For an iconic crusader of non-violence, M.K. Gandhi chose a curious point of entry into the Indian freedom struggle—an offer to enlist recruits for Britain in World War I (WW1). His rationale was that if Indians provided unconditional aid in an hour of need, Britain would accord dominion status to India out of a sense of moral obligation.
But Britain had other plans. Its immediate concern, after the war, was the prospect of a strike into India from Afghanistan spearheaded by Raja Mahendra Pratap, Abdul Hafiz Mohamed Barkatullah, and Ubaidullah Sindhi. In February 1919, the colonial government imposed the Rowlatt’s Act against “sedition". At this point, Gandhi called a nationwide strike. Martial law was declared in Punjab and police opened fire on a crowd gathered for the Baisakhi festival in Jallianwala Bagh, killing close to 1,000 people. In response, Gandhi fashioned the tools that would win India freedom—non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Even more ingeniously, he changed the goalpost by tethering the Indian freedom movement to the pan-Islamic movement that demanded, despite the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in WW1, that the mosques in Mecca and Medina remain under the control of the Caliph of Islam. This was in alignment with the goal of Hindu-Muslim unity which was one of the top three obsessions in his life, along with the reform of Hinduism and the termination of British rule.
The result was an unprecedented mobilization cutting across religious lines. By conflating the Indian cause with the cause of Islam, Gandhi had radically changed the tenor of the freedom movement, and become its unquestioned leader. Thousands of Indians gave up their jobs, lakhs of rupees were collected from the public, and Gandhi promised swaraj in a year.
In December 1921, the new viceroy, Rufus Daniel Isaacs, was rattled enough to offer talks on dominion status. Gandhi chose to reject the offer. In isolation, neither decision of Gandhi—to unconditionally provide service to the Raj in WW1 and to reject an offer to discuss dominion status—makes game theoretic sense. If Gandhi felt that the recruitment of Indian volunteers was of value to the British, he could have used this to press for concessions before providing the desired benefit. With an unconditional commitment, it was only to be expected that the British would not deliver on their end of the bargain. Similarly, while Isaacs’ offer could have been read as an attempt to make Gandhi settle for Indian autonomy and surrender the demand for the caliphate, Gandhi could have accepted the offer of autonomy, and resumed the Khilafat movement after securing sizeable concessions.
However, at the heart of Gandhi’s genius was his ability to recast the independence struggle not as a political battle but a moral crusade. He wanted to change the British from within, not coerce them. His commitment to their cause allowed him to seize the ethical high ground and justify his radical step of non-cooperation following their betrayal of trust.
Further, Gandhi’s moral crusade always rested on sound political considerations. Given the past history on war recruitment, Gandhi knew that Isaacs’ offer could not be trusted. Also, with many of Gandhi’s comrades, including the Ali brothers, in jails, participation in talks could have been seen as a sign of betrayal, and would have resulted in a precipitous loss of support.
Gandhi was opposed on both the recruitment drive and the declining of the Isaacs offer by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah, presciently, had no faith in the British propensity to respect ethical niceties. He argued that Indians should first be “put on the same footing as European British subjects" before being asked to fight for British interests. He was also opposed to mixing religion and politics and joined the Khilafat movement only to avoid being entirely sidelined from Muslim politics.
Jinnah’s ultimate embrace of what he once called “the communal fringe" was a political response to his marginalization within the Congress, and the decimation of the Muslim League in the 1937 elections to the state legislatures. He was hell-bent on the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim country, but one where “in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state". The present softening of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stance, given their commitment to a “Hindu rashtra", echoes his seductive, but entirely illusory, vision for a liberal theocratic dispensation.
The Khilafat movement ran aground when Gandhi withdrew from it following an incident of violence at Chauri Chaura in February 1922. He never regained his stature among the Muslim elite. Even prior to Chauri Chaura, there had been indications in the Mapilla violence in Kerala in 1921 that non-violence would not hold, given the level of consciousness of the public. Of course, Gandhi’s faith in the masses was “boundless". But had he foreseen the violence, would he have engaged with Isaacs in talks?
In his memoir India Wins Freedom, Abul Kalam Azad, one of the towering leaders of the independence struggle who stuck by Gandhi, describes Gandhi’s intransigence on Isaacs’ offer as a decisive mistake. But it must be remembered that without the Khilafat movement, Isaacs would probably never have offered dominion status. Gandhi’s proclivity for infusing religion into politics was a brahmastra, a weapon that, in less scrupulous hands, has turned into a thorn in our flesh.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.
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