Indian society is going through difficult times. In the name of religion horrific violence is going on. In this violence, innocent people get killed and generally those guilty of violence are not punished. This violence is possible due to the hate which has been created in society, hate against religious minorities. This hate has been created by projecting a pattern of history, communal history, which revolves around the religion of the medieval kings. Contrary to this communal version of history propagated by communal forces, Gandhi has a very rational understanding of Indian history, and because of this understanding, he could talk of peace and unity.
Muslim communalists assert that the Muslim Nation has existed in India since the time of Mohammad bin Kasim, who first won over Sindh in 8th Century. The Hindu communalists assert that this has been a Hindu nation since times immemorial, and that Muslims are foreigners. They also talk of atrocities of Muslim kings, and present the fight between Hindu and Muslim kings as battles between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi on the contrary disseminates an understanding which is more rational, non-sectarian and all-inclusive. In Hind Swaraj he points out,
The Hindus flourished under Moslem sovereigns and Moslems under the Hindu. Each party recognised that mutual fighting was suicidal, and that neither party would abandon its religion by force of arms. Both parties, therefore, decided to live in peace. With the English advent, quarrels recommenced.
. . . Should we not remember that many Hindus and Mohammedans own the same ancestors and the same blood runs through their veins? Do people become enemies because they change their religion? Is the God of the Mohammedan different from the God of the Hindu? Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause of quarreling?
Moreover, there are deadly proverbs as between the followers of Siva and those of Vishnu, yet nobody suggests that these two do not belong to the same nation. It is said that the Vedic religion is different from Jainism, but the followers of the respective faiths are not different nations. The fact is that we have become enslaved and, therefore, quarrel and like to have our quarrels decided by a third party.
This is precisely what the truth of history is. Battles between kings were for power and wealth while the average people interacted with each other and created syncretic traditions and culture. There also developed the religious streams which drew from each other and enriched the society as a whole. What is Indian culture? Is it Hindu? Is it Muslim or what? As such India is one of the few places where all religions have flourished without any discrimination. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism are the major religions that people have been following in India for centuries. Some of these were born here and others came in and spread through different mechanisms, like the teachings of saints, Sufis, missionaries, etc. Islam mainly spread through the teachings of Sufi saints, and Christianity through missionaries working for charity in the arena of education and health. All aspects of culture had a rich sprinkling from people of different religions.
Perceptions and Reality
The popular perception of identifying communal violence with religion was criticised by the Mahatma. He was clear that religion should not be used for political goals or for violence, “The Hindu thinks that in quarreling with the Mussalman he is benefiting Hinduism, and the Mussalman thinks that in fighting a Hindu he is benefiting Islam. But each is ruining his faith.” (Young India, January 27, 1927, p. 31.)
For him the essence of true religion was the moral values of the religion, not the external issues related to rituals and symbols etc. He points out, “The essence of true religious teaching is that one should serve and befriend all. I learnt this in my mother’s lap. You may refuse to call me a Hindu. I know no defense except to quote a line from Iqbal’s famous song: Majhab nahin sikhata aapas mein bair rakhna, meaning, religion does not teach us to bear ill-will towards one another. It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.” (Harijan, May 11, 1947 p. 146)
His commitment to religious tolerance was infinite. He was for having respect for all human beings irrespective of their caste, colour, creed and religion. To overcome mutual suspicion and hate he was for interaction of communities at all levels, something which is very much needed even today. This is the only way to overcome mutual suspicion, “It is only when the Hindus are inspired with a feeling of pure love . . . that Hindu–Muslim unity can be expected. As with the Hindus so with the Mussalmans. The leaders among the latter should meet together and consider their duty towards the Hindus. When both are inspired by a spirit of sacrifice, when both try to do their duty towards one another instead of pressing their rights, then and then only would the long standing differences between the two communities cease. Each must respect the other’s religion, must refrain from even secretly thinking ill of the other. We must politely dissuade members of both the communities from indulging in bad language against one another. Only a serious endeavour in this direction can remove the estrangement between us.” (The Vow of Hindu–Muslim Unity, April 8, 1919.) This seems to be as true today as it was nearly a century ago, or probably it is needed much more today than at that time.
“India cannot cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it. The introduction of foreigners does not necessarily destroy the nation; they merge in it. A country is one nation only when such a condition obtains in it. That country must have a faculty for assimilation. India has ever been such a country. In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals; but those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion. If they do, they are not fit to be considered a nation. If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dreamland. The Hindus, the Mahomedans, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen, and they will have to live in unity, if only for their own interest. In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.” (Hind Swaraj)
Tolerance and Diversity
As Gandhi was working in a plural atmosphere with a respect for diversity he could see the need for mutual tolerance in a practical way. Each other’s way of eating, worship and other things which are different have to be respected by the other, “Mutual toleration is a necessity for all time and for all races. We cannot live in peace if the Hindu will not tolerate the Mohammadan form of worship of God and his manners and customs, or if Mohammedans will be impatient of Hindu idolatry or cow-worship. It is not necessary for toleration that I must approve of what I tolerate. I heartily dislike drinking, meat-eating and smoking, but I tolerate all these in Hindus, Mohammedans and Christians even as I
expect them to tolerate my abstinence from all these although they
He could reconcile faith in religion with Indian nationalism. He gave due to respect to a person’s religion while ensuring that Indian nationalism is the first identity of that person, “Nationalism is greater than sectarianism. And in that sense, we are Indians first, and Hindus, Mussalmans, Parsis, Christians after.” (Young India, January 26, 1922)
At the same time Gandhi was clear that religion is a personal matter, not to be brought into the political space. “If religion is allowed to be, as it is, a personal concern and a matter between God and man, there are many dominating common factors between the two which will compel common life and common action. Religions are not for separating men from one another, they are meant to bind them. It is a misfortune that today they are so distorted that they have become a potent cause of strife and mutual slaughter.” (Harijan, June 8, 1940)
In today’s times where so much violence is taking place in the name of religion, Gandhi’s teachings on Hindu–Muslim unity can show the path towards a peaceful society.
Meher Engineer: A Requiem for a Man of Reckonable Height Meheryar Hosang Engineer was born on December 20, 1940 in