Long before al Qaeda declared India an enemy country, its founder Osama bin Laden spoke glowingly of the man Indians call Father of the Nation and his fight against Britain.
Bin Laden hoped to deploy Mahatma Gandhi’s methods against his new enemy, the United States, which he turned upon after helping defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
“Consider the case of Great Britain, an empire so vast that some say the sun never set on it,” bin Laden said in a speech in September 1993, two years after the collapse of the USSR.
“Britain was forced to withdraw from one of its largest colonies when Gandhi the Hindu declared a boycott against their goods. We must do the same thing today with America.”
It was a rather simplistic view of the Indian freedom struggle, and he may have bungled the authorship of the boycott of foreign goods, also called the swadeshi movement.
While Gandhi made it famous as part of the Civil Disobedience movement starting 1930, the boycott of foreign goods started out as a protest tool during the partition of Bengal in 1905.
The above speech by bin Laden comes from a cache of 1,500 audiotapes left behind by al Qaeda at a Kandahar compound it had occupied till the defeat of the Taliban in 2001.
An Afghan family that found the tapes gave them to a cassette shop, which would have had no trouble selling them in a country recovering from a ban on music.
A CNN cameraman spotted the tapes in time and persuaded the owner to turn them over to authorities, who, after vetting them, handed them over to Williams College.
Flagg Miller, an expert in Arabic literature at the University of California, Davis, was asked to look at the tapes, and he is now coming out with a book based on them in November, called “The Audacious Ascetic: What the bin Laden tapes reveal about al-Qa'ida (another spelling for al Qaeda)”.
Miller told Hindustan Times, “I found the reference (to Gandhi) fascinating partly because bin Laden had worked hard on crafting an image of himself as a diehard ascetic, even though he came from a wealthy family and maintained a strong interest in preserving links with his family and with wealthy Saudi donors and the monarchy.”
He also shared with HT a lengthier portion of that speech by bin Laden: “Let us not consider this matter lightly or philosophize about it. This is incumbent upon you. Consider the case of Great Britain, an empire so vast that, some say, the sun never set upon it. Britain was forced to withdraw from India, one of its largest colonies, when Gandhi the Hindu declared a boycott against their goods. Hindus began to stop wearing any clothing manufactured in Britain, their enmity for the British growing in their hearts. It reached such a point that if a British person wanted to walk freely in the street, he could not do so for fear of the ravenous looks cast upon him by Hindus. Enmity against them grew to such proportions that the British had to leave, by the grace of God, suffering tremendous losses in the process. We must do the same thing today.
“We must tell any American we see about what is on our minds, about what distresses us and about our hatred for their crimes in Palestine. We must explain that they are the reason for these crimes. We must also write to American embassies and consulates to express our condemnation of their criminal acts toward the children and poor women who are bound to us by a single religion and creed.”
Miller believes bin Laden’s reference to Gandhi could also have been purely a ploy. He said “while it is the first speech in which he openly calls for militant action against American interests, he also appears to be speaking from Saudi Arabia itself, where criticizing the country’s American ally could get you thrown in jail.”
Invoking Gandhi, Miller added, enabled “him to make his call appear more civil, then, or at least to float a dangerous message under the cover a man who was famous across the world for using non-violence to achieve his aims”.