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The other cheek

You might feel Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary next Sunday would be a more suitable date for this column but my fear is that, for the same reason, it might prove more provocative or, at least, insensitive. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 04, 2011 13:48 IST
Karan Thapar

You might feel Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary next Sunday would be a more suitable date for this column but my fear is that, for the same reason, it might prove more provocative or, at least, insensitive. Today, I hope, you will think about the issue I raise without emotion clouding your response.

Sixty three years after his death, we need to consider how we regard some of the Mahatma’s controversial and, I would add, unreasonable if not also unacceptable views. In 2011, they seem shocking. I can’t believe they were more acceptable in the 1940s.

Carefully reading Alex Von Tunzelmann’s history of independence and partition, Indian Summer, for a discussion tomorrow at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I was startled by what she reveals of Gandhi’s position on World War II, Hitler and the Holocaust.

Gandhi, as we know, was a pacifist. His commitment to non-violence was unequivocal and absolute. This lead him to advise the British not to oppose Hitler’s and Mussolini’s attempts to conquer. “Let them take possession of your beautiful island …” he said, “allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

Is that how Gandhi would have responded to the Chinese attack in 1962 or to Pakistan’s repeated wars on India? I imagine so. If he was anything, the Mahatma was frighteningly consistent and not a hypocrite.

Worse, it seems Gandhi was not convinced of Hitler’s evil. “I do not consider Herr Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted”, he wrote in 1940. “He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.” Gandhi felt that Germans of the future “will honour Herr Hitler as a genius, a brave man, a matchless organiser and much more.”

But what is truly inexplicable is Gandhi’s response to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Von Tunzelmann, drawing upon Louis Fisher’s biography of the Mahatma, says he advised the Jews to offer passive resistance and even give up their own lives as sacrifices. He asked them to pray for Adolf Hitler. “Even if one Jew acted thus”, he wrote, “he would salve his self-respect and leave an example which, if it became infectious, would save the whole of Jewry and leave a rich heritage to mankind besides.”

Even after the concentration camps were discovered and the full horror of the Holocaust revealed, this is what Gandhi told Louis Fisher in 1946: “Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs …” No doubt Gandhi’s position flowed out of his total opposition to violence and his unwavering commitment to non-violence as the only acceptable response. However, to tell Jews not to resist Hitler but pray for him and offer themselves as sacrifices is more than bizarre. It’s insensitive, demeaning and cruel.

Is that what Gandhi would have advised the Sikhs in 1984, the Muslims in 2002 and the adivasis today? Once again, the answer is, presumably, yes.

I won’t deny I’m troubled. Unlike Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy, these views on war, Hitler and the Holocaust are more than just personal fads or quirks. Had he ruled the country, they would have translated into policies. This is why they need to be addressed and discussed. Ultimately, if they cannot be acceptably explained, they must be criticised and rebutted.

The views expressed by the author are personal