The dual process of modernization and self-renewal among Hindus did not falter in the 19th century. The mutiny in 1857, with the last Mughal ‘emperor’ Bahadur Shah Zafar as the nominal head, made no difference to it. Hindus, on the one hand, took enthusiastically to Western education through the English language, and, on the other, began to demand that Hindi in the Devnagari script be made the court language in place of Urdu in north India. This, along with the rise of the cow protection movement, marked the beginning of the Hindu-Muslim problem as we have known it since.
The Congress leadership, including Gandhiji, spent a great deal of time and energy in trying to contain the Hindi-Urdu controversy by advocating the use of the commonly-spoken language known as Hindustani. This was a futile effort not only because Hindus and Muslims would not agree on the vital question of the script but also because that Hindustani was not an independent language and had to lean for its development and refinement on either Sanskrit or Arabic.
Much of the public discourse in India for well over a century has been prescriptive and ahistorical, reflecting the widespread Hindu desire for compromise, and lack of awareness of the remorselessness of impersonal forces. These impersonal forces had been unleashed by the twin developments of the disappearance of Muslim dominance and the rise of British power. The end of Muslim dominance gave Hindus an opportunity to assert themselves on a pan-Indian scale and the rise of British power showed them the route they had to take if they were to make effective use of this opportunity.
The consolidation of British power in 1857 produced a shift in the balance of power in favour of Hindus vis-à-vis Muslims which even the British could not negate even if they tried, as in fact they did. Except for a brief period after the mutiny in 1857, the British did not pursue an anti-Muslim policy. Indeed, after the formation of the Indian National Congress, they spared little effort to contain the rise of Hindus.
It would be an exaggeration to define the Hindu-British relationship as a partnership. Leaving aside the handful of orientalists such as Sir William James and Prinsep who learnt Sanskrit, explored the great Hindu texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads and works of Kalidas, others had a low opinion of Hindus and treated the Hindu society as if it had got frozen just above the primitive tribal stage.
This trend, already evident in Macaulay’s advocacy of English as the medium of instruction, got accentuated after the mutiny when the racist concept of the white man’s superiority came to dominate the British view of Indians. Christian missionaries, anthropologists, jurists and historians all contributed to the denigration of Hindus and the Hindu civilisation.
But despite all this, they also facilitated Hindu recovery. They set up an administrative structure based largely on examination system which eminently suited Hindus, especially Brahmins in view of their age-old tradition of learning, and built an infrastructure by way of an extensive railroad network which could serve as a secure power base for Hindus when they came into their own, as they are bound to do some time.
The Indian National Congress contained a smattering of Muslims. But from the very start, it was essentially a Hindu enterprise. It had to be. For Hindus alone had produced a substantial Western-educated elite which aspired to equality with the British and sought a share in power.
This Hindu elite, however, rested its claim to equality with the rulers and share in the governance of the country, principally not so much on the ground that it was the inheritor of a great civilisation which it wished to revive and renew as on the ground of its Westernization. It was not particularly concerned with the cause of either Hindi or cow protection and it was anxious to bring in Muslims. It accepted the Western concept of nationalism and spoke in the name of Indian nation. This concept covered non-Hindus and called for a remaking of Hindu society on the Western model. In this advocacy the territorial basis of Indian nationhood came to be emphasized and the civilisational de-emphasized.
The elite’s defensiveness came to be modified to a considerable extent with the rise of men such as Arvind Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lokmanya Tilak who were proud of the Hindu civilisation. For Arvind Ghosh, India was the Mother Goddess as she was for Bankim Chatterjee, and Tilak used the traditional symbol of Ganesh, especially powerful in Maharashtra, to mobilize the people.
This was, however, a brief period in the history of the Indian National Congress. It ended with the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi on the scene. It is not easy to define the Mahatma’s place in the story of the rise of Hindus. As I view him, Gandhiji arrived on the scene with three missions – to forge Hindu-Muslim unity, to remake Hindu society from bottom upwards, and to liberate India from the stranglehold of not only the British but also of Western civilisation. The three goals were inextricably linked in his mind. For him, the three missions constituted one mission of his life, his search for truth, of course, apart.
Hindu-Muslim unity was an article of faith for Gandhiji. He was convinced not only of its imperative necessity in the cause of freedom and its consolidation but also, on the strength of his experience in South Africa, of its practibility. His own bitter experience, involving finally the Partition of the country, did not change this conviction. He died in the service of that cause.
The Mahatma had also no doubt that modern Western civilisation was the work of Satan and must be kept out of India if she is to survive and prosper. He was possibly the first non-white thinker to denounce Western civilisation in Hind Swaraj (1908). He remained so persuaded till the end of his days, as is evident from his brief correspondence with Nehru in 1945.
Untouchability in particular was for him a blot on the fair face of Hinduism which must go if Hindus are to deserve respect even in their own eyes. Finally, he had no doubt that reconstruction of India had to begin at the level of the village if the ravages of British rule were to be overcome.
Apart from the need for Hindu-Muslim cooperation which the Lokmanya and other prominent leaders of the freedom movement too recognised as a vital necessity – Tilak was party to the Lucknow pact of 1916 between the Congress and the Muslim League whereby Muslims were to be allowed much larger representation in legislatures in Hindu-majority provinces and services than justified by their numbers – the Hindu elite could not possibly share Gandhiji’s other passionate commitments. In that sense he was an unlikely leader for it.
His close lieutenant and subsequently heir-designate, Jawaharlal Nehru, of course, did not share either his anti-Westernism or his approach to the economic development of independent India. But it is also doubtful that even more ‘conservative’ liberal leaders like Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and C Rajagopalachari did.
It would be in order to note that Gandhiji saw the fundamental divide as being between the modern industrialized West and pre-modern traditional societies. He had some unpleasant things to say about Christian missionaries but on the ground that their activities were not truly Christian in that these ignored the Sermon on the Mount.
Gandhiji avoided defining his position on Islam. It is difficult to say how far he was inhibited as leader of the freedom movement who had to fight the British policy of ‘divide and rule’, on the one hand, and win over Muslim leaders in league with the British, on the other. In this effort, he went so far as to make common cause with Muslim leaders agitated over the fate of the phoney Caliphate and dismemberment of the Turkish empire.
As is well known, after the end of the Khilafat movement and the abolition of the Caliphate, most Muslim leaders moved away from the Congress and him; in course of time arose the demand for partition in 1940; and the country was finally divided in 1947.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 9 February 1993