at his old game. What he wanted was what the bourgeoisie wanted, namely, not the overthrow of imperialist power but an advantageous settlement with it. This settlement he hoped to get, even as the bourgeoisie calculated on getting, by capitalizing the international difficulties entailed to British imperialism by its repeated defeats in the military field. He hoped, but he could not. Despite a mass upsurge of unprecedented violence, the British refused either to quit India on the Mahatma’s invitation or to compromise with the Mahatma as the bourgeoisie desired. Instead, they put the Mahatma, and with him the entire Congress leadership, into jail on the one hand, and bludgeoned and shot down the attendant mass movement into submission on the other. Meantime, the military situation, and with it the international situation, took a sharp turn in favour of British imperialism. The bourgeoisie thus failed in their move, and the Mahatma had to find a way out for them.

This he is now doing – over the heads of and against the interests of the masses. The Indian bourgeoisie long ago gave up the struggle. They have been cooperating increasingly and intimately with British imperialism these many months. All that the Mahatma has to do is to cover their surrender with a deceptively agreeable formula. This he has found in the treacherous Stalinist slogan of “National Government for National Unity and National Defense,” i.e., a government of the united oppressors of the Indian masses which is to cooperate with British imperialism and Britain’s imperialist war. This is what his present terms precisely mean.”

Here lies an exposition of Gandhi’s failures. The idea of ‘non-violence’ shields the reality of political compromise with imperialism. For us, the criticism of Gandhi is a criticism of his compromises with imperialism and the aristocratic elite of India. All three mass movements began by Gandhi ended in failure, the first of these, ended by his own diktat. In 1920, Gandhi initiated the non-cooperation movement in response to the Rowlatt Act, which deprived Indian political prisoners of rights in sedition trials. The movement was further motivated by the Jillian wallah bagh massacre in which 391 Indians were killed (according to British official account), a toll possibly going up to 1000 (according to Indian sources). The call for non-cooperation with the British government found an enthusiastic response from the masses of Indians, the aim of the movement was self-governance and eventually full independence. Despite overwhelming support, the movement was suspended, arbitrarily and suddenly, by Gandhi himself in 1922, about two years after it had begun, with none of its aims even remotely achieved. The decision was influenced by the incident in the village of Chauri Chaurah, where the police unleashed violence against peaceful protestors by opening fire upon them. The villagers retaliated and, in the ensuing fight, 3 villagers and 22 policemen were killed. For Gandhi, it was more important that the movement ascribe to his idea of ‘non-violence’ than in achieving independence, or even limited autonomy under ‘self-governance’. 

While the non-cooperation movement is perhaps the most egregious example, the course of the civil disobedience movement was not very different. The movement was initiated in response to the British imposition of the salt tax, which would directly affect the majority of Indians, particularly the poor. Salt was a staple part of the Indian diet and, by imposing a tax on it, the British would literally starve out the population to enrich itself. The movement received enthusiastic support initially and built up great momentum, but faltered again when the British succeeded in bringing Gandhi and the Congress to the negotiating table. The ‘round table conferences’ went nowhere and the movement ended in failure. The only silver lining in both these instances was that it demonstrated to the British the enthusiastic support among the masses of India for independence from British rule. 

One can see a pattern emerging, where every time the masses rose up and the mobilization gained momentum, Gandhi would suspend it, demoralizing the people and sabotaging their strength. His social and political agenda was not much better, the BLPI had laid it down in detail, how ‘non-violence’ and the ‘charkha’ (spinning wheel), which were so symbolic of his beliefs, were actually tools to pacify and sabotage the independence movement. These hinged on a reactionary social and economic agenda while paving the way for political subservience to imperialism. Speaking on Gandhi’s so-called ‘constructive programme’, the BLPI states: 

The Constructive Program has, therefore, recently been extended. Separate programs have been prescribed for workers, for Kisans [8] and for students, so that each of them may contribute to the “construction of swaraj.” It is not necessary here to deal with these in detail. Suffice it to say that “construction of swaraj” means today, in 1945, for Mahatma:

  1.  the destruction of the class independence of the trade unions, through the “construction” of rival company unions (as at Ahmedabad) and the enticement of functioning unions away from the Trade Union Congress into the openly class-collaborationist Hindustan Mazdoor Sevak Sangh.
  2.  the smashing of class independence of the Kisan sabhas through the “construction” of a Kisan Congress, dominated and controlled by the National Congress, i.e., under the kindly patronage of the upper classes, both bourgeois and landlord.
  3.  an ideological offensive against Marxism under the cover of a drive against Stalinism, and the reduction of student organisations to ideological servility to the bourgeoisie through the “construction” of a Students’ Congress which will “keep all politics out” – except Gandhian superstition and utopian revivalism.

Conclusion

Our criticism of Gandhi is founded on an understanding of the needs of the Indian working class and peasantry, and their most pressing demands. The criticism of Gandhi from the Hindutva right, is founded upon a reactionary agenda of communal hatred and a desire to push Indian society back to medievalism. Gandhi is hated by them because he attempted, though naïvely and ineffectually, to bring Hindus and Muslims together in peace. We oppose Gandhi, because he compromised the struggle for independence, sabotaged the class struggle, and paved the way for religious extremism and reaction to ultimately triumph in the form of partition and its ensuing violence, drowning the budding revolutionary process from the naval mutiny in the blood of communal violence. Even today, revolutionaries in India must learn from the lessons of the past, and heed the warnings of the BLPI. Gandhi and his reactionary legacy still have many followers, and though they may wish to deflect criticism by hiding behind the excuse of the greater evil (of the RSS), we cannot take our sights of the dangers of Gandhianism in modern times. The politics of class compromise, of sabotage in the name of ‘non-violence’, is still very much alive today. 

LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION! 

DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM! 

FOR A UNITED SOCIALIST SOUTH ASIA! 

Further reading : 

https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/win/vol06/no05/morarji.htm

https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/fi/vol05/no10/india.htm