Gandhi versus Lenin, in their time and ours

Ramachandra Guha

Among both the scholar and the 'aam admi', Gandhi’s posthumous global reputation is rather better than Lenin’s

Visitors at an interactive digital exhibition on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi. The anniversary was marked by praise and a fair degree of retrospective criticism. It will be interesting to see how the world celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lenin's birth

(PTI photo)

I have been reading the diaries of the diplomat, Ivan Maisky, who served as Soviet Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1932 to 1943. A scholar of history and philology, a fluent speaker of English with a wide circle of influential British friends, Maisky was at the Court of St James through the period of Hitler and Stalin, through the forging of the Soviet-Nazi pact and its break-up, through the first, fierce, years of the Second World War.

Maisky’s diaries — edited for publication by the Israeli scholar, Gabriel Gorodetsky — are naturally focused on British and European events and personalities. However, on Page 12 of the book, there is a single, but very intriguing, reference to an Indian politician. On November 4, 1934, after hearing the news that Mahatma Gandhi had (temporarily) retired from the Congress Party, the Soviet diplomat wrote in his diary: “Gandhi! I have Fülöp-Miller’s book Lenin und Gandhi, published in Vienna in 1927. The author sketches the two leaders with considerable talent, juxtaposing them as the two equal ‘peaks’ of our time. Seven years ago this comparison seemed absurd only to communists, and perhaps to a few of the more perspicacious representatives of the European bourgeoisie. But now? Who, even among the ranks of bourgeois intellectuals, would dare equate Lenin and Gandhi? Today, any man, even an enemy, can see that Lenin is an historical Mont Blanc, who will forever remain a radiant guiding peak in the thousand-year evolution of humanity, while Gandhi is just a cardboard mountain who shone with a dubious light for some ten years before rapidly disintegrating, to be forgotten just a few years later in the dustbin of history. This is how time and events separate authentically precious metal from its cheap imitation.”

Maisky was of course a zealously loyal employee of the Soviet State founded by Lenin. Yet, thirteen years before him, a young Indian with no reason to be obliged to Lenin wrote a tract exalting him over Gandhi. This was Shripad Amrit Dange of Bombay. In 1921, Dange published a slim book called Gandhi vs. Lenin. Notwithstanding his personal sincerity, argued Dange, Gandhi was a reactionary thinker obsessed with religion and the individual conscience. On the other hand, Lenin had identified the structural roots of economic oppression and sought to end it through collective mass action. While Gandhi looked to recreate the past, Lenin would preserve the ‘existing achievements’ of modern civilization, further building upon them by organizing the proletariat in a revolutionary transformation of society. Dange had never been to Russia and never set eyes on its leader. And yet, without knowing either man or country, he could confidently assert that “[t]he Bolsheviks have fulfilled their promises. ‘Land, Bread and Peace,’ they have given to Russia.”

Six years later, a Communist member of the British Parliament, himself born and raised in India, wrote an ‘Open Letter’ to Gandhi. Shapurji Dorabji Saklatvala accused the Mahatma of “misguided sentimentality” and — through his charkha movement — of launching “an attack upon machinery, upon physical sciences, upon material progress”. Saklatvala compared Gandhi unfavourably to Kemal Atatürk, Sun Yat-sen and, above all, Lenin. Whereas those other leaders had “express[ed] boldly and fearlessly the unexpressed voice of the people”, Gandhi, claimed this Communist, had prepared Indians “for servile obedience and for a belief that there are superior persons on earth”.

Saklatvala published his ‘Open Letter’ in 1927. Two years later, came along Bhagat Singh of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. In a statement made after his arrest for throwing bombs in the Central Assembly, Bhagat Singh claimed that his own act presaged “the end of the era of utopian non-violence, of whose futility the rising generation has been convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt.” This Lahore revolutionary explicitly urged young Indians to turn their backs on Gandhi and embrace Lenin’s path of violent revolution instead.

Like the Soviet diplomat, Ivan Maisky, Indian Communists of the 1920s and 1930s worshipped Lenin, while scorning Gandhi. Seeking to drag their own, ancient and ossified society into the modern world, they thought the erudite Bolshevik to be a more appealing guide than the mystical Mahatma. Thus Saklatvala claimed that Lenin’s Russia had shown the way to all humanity. He insisted that the “[c]lass war is there, [and] will continue to be there till any successful scheme of communism abolishes it.” Gandhi was advised to drop his own programme, and “come and organise with us... our workers, our peasants, and our youths, not with a metaphysical sentimentality but with a set purpose, a clear-cut and well-defined object and by methods such as by experiment are making success for all human beings.”

As it turned out, Lenin’s successor, Stalin, brutally persecuted workers and peasants, and many youths too. By the late 1930s, it was evident to clear-eyed observers that the Soviet Revolution had been a dystopian disaster, in both a political and an economic sense. But among a certain sort of Western liberals, a metaphysical sentimentality about the Revolution’s founder persisted for a long time thereafter. I recently came across an essay published in The Sunday Times of London in January 1972, by the then well-known literary critic, Cyril Connolly. Reviewing new books on Lenin and Gandhi together, Connolly remarked that the two were comparable in the scale of their significance, as “each changed the world by bringing a new direction to two of the great land masses.” However, the Englishman was certain that Lenin was much the greater man. Of the Bolshevik’s early death, at the age of 53, Connolly wrote: “If Lenin had lived as long as Gandhi, there would have been no Stalin. Would there have been a Hitler?” This English writer thought that Lenin, by the force of his will and the power of his ideology, would have prevented the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

Like Dange, Connolly admired Gandhi for his personal decency; quoting George Orwell’s famous remark on the Mahatma’s death: “[R]egarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!” However, (like Dange again) Connolly was sure that Lenin’s legacy was far more relevant to the modern world. These were the concluding sentences of his review essay: “If part of Lenin’s legacy is the ‘doctrinal element of irreconcilability’ Gandhi’s is one of compromise. Yet if we were an oppressed worker in a sweated industry, would we not prefer Lenin to take charge of our cause?”

This was written in 1972. Workers had, by this time, enjoyed absolutely no rights of any kind for the past fifty-five years in Lenin’s Russia. Whereas in Gandhi’s India, they could at least strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Ironically, unlike paid-up partymen like Dange and Maisky, Connolly was himself an upper-class British liberal, fond of good food and fine wine. He was among the first likely victims of Leninism if Leninism actually came to his country. (Incidentally, Lenin liked good food and fine wine, too. One of the ironies of the Indian Communist denunciations of Gandhi was the fact that the so-called bourgeois reactionary lived like an ordinary worker or peasant, whereas Communist leaders in power in Soviet Russia lived opulently, like the Tsars who had preceded them.)

Gandhi was born in October 1869. Lenin was born six months later. They were near contemporaries; one reason they were so often judged together when they were alive. A second (and more important) reason is that they were the major leaders of two large countries with rich civilizational histories, each seeking to overcome political oppression and economic stagnation.

India (and the world) has just celebrated the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, with much praise being offered, some manifestly sincere, some shallowly instrumental — and along with a fair degree of retrospective criticism forthcoming too. It will be interesting to see how Russia (and the world) celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. But I think it is fair to say that, on the whole, among both the scholar and the aam admi, Gandhi’s posthumous global reputation is rather better than Lenin’s. Pace Ivan Maisky, in 2019, it is the Indian prophet of non-violence and inter-faith harmony — and not the Russian proponent of armed revolution and class hatred — who is more likely to be seen as a moral and political exemplar, as — to so say — a “radiant guiding peak in the thousand-year evolution of humanity”.

e.mail : [email protected]

courtesy : "The Telegraph", 12 October 2019

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Mahatma Gandhi, in a remarkable speech to the All India Congress committee in November 1947, asked party members to "be true to the basic character of the Congress and make Hindus and Muslims one, for which ideal the Congress has worked for more than sixty years".

This column appears days before the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. That anniversary shall be observed at a time when a former pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the country’s prime minister, and when the RSS exercises a hegemonic hold over our political and social life. On October 2, nice things will be said about Gandhi by the prime minister, and by other people affiliated with the RSS as well. It is therefore important to alert readers to the historical record, to set out the facts about the concrete relations between the RSS and Gandhi while the Mahatma was alive.

The first reference to the RSS in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi occurs in Volume 87 of that series. The year was 1947; the month, April. At a prayer meeting in Delhi devoted to the importance of Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi noted that he had received a letter from the RSS denying that they had any hand in the recent protests against Gandhi’s practice of juxtaposing verses from the Quran with verses from the Gita in his meetings. Gandhi said he was glad to hear of this denial, adding: “No organization could protect life or religion if it did not work absolutely in the open.”

In September 1947 Gandhi met with a group of RSS workers in New Delhi. He told them that “in order to be truly useful, self-sacrifice had to be combined with purity of motive and true knowledge”. He had heard that the Sangh was not particularly well disposed towards Muslims. He himself believed that Hinduism was not an exclusive religion, and that Hindus “could have no quarrel with Islam”. The strength of the RSS, thought Gandhi, “could be used in the interests of India or against it”.

While Gandhi was ambivalent about the RSS, the Sangh, for its part, deeply distrusted him. In early September 1947, the Mahatma had gone on fast in Calcutta, seeking to stop the violence between Hindus and Muslims. His attempts at peace-making were mocked in an article in the RSS’s magazine, Organiser. “Nero fiddled when Rome burnt,” the Organiser remarked: “History is repeating itself before our very eyes. From Calcutta Mahatma Gandhi is praising Islam and crying Allah-o-Akbar and enjoining Hindus to do the same, while in the Punjab and elsewhere most heinous and shameless barbarities and brutalities are being perpetrated in the name of Islam and under the cry of Allah-o-Akbar.”

In truth, Gandhi’s fast in Calcutta shamed both Hindus and Muslims. A 77-year-old man had, through the moral force of a faith founded on trust and non-violence, brought about peace between these warring communities. Gandhi now moved to Delhi, hoping to reassure the Muslims who lived there that they need not flee in panic to Pakistan. He reached Delhi on September 9. Here he met the sarsanghachalak, or head, of the RSS. This was M.S. Golwalkar, an intense, bearded man who had admired the Nazis, praising their obsession with racial purity as “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”.

A record of this meeting between Gandhi and Golwalkar is in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. On September 12, Gandhi spoke at an inter-faith prayer meeting. The printed record of his address ends with this paragraph: “In conclusion, Gandhiji referred to his and Dr. Dinshaw Mehta’s talk with the Guru of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He [Gandhiji] had been told that the hands of this organization too were steeped in blood. The Guruji assured him that this was untrue. Their organization was enemy to no man. It did not stand for the killing of Muslims. All it wanted was to protect Hindustan to the best of its ability. It stood for peace and he had asked Gandhiji to make his views public.”

What Golwalkar told Gandhi was untrue. The RSS and its leader detested Muslims. While working on my biography of Gandhi, I scoured the records of the Delhi Police for those crucial months, September 1947 to January 1948, when Gandhi was in New Delhi. I found several accounts of RSS meetings, where the Mahatma and Muslims were both venomously abused. A police report of a meeting in the last week of October observed:

“According to the Sangh volunteers, the Muslims would quit India only when another movement for their total extermination similar to the one which was started in Delhi sometime back would take place… They were waiting for the departure of Mahatma Gandhi from Delhi as they believed that so long as the Mahatma was in Delhi, they would not be able to precipitate their designs into action.”

Gandhi would not have read these police reports at the time; but he seems to have known, from his own sources, that the Sangh and their leader were lying. On November 15, he made a remarkable speech to the All India Congress committee, where he asked its members to “be true to the basic character of the Congress and make Hindus and Muslims one, for which ideal the Congress has worked for more than sixty years”. He urged his party colleagues to do all they could to make Muslims feel safe in India. “Violent rowdyism,” he remarked, “will not save either Hinduism or Sikhism.” Then he added: “I hear many things about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. I have heard it said that the Sangh is at the root of all this mischief. Let us not forget that public opinion is a far more potent force than a thousand swords. Hinduism cannot be saved by orgies of murder. You are now a free people. You have to preserve this freedom. You can do so if you are humane and brave and ever-vigilant, or else a day will come when you will rue the folly which made this lovely prize slip from your hands. I hope such a day will never come.”

The next day, at his regular prayer meeting, Gandhi said that while religious polarization was being furthered by the Muslim League, “there is also the Hindu Mahasabha assisted by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who wish that all the Muslims should be driven away from the Indian Union”.

Gandhi now no longer had any illusions about the RSS. The Sangh, for its part, had hardened its hatred of the Mahatma, for all that he had been doing these past months to ensure that, whatever Pakistan did to its Hindu and Sikh minorities, all Muslims who chose to stay on in independent India would be accorded the rights of equal citizenship. In the first week of December 1947, M.S. Golwalkar addressed an RSS meeting in Delhi. Here Golwalkar remarked, “referring to Muslims”, that “no power on Earth could keep them in Hindustan. They shall have to quit this country. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of election. But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India… Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too”.

In January, Gandhi went on a fast in Delhi, which, as in Calcutta, succeeded in bringing about peace between Hindus and Muslims in the city. He now planned to go to Pakistan, to secure the safety of the Hindus and Sikhs there. However, on January 30 he was silenced, once and forever, by a former member of the RSS named Nathuram Godse. The Sangh was banned immediately; many of its leaders, including Golwalkar, were sent to jail.

The Bible of the RSS is a book called Bunch of Thoughts, a compilation of talks and speeches delivered by M.S. Golwalkar. It was published in 1966. This text is to the Sangh what the Communist Manifesto is to the communists; a distillation of their tenets and prejudices. Golwalkar had once told Gandhi that the Sangh was “enemy to no man”. That, characteristically, was a lie. His book Bunch of Thoughts had explicitly identified three internal enemies of the nation, that allegedly posed a great menace to national security. These were identified by the RSS chief as Muslims, Christians and communists respectively. Twenty years after Partition, Golwalkar remained extremely paranoid about Indian Muslims, speaking (without evidence) of there being countless “Miniature Pakistans” all over India.

The 17th-century French writer, La Rochefoucauld, famously defined hypocrisy as “the tribute that vice pays to virtue”. On October 2, Indians will find this maxim vividly and variously illustrated, as RSS pracharaks from the prime minister downwards line up to pay tribute to a man the RSS vilified in his lifetime, and for whom — in spite of all their posturings in public — they still have deep reservations, since he lived (and died) in the belief that India was not a Hindu country but belonged equally to people of all faiths.


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features