New Paint On Portraits Of Patriots

Updated: Jan 26 2003, 05:30am hrs
The Indian freedom struggle continues to fascinate scholars, academics and serious students of Indian history. B Krishna is a bit of all these. His book vouchsafes for his painstaking efforts in weaving together relevant material to tell the saga of the Indian freedom struggle. He has chosen to do so through 18 pen portraits of pathfinders, which first appeared in The Hindu. Yet the book is much more than that because of its undercurrent of political values, especially democracy and secularism.

The epilogue is a testimony to the authors concern for a political value system. On secularism, the most debated issue in the country today, he quotes Maulana Azad, who once told the Muslims, If you want to live in India, you have to embrace your neighbours. M A Ansari, more or less echoed the same thought when he said, The true safeguard of a minority is the goodwill of the majority.

Indian Freedom Struggle: The PathfindersFrom Surendranath Banerjee To Gandhi
by B Krishna; Manohar Publishers & Distributors; Rs 450; Pp 232
Sadly, post-Independence India has few Muslim leaders of vision and pragmatism. Mr Krishna also gives a very sympathetic account of Mohammed Ali Jinnahs secular credentials and nationalist fervour. He points out that the functioning of our democracy, economy and secularism have had a direct bearing on the turmoil, conflict and chaos the country has been passing through since Independence.

Surendranath Banerjee, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Dadabhai Naoroji were in the vanguard in arousing political consciousness among Indians in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1876, Surendranath Banerjee founded the Indian Association in Kolkata (then Calcutta), which preceded the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay gave the nation its anthem, Vande Mataram, to inspire patriotic fervour. Dadabhai Naoroji, a liberal, was among the earliest to focus on Indias poverty, which refuses to go away from free Indias soil.

Lokmanya Tilak, the architect of Swadeshi, was the father of political unrest. Tilak was a staunch secularist, contrary to his image as a Hindu orthodox, evident in the testimony of the then British Commissioner of the Central Division of Bombay in October 1894. Lala Lajpat Rai tried to raise patriotism to the level of a religion and aspired to live or die for it. Bipin Chandra Pal, the then hero of the Bengal partition, said, Our swaraj was to be not only autonomous, but also secular. Aurobindo Ghosh was a visionary, who did much to rationalise Hinduism. He also foresaw the Hindu-Muslim divide spilling over into free India. Sadly, it is a reality today.

These pathfinders had a single-minded devotion to the political emancipation of India, even though their paths differed. The rise of Gandhi in the freedom movement in India marked a radical departure from the prevailing direction of the struggle. His highly personalised style underpinned by his faith in non-violence and his unshakeable belief in his inner voice was often quizzical. But it did have tremendous mass appeal and neutralised Subhash Chandra Boses revolutionary politics and Mohammed Ali Jinnahs nationalist, rational and secular politics.

The author analyses Gandhi, the politician, the Mahatma and the economist. He blames Gandhi for withdrawing the non-cooperation movement at the height of its momentum, to let the British off the hook. His suspension of it (the non-cooperation movement) on moral grounds, following the Chauri Chaura massacre, the author says, was a tactical error. In its withdrawal, the movement lost its momentum, and the unity it had achieved among the Hindus and Muslims abruptly ended. Gandhis role in the Khilafat movement also draws flak from the author.

Subhash Chandra Bose tried in vain to wrest the leadership from Gandhi, but was neutralised in the effort. Mr Krishna is at his best when he reassesses Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru, whose life, he says, was full of well-intentioned errors of judgement. The imbroglio over Kashmir was one of them. Mr Krishnas account of Sheikh Abdullahs duplicity in the Kashmir imbroglio is also worth reading. He blames Nehru for Sheikh Abdullahs rise in Indian politics. Sheikh Abdullah camouflaged such communal outlook with a veneer of nationalism, calling himself a Kashmiri first and a Kashmiri last, Mr Krishna says, and mere show of Indianness was just to keep Nehru on his side.

Ironically, M A Jinnahs fierce nationalism and secularism received calculated indifference from the Gandhi- Nehru dominated Congress politics. Jinnahs conversion from an ardent nationalist, who defended Tilak in the sedition case, to a leader of the Muslim League (which he joined in 1913) and the creator of Pakistan, is a saga in itself. Yet his image as a creator of Pakistan lingers on in the minds of Indians. That is unfair to the man, who remained liberal and secular till the end. He once told Tej Bahadur Sapru, a Kashmiri Pandit, Sapru, I think I have a solution for the Hindu-Muslim problem. You destroy your orthodox priestly class and we will destroy our mullahs, and there will be communal peace.

Jinnah was also proud of the fact that his sect among Muslims believed in the 10 avatars and had much in common with the Hindus in their inheritance laws and social customs. Jinnahs secularism and liberalism shine better than Gandhis idiosyncratic inner voice dictated brand of politics or Nehrus Westernised socialism or idealistic approach to politics.

As the author observes, Jinnahs exclusion from the Congress proved disastrous for India as well as for himself. What he got in the end, many believe, he did not desire from his innermost heart, but he could not come out of the facade behind which he hid himself. It is clear that had Jinnah received his due place in the leadership, there would be no Pakistan. But history has no place for ifs and buts.

The selection of Indias freedom fighters in the book is open to debate. Among the most glaring omissions, for instance, are Mahadeo Govind Ranade, who was among the earliest to emphasise the need to spiritualise and humanise Indian politics. His contributions in arousing social consciousness and political awareness among the masses laid a solid base for political struggle. Similarly, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who Gandhi regarded as his political guru, does not find a place among the pathfinders.

Some amount of arbitrariness, one supposes, is unavoidable in selection. The author acknowledges as much when he apologises for his selection of leaders. This has been done on the basis of their being essentially pathfinders who have left their impact, whether for good or bad, on Indian history, says he. That does not and need not dim the readability and relevance of this book. These pen portraits of pathfinders encapsulate the saga of the Indian freedom struggle succinctly. Mr Krishna writes from his vast experience as a journalist. The book deserves wide readership, especially among the young who need to know how Indias freedom was wrought.