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As India Turns 75, A Look Back At Gandhi's Thoughts On Freedom

It was typical of Gandhi to bring opposites together, by noting that the very experience of hatred had made love possible by allowing Indians to take responsibility for their own actions and so the future.

Photo of a people in front of a Gandhi mural in New Delhi

A Gandhi mural in New Delhi

Faisal Devji*

As the day of India’s independence approached, Gandhi was frequently asked how it should be marked. His response was invariably to criticize the new government’s costly plans of celebrating it with spectacle and entertainment to recommend fasting, spinning and prayer instead.

This was not simply because of the violence then sweeping much of the country, or even to give the poverty of India’s millions its due, but so as to reflect upon the grave responsibilities that were the true gift of freedom. He spent Independence Day in riot-stricken Calcutta, trying to identify India’s freedom in the very midst of partition’s violence.


Gandhi had always argued that internecine violence among Indians was the result of colonial rule. This was not due to some British policy of divide and rule so much as the lack of political responsibility that Indians bore for their country’s future, which made such violence into a kind of infantile pleasure since the colonial state would always be there to pick up the pieces and forge India’s future.

Freedom, Gandhi pointed out, meant the ability to control oneself rather than the persons or properties of others. To indulge in violence was therefore to betray one’s own freedom and even perpetuate colonialism, because it showed that Indians still had no control over themselves.

The "Miracle of Calcutta"

Searching for signs of India’s freedom at the very moment of her independence, Gandhi finally found it in what came to be known as the "Miracle of Calcutta," when he and the former Muslim League premier of Bengal were able to halt the riots without the deployment of armed force. This entailed unprecedented scenes of fraternisation between recent enemies, which reminded Gandhi of the old Khilafat days — and he wondered if the sudden halting of violence and exhibition of communal unity was merely a transient phenomenon.

He soon came to think that such unexpected amity could only have emerged from the brutality of the riots themselves, with what Gandhi described as the nectar of non-violence tasting all the sweeter because of the poisoned cup of hatred from which Indians had drunk so deeply. It was typical of Gandhi to bring opposites together in this way, by noting that the very experience of hatred had made love possible by allowing Indians to take responsibility for their own actions and so the future. The danger was that this experience of love might end up not as an alternative to hate but simply another enjoyable if temporary stimulant.

Upon reflection, Gandhi conceded that what he had imagined was the genuine non-violence of past satyagrahas against the British had in fact been little more than examples of passive resistance. Because Indians had behaved non-violently out of fear and cowardice, he argued, their disavowed violence was displaced into communal riots against their neighbours whenever they happened to be in a minority. And now that the colonial state was gone, there remained no need even for the pretence of non-violence.

The problem with such violence, however, was that it was incapable of doing away with the taint of cowardice exercised as it was against Hindu, Muslim or Sikh minorities. It therefore became a kind of addictive disorder in which every bout of violence called for more of the same in an impossible search for the fearlessness that only non-violence possessed.

\u200bGandhi spinning at Birla House, Mumbai, August 1942.

Gandhi spinning at Birla House, Mumbai, August 1942.

Kanu Gandhi

An exceptional event

Gandhi’s repeated references to Khilafat during this period, and even on occasion to his early career in South Africa, show that he didn’t consider independence to be an exceptional event. While it might certainly inaugurate a new era of freedom understood as India’s acceptance and exercise of responsibility, non-violence was essentially a social rather than political practice that belonged to ordinary people and not the state. If anything, the familiar story of anti-colonial struggle and independence disguised the real narrative defining India which was civil war.

Already in 1942, during the Quit India Movement, Gandhi had asked the British to leave the country to anarchy so that her people might resolve their internecine quarrels either non-violently or through war. Both possibilities he thought preferable to the hidden civil war that had begun in India after Khilafat.

Might an international war do the same?

Gandhi was not the only public figure who thought that India was going through a civil war, with the poet and philosopher Mohammad Iqbal saying much the same thing already in the 1930s. Anti-colonial struggle and civil war were linked for Gandhi in a very specific way, by the fact that the colonial state like every liberal one sought to mediate between the various classes of its subjects by law and in doing so prevented any direct relations between them.

These thwarted relations then manifested themselves in perverse ways through violence as a form of displaced intimacy. But this also meant that it was possible to return them to their truth in non-violence, which Gandhi thought could be done even through civil war if necessary. And this meant acknowledging it for what it was rather than dwelling on the fantasy of a victory over colonialism.

What if Gandhi’s fears were realised 

One reason why Gandhi had been so opposed to Partition was because he saw it as a way of disguising India’s civil war by internationalising it into something far more brutal but also permanent. Fought between independent nations, he feared, such a war would destabilise the whole region and invite the interference of foreign powers into its affairs on the side of one or another of its combatants. And that would lead to both losing their freedom soon after decolonisation.

Meanwhile, the domestic war would continue against minorities in both countries, which is why he was so keen to go to Pakistan and ensure the security as well as continued presence of Hindus and Sikhs there. He was hopeful that no passports would be introduced between the two countries so as to maintain the possibility of direct relations between them.

But what if Gandhi’s fears were realised and such relations didn’t become possible? A civil war had at least offered the possibility of direct relations and so the opportunity for non-violence. Might an international war do the same? This was the question that faced Gandhi with the first Indo-Pakistani war of 1948. He thought that Kashmir would be the star that guided India because its Muslim inhabitants had defended Hindus and Sikhs while fighting off their own coreligionists from across the border in an example of the Bhagavad-Gita’s teaching about sacrificing one’s own brothers in the cause of truth. If such actions were capable of addressing domestic conflict, then perhaps the war itself might offer similar opportunities.

\u200bThree kids in front of a street art portrait of Gandhi

Three kids in front of a street art portrait of Gandhi

Arushi Dayal

Non-violence, a universal virtue

Unlike legalistic and mutually exclusive notions like war and peace, after all, non-violence was a universal virtue and so had to be possible everywhere including on the battlefield. This is why it was twinned with the violence that was part of its own name rather than being completely distinct from it. Non-violence or ahimsa, therefore, was a quite deliberately negative term because if it had no links with its opposite then it was inconceivable to shift from one to the other in a process Gandhi called conversion. Being fought between relative equals, an international war offered more possibilities for such a conversion as it foregrounded courage, respect, and direct relations in a way that the degrading manhunt of minorities never could.

We must live with a continuing civil war within and between these states.

Gandhi did not live to see the truth of his ideas, but we can note in retrospect how professional and comparatively civilised all the wars between India and Pakistan have been, with instances of mutual chivalry and the significant improvement of relations between the countries after each one.

The tragedy today is that these nuclear-armed neighbours can neither fight a war nor live in peace. But without either of these options, independence was impossible since for Gandhi it primarily meant freedom from fear and so hatred. True freedom was only possible for both countries or for neither one, which meant that they were doomed to be each other’s hostages in his view.

Gandhi’s last suggestion for how to make possible the kind of direct relations that offered non-violence a chance had to do with the greatest victims of partition’s violence. There would be no peace between India and Pakistan, he said, until the refugees and their descendants were compensated and welcomed back with apologies whether they chose to return or not. In this way the refugees might become the bridge to direct relations between the two nations, holding citizenship rights in both countries and honoured by each.

Such a vision has not yet assumed any reality, except between Bangladesh and India, but it might be one that all those interested in their own freedom rather than simply peace with a neighbour should take up. Otherwise we must live with a continuing civil war within and between these states.

*Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History at the University of Oxford.

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