Gandhiji on the Indian Muslims and Jamia: Some Reflections


On the special occasion of 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, an exhibition has been organized by Dr. Zakir Husain Library (from 2 October to 12th October), in Jamia Millia Islam. On this occasion, several books and photographs and manuscripts related to Gandhi works, life, contributions and his positive role towards Jamia including Indian Muslims has been displayed for public, inside the Jamia’s Library.

To be precise, most of books and photographs are connected to Gandhi’s contributions on several issues such as communal harmony, religious pluralism, diversity, Gandhian ethics, ecology and environment, his model of development, village economy, his critique of modern civilizations, concept of swaraj, gender rights, educational philosophy (mainly on Nai Talim) and relevance of his thought in the context of India including across the world. Besides, several photographs linked to Jamia, and his understanding about Islam and Indian Muslims has been also displayed and put on several tables.


Procession at the first convocation of the Jamia in 1921. It includes Dr M.A. Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Syed Suleman Nadvi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Shaukat Ali, A.M. Khwaja. Dr Zakir Hussain, Dr K.A. Hamied and Rauf Pasha. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT by the Frontline.

However, in this article, I am not going to discuss all these issues and concerns, expressed by Gandhi during his life time rather I will confine myself with his understanding about Islam, Indian Muslims and his contributions and noteworthy role with respect to Jamia Millia Islamia during the anti- colonial movement.

We as citizen of India are currently celebrating and paying tribute to Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary, perhaps this time with much passion and deep commitments towards his progressive thought on several issues as mentioned above which have contemporary relevance  particularly in times cultural intolerance. While paying the tribute to Gandhi, this time several articles have been written by eminent Gandhians, Human rights activists and scholars in various newspapers, websites and on the social media.

Broadly speaking, most of the progressive and secular minded scholars have expressed deep dissatisfaction with regards to the manner in which current ruling dispensation is suppressing the genuine dissenting voices of subaltern masses irrespective of caste, religion and regions. And Scholars have reminded us that Gandhiji concept of non-violence, satyagragha, communal harmony, Hindu-Muslims unity, religious pluralism, Sarva dhram Sambhava (equal respect for all religion on which the broad principles of Indian secularism is based), his commitment towards oppressed groups etc., came under severe attack, ever since the current ruling dispensation led by Modi captured the state power. However, this time several  articles have been also written by the RSS ideologue (to note that while commemorating Gandhi,150th  birth anniversary,  the RSS mouth piece, Organiser has also brought out and published special issue on Gandhi, tiled as, “Soul  of  swaraj ” on 6th October, 2019 ). In short, while celebrating birth anniversary of Gandhiji, allegations and counter-allegations were made by the political parties in the public domain. For Congress, ruling dispensation is not respecting genuinely Gandhian values that could be reasons why phenomena like lynching, mob-violence and hate crimes have been increased sharply in recent times. In response to this, the BJP attacks on the Congress party for betraying the ideas of Gandhiji and have done nothing for people and country at large during his 60 years of regime.

In what follows, in this article, I am not going to enter the political contestations with regards to whose claim is valid as far as  Gandhi’s legacies are concern whether the BJP or the Congress. However, it is ironical to underline that barely any articles or statements came out from any political quarter or even from the side of Indian liberals in the public domain with respect to the role and contributions which were made by Gandhiji vis-a-vis Jamia, Millia Islamia, probably a first nationalist university, had played a vital role in the anti-colonial struggle. While celebrating 150th birth anniversary, it is crucial to note that Gandhi’s relation with Islam and Indian Muslims has not been seriously studied and taken attention by the Indian academics. This article intends to unpack the Gandhiji’s relation to the Jamia, Indian Muslims and his understanding about Islam and the life of Prophet Muhammad.

Before discussing the role of Gandhiji in details on said themes, let me remind us that that when Jamia was passing thorough the severe financial crisis, it was Gandhiji who openly said that in any circumstances, Jamia should not be closed down duo to financial crisis. Even for this cause, I am ready to beg money in the countryside to save Jamia. Besides, he also took stand and advised not to delete the word, ‘Islamia’ amidst difficult times. It is to be remembered that it was Jamia Millia Islamia as a nationalist institution which passed through extreme hardship because; Jamia’s students and teachers together participated in the non-co-operation movement on the call of Gandhiji in the late 1920s. It is historically correct to say that Jamia is the first university perhaps in India which have progressive history and championed the cause of ‘composite culture’, diversity, secular legacy and Hindu-Muslims unity. Most of the nationalist Muslims, Dr. Zakir Husain, Hakim Ajmal Khan, and M.M Ansari and others who were associated with Jamia had strongly countered the two nation-theory put-forward by the Muslim League led by Jinnah.

While highliting the role of Jamia in anti-colonial struggle, the late  noted historian Prof. Mushirul Hasan (Prof. Hasan who taught for long time at the Department of History and Culture, JMI and served as the Vice Chancellor of Jamia, passed away on 10th  December 2018)  and Rakhshanda Jalil in their book, “Partners in Freedom; Jamia Millia Islamia”  (Niyogi Books, 2006) have  shown that Muslims stalwarts and  nationalist leaders as mentioned above had sided with Gandhiji, fought against colonial masters and foregrouded the concept of ‘composite culture’ and ‘secular nationalism’ (led by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru). In doing so, nationalist Muslims had vehemently opposed and rejected the Muslim nationalism led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In this respect, a noted novelist and founding member of the progressive writer movement, Munshi Premchand (who wrote several novels in both Hindi and Urdu) had a wrote a report about the role of Jamia and its leaders in 1932 during Colonial India and pointed out that their role in anti-colonial struggle could not be questioned and hence, their nationalist and patriotic credentials are deeply connected to the Indian nation and beyond doubt. However, the progressive legacy of Jamia and its founding member’s role, who fought against the colonial regime have not been appropriately highlighted and duly reconginged by the historians of modern India, this point is highlighted by the late Prof. Hasan in his  several writings. To put it differently, the contributions and sacrifices which were made by nationalist Muslims during the freedom struggle and later in the nation-building had have hardly recognized and well-placed in the wider academic and intellectual discourse.

On the contrary, Hindu nationalist forces often raised and expressed their doubt over the nationalist and patriotic credentials of the Indian Muslims in the post-Independent India. In spite of the contributions towards the nationalist cause made by Indian Muslims, Hindu nationalist forces often put blame on the Indian Muslims for being pro-Pakistan and anti-India. Historians of modern India had demonstrated that the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha had not played serious role and made any noteworthy contributions towards the nationalist project. It would be not wrong to say that ever since the BJP-RSS led government under the leadership of Narendra Modi captured the power at centre and most of States, intensity of the communal polarizations have sharpened drastically. As a result of this, mob-lynching, love-jihad, hate speech and crimes against the minorities and Dalits have reached on the new zenith and became ‘new normal’ in the Indian society. This point has been widely documented by Zia-Us Salam in his book ‘Lynch files’, 2019 a senior Journalist in the Frontline.

Before coming back to recent problems, let me comeback to the pertinent issues like concept of Nai Talim lunched during the anti-colonial struggle with support of Gandhiji. To be precise here, Nai Talim was based on the craft centered education which was visualized and conceptualized during the anti-colonial movement to educate and provide training and skills, so that Indian students could become self-reliant and able to manage the livelihood for their survival. This idea has been put-forward by Dr. Zakir Husain which was supported by Gandhiji and Maulana Azad. To note that for the first time, the Nai Talim as concept was formulated at Wardha in Maharashtra and implemented at Jamia Millia Islamia in the late 1930s and other nationalist institutions elsewhere. Since Gandhiji entered into the nationalist struggle, had lunched mass movement against the colonial regime.

gandhi jamia

Mahatma Gandhi with Dr Zakir Husain. Gandhi was a steadfast friend of the Jamia from the beginning. Photo: The Hindu Archives.

While doing so, he put-forwards the idea of ‘complete swaraj’ rather than confine to early nationalist mode of struggle which was based on prayer, petitions and protests before the colonial bureaucracy. However, it is ironical to note that due to unflinching dedications and commitment of Gandhiji towards nationalist project and simultaneously maintaining the national unity at any cost amidst Hindu- Muslim communal antagonism. However, due to Jinnah’s adamant behaviors and communal approach of the Hindu Mahasabha, and failure of secular project, big human tragedy like partition had happened.

However amidst heighten of communal frenzy, it was Mahatma Gandhi who took uncompromising stand on Hindu-Muslim unity and defended the secular traditions, composite culture including the genuine concerns of Indian Muslims. It is sad commentary of our history to note that due to his stand on Indian Muslims mainly their safety and security, Gandhiji was assassinated by Nathuram Godse who was having affiliation with the Hindu nationalist organization (it is unfortunate to note that in general elections 2019, Paragya Singh Thakur, a BJP candidate, who is allegedly involved in terrorist activities, got elected and defeated a senior congress leader like Digvijay Singh, hails Godse as a patriot). It is pertinent to note that on the one hand PM Narendra Modi and others BJP leaders often claimed that we are true follower of Gandhian legacy, however, they ( the BJP-RSS combine) have  maintained silence   and  not openly taken stand to condemn Thakur who praised  Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi during the campaign of Lok Sabha election in 2019.

Unlike the orientalits and Hindu nationalist forces, Gandhji had very secular and sympathetic understanding about Indian Muslims and Islam. This point has been recently brought by the late historian Prof. Mushirul Hasan in his book, “Faith and freedom, Gandhi in History”. For Prof. Hasan evidences demonstrate that Gandhiji was familiar with the Islamic teaching and basics of Quran along with good deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. That is why Gandhiji in his prayer often used to give equal respect to Islam and even Christianity. However, given his Gujarati background, Gandhi had a limited understanding about Islam, noted by Prof. Hasan.  Yet, Gandhiji was influenced from Islam and believed that it promotes peace and humanity. To very brief, for Gandhi, religion is source of spiritual energy and moral refinement rather than conflict and contestations. The essential teachings of all religions are respect to other fellow human beings and work for the larger cause of humanity.

However, after 9/11 terrorists attack in the USA, Islam and Muslims across the world have been targeted, demonized and venom of ‘Islamophobia’ is being propagated by the global media which has created and constructed several misconceptions about Islam and Muslims too. This misconception and fear of ‘Islamomphobia’ have also been generated and cultivated by Indian media and propagated by the Hindu nationalist forces in the Indian public sphere. As result of this, recent spate of mob-violence and hate crimes against religious minorities especially against Indian Muslims have been increased tremendously as hinted above.

To conclude this essay, let me recall the point made by earlier, the fact must be noted that the current ruling party who claim to be championing the values of Gandhian teachings of non-violence and stayagraha must shun the violent approach and anti-minorities sentiment which has been increasing in recent times.  Reading Islam with humanistic lens, one could argues that the real teachings of Islam are based on peace and promote communal harmony rather than stereotypical and violent image of Islam as wrongly had done by the hard core orientlists like Huntington and Bernard Lewis. However, Gandhi understanding about Islam and his cardinal relationship with Jamia’s intellectual fraternity need to underline at times when deep fissures between the Hindus and Muslims seem to be increasing day-by-day in the wider public domain. In my view, there is high time to reinvent the real Gandhi’s principles and his teachings in the Indian public sphere for overcoming sad and depressing situations currently our country passing through as briefly mentioned above. The real teaching of Gandhiji is based on ‘genuine swaraj’ and satyagraha which cannot be achieved unless we strive for the violent free and harmonious society.  To put it simply, it was Gandhi influence that inspired the nationalist Muslims who belonged to ‘Jamia fraternity’ to participate in anti-colonial struggle and shun both Hindu nationalism led by Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the Muslim nationalism led by Jinnah. Besides due to Gandhi efforts, Jamia had survived in its extremely bad times.  In short, Gandhi’s relation with Indian Muslims, Jamia , Islam was based on reconciliation , peaceful co-existence and can live-together separately rather than essentially see the Hindu and Muslim relations antagonistically because of two communities belong to different religion and civilizations as conceptualized by Jinnah and Hindu Maha sabha leader V.D Savarkar.

The writer is a, Research Scholar, University of Delhi.




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