The term `love- jihad’ is being used by the activists of the Sangh Parivar to target inter-religious marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women. They accuse the Muslims of seducing Hindu women and converting them to Islam. But then, how would they justify the marriages between the BJP’s Muslim leaders and their Hindu wives – with Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi having Seema as his wife, and Shahnawaz Hussain marrying Renu ? Shouldn’t they also be accused of `love-jihad’ – according to the standards laid down by the Sangh Parivar ?
Incidentally, the precedent for such opposition to inter-religious marriages was set by no less a person than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Way back in 1919, a young woman, Sarup Kumari Nehru, daughter of the veteran Congress leader Motilal Nehru and sister of Jawaharlal’s (who was to be later renamed as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the well-known ambassador of India to international capitals ), fell in love with Syud Hossain, a brilliant intellectual who was at that time staying at Motilal’s Anand Bhawan house in Allahabad , functioning as the editor of Motilal’s journal The Independent. According to some sources, they got secretly married. Hearing the news, Gandhi rushed to Allahabad, set himself at Anand Bhawan , called the truant couple and gave them a dressing down for what he considered was a matrimonial misadventure. Under his pressure, Syud was compelled to resign from the editorship of The Independent and leave Allahabad to go abroad. After having banished Syud Hossain from Allahabad, Gandhi persuaded Motilal to pack off his daughter Sarup Kumari to his own Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat for some weeks in early 1920, where he could train her to purge herself of her love for a Muslim ! The entire record of Gandhi’s role in disrupting a Hindu-Muslim love marriage has now been documented in a recently published book – A FORGOTTEN AMBASSADOR IN CAIRO: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain, by N. S. Vinodh.
What was the training that Sarup Kumari had to go through under Gandhi’s supervision ? Soon after her internship in the Sabarmati Ashram was over, and she came back to her paternal home in Anand Bhawan, she narrated (in a letter to her friend Padmaja Naidu, dated March 13, 1920) her experiences in the Ashram, and how Gandhi launched a harangue against her relationship with a Muslim. Let me quote the relevant passages from her letter, where she describes Gandhi addressing her – `“How could you,” he said to me, “regard Syud in any other light but that of a brother – what right had you to allow yourself, even for a minute, to look with love at a Mussalman.” She then quotes another advice from the Mahatma’s lips: “ …Sarup, had I been in your place ……. supposing Syud had ever attempted to show admiration for me or had professed love for me I would have told him gently but very firmly – Syud, what you are saying is not right. You are a Mussalman & I am a Hindu. It is not right that there should be anything between us…”’ Commenting on this advice given to her by Gandhi, Sarup in her letter to Padmaja wrote: “ …it didn’t carry much weight because being Gandhiji it is absolutely impossible for him ever to enter into my thought or feelings…..” She then added: “But then, if I started telling you the good old Mahatmaji’s objections I should fill a few hundred pages & though it would make quite amusing reading it would also be taking a great risk.” (Re: Padmaja Naidu papers. Nehru Memorial Museum Library. New Delhi).
Sarup Kumari was soon married off by her parents in 1921 to Ranjit Pandit – an outstanding scholar from a Brahmin family of Kathiwar in Gujarat. She changed her name to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. They led a fairly placid life all through the 1920s, giving birth to, and bringing up their three daughters – Chandralekha (who passed away recently), Nayantara (the famous writer who continues to defy the present ruling powers) and Rita Vitasta.
But despite that placid married life, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (nee Sarup Kumari Nehru) could not forget and forgive her family’s thwarting her choice of a husband under Gandhi’s advice. Some sixty years later, while writing her memoirs, when recalling that episode in her life, she expressed her disappointment in these words: “In an era that proclaimed Hindu-Muslim unity and belonging to a family that had close Muslim friends, I must have thought that it would be perfectly natural to marry outside my religion… “ (The Scope of Happiness by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Crown Publishers Inc. New York, 1979, p. 65)
That Sarup Kumari’s attachment to Syud Hossain was not a passing infatuation of a teenager – as assumed by Gandhi – but was a deeply rooted lasting emotional and intellectual attachment, is evident from the records of their later interactions. They kept in touch with each other all through the 1940s – when Vijaya Lakshmi arrived at New York (in 1945) and Syud Hossain met her, and was introduced to her daughters as “Uncle Syud.” Syud Hossain, India’s ambassador in Cairo died in harness there on 25 February, 1949, and he was buried in a graveyard in Cairo, which carries a tombstone bearing his name. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was reported to have visited the tomb, once every year, and lay flowers there in his memory.
Gandhi’s visceral objection to Hindu-Muslim marriages
Gandhi’s act of opposition to the Sarup Kumari -Syud Hossain marriage was not an isolated incident – but was consistent with his steadfast belief in the separation of Hindus and Muslims in mutual family relationships. Even at the peak of what Vijaya Lakshmi described as “Hindu-Muslim unity” in the political sphere, Gandhi refused to shed his religious prejudices and favoured the mutual isolation of the two communities in the social sphere. This comes out clear in one of his statements during the Khilafat movement in the 1920s. Referring to his pact with Maulana Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali (popularly known as the Ali brothers) at that time, Gandhi said: “In spite of the greatest regard for the (Ali) brothers, I would not give my daughter in marriage to one of their sons, and I know that they would not give theirs to my son…..” (Young India, 20th October, 1920).
Some seven years later, after his intervention in the Nehru family to break up an inter-faith relationship, Gandhi in a similar fashion stood in the way of the marital choice of his own son. In 1926, his son Manilal, who was based in Natal running his father’s Phoenix Ashram, fell in love with a Muslim woman Fatima Gool, both willing to get married. When Gandhi heard of it, he shot off a letter to Manilal, (3 April, 1926) rebuking him: “….what you desire is contrary to dharma. If you stick to Hinduism and Fatima follows Islam it will be like putting two swords in one sheath…” This metaphor that he used – comparing the two religions as swords – sounds shocking, coming from a proponent of non-violence !
But more was to come. In that same letter to Manilal, Gandhi reveals his social stakes in the contemporary political scenario. He warns his son against the marriage: “Your marriage will have a powerful impact on the Hindu-Muslim question….You cannot forget nor will society forget that you are my son.” (Quoted in Ramchandra Guha’s GANDHI; the years that changed the world. 1914-1948). The modern historian Ramchandra Guha, in his above-mentioned well-researched magnum opus (published in 2018) tries to explain Gandhi’s attitude towards Hindu-Muslim marriages, and his intervention in preventing them, in the context of the then political situation in India. He writes: “Looked at from the perspective of its own time, one might view Gandhi’s intervention less harshly. For, he was trying desperately to build a modus vivandi between India’s two largest communities. There could be no united front against colonialism unless Hindus and Muslims came together. There would be no end to riots and clashes about cow slaughter and music before mosques unless Hindus and Muslims came together. In this delicate, fraught social and political environment, the Mahatma’s son marrying a Muslim girl – and even worse , allowing her to convert to Hinduism – would at a stroke ruin Gandhi’s attempts to bring about unity and harmony.” Guha then speculates: “Had Manilal married Fatima….there would be sermons in a thousand mosques across India about how Gandhi’s call for Hindus and Muslims to work together was merely a devious camouflage to kill Islam by capturing its women.”
This is an argument that problematizes the conflict between individual choices in personal relationships – whether marital or not – on the one hand, and the need to submit to the political dictates of the leadership that may demand an end to such relationships for the sake of the larger political cause on the other. The prioritization of the latter at the cost of personal happiness – at a particular juncture in our freedom struggle – assumes a problematic dimension.
Gandhi’s ambivalent attitude towards religious conversion
Along with the political compulsions that led Gandhi to stop inter-faith marriages, there was also his in-grained opposition to religious conversion. Ironically, today’s BJP-run state governments are passing anti-conversion laws that reflect exactly the very spirit of Gandhi’s views on the controversial issue. In the above-mentioned letter of his to his son Manilal, referring to Fatima’s agreeing to conversion to Hindusm, he wrote: “It is not dharma, only adharma if Fatima agrees to conversion just for marrying you….For the sake of dharma a person shall forgo matrimony, forsake his home….” He then adds a peculiar comment: “May not Fatima have meat at her father’s ? If she does not, she has as good as changed her religion.” In other words, Gandhi was willing to accept a convert to the Hindu fold according to his/her food habits that complied with the norms of the Hindu Brahminical society.
Gandhi’s views on the conversion of Hindus to Islam went through a tortuous process through his life. Earlier during his stay in Johannesburg, he seemed to take a tolerant attitude towards the trend. In a speech under the auspices of The Theosophical Society in Johannesburg on March 13, 1905, he said: “That the majority of the converts to Islam were Hindus from lower classes is also a fact that can be proved…And I consider it a merit of Islam that those who were dissatisfied with the social distinctions in Hinduism were able to better their condition by embracing Islam….” (Mahatma Gandhi Collected Works, Vol. 4 : 430 – henceforth to be quoted as MGCW).
However, on his return to India, and by the 1920s, he had changed his views. We find him as a firm opponent of any form of conversion, and urging Hindus to remain steadfast in their loyalty to the original religious faith in which they were born – even if it meant giving up one’s own life. Addressing a group of Hindus, who had left Kohat due to the Hindu-Muslim riots there and took shelter in Rawalpindi in 1925, he said to them on February 5 that year: “…many among you embraced Islam to save your lives…under fear…What I mean to say is that we should be prepared to lose our lives but not to change our faith.” (MGCW, Vol. 26. 81,8 2,84 ).
This tendency of Gandhi’s to prioritize religious faith over the existentialist needs of survival of the people (which often contradicted each other), flawed his political strategy and tactics at certain times. The most shocking example of this was his opposition to the conversion of outcasts of Hindu society (whom he patronized as `Harijans’ , but who are today rejecting that term and instead reasserting themselves as `Dalits’) to Christianity. In spite of his welfare activities for them, his attitude towards them remained derogatory. Let me give an example. In November, 1936, Reverand John Mott, an American evangelist who was the Chairman of the International Missionary Council, came to Sevagram and had a long interview with Gandhi . Referring to Gandhi’s opposition to the conversion of the untouchables to Christianity, he asked: “…should they (the Christian missionaries) not preach the Gospel with reference to its acceptance (by the untouchables) ?” Gandhi replied: “Would you, Dr. Mott, preach the Gospel to a cow ? Well, some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding. I mean they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam and Hinduism and Christianity than can a cow.” (MAHATMA, Vol. 4 . 1934-38. Pp. 135-136. Collected and edited by D.G. Tendulkar. 1953. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India).
It is interesting to observe that Gandhi here lets fall, for a moment, his ingrained assumption about the mental inferiority of the outcasts. It probably led him to take on a patronizing role of reforming them (by wooing them with the term `Harijan’ – children of God; occasionally taking the broom to clean toilets in order to insinuate himself into their confidence, and glorifying their degrading occupations by flattering them as servers of society). More interestingly, he derogatorically compares their mental capacity with that of cows – the same animal whom he otherwise had been propping up as an object of worship for his followers ! How do we explain this dichotomy in Gandhi’s behaviour ? Like his many other acts and utterances – which appear as inconsistencies to us – this comment of his also awaits further psycho-analytical examination.
Gandhi remained steadfast, till the end of his life, in his opposition to conversion. During his visit to riot-torn Noakhali in Bengal in 1947, he advised the Hindu victims against conversion to Islam under compulsion – on the same lines as he preached to the victims of the Kohat riots in north India way back in 1925.
But to be fair to him, his opposition to conversion was not Hindu religion-specific. He opposed all conversions by proselityzers – whether Muslims, Christians or even by the Arya Samajists from within his own Hindu religious fold. Commenting on the Arya Samajists’ campaign for `Shuddhi’ (purifying outcasts and others to allow them entry into the Hindu society), he said: “For my part I still remain unconvinced about the necessity of the Shuddhi movement, taking shuddhi in the sense it is generally understood….I am against conversion whether it is known as Shuddhi by Hindus, tabligh by Musalmans or proselytizing by Christians.” (Re: Young India. January 6, 1927, in MGCW, Vol. 32.5.15)
Gandhi’s changing attitude towards inter-faith marriages
By the 1940s – some two decades later after his opposition to Sarup Kumari’s marriage to Syud Hossain – Gandhi seemed to have melted down a bit. When in March, 1942, another daughter of the Nehru family, Indira chose to marry a Parsi, Feroze Gandhi , he came out in defence of the marriage against critics who opposed it. In a note sent from Sevagram on March 2, 1942, referring to the critics who opposed Feroze’s marriage to Indira, he said: “….(in their estimation) his only crime is that he happens to be a Parsi.” Then, trying to reconcile his steadfast opposition to religious conversions on the one hand, with inter-faith marriages on the other, he said: “I have been, and I am still, as strong an opponent of either party changing religion for the sake of marriage. ….In the present case there is no question of change of religion. Feroze Gandhi has been for years an inmate of the Nehru family. He nursed Kamala Nehru in her sickness. He was like a son to her. During Indira’s illness in Europe he was of great help to her.” Then, in a rare gesture of empathy with romantic relationships, Gandhi added: “A natural intimacy grew up between them. The friendship has been perfectly honourable. It has ripened into mutual attraction…It would have been cruelty to refuse consent to this engagement.” At the end of his note, he moves beyond this particular event of Indira-Feroze marriage, by extrapolating it to the larger context: “As time advances, such unions are bound to multiply with benefit to society…as toleration grows into mutual respect for religions, such unions will be welcomed.” (CWMG – Vol. 82. P. 82)
This is a far cry from his stubborn objection to inter-faith marriages during the Khilafat movement in the 1920s. May be, during the last decade of his life, Gandhi was trying to make amends for his past acts of subverting the personal choices of Sarup Kumari Nehru and his own son Manilal. As he acknowledged that “…time advances..,” he also tried to adjust his thoughts to the advancing waves of time, and the new challenges posed by the younger generation in his surroundings. He chose for his daily prayer the song composed by Narsimh Mehta: “Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye/ Jo peed parai jaane re” (A gentle person is one who knows the pain of the other). While listening to that song, did he regret the pain that he might have caused to Sarup Kumari Nehru and Manilal Gandhi ?
Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).