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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 47, November 15, 2014

Communal Harmony And Deep Concern For The Poor: Basic Heritage of the Freedom Struggle

Sunday 16 November 2014, by Bharat Dogra

One of the most inspiring aspects of India’s freedom movement was that it emphasised many-sided constructive activities for creating a better society. While many significant concerns were emphasised, the two most basic concerns were—harmony of all religions for national unity and upliftment of the poor.

It is interesting to see that leaders who found the largest following in the course of the freedom movement emphasised these two basic concerns time and again.

Here we may mention four of the most prominent leaders of the freedom movement—Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Shahid Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhas Bose. While the huge people’s support enjoyed by the first two is well-known, it is less widely realised that in certain phases of the freedom movement Bhagat Singh and Subhas Bose became even more popular than the first two prominent leaders.

What is interesting about these four most popular leaders is that while they had differences on other issues, they were united in their common, deep commitment to these two basic precepts—communal harmony and priority for helping the poor in economic programmes.

It is true that their approaches to these two issues differed somewhat, but they were firmly one in their deep commitment to assigning very high priority to communal harmony and alleviation of poverty.

It is important to remember that the leaders who got the most support and the most enduring and deep affection from India’s people were the ones who emphasised highest priority to harmony of all religions and upliftment of the poor.

This legacy of the freedom movement should be emphasised today as even now these two are the biggest issues before the nation that warrant the highest priority. Of course, the agenda taking forward these two crucial issues has to be worked out keeping in view the present-day realities.

However, if it is true that the most prominent leaders of our freedom movement gave the highest priority to these two issues and they also won the maximum support of the people, then why and how did we fail to take these issues forward? Why was the country engulfed in the worst communal violence culminating in the partition of the country with all its enduring problems for the subcontinent? Why didn’t poverty reduction get the top priority in the post-independence period?

The reason for this is that a broad unity of the forces subscribing to the pro-poor agenda and social harmony could not be established. While Gandhiji was best placed for keeping together all these forces in India’s society, he fumbled badly while isolating Shahid Bhagat Singh and his comrades. What prevented Gandhiji from launching an all-India movement against capital punishment for Bhagat Singh and his colleagues and indeed for any freedom-fighter? What prevented him from at least meeting Bhagat Singh and his colleagues at the time of their satyagraha in jail for the rights of all political prisoners? Again, what prevented Gandhiji from checking those Rightwing forces in the Congress which increasingly isolated Subhas Bose? In fact what Subhas had to endure at the Tripuri Congress covention was nothing less than mental torture, inflicted by senior colleagues of his own Congress party. Gandhiji could have easily stopped this, but he did not.

One person who could’ve prevented Gandhiji from making these serious mistakes was Jawaharlal Nehru, a man of great learning. Jawaharlal was close to the socialist ideas of Bhagat Singh and Subhas Bose, and he also had the deep affection of Gandhiji. So Jawaharlal Nehru was best placed for convincing Gandhiji of the need to establish a broad unity where the forces inspired by Bhagat Singh, and Subhas Bose could find an enduring place of honour within the broad contours of the freedom movement led by Gandhiji. If Gandhiji had met Bhagat Singh and his colleagues in jail for a broad unity without sacrificing his high ideals of non-violence, surely some common ground for broad unity could’ve been found. Similarly, if Gandhiji had made any effort to remove the isolation of Subhas Bose even after what happened at Tripuri, the situation could still have been salvaged. But what actually happened was like rubbing salt on festering wounds, as Subhas Bose was debarred from all elected posts in the Congress.

So the lesson is unmistakable. The basic principles were very clear but broad unity could not be achieved, either due to petty personal reasons or, what is more likely, due to the hidden influence of vested interests. Ideological weaknesses were another contributing factor.

While Gandhiji was best placed for the role of a father-figure, at the grassroots communalism could’ve been best fought by Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose and their colleagues. Thus actually Gandhiji lost his best possible grassroots allies for resisting communalism and partition by his own mistakes. Jawaharlal, despite a few hesitant moves to play the corrective role, was mostly carried away by the overwhelming influence of the Mahatma on him.

All this has very important lessons for us today. The great potential of our greatest leaders for national unity, social harmony and poverty alleviation could not be achieved only due to lack of unity. Hence today the broadest possible unity of the forces of social harmony and pro-poor agenda should be emphasised.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.