In November 2015, I and my friend Madhavi Bansal went to Lahore to present a paper in a conference on education in School of Social Sciences & Humanities at University of Management and Technology (UMT). It was a session packed with audience, some of whom had entered after confirming that this session comprised of Indian presenters. The particular session also comprised of presentations by several senior and much experienced scholars in the field. This only added to our anxiety. When it was our turn to present, the room suddenly grew more silent and we felt like there was a sudden drop in the temperature. We stood still as we waited for the moderator to announce our names. The moderator, Mr Waqas Ahmad Khan, did much more than that. He welcomed us to Pakistan, talked about our presentation and then he did something which we could never imagine. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi on education.
This truly moved us. While I don’t remember the exact words of the quote, his gesture is unforgettable. In the land of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, most of the Indians cannot imagine Mahatma Gandhi. But we met him there.
I had known about Gandhi surviving in Pakistan also through the presence of Gandhians in Pakistan and the fortune of knowing few of them. I know many youngsters in Pakistan who adore and respect Mahatma Gandhi. This is quite interesting given the fact that in India, Mahatma Gandhi is respected but not followed or I should say, understood by a vast majority. There is a trend to prefer Bhagat Singh over Mahatma Gandhi. Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi are defined in contrast with each other. While this is not to say that people in India understand and follow Bhagat Singh’s ideas (except for his justification of use of violence) but in case of Mahatma Gandhi, there are long-standing debates around his views, ideas and tactics. He is the most easily targeted figure of all times. Gandhi was much more than just a leader of the Indian nationalist movement. While he had developed a grand narrative for India after independence that touched upon various institutions, his ideas were not just local but had a global appeal. Yet within India, the popular image of Gandhi has been limited to his thoughts around non-violence.
In Pakistan, people have mixed views about Gandhi. In Pakistani textbooks, Gandhi is shown to be a great leader of the Hindus. This is completely ironical as he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on the charge of being pro-Muslim or an appeaser of minorities. What I found even more interesting is the alleged theory in Pakistan that the reason for his assassination was that he demanded that Pakistan be given the share of wealth or resources that was promised by India. He was assassinated for demanding justice. While this theory may not be amusing to even those Indians who try to somehow justify his assassination or the events that led to it, it does show that he was seen as a man who stood against a narrow understanding of nationalism and believed in truth and justice, above all.
Mahatma Gandhi was also seen as a leader who had cordial relations with everyone including those who disagreed with him. While Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah are often seen as opposites in Pakistan, these were the words of Mohammad Ali Jinnah on the death of Gandhi:
“Whatever our political differences, he was one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community, and a leader who commanded their universal confidence and respect.
I wish to express my deep sorrow, and sincerely sympathize with the great Hindu community and his family in their bereavement at this momentous, historical and critical juncture so soon after the birth of freedom and freedom for Hindustan and Pakistan.
The loss to the Dominion of India is irreparable, and it will be very difficult to fill the vacuum created by the passing away of such a great man at this moment.”*
History is complex and so are the people who lived in it. Gandhi needs to be understood as a man of his times. He was a personality who stood against the tide of hatred and injustice. He is remembered in this way the world over, including Pakistan. I rediscovered him in Pakistan where he became my reason to be proud of my identity, my country India.
*Source: Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Speeches and Statements as Governor General of Pakistan 1947 – 48. Published (1989) by Government of Pakistan, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Directorate of Films & Publications, Islamabad (Pakistan).