Today's Quote

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Atheist to the last

The martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev was a moving issue from the beginning. Netaji Subhas Bose has recorded his reactions in his book The Indian Struggle after he received that shocking news while in a train proceeding to Karachi congress, Anger and emotion swept through the country, Bose referred to his insistence on Gandhi ji that he should not sign the pact with the then Viceory, Lord Irwin, withdrawing the civil disobedience movement till the death sentence on Bhagat Singh and his colleagues was commuted. The pact was signed on 18 March 1931 only five days before the hanging. It should be recalled that Bhagat Singh and Batu Keshwar Datta were arrested after dropping the bomb in the Delhi Assembly on 4 April 1929. It was a grim decision, which was taken not suddenly at the spur of the moment but after a long debate. Dropping the bomb in the Assembly meant sure arrest and arrest meant death for Bhagat Singh who had already been named the accused in the Saunders murder case. The expected happened. Bhagat Singh and Batu Keshwar Datta were awarded life imprisonment for dropping bomb in the Assembly and the death sentence on Bhagat Singh was pronounced in the Lahore conspiracy case.
What was astounding was even in such condition Bhagat Singh did not forget the problems of communalism in the country and the complicated question of religion and politics. Whereas many staunch atheists became believers of God before death, Bhagat Singh wrote his last and perhaps his best article, ?why I am an Atheist?? on 6 October 1930 ie, hardly five months before his hanging. His last article was a unique comination of politics, theology and science, which referred even to Darwain?s Origin of species, which can educate many social scientists even today. This was written not in a cool library room but in a condemned cell of a jail.

Communalism and communism

Bhagat Singh believed in separating religion from politics and state. In his article referring to the Gadr movement, Bhagat Singh wrote: ?the martyrs of 1941-15 kept religion outside politics. Their conception was that religion was the private matter of individuals. Other should not interfere in that nor should it be injected into politics.? So the movement of the Gadr party remained united both in mind and heat where the Sikh took the lead in making sacrifices and the Hindu and Muslims did not lag behind. Today after, mixing religion with politics we get Khalistan in Canada in place of the Gadr party.
In the country secularists are defensive and communalist are aggressive. This is because only class struggle can resist communal riots which even the communists have abandoned long ago, except for a symbolic exercise before wage and bonus negotiations. There was a time when Congress, the party of the ruling bourgeoisie, had to talk of socialistic pattern of society but now even the Marxists are shy of mentioning socialism in their election manifesto and name their youth organization ?democratic?.
Bhagat Singh was very forthright in his views. Unlike the apologetic secularists Bhagat Singh was aggressive in accusing the exploitative system and declared: ?Producers and Laborers are robbed by the exploiter of the fruits of their labour and deprived of their elementary sights. Radical change, therefore, is needed and it is the duty of those who realize this to reorganize society on a socialist basis in accordance with the principle of Karl Marx?. Bhagat Singh dropped a bomb when the Delhi Assembly was discussing the Trade Dispute Bill to chain the working class in the British days. In these days of WTO many bills are waiting in Parliament to facilitate the ?exit policy? for the workers and to liquidate the public sector but there is no Bhagat Singh to thunder.

Scientific ideology

The revolutionaries of those days under the leadership of Bhagat Singh and chandra Shekhar Azad resolved to avenge the murder. The police officer, Mr. Saunders who had led the assault on Lala Lajpat Rai was shot dead on 17 December before his office itself.
What is striking is that even during these waves of events, Bhagat Singh?s pen did not rest. What is more, he pointed out in clear terms the danger of communal divide and peril of mixing religion with politics in his two famous articles after the communal riot in Lahore. One of the brightest sides of Bhagat Singh was the that he did not become a revolutionary because he was swayed by emoti9n as was expected at his age and in his era but because he was committed to some scientific ideology and with a rational thinking. This was evident in his speeches and writing. So Bhagat Singh did not remain a shaheed but became a Shaheed-a-Azam.


In an article written in May 1928 at the age of 21 under the heading ?Religion and our freedom struggle?, Bhagat Singh brilliantly analysed the views of Tolstoy dividing religion into three parts: ethics, theology and rituals.
He interpreted their implications in the contemporary political reality of that day which can be a guide to the political leaders even today. In that article Bhagat Singh stressed the need of communal harmony and feeling of communal harmony and feeling of brotherhood amongst communities concluding, ?the meaning of our full independence is not only to get out of the grip of the British but to create a condition where all communities would live like brothers and be free from mental slavery (to all orthodox and blind faith)?.
This is the theme, which Tagor enshrined, in his famous poem, ?where mind is without fear and head is held high, where the knowledge is free, where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habits.? However, the country is now going in the opposite direction practicing religious bigotry and under economic reforms deforming the society to get wealth quick.

Short life

Even otherwise, India?s Independence movement was never confined to wresting power. It was a struggle for emancipation ?to wipe every tear from every eye? as the pledge of Independence on 26 January 1930 spelt out. Though that pledge is now nearly forgotten or mortgaged with the World Bank to get new loans to make a few rich, the consensus that developed during the freedom struggle was clear. That consensus that developed during the freedom struggle was clear. That consensus was for secularism, socialism and self-reliance as opposed to communalism, capitalism and foreign dependence. Now we are crawling in a reptile era where greed is good and borrowing is best. To put the country on right track, a Bhagat singh is needed.
It was a short life of 24 years from 1907 to 1931 with the last two years in jail. In 1925 at the age of 18 Bhagat Singh founded Bharat Navjawan Sabha and in 1927 the Hindustan republican association to which he added the word ?socialist? the following year. In Indian politics that was the first use of the term ?socialist? in the name of any organization. In 1928 there was a nationwide call to boycott the Simon Commission, and all white Commission to decide the political fate of India. On 30 October 1928, Lala Lajpat rai was assaulted by the police while demonstrating against the simon Commission in Lahore in Lahore. He succumbed to his injuries on 13 November.


[The Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan had organised an essay competition on the above subject in 1923. It was for that competition that Bhagat Singh wrote this article. The General Secretary of Sahitya Sammelan, Shri Bhim Sen Vidyalankar (now expired) liked the article much and preserved it. Bhagat Singh got a prize of Rs. 50 for this article. Subsequently, it was published in Hindi Sandesh on February 28, 1933]

Monday, October 1, 2007

Hard Labour

Hard labour is hard, and made infinitely harder by the warder who stands over you and forces you to work beyond your endurance, beyond human endurance. Gandhi, like us, had plenty of hard labour, and both his comrades and mine, survived to tell our tales. He describes a particular day in Volksrust prison.
"The day was very hot, all the Indians set to work with great energy. The warder was rather short of temper. He shouted at the prisoners all the time to keep on working. The more he shouted, the more nervous the Indians became. I even saw some of them in tears. One, I noticed, had a swollen foot. I went on urging everyone to ignore the warder and carry on as best he could. I too, got exhausted. There were large blisters on my palms and the lymph was oozing out of them. I was praying to God all the time to save my honour so that I might not break down. The warder started rebuking me. He did so because I was resting. Just then I observed Mr. Jhinabhai Desai fainting away. I paused a little, not being allowed to leave the place of work. The warder went to the spot. I found that I too must go and I ran." (Indian Opinion, 09-01-1909).
They splashed water on the fainted Jhinabhai and revived him. Jhinabhai was taken to his cell by cab. That hot day repeated itself on Robben Island in the early sixties.
We, like Gandhi's Indians, had been working at a brisk pace for three hours one day, when fatigue set in and some of us stopped to stretch our bodies. The warder was on to us, swearing and shouting. Then he turned to Steven Tefu, old enough to be his grandfather, very erudite, highly educated, and shouted at him, "Get on boy!"
Tefu drew together his dignity and reprimanded the warder in high Dutch, thoroughly confusing him. The outcome for Tefu was better than that for Jhinabhai.
As was the experience of Gandhi, we were marched off to work in groups of 30. He writes,
"At seven, work starts. On the first day, we had to dig up the soil in a field near the main road for purposes of cultivation." (Indian Opinion, 29-5-1909).
They quarried stones and carried them on their heads. We worked on the lime quarries, and the sun shining on the whiteness blinded our eyes. There were times when Gandhi agonised and wondered whether he had done the right thing by exposing his compatriots to the pain and indignity, but his firm conviction came to his rescue.
"If to bear suffering is in itself a kind of happiness, there is no need to be worried by it. Seeing that our sole duty was to break free from our fetters by enduring every hardship rather than remaining bound for life, I felt light in the heart and tried to instill courage in the others."

Prison Conditions

There is great similarity in the conditions of imprisonment during our days and Gandhi's. Prison conditions changed dramatically only in the 1980s, despite the pressures exerted at the beginning of the century by Gandhi and his colleagues, and in the latter decades by my colleagues and myself. Access to newspapers, radio and television were allowed, in stages, only in the last decade as, too, were beds. In a sense, I was eased into the prison routine.
My first time in a lock-up was on June 26th, 1952 while I was organising the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. I was held for a few days in a police cell before being released on bail. Gandhi's first imprisonment was without hard labour, in January 1908, and though sentenced to two months, he was released within 19 days. General Smuts, fearful of the momentum the passive resistance struggle was gathering, had him brought by train, from Johannesburg, to his offices in Pretoria to work out a settlement.
I too, was called out with a view to a settlement by the then head of state, Mr. P.W. Botha. They drove me to Groote Schuur, but that was in my twenty-sixth year of imprisonment - when the Nationalist Government saw that they could no longer govern the country on their own. Gandhi spent his first term of imprisonment in the Fort in Johannesburg, so did I - in the hospital section as an awaiting trial prisoner in 1962.
Gandhi describes his apprehension on being first convicted: "Was I to be specially treated as a political prisoner? Was I to be separated from my fellow prisoners?" he soliloquized. He was facing imprisonment in a British Colony in 1908, and he still, at the time, harboured a residue of belief in British justice. My colleagues and I faced imprisonment in the cells of apartheid; we had no expectations that we would be given privileges because we were political prisoners. We expected the reverse - greater brutality because we were political prisoners. My first conviction was for five years in 1962, following my incognito African "tour". I began serving in Pretoria. Like Gandhi, we experienced the insides of the major Transvaal prisons. Gandhi, however, was never on Robben Island in the Cape, and we were never in Volksrust in the Transvaal.
Gandhi's approach was to accommodate to the prison conditions since, as a satyagrahi, suffering in the path of freedom and justice was part of his creed: We were never satyagrahis in that sense. We did not accept suffering, we reacted against it. I was as unco-operative on my first day of prison as I possibly could be. I refused to wear the prison shorts and I refused to eat the prison food. They gave me long trousers, and food that was somewhat more palatable, but at a heavy price. I was placed in solitary confinement where I discovered that human company was infinitely more valuable than any material advantage.


Gandhi threatened the South African Government during the first and second decades of our century as no other man did. He established the first anti-colonial political organisation in the country, if not in the world, founding the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. The African People's Organisation (APO) was established in 1902, the ANC in 1912, so that both were witnesses to and highly influenced by Gandhi's militant satyagraha which began in 1907 and reached its climax in 1913 with the epic march of 5,000 workers indentured on the coal mines of Natal. That march evoked a massive response from the Indian women who in turn, provoked the Indian workers to come out on strike. That was the beginning of the marches to freedom and mass stay-away-from-work which became so characteristic of our freedom struggle in the apartheid era. Our Defiance Campaign of 1952, too, followed very much on the lines that Gandhi had set.
So in the Indian struggle, in a sense, is rooted the African. M.K. Gandhi and John Dube, first President of the African National Congress, were neighbours in Inanda, and each influenced the other, for both men established, at about the same time, two monuments to human development within a stone's throw of each other, the Ohlange Institute and the Phoenix Settlement. Both institutions suffer today the trauma of the violence that has overtaken that region; hopefully, both will rise again, phoenix-like, to lead us to undreamed heights.
During his twenty-one years in South Africa, Gandhi was sentenced to four terms of imprisonment, the first, on January 10, 1908 to two months, the second, on October 7, 1908 to three months, the third, on February 25, also to three months, and the fourth, on November 11, 1913 to nine months hard labour. He actually served seven months and ten days of those sentences. On two occasions, the first and the last, he was released within weeks because the Government of the day, represented by General Smuts, rather than face satyagraha and the international opprobrium it was bringing the regime, offered to settle the problems through negotiation.
On all four occasions, Gandhi was arrested in his time and at his insistence - there were no midnight raids, the police did not swoop on him - there were no charges of conspiracy to overthrow the state, of promoting the activities of banned organisations or instigating inter-race violence. The State had not yet invented the vast repertoire of so-called "security laws", that we had to contend with in our time. There was no Terrorism Act, no "Communism Act", no Internal Security Act, or detentions without trial. The control of the State was not as complete; the Nationalist police state and Nationalist ideology of apartheid were yet to be born. Gandhi was arrested for deliberately breaching laws that were unjust because they discriminated against Indians and violated their dignity and their freedom. He was imprisoned because he refused to take out a registration certificate, or a pass in terms of the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act (TARA), and "instigated" others to do likewise.
When apartheid was still in its infancy, we too, like Gandhi, organised arrests in our own time through the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign, but by the end of the sixties, the violence of the State had reached such intensity that passive resistance appeared futile. We were literally pulled out of our beds and dragged into prison. Our Defiance, instead of bringing relief, provoked the Government into passing the so-called security laws in a bid to dam up all resistance. This should not mislead the reader into thinking that Gandhi's resistance did not provoke harsh measures against him and his followers. The Indians suffered terrible reprisal - they were deported to India and several groups spent time navigating back and forth, between the ports of Bombay and Durban in third class steerage because they refused to disembark in India, insisting they would only do so on their mother soil, South Africa.
Most of those deportees had in fact been born in South Africa and India was for them, a foreign country. Others like Ahmed Cachalia and E.I. Asvat lost their lucrative businesses and were forced into insolvency by their white creditors, not because their businesses were not doing well, but because they resented their 'defiance' and forced them to liquidate their assets and pay them back. Others had their property auctioned, just so that the government could extract the fines the satyagrahis refused to pay for defying unjust laws. Gandhi himself was treated with utmost indignity on several occasions, the like of which was not heaped on us. On two occasions, while being moved from Volksrust to Johannesburg and Pretoria respectively, he was marched from the gaol to the station in prison garb, handcuffed, with his prison kit on his head. Those who saw him were moved to anger and tears. For Gandhi, it was part of his suffering, part of the struggle against inhumanity.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869 - 1948)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in Porbandar in Gujarat. After university, he went to London to train as a barrister. He returned to India in 1891 and in 1893 accepted a job at an Indian law firm in Durban, South Africa. Gandhi was appalled by the treatment of Indian immigrants there, and joined the struggle to obtain basic rights for them. During his 20 years in South Africa he was sent to prison many times. Influenced primarily by Hinduism, but also by elements of Jainism and Christianity as well as writers including Tolstoy and Thoreau, Gandhi developed the satyagraha ('devotion to truth'), a new non-violent way to redress wrongs. In 1914, the South African government conceded to many of Gandhi's demands.
Gandhi returned to India shortly afterwards. In 1919, British plans to intern people suspected of sedition - the Rowlatt Acts - prompted Gandhi to announce a new satyagraha which attracted millions of followers. A demonstration against the acts resulted in the Amritsar Massacre by British troops. By 1920, Gandhi was a dominant figure in Indian politics. He transformed the Indian National Congress, and his programme of peaceful non-cooperation with the British included boycotts of British goods and institutions, leading to arrests of thousands.
In 1922, Gandhi himself was sentenced to six years' imprisonment. He was released after two years and withdrew from politics, devoting himself to trying to improve Hindu-Muslim relations, which had worsened. In 1930, Gandhi proclaimed a new campaign of civil disobedience in protest at a tax on salt, leading thousands on a 'March to the Sea' to symbolically make their own salt from seawater.
In 1931, Gandhi attended the Round Table Conference in London, as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress, but resigned from the party in 1934 in protest at its use of non-violence as a political expedient. He was replaced as leader by Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 1945, the British government began negotiations which culminated in the Mountbatten Plan of June 1947, and the formation of the two new independent states of India and Pakistan, divided along religious lines. Massive inter-communal violence marred the months before and after independence. Gandhi was opposed to partition, and now fasted in an attempt to bring calm in Calcutta and Delhi. On 30 January 1948, he was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic.

Why Was Gandhi Never Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

Up to 1960, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded almost exclusively to Europeans and Americans. In retrospect, the horizon of the Norwegian Nobel Committee may seem too narrow. Gandhi was very different from earlier Laureates. He was no real politician or proponent of international law, not primarily a humanitarian relief worker and not an organiser of international peace congresses. He would have belonged to a new breed of Laureates.There is no hint in the archives that the Norwegian Nobel Committee ever took into consideration the possibility of an adverse British reaction to an award to Gandhi. Thus it seems that the hypothesis that the Committee's omission of Gandhi was due to its members' not wanting to provoke British authorities, may be rejected.In 1947 the conflict between India and Pakistan and Gandhi's prayer-meeting statement, which made people wonder whether he was about to abandon his consistent pacifism, seem to have been the primary reasons why he was not selected by the committee's majority. Unlike the situation today, there was no tradition for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to try to use the Peace Prize as a stimulus for peaceful settlement of regional conflicts.During the last months of his life, Gandhi worked hard to end the violence between Hindus and Muslims which followed the partition of India. We know little about the Norwegian Nobel Committee's discussions on Gandhi's candidature in 1948 – other than the above quoted entry of November 18 in Gunnar Jahn's diary – but it seems clear that they seriously considered a posthumous award. When the committee, for formal reasons, ended up not making such an award, they decided to reserve the prize, and then, one year later, not to spend the prize money for 1948 at all. What many thought should have been Mahatma Gandhi's place on the list of Laureates was silently but respectfully left open.

1947: Victory and Defeat

In 1947 the nominations of Gandhi came by telegram from India, via the Norwegian Foreign Office. The nominators were B.G. Kher, Prime Minister of Bombay, Govindh Bhallabh Panth, Premier of United Provinces, and Mavalankar, the President of the Indian Legislative Assembly. Their arguments in support of his candidacy were written in telegram style, like the one from Govind Bhallabh Panth: "Recommend for this year Nobel Prize Mahatma Gandhi architect of the Indian nation the greatest living exponent of the moral order and the most effective champion of world peace today." There were to be six names on the Nobel Committee's short list, Mohandas Gandhi was one of them.
The Nobel Committee's adviser, the historian Jens Arup Seip, wrote a new report which is primarily an account of Gandhi's role in Indian political history after 1937. "The following ten years," Seip wrote, "from 1937 up to 1947, led to the event which for Gandhi and his movement was at the same time the greatest victory and the worst defeat – India's independence and India's partition." The report describes how Gandhi acted in the three different, but mutually related conflicts which the Indian National Congress had to handle in the last decade before independence: the struggle between the Indians and the British; the question of India's participation in the Second World War; and, finally, the conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities. In all these matters, Gandhi had consistently followed his own principles of non-violence.
The Seip report was not critical towards Gandhi in the same way as the report written by Worm-Müller ten years earlier. It was rather favourable, yet not explicitly supportive. Seip also wrote briefly on the ongoing separation of India and the new Muslim state, Pakistan, and concluded – rather prematurely it would seem today: "It is generally considered, as expressed for example in The Times of 15 August 1947, that if 'the gigantic surgical operation' constituted by the partition of India, has not led to bloodshed of much larger dimensions, Gandhi's teachings, the efforts of his followers and his own presence, should get a substantial part of the credit."

The First Nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize

Among those who strongly admired Gandhi were the members of a network of pro-Gandhi "Friends of India" associations which had been established in Europe and the USA in the early 1930s. The Friends of India represented different lines of thought. The religious among them admired Gandhi for his piety. Others, anti-militarists and political radicals, were sympathetic to his philosophy of non-violence and supported him as an opponent of imperialism.
In 1937 a member of the Norwegian Storting (Parliament), Ole Colbjørnsen (Labour Party), nominated Gandhi for that year's Nobel Peace Prize, and he was duly selected as one of thirteen candidates on the Norwegian Nobel Committee's short list. Colbjørnsen did not himself write the motivation for Gandhi’s nomination; it was written by leading women of the Norwegian branch of "Friends of India", and its wording was of course as positive as could be expected.

Mahatma Gandhi – Who Was He?

Mohandas Karamchand – known as Mahatma or "Great-Souled" – Gandhi was born in Porbandar, the capital of a small principality in what is today the state of Gujarat in Western India, where his father was prime minister. His mother was a profoundly religious Hindu. She and the rest of the Gandhi family belonged to a branch of Hinduism in which non-violence and tolerance between religious groups were considered very important. His family background has later been seen as a very important explanation of why Mohandas Gandhi was able to achieve the position he held in Indian society. In the second half of the 1880s, Mohandas went to London where he studied law. After having finished his studies, he first went back to India to work as a barrister, and then, in 1893, to Natal in South Africa, where he was employed by an Indian trading company.
In South Africa Gandhi worked to improve living conditions for the Indian minority. This work, which was especially directed against increasingly racist legislation, made him develop a strong Indian and religious commitment, and a will to self-sacrifice. With a great deal of success he introduced a method of non-violence in the Indian struggle for basic human rights. The method, satyagraha – "truth force" – was highly idealistic; without rejecting the rule of law as a principle, the Indians should break those laws which were unreasonable or suppressive. Each individual would have to accept punishment for having violated the law. However, he should, calmly, yet with determination, reject the legitimacy of the law in question. This would, hopefully, make the adversaries – first the South African authorities, later the British in India – recognise the unlawfulness of their legislation.
When Gandhi came back to India in 1915, news of his achievements in South Africa had already spread to his home country. In only a few years, during the First World War, he became a leading figure in the Indian National Congress. Through the interwar period he initiated a series of non-violent campaigns against the British authorities. At the same time he made strong efforts to unite the Indian Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and struggled for the emancipation of the 'untouchables' in Hindu society. While many of his fellow Indian nationalists preferred the use of non-violent methods against the British primarily for tactical reasons, Gandhi's non-violence was a matter of principle. His firmness on that point made people respect him regardless of their attitude towards Indian nationalism or religion. Even the British judges who sentenced him to imprisonment recognised Gandhi as an exceptional personality