Mahatma Gandhi and the idea of India’s common national consciousness

Remembering Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalism, ‘idea of India’ and thrust for common national consciousness.

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AT the outset, it has to be said that Mahatma Gandhi was essentially a mass political leader, who functioned incessantly and primarily as a practitioner of democratic revolutionary politics. The Indian National Congress was his chief vehicle through which he performed as its tallest leader. 

Of course, he was a multi-splendored personality and his areas of activities and interests were many, yet there is nuanced interconnectedness and holistic approach within them. Strategic considerations were intrinsic in his activities and ideas. 

He himself was against any watertight compartmentalization for life and thought. ‘Thought’ domain fixations do little justice to the one of the greatest political talents of the world who he certainly was. From this vantage point, this article reflects on Mahatma Gandhi’s understanding of  the ‘idea of India’ and Indian nationalism. 

Gandhi’s nationalism and his ‘idea of India’

If we go through Mahatma Gandhi’s life, even in cursory way, we cannot miss the central theme of his life and that was India and Indian people. A typical Indian-ness always remained with him- even in his London days as a student. His active public life commenced in 1893 in South Africa where he specifically took only the issue of Indian people living there as endangered laborers, workers and merchants. 

From 1915 onwards, he immersed himself wholly for the Indian cause. It is interesting to note from various writings on Gandhi that he has been seen and understood as a saint, moralist, super human being, Mahatma and much more. However, nowadays, he is only infrequently referred to and remembered as a staunch nationalist, who he actually was. 

Also read: Renewed focus on truth and non-violence underlines enduring relevance of Mahatma Gandhi in the post-truth age

His ideological moorings have a definitive Indian nationalistic idea and purpose. So, it is obvious Gandhi had a concrete understanding about the historic process of the formation of the Indian nation, challenges in nation building, the historical forces engaged in this exercise, and the forces which had a negative impact over the nation-building task. 

After all, Gandhi would not have been able to retain his central position as the generalissimo of Indian National Movement led by Congress, if he and his leadership abilities had not been in accordance with his times. Every anti-colonial movement, all over the world, has a deep and strong fervor of nationalism. Indian national movement also had a strong appeal among Indian people due to its nationalistic sentiments and vision. The source of Gandhi’s top most position and popularity also lies in his uncompromising thrust for Indian nationalism and its cause. 

Gandhi has been seen and understood as a saint, moralist, super human being, Mahatma and much more. However, nowadays, he is only infrequently referred to and remembered as a staunch nationalist, who he actually was.

The ‘idea of India’ narrative naturally involves an understanding about Indian nationalism. It is crucial and of contemporary relevance to categorically state that Gandhi subscribed to early Congress nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), to inform his own understanding of Indian nation and nationalism. So, Gandhi and his ideas should not be studied in isolation. Rather, he should be studied in historical perspective in the same league of Indian national movement, which began around mid-nineteenth century India.  

Thus, Gandhi’s ideology and political practice is deeply embedded in the pre-Gandhian phase of Indian national movement. The sources of legitimacy and sanction for Gandhi-led mass politics could be possible because of it. Of course, with the emergence of Gandhi on the national political arena, the Indian national movement led by Indian National Congress entered into a new phase of mass politics. However, its ideological parameters and understanding for the Indian nation and the general Idea of India remained intune with its early forefathers. 

As Bipan Chandra has authoritatively argued in his various writings on British colonialism, early Indian nationalists like Naoroji, Mahadev Govind Ranade and R.C. Dutt, were the first in the 19th century world to develop an economic critique of colonialism. Gandhi relied heavily on these and other early nationalists to critique colonial rule, and its devastating impact on Indian life. Moreover, in the same breath, another crucial and relevant point that needs to be emphasized is that Gandhi also relied heavily on early nationalist leaders and on Indian National Congress to inform his ideas on Indian nationalism and the ‘idea of India’. Not only that, Gandhi also considered the Indian National Congress as the most suitable national vehicle for the long term task of nation building. These points need some further elaboration through Gandhi’s own pen.

Gandhi and the Indian National Congress

Hind Swaraj (1909) is a much celebrated work by Gandhi. Written in dialogue form, it is the best testimony of how argumentative Gandhi was, and also about his understanding of Indian nationalism and Indian National Congress as a nation building vehicle. In it, he gives full credit to Indian National Congress for ‘creating’ the desire for Home Rule and says that, “desire gave rise to the National Congress. The choice of the work ‘National’ implies it.” 

Gandhi’s love and admiration for Indian National Congress comes from his concrete understanding of Indian nationalism, for which Congress and its leaders were responsible, and were his ‘chosen instruments’ for building the foundations of India as a nation. He argued with the anti-Congress enthusiasts and fully supported the Indian National Congress and its leaders. 

For instance, when it is asserted that ‘Young India’ seems to ignore the Congress and it is considered to be an instrument for perpetuating British Rule, Gandhi contradicts him with the words that the “opinion is not justified. Had not the Grand Old Man of Indian (Dadabhai Naoroji) prepared the soil, you men could not have even spoken about Home Rule.” 

Further Gandhi even rebukes him strongly, and says: “You are impatient. I cannot afford to be likewise. Remember the old proverb that the tree does not grow in one day…. It is a mark of wisdom not to kick away the very step from which we have risen higher. The removal of a step from a staircase brings down the whole of it.” 

In a similar vein, Gandhi’s statements about Congress, and the historic role it played in nation building, are crucial. He said that the “Congress brought together Indians from different parts of India, and enthused us with the Idea of nationality…. To deprive it of the honour is not proper, and for us to do so would not only be ungrateful, but retard the fulfillment of our object. To treat the Congress as an institution inimical to our growth as a nation would disable us from using that body.” 

Gandhi relied heavily on Naoroji, Mahadev Govind Ranade and R.C. Dutt and other early nationalists of the Indian National Congress to critique colonial rule, its devastating impact on Indian life, inform his ideas on Indian nationalism, and his understanding of the ‘idea of India’.

In fact, Gandhi always took a similar position regarding Congress and the Indian nation. Whenever Congress was criticized for its nationalist bonafides or credentials, Gandhi categorically stood in support of Congress and the idea of Indian envisioned by Congress. Similarly, in 1942, just before launching the Quit India Movement in 1942, Gandhi said: “The Congress does not belong to any one class, or community: it belongs to the whole of nation.” 

In the most turbulent times of partition during communal riots, Gandhi showed immense faith in the top leadership of Congress. He publically and emphatically said that India did not have better and finer minds than Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and other Congress leaders. He urged people to help them in all ways. As always, he took keen interest in the national building exercise and affairs of the Congress. 

Also read: Gandhi: through a prism of Constitution, law and patriotism

In December 1947, he confided to a friend that six resolutions of the All India Congress Committee, were practically his own. He gave full support and blessings to the Constituent Assembly, which was systematically drafting the Indian Constitution, and concretizing the ‘idea of India’. 

Gandhi’s understanding of post-Independence India

After Independence, the primary contradictions of British colonialism against Indian people had been politically resolved. New challenges in post-Independent India awaited Congress. Sensing this, Gandhi, a great political strategist, was in the process of reorganization of Congress. Just three days before his assassination, he wrote that the “Indian National Congress which is the oldest national political organization and which has after many battles fought her non violent way to freedom cannot be allowed to die. It can only die with the nation.” 

Gandhi was emphatically clear in his mind that Indian nationalism should not be a replica of Eurocentric nationalism. He also had a deep understanding of fundamental differences between East and West, not only in cultural or civilizational pursuits but also in the realm of the meaning and orientations of nationalism. For him Eurocentric nationalism, or the West, had within it a great share of imperialism and colonial exploitation, as well as superiority syndrome and materialistic infatuations in the name of modernity. 

Gandhi was also convinced that the foundation of Indian nationalism had to be built upon the historical common struggle against British colonial rule. As pointed out earlier, Indian nationalism (including its various concrete and nuanced connotations) and the ‘idea of India’ was formed, developed and propagated through economic and political logic, and ‘good for all’ humanitarian common sense. 

Gandhi on Indian unity and diversity

Of course, over centuries, India had developed a certain commonality among its various cultures. Both, at the highest levels and at the folk culture level, there were some salient features which invoked a kind of cultural unity in the Indian subcontinent. But, equally (or perhaps more) important were immense cultural diversities that were in practice across the land. That is why, Congress led the Indian National Movement. 

The alluring slogan of cultural nationalism – ‘One religion, One language, One culture, One ethnicity’ and so on – never got a sanction from Gandhi. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi prophesized that “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 even 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 religions. If they do, they are not fit to be considered a Nation.” 

Gandhi understood that ideological penetration could be achieved through constructive programmes and only through them people could also get connected with a ‘common national conscience.’

Gandhi does not stop with it. He specifically warned against Hindu communal propaganda in these strongest of words: “If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in the dream land. The Hindus, Mohammdans, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen, and they will have to leave 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 even been in India.” 

Gandhi was a mass political leader, a political strategist par excellence, and a man of action. So, for him, the ‘idea of India’ was an intrinsic part of his national politics, and nation making mass mobilization work. In this historical perspective, his constructive programmes/work needs to be seen as his unique and strategic political device for propagation, expansion and broadening his ideas. 

Also read: How the farmers who forced the repeal of three farm laws drew inspiration from the freedom struggle

In 1920, Gandhi introduced constructive programmes, like All India Spinners Association and All India Village Industries Association, which operated at an all-India level, through the platform of Congress. Apart from mass movements, the constructive programmes assisted Congress in multiple political ways. For him, “(a)ll constructive activity is in a sense part and parcel of the politics of the country. Politics pervades all over activities I have not forbidden all political activity. For me the foregoing constructive activities are an integral part of solid political activity.” 

He understood that ideological penetration could be achieved through constructive programmes and only through them people could also get connected with a ‘common national conscience.’ As told to me by Professor Bipan Chandra, Gandhi’s constructive programmes were his strategic device for ‘indirect politics’. He made constructive programmes an integral part of Indian National Congress, so as to make the political platform also be part of that common national conscience. 

At a time when there is an apprehension of a new consciousness of communalism swamping the land, the idea of intrinsic common consciousness, party, ideas and the greater cause of humanity must be our foundational principles, as they were Gandhi’s.