Not Gandhian, Or Is It?

First published in The Pioneer, February 1, 2008

Mahatma Gandhi sired four sons, and his family history has become as rich and complex as any fable in a Hindu mythology and may be more colorful and mixed than any post-modernist parable. Some in the family have leveraged the Mahatma’s name to carve out a career for themselves, and of them, one grandson, Arun Gandhi, came to the United States to launch his program of nonviolence. He founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute For Nonviolence.

Arun Gandhi was recently in the news. Invited by The Washington Post to contribute to an online discussion “On Faith,” he wrote that, “Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience -- a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. It is a very good example of a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends”. Not content with that initial salvo, he asserted that the “Jewish identity in the future appears bleak,” and any nation that “remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs”. Finally, he went overboard saying that “Israel and the Jews are the biggest players” in the modern “culture of violence”.

More than 400 responses flooded the newspaper. Arun Gandhi wrote a half-hearted apology, poorly worded. He wrote that he had criticized other governments too and so his criticism of Israeli governments was not special. He then speciously commented that if “… people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends.”

He did not tell his readers why he had singled out Jews. Don’t Muslims all over the world hold historic grievances, not just against the Jews, but against many other groups around the world? And is not the continuing violence in the Middle East based on a concerted effort by surrounding Muslim nations which have vowed to wipe Israel off the map of the world?

Given the tepid and defensive “apology” readers wrote back even more angrily. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said, “I think it’s shameful that a peace institute would be headed up by a bigot…. One would hope that the grandson of such an illustrious human being would be more sensitive to Jewish history.” Judea Pearl, father of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl said, “My son Daniel died mighty proud of his Jewish identity. He, like the millions of decent and peace-seeking Israelis, and Americans who proudly carry on their Jewish heritage, did not see his identity as ‘dependent on violence’ as the title of Gandhi’s article implies….”

Soon, Arun Gandhi submitted his resignation as the President of the M.K. Gandhi Institute of Non-Violence. Given the incendiary nature of the flap, the University of Rochester, where the Institute is located, accepted Arun Gandhi’s resignation.

This brings us to the more important question about Arun Gandhi, which others have not asked: “Was his blog entry an aberration, a single instance of misjudgment and analysis, or was this part of an ongoing pattern of selective attacks and selective support to religious groups?”

Gandhiji had advised Jews, when they faced extinction at the hands of the Nazis, “… to lay down the arms you have…. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions....” Louis Fisher, Gandhi’s biographer asked him: “You mean that the Jews should have committed collective suicide?” Gandhi responded, “Yes, that would have been heroism.”

May be, the grandson wants the same.

The Mahatma was consistent in his advice to Hindus too. When faced with violence perpetrated by Muslims, he asked them to not fight back but die “honorably”. Many Hindus succumbed to the Mahatma’s advice, and hundreds of thousands of Hindus were killed, raped and assaulted, over a period of three decades that the Mahatma’s writ ran over India. Gandhi never advised the Muslims to lay down their arms. He sang, “Ishwar, Allah tere naam” but did not acknowledge that Muslims never would accept Allah be called anything but Allah. He did not ask Muslims to look into their hearts and find why they so hated their Hindu neighbors and fellow countrymen.

In an op-ed essay for “India Abroad” in 2004, this writer had wondered what if the Mahatma had not backed Nehru to become India’s first prime minister instead of Vallabhbhai Patel. Drawing from Durga Das’ book, “India from Curzon to Nehru and After,” to point out how the Mahatma had manipulated and led the Indian masses and Indian leaders to do his bidding, I pointed out how the Mahatma’s support to the Khilafat Movement led to the massacre of thousands of Hindus and the rape of hundreds of Hindu women in what is known as the Moplah Massacre.

Arun Gandhi wrote in response to my essay that the Moplah “rebellion” had nothing to do with the Khilafat Movement, and that Gandhi’s support of Jawaharlal was because he wanted to “encourage young blood in a party dominated by old people”! Arun Gandhi concluded his rather wayward letter by saying that if his grandfather had not returned to India from South Africa in 1915 the Congress Party would have continued to be a “country club,” and that the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS “…could have mobilized people into a civil war against Muslims to teach that Hindustan is for Hindus and they better behave…” forgetting that before Mahatma Gandhi there were great Congressmen like Gokhale and Tilak who had both indigenized the Congress Party and made the party a people’s party.

Arun Gandhi responded acknowledging a connection between the Khilafat Movement and the Moplah Massacre. “But history is not often an accurate recording of events,” he complained, and launched on a tirade against the RSS. I had said nothing about the RSS in my essay but Arun Gandhi raised the specter of a Hindu extremist group that would ethnically cleanse Muslims out of India. He also accused the 1940s bureaucrats and politicians of India of collusion in the assassination of his grandfather.

It is therefore not surprising that this loose-lipped Gandhi scion would pen something so obnoxious as he did for The Washington Post. But the disciplined Jewish public would not take this lying down, and Arun Gandhi had to resign in shame.

Mr. Arun Gandhi’s many cousins, nephews, uncles and aunts have succumbed to the lore and lure of their famous ancestor. In fact, Mr. Arun Gandhi’s son, Tushar Gandhi too wags a similar loose tongue, and poses himself as a secular, progressive person.

Mr. Arun Gandhi follows in his grandfather’s footsteps blinkered about political and religious dynamics but then he does so without having his grandfather’s charisma.

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