Friday, May 22, 2015

Rajnath's Maharana Pratap vs Akbar diatribe marks the complete communalisation of Indian history

First published on Scroll.

Of the many ways a sidelined minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party government can grab some attention, nothing seems to be more effective than stirring the communal pot. That’s exactly what Home Minster Rajnath Singh did on Sunday, hinting at a grand epithetical conspiracy to deny Mewar’s ruler, Maharana Pratap Singh his due, even while setting up a comparison with Pratap’s contemporary, Mughal emperor Akbar, who fought Pratap in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576.
Maha meaning

Secret conspiracies and shadowy visions of victimisation are, in many ways, the bread and butter of the Hindutva ideology that Rajnath Singh subscribes to – a rare case of a majority group running afraid of a minority. In this case, though, the patent absurdity of Rajnath’s Singh’s victimisation complex can be seen from the fact that "maha"’ – the prefix in Pratap’s title of "Maha-rana" – in a number of Indian languages, including Singh’s mother tongue of Hindi, literally means “great”.
Like the absurdity of the accusation that the descriptor “great” isn’t associated with Pratap Singh’s name, the underlying charge that somehow India’s official histories give more primacy to Akbar, over his adversary Pratap is absurd.

Akbar forgotten, Pratap remembered Far from mollycoddling Akbar, modern-day India, in a willful act of amnesia, seems to have completely forgotten one of its most impactful rulers. Let us take public works, given their high visibility: there seem to be no roads, roundabouts, airports or museums named after Akbar, post-1947. There is an Akbar Road in Lutyens’ Dehi but credit for that goes to the British, who made sure that their new capital city embedded the historical memory of the seven cities of Delhi. Akbar might have been one of the most enlightened rulers of his age whose actions would shape the subcontinent for centuries, but for the modern Indian state, he seems to be a persona non grata.

In comparison, the Indian state takes great care to publicly remember Maharana Pratap. Kolkata has a park named after him, Mumbai a chowk and Lucknow a road. Udaipur’s airport is called the Maharana Pratap Airport and Delhi’s interstate bus terminal is named after the Rana. Equestrian statues of Pratap abound across India, with one even making it to Parliament – one of only three medieval rulers to be so feted (the other two being Ranjit Singh and Shivaji).

Clearly then, Rajnath Singh’s paranoia of Akbar swamping Pratap in India’s historical memory is just that – paranoia.

Material impact

What is interesting in this massive imbalance in the way India fetes Pratap over Akbar is, materially, how much more impactful the latter was compared to the former. Akbar laid the foundation of an empire that ruled the subcontinent for three centuries. The structure of governance he set up was adopted by the Raj and elements of it still exist today. The musicians he patronised fundamentally impacted Indian music and our modern songs and films still feature tunes composed in Akbar’s court. The religious scholarship that was undertaken in his kingdom defines our theology today: Tulsidas was a subject of Akbar’s.

Pratap, on the other hand, was the rule of small principality which, soon after his death, merged with the Mughal empire. The material sphere of his impact, by extension, will obviously be magnitudes smaller than Akbar’s.

But, it might be argued, material impact isn’t everything. Pratap’s tale of holding out against an overbearing foe is a gripping and inspiring tale. Fair enough.

Some heroes are more equal than others

But India has a rich history and there are other tales of valour: one is the story of Chand Bibi, the remarkable Queen Regent of Ahmednagar, a Sultanate in the Deccan. Chand Bibi, like Pratap, also defended her kingdom against the forces of Emperor Akbar in the face of overwhelming odds. And she did it as a woman, with all the difficulties that would entail. In a fascinating bit from historian Richard Eaton’s book, A Social History of the Deccan, a Mughal general mocks Ahmadnagar’s diplomat, Afzal Khan, calling him a “eunuch” for fighting under a woman. In a line that Bollywood would take up after four centuries, Khan simply stated that he had “eaten the salt of the Sultans of the Deccan” and would die for them.

In spite of this, Chand Bibi is a forgotten figure. There are no airports, roads or bus terminals named after her for her courage. No roundabouts with her perched atop a rearing steed.

We see the same dialectic at play with Shivaji in his battles against Aurangzeb. Chand Bibi was the first of many powers in the Deccan to resist Mughal supremacy. Five sultanates in the Deccan countered Mughal belligerence as part of a long drawn out war and it was only Akbar’s great-grandson, Aurangzeb who was able to subdue them. Yet of all these tales of Deccan resistance, why is Shivaji the only one played up in the state’s histories and in the popular realm? Why is, say, Malik Ambar, Peshwa of Ahmednagar, who pioneered the light cavalry guerrilla tactics that Shivaji would use later on, forgotten?

Hindu-Muslim narrative

If the unique key to being remembered in modern India is not material impact or even intangibles like valour, what is it? What separates out Shivaji from Chand Bibi or Malik Ambar in the Deccan. And from the Battle of Haldighati, why is Pratap remembered but Akbar and the general commanding the Mughal army, Man Singh of Amber, left to fade out?

The answer it seems is a narrative that sets up a millenarian belief in communal conflict – a largely imagined Hindu-Muslim crusade. Anything that can be force-fitted into this narrative seems to be worth celebrating as a part of the history of modern India. Anything that doesn’t is forgotten. Shivaji versus Aurangzeb plugs in to this narrative as does Maharana Pratap against Akbar. Both Pratap and Shivaji are presumably glorified for supposedly fighting Muslims. Man Singh, Akbar’s general is forgotten. As are the exploits of Chand Bibi and Malik Ambar in the absence of any overarching narrative of Hindu-Muslim conflict.

History is often seen as a passive recording of events gone by. Far from it, it is an active process of creating a past and is informed as much by our present as by previous events. It seems that when we create our national histories, we require a mirror of our 20th century obsession with communal categories.

Jinnahesque gesture

This is something that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had bought up in 1940 as he laid out his arguments for what he believed would prove the existence of the “Two Nation Theory”.
“It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different, and different episode[s]. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. “  
There are a great many ideas that have been relegated to obsolescence since 1940 but Jinnah’s malevolent history lesson still rings true, it seems. Rajnath Singh’s Pratap versus Akbar is a small illustration. Narendra Modi himself made his views quite clear when he announced, soon after being sworn in as prime minster, that he considers the past “1,200 years” of Indian history a period of “slavery”. For Modi, literally not a single Indian Muslim ruler could be a positive part of the nation’s history. Moreover, to mark Modi’s first anniversary in office, the BJP is planning a celebration of India’s Hindu historical icons.

The Jinnahesque prescription of deriving inspiration from different sources of history, one apparently Hindu and the other apparently Muslim, it seems has now taken root in the highest echelons of India’s government. Acche din, indeed.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Partition and Two Petitions

In 1906, the Aga Khan led his (in)famous deputation to the then Viceroy of India, Lord Minto, a person now immortalised for generations of Calcuttans as a rather important bus stop, Minto Park.

The deputation asked for two things: separate electorates based on communal lines and "adequate Muslim representation" that would take into account not merely the numerical strength of India's Muslims but also "their political importance" and "the value of their contribution which they make to the defence of the Empire".

This led to the Indian Councils Act of 1909, commonly known as the Morley- Minto Reforms, which bought a measure of representation to Indians for the first time but with separate electorates. The deputation was also one of the drivers for the founding of the Muslim League in Dhaka later on that year.

Why did the Aga Khan take this step clearly against what is considered a near-sacred principle now, one man, one vote? The reason was that the north Indian Muslim elite were worried that representative democracy with a limited franchise (based on education and wealth) along with communal voting blocks made caste Hindus easily the most important power centre in the United Provinces, replacing the largely Muslim, Awadh Elite. This formulation was meant to stem that inevitable tide.

Mirror petition

While this incident is (quite correctly) stressed highly in standard Indian historiography as a key milestone on the road to Partition, another strikingly similar petition is usually left out in this as causation. This petition was also sent by a communal minority who were once an unquestioned elite but now felt the heat of democratic representation bear down on their power.

The petition was sent by a very large section of Bengali Hindu bhadralok to the Secretary of State, Lord Zetland in 1934. And since, in the end, it was Bengal and not the United Provinces that was partitioned, it could be argued quite convincingly that this petition had a far larger effect on the final events of 1947 than the Aga Khan's.

Background: in 1932, the British introduced something called the Communal Award which, in Bengal, made population the basis for awarding seats to different communities. This might seem blindingly obvious now, given how universal adult franchise is so widespread, but in United Bengal, till then, as a result of limited franchise based on wealth and education, Bengali Hindus had more seats than Bengali Muslims, in spite of being a numerical minority.

Loss of power

The 1932 award, by reversing that principle of awarding representation on the basis of wealth and education and now awarding seats on the basis of overall population, alarmed the elite Bengali bhadralok who had dominated the province till then, a little like the Awadh Elite, pre-1857.

The petition, therefore, just like the Aga Khan's sought to soften the blow of majority rule.

It argued that the Communal Award, by simply counting heads, had ignored the “enormously predominant role that [Hindus] have played under British rule in the intellectual, cultural, political, professional, and the commercial life of the province’. The memorial continued on with some numbers: "Hindus of Bengal though numerically a minority, are overwhelmingly superior culturally, consisting as much as 64% of total literate population and more than 80% of school going population. Their economic preponderance is equally manifest in the spheres of the independent professions and commercial careers making up nearly 87% of the Legal, 80% of the Medical and 83% of the Banking, Insurance and Exchange business’.

The petitioners therefore objected "strongly against the unfair and unprecedented provision to protect a majority community by conferring upon it a position of permanent and statutory predominance in the legislature and making that position unalterable by any appeal to the electorate".

The bhadraloks who sent this plea – to not base political representation directly on the basis of population – included a veritable who's who of Bengal at the time: Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chatterjee (the author of Devdas), PC Roy (the chemist), Nil Ratan Sarkar (physician), SP Mookherjee (Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University and later part of Nehru's cabinet) and BP Singh Roy (Former Land Revenue Minister).

"National" to "communal"

This represents a remarkable change in attitude of the bhadralok who had once thought of themselves as purely Bengali in identity and above communal markers. For example, in 1905, they had strongly resisted the partition of Bengal on communal lines. Historian Bidyut Chakrabarty, in his book, The Partition of Bengal and Assam, comments on this change:

"If it is contrasted with the 1905 partition, the second partition [of Bengal, in 1947] is a paradox of history. In 1905, the Hindus had opposed the division and the Muslims wanted it. In 1947, the Muslims were opposed to it while the Hindus were in favour. There was a complete reversal of the Bengali Hindu attitude."

Gandhi had once remarked on how Muslims had never seen themselves of as a minority under Mughal rule but did so in colonial-and-soon-to-be-Independent India. Of course, that journey from "Hindustani" to "Muslim", under the new pressures of representative democracy, is typified by the Aga Khan's deputation. And, in a striking parallel, the journey of the bhadralok from "Bengali" in 1905 to "Hindu" in 1947, asking for the partition of Bengal, is typified by the 1934 petition,

A new Gandhi museum in Gujarat does a good job of showcasing Modi

Arun Shourie, one of the Indian right’s most influential intellectuals, last week sharply criticised the Narendra Modi government for a host of things, including the prime minister’s monogrammed pinstriped suit. “You cannot take Gandhiji’s name and wear such a thing,” he said, referring to Modi’s expedient use of Gandhi’s name while doing the opposite of what the Mahatma would have prescribed.
There are many claimants to the award for Best Politician in a Faux Gandhian Role and, Modi is in exalted company here, starting right from Jawaharlal Nehru himself. But the suit incident highlighted by Shourie isn’t Modi’s best performance in that category. That would have to be Dandi Kutir, a massive memorial dedicated to the Mahatma in Gandhinagar in Gujarat, which opened to the public in January.
Gandhinagar is an unusual Indian town for two reasons: it has great infrastructure and (almost) no people. Towering above the sleepy town is a tan-coloured cone as tall as a high-rise. This is Dandi Kutir, built in the shape of a mound of salt to commemorate Gandhi’s salt satyagraha. I’m not sure why they decided to colour what was supposed to be a mound of salt, tan and not white, but then this was only the first of many incongruences on my visit to this museum.
Striking structure
Spread over 15 acres, the Dandi Kutir complex is a part of the Mahatma Mandir, an impressive business convention centre, initiated by the state government when Modi was the chief minister. Chromatic verisimilitude aside, the massive cone of the Dandi Kutir looks rather striking. It is ringed by a series of administrative offices and the best government-built loos I have ever had the pleasure of using – a definite mark of getting their priorities right.
After 10 minutes of walking around with a growing sense of admiration, my balloon was punctured a bit when I reached the gates of the museum and was told it was just about to go into a one-hour lunch break. “Actually, come back in an hour-and-a-half,” said the man at the counter. “It takes time for people to gather up and we only open after lunch, when we have a crowd of at least 15 visitors.”
No matter: guess it’s difficult to get rid of all sarkaariness at once.
Thankfully, they let me wait inside the air-conditioned cone. The museum was spread out across three vertical levels, connected by elevators and steel-and-glass catwalks which spanned from one end of the museum to the other. The cone’s apex had a skylight cut out and the strong summer sun shone in, lighting the interior up with natural light. It all looked impressively industrial and modern, so much so that it would have made the Mahatma turn in his grave should he have had one. The cornerstone of Gandhi’s economic philosophy rested on the rejection of Western-style industrialisation. For example, in Harijan in 1946, Gandhi wrote:
“I do not believe that industrialisation is necessary in any case for any country. It is much less so for India. Independent India can only discharge her duty towards a groaning world by adopting a simple but ennobled life by developing her thousands of cottages [as industries] and living at peace with the world.”
Built on a budget of Rs 260 crore, there was not much in the space-age interiors of this museum built to commemorate Gandhi, which would remind one of a small-scale village industry.
Namo quiz
Some of this ideological confusion can perhaps be explained by the fact that the Dandi Kutir museum is only partially utilised for the commemoration of Gandhi. One portion of the structure is a meta-museum of sorts, which proceeds to explain how and why the Dandi Kutir was built, a fairly unique segment as far as museums go.
This bit, as it turns out, is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A large LCD panel television has a video address by the prime minster on loop, telling us why and how he conceptualised this structure. Another backlit panel hails the museum as “a monumental tribute from one great visionary to another” while another congratulates “SHRI NARENDRA MODI, The Visionary Architect of Mahatma Mandir” even as Shri Narendra Modi smiles benignly from another panel, looking dapper in a beige Nehru Jacket.
It is this section which contained my favourite part of the entire museum: the “Namo Quiz”, a 60-question trivia quiz, hosted on a touchscreen console, entirely about the life of Narendra Modi. It was a tough quiz mind you and I, at least, didn’t do all that well. Some of the trickier questions are listed below for you to take a crack at:
1. “From which league (Sangh) Shri Narendra Modi took the training?” (Options: RSS, NSS, VSS, PSS).
2. “People know Shri Narendra Modi by which nick name?” (Options: Narema, Namo, Naren, Namohar).
3. “What kind of clothing Shri Narendra Modi likes to wear most?” (Options: Kurta-Chudidar, Pyjama, Pent-shirt, Jeans-T shirt, Zbba-Dhoti).
4. Separate questions on the names of his mother, father and, surprisingly, even his wife.
5. How many brothers and sisters, respectively, does Modi have?
6. “Which world famous magazine mentions Shri Narendra Modi as the most powerful man in the world?”
7. “Shri Narendra Modi strongly believes in _____.” (Options: Accommodation, Afford, Renunciation, Development).
8. “In childhood Shri Narendra Modi took which animal’s cub home adventurously?” (Options: Elephant, Camel, Crocodile, Horse).
9. “After the victory of 2014 Loksabha elections, what did his mother give him to eat?” (Options: Shira, Curd, Halva, Laps).
10. “What kind of exercise does Shri Narendra Modi does every morning? (Options: Jogging, Walking, Yoga, Running).
After this tough-yet-engaging quiz, the actual Gandhi museum paled somewhat in comparison. The museum also suffers from a fatal flaw, as far as museums go: there isn’t a single object or artefact on display.
Story of Gandhi
Instead, what it does do is tell the story of Gandhi using a mixture of animated short films, information panels and an audio guide, a rather simple task, which it does quite competently. It’s a direct telling of Gandhi’s life and sticks to much of the standard narrative that Indian school children have grown up with. Some of it is actually quite well done. For example, Gandhi’s travels across India, after he came back from South Africa, is shown via LCD panels fitted onto a mock third-class train compartment, which I thought was quite clever.
More of an amusement park than a museum, sure, but engagingly done nonetheless.
The one place the narrative becomes a bit odd is right at the end. And it’s an expected chink. The final audio segment relates how Nathuram Godse “tore through the crowd” and shot Bapu dead in a prayer meeting, but conspicuously stays away from the whys and wherefores of the act. No link is made between Partition and of Godse’s motivations, a belief that Gandhi was appeasing Muslims.
In fact, unlike the Namo Quiz, the audio narration of Gandhi’s assassination does not even care to ask: from which league (Sangh) Godse took the training?
And earlier piece on a touring the Nehru-Gandhi Museum, Anand Bhavan in Allahabad.
First published on Scroll.

India-Bangla land swap: was the world's strangest border created by a game of chess?

Parliament on Wednesday passed the historic Constitution (119th Amendment) bill, which will put in effect a four- decade-old agreement between India and Bangladesh to redraw their shared border.
Some people have claimed  that the bill will resolve a border dispute between the two countries. This is not so. Unlike its relations with China or Pakistan, India has no boundary squabble with Bangladesh. Each country is in perfect agreement over where the border lies. The issue is that this mutually agreed-on border is ridiculously complex, causing difficulties to not only the two governments but also the people trapped inside this cartographical maze. The bill seeks to swap land and redraw a more normal border.
What was wrong with the border?
The northern part of the India-Bangladeshi border is dotted with hundred of enclaves, called chhits in Bangla (meaning fragments).
An enclave is a little pocket of land surrounded completely by another country’s territory. Enclaves aren’t that rare and there are a few around the world, mostly in Europe. The most famous enclave probably is the Vatican City, surrounded completely by Italy. And some of them have played a historical part: one of the reasons why the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, setting off World War II, was due to tensions over East Prussia, a German enclave in Poland.
Nowhere, however, are they as numerous as in north Bengal. India possesses 106 enclaves of territory inside the Bangladeshi mainland. Bangladesh has 92 little pockets inside India. Most of these are ridiculously small and their total area is a little above 100 square kilometres. The smallest enclave, Upan Chowki Bhaini is all of 53 square metres – about the size of an average Mumbai flat.
It gets more complex: of these, 24 are counter-enclaves. Which means, an enclave within an enclave. So, for example, you’ll have a piece of Bangladeshi within Indian which, in turn, is within Bangladesh, a little like a Russian matryoshka doll.
But there’s still one more level: one of these is a counter-counter-enclave, the only one of its kind in the world. Dahala Khagrabari is a piece of India within Bangladesh, which is within India which, in turn, is within Bangladesh.
If this is too complex, here’s a schematic diagram.
How did it get to be like this?
Local legend has it that three centuries ago, the Raja of Cooch Behar and the faujdaar of a district in Mughal Bengal played chess with local villages as wager. These matches must have been closely fought, since neither player won a clean victory and pockets of land were left behind in Mughal and Cooch Behari territory.
More boringly, but also probably more accurately, academic Brendon Whyte from the University of Melbourne, describes how a war between the Mughals and the north Bengal princely state of Cooch Behar might have led to this peculiar situation. The war ended with a peace treaty in 1713, an overall Mughal victory, but it seems the Mughals were unable to evict some of the more powerful Cooch Behari zamindars from their lands, even as they had conquered the territory around those lands.  Conversely, in some cases, Mughal soldiers had captured some estates within the kingdom of Cooch Behar, whom the king did not have the power to expel.
Since Cooch Behar had now, to use RR Martin’s term, bent the knee and was paying tribute to Delhi, these enclaves didn’t bother the Mughals that much. Mughal India was a feudal empire, not a modern nation state. Land was not really imbued with any sacredness for it, and as long as the Emperor was getting his tribute, he was fine with the way things were.
Soon enough, the British Raj took over the possession of the Mughals. Which wasn’t really an issue either, since Cooch Behar was subordinate to the British Raj, another Empire.
An international issue
These dormant enclaves suddenly turned out to be an international flashpoint when the British left India. In 1947, when Sir Cyril Radcliffe was slicing up the cake of British India between India and Pakistan, he didn’t tamper with these enclaves since Cooch Behar was a princely state, not a part of British India. In 1947, therefore, the Cooch Behari enclaves which were once in Mughal India and then in British India, were transferred to India and Pakistan. In turn, Pakistan and India ended up with enclaves, once owned by the Mughals, in Cooch Behar.
The Indian enclave issue was solved in 1949, as Cooch Behar acceded to Delhi, one of the last princely states to do so. Now this was well and truly an international issue with Indian enclaves in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and Pakistani enclaves in India (earlier Cooch Behar).
Efforts to solve it
Logically, India and Pakistan exchanging their enclaves was a patently obvious solution to the issue. Enclaves (in all cases other than one) meant the country which had sovereignty over the land had no de facto control over it anyway. Moreover, it made the lives of people living in those enclaves terrible since they were, in effect, stateless.
Logic, though, is usually in short supply when it comes to Indo-Pakistan disputes and the issue has festered right up till now. Obtuseness in this matter is typified by Dohogram, a Pakistani enclave in India, the only one in which the state was present. Pakistani policemen were stationed there with India’s permission. In times of tension, when India did not give permission, Pakistani police would simply scoot over, dodging Indian fire, given that the enclave was only 85 metres from the Pakistani mainland. An international game of tag, with its own safe zone.
In 1965, in fact, the two nations fought a two-week battle over this small parcel of land. In the end, Pakistan surrendered, a ceasefire was negotiated and Pakistani citizens were allowed back into the enclave.
This jingoistic belligerence meant that this simple issue became intractable. Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani Prime Minister Feroze Khan Noon did arrive at an agreement in 1958, which was later ratified by Pakistan. However, writes historian Willem Van Schendel from the University of Amsterdam, “it became a sensitive political issue in India, where oppositional parties branded it an unconstitutional act”. The subsequent 1965 war meant that an agreement with Pakistan was politically untenable for any Indian government.
Indira-Mujib Agreement
Another chance came in 1974, after the creation of Bangladesh, with the signing of the Indira-Mujib Agreement, which negotiated a swap of enclaves. The agreement was ratified by Bangladesh’s parliament but, just like the Nehru-Noon Agreement, it became a victim of internal politics in India, as state leaders in West Bengal and Assam forced Delhi to not operationalise the treaty, which has hung in limbo till the present.
India was intransigent on this issue since the land swap would mean a net loss of land for it, about 40 square kilometres, equal to the size of a city neighbourhood. Of course, this area  is insignificant compared to the benefits a conventional border would bring. But land is an emotive issue and an easy target for politicians looking for a handle. “We shall not allow an inch of Assam’s land to be handed over to Bangladesh,” thundered Chandra Mohan Patowary, president of the Asom Gana Parishad, in 2011, illustrating the political difficulties that crop up in such a situation.
In opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in fact, opposed moves by the Manmohan Singh government to ratify the Indira-Mujib Agreement in 2011. Narendra Modi, however, changed his mind when he came to power, telling Bangladesh Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina, “aap mujh pe bharosa rakhiye” (trust me), on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting last September.
Like every Central government before it, though, Modi faced tough opposition from West Bengal and Assam. In fact, till the last moment, Assam was to be excluded from this present deal, given pressure from the state BJP unit. However, last minute firefighting meant that Modi got everyone on board and managed to iron out a 300-year old problem.
 First published on Scroll.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Suggesting religious reasons for quakes isn't new. Mahatma Gandhi did that in 1934.

First published on Scroll.

The devastating earthquake which hit Nepal on Saturday seems to have set off a process of unscientific inquiry among some associates of the Sangh Parivar. Most of their speculation has focussed on the causal factors which led to this violent displacement of the earth’s crust.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary Sadhvi Prachi linked the earthquake to Rahul Gandhi visiting Kathmandu. Lest you dismiss her views out of hand, she backed this up with another data point: as it turns out, Rahul had also visited Uttarakhand before this and soon that state saw massive flooding.Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Sakshi Maharaj extended this line of thought: Rahul Gandhi had caused this calamity because he ate beef and then went to Kedarnath  last week, without any sort of purification ceremony. Without such basic precautionary measures in place “the earthquake was bound to happen,” said Maharaj.

Sandeep Balakrishna, chief editor of a right wing website called India Facts, changed tack: ignoring Rahul, he went in for the always dependable religious-minorities-are-responsible angle. “Call me superstitious,” he tweeted, cleverly anticipating his critics, “but the Nepal earthquake happened because the missionaries are trying to destroy dharma”.

Echoing Gandhi

Naturally, this sort of talk led to outrage. The factors which cause earthquakes have been known to science for hundreds of years now and none of them involve the Gandhis, steaks or the Lord’s Prayer. However, the outragers should know that the people linking human actions and earthquakes have an illustrious predecessor, who did the same thing, eight decades back: the Father of the Nation, Mohandas Gandhi.

In 1934, Nepal and Bihar were hit by a devastating earthquake. Unlike 2015, Bihar was also severely affected, with even Patna facing widespread damage. In response to this, Gandhi, in a statement to the press, said that he believed that this natural disaster was “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans”.

God had punished Biharis, Gandhi said, because they practised untouchability against Dalits.

This irrational correlation set off a public debate between Gandhi and the man who had given him the title of “Mahatma", Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore shot off a rebuttal on rationalist lines, with a request for it to be published in Gandhi’s journal, Harijan.  The letter expressed “painful surprise” at “this kind of unscientific view of things”. It was simply inaccurate, Gurudeb argued, to “associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena”.

Thanking Gandhi for inducing a “a freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen”, Tagore nevertheless felt “profoundly hurt” when Gandhi’s words strengthened the “elements of unreason” which was the “fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect”.

Earthquakes and morals 

Gandhi published this letter but stuck to his guns. Expressing “profound regard” for the “Bard of Santiniketan”, the Mahatma wrote:
“Visitations like droughts, floods, earthquakes and the like, though they seem to have only physical origins are for me somehow connected with man’s morals. Therefore, I instinctively, felt that the earthquake was a visitation for the sin of untouchability. Of course, Sanatanists have a perfect right to say that it was due to my crime of preaching against untouchability. My belief is a call to repentance and self purification. I admit my utter ignorance of the working of the laws of nature. But even as I cannot help believing in God though I am unable to prove his existence to the sceptics, in like manner, I cannot prove the connection of the sin of untouchability with the Bihar visitation even though the connection is instinctively felt by me.”

Tagore did not reply to this and the debate ended here. The correspondence between these great figures of pre-independence India is extensive and very interesting, and the two would also clash on the idea of nationalism, on which, again, Tagore’s rationalist philosophy went up against Gandhi’s more emotional views.

Gandhi is, today, a symbol for India’s left wingers and liberals. India’s present-day conservatives do not like Gandhi all that much. Even though Sandeep Balakrishna and the Mahatma might share common ground over the role human religion has to play in causing an earthquake, Balakrishna’s website, India Facts has multiple articles shrilly critical of Gandhi with what are now standard right wing arguments: Gandhi attacked Hindu sentiments, disliked Hindu nationalists, denied political empowerment to Hindus and so on.

Gandhi, the conservative

This episode, though, gives us an interesting look at a Gandhi that almost everyone has forgotten today: Gandhi, the conservative.

Gandhi, says writer Mukul Kesavan, had a “willingness to deploy a 'Hindu' idiom in political discourse”. This is what he did for the earthquake, of course. To fight the social evil of untouchability, Gandhi bought in the idiom of theology. It wasn’t enough to educate people about it; Gandhi also said God himself was displeased with this practice, hence he killed twenty thousand people. Gandhi was, maybe, self-aware of his irrationality, but used this argument nonetheless given the potential good it could do. Gandhi wrote: “If my belief [of connecting the earthquake and untouchability] turns out ill-founded, it will still have done good to me and those who believe with me”.

This belief, that using the religious idiom was the best way to reach out to people, was the bedrock of Gandhi’s politics.  In Young India, 1925, Gandhi had this to say:
“For me, politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, ever to be shunned. Politics concern nations and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth.”

Miracle worker

The bland literal translation of the word “Mahatma” in English as “great soul” does not really capture the force of the word as it’s used in Hindi. This use of a religious idiom by Gandhi meant that across many parts of India, he came to be seen as a true mahatma, a religious guru with occult powers. Historian Shahid Amin has culled some instances of these beliefs from the local Hindi press of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh during the Non-Cooperation Movement (1921-’22):

1. Sikandar Sahu said that he would believe in the Mahatmaji when the karah (boiling pan) full of cane-juice in his karkhana split into two. The karah split in two in the middle.
2. A pandit of Rampur village was repeatedly told by many to give up his habit of eating fish, but he did not listen to anybody. He said: “I shall eat fish, let's see what the Mahatmaji can do”. When he sat down to eat the fish, it was crawling with worms.
3. Pt Damodar Pandey, from district Basti, reported that a man in Dumariya near his village had called Gandhi names, as a result of which his eyelids had got stuck.
4. In Rustampur, a purse of a man containing Rs 90 had disappeared from his hut. When he took manauti (prayer) of Mahatmaji, he found it back in his hut, and the money was intact.

The use of the religious idiom, of presenting himself as a mahatma, meant that Gandhi could reach out to the many millions who would remain untouched if his message had been delivered using blander political language. In Gorakhpur, for example, a very many number of people came out against the Raj, not for any explicit political reasons, but because they simply believed that a mahatma had told them to do so and it was their religious duty.

Gandhi’s religious idiom today

Of course, Gandhi was no mindless Twitter troll. He knew what he was doing and, in what is often a complex idea to digest given our binaries today, his irrationality and use of religion wasn’t driven by narrow mindedness. He reached out to Muslims too, using a community-specific religious idiom: the preservation of the Muslim Caliph after World War I.

Gandhi was a great soul but, more than that, he was a great mind. He used these religious idioms for causes that many would today recognise as rational and “good”: Hindu-Muslim unity, fighting untouchability and anti-colonialism.

But, of course, as Gandhi himself postulated many times, the ends rarely justify the means. Once these religious idioms had been placed out there and popularised, there were open to be used by people with souls not nearly as great as Gandhi’s. The earthquake is a minor example, but two of the Mahatma's biggest religio-political symbols, Ram and cow protection, have been used to the hilt by religious conservatives in Independent India, for ends that many would consider distinctly unGandhian.