Did Mahatma Gandhi really call to disband Congress or not?
Recently, Amit Shah, president of the BJP, lauded Mahatma Gandhi’s foresight in calling for the disbanding of the Congress after Independence. While his use of a caste suffix “chatur bania” for Gandhi was rightly objected to, the part about disbanding the Congress went uncontested.
In a note dated January 27, 1948, three days before he was assassinated, Gandhi wrote that the Congress has “outlived its use” in its present form, should be disbanded and “flower into a Lok Sevak Sangh”. This appeared as an article in Harijan on February 2, 1948, titled ‘His Last Will and Testament’, a phrase added by his associates. Some scholars of Gandhi seem to have uncritically accepted the term ‘last will and testament’.
For example, political scientists Lloyd and Susan Rudolph comment: “Twenty four hours before his death on 30 January 1948 at the hands of Nathu Godse, Gandhi proposed in his ‘last will and testament’ that the Indian National Congress be dissolved and be replaced by a Lok Sevak Sangh, a people’s service organisation.” The title of the article and its posthumous publication endowed Gandhi’s note with a significance greater than he intended.
The ‘last will and testament’ should be read along with another statement also carried in the Harijan the same day: “Indian National Congress which is the oldest national political organization and which has after many battles fought her non-violent way to freedom cannot be allowed to die. It can only die with the nation.” This suggests he still believed the Congress had a future role and was pondering over what it would be.
What Gandhi had penned was a draft constitution, not a ‘last will and testament’. If Gandhi had lived, it is probable that this draft constitution would have been debated in the Congress as a whole, rather than the focus being only on disbanding the party. Gandhi’s comments were made in the context of a continuing debate on the future role of the party in the post-Independence period and the associated reorganisation of the Congress. With Independence, the historic role of the party in achieving Independence had been played out and changes in the structure of the party were in order to make it better designed to fulfil the purpose of effecting a social and economic revolution. This was a debate initiated by the party leadership in 1946, with circulars sent out to the Congress committees to ascertain their views.
Many responses came in over the months, including those of Jayaprakash Narayan, Raghukul Tilak, JB Kripalani and Rammanohar Lohia. Tilak was apprehensive about the vacuum, which would be created by dissolving the Congress, which communal parties would rush to fill. Congress president, Kripalani, suggested a reorientation of the Congress now that the struggle against the British was over. He spelt out the role of the Congress as laying down the policy of the government and being a link between it and the people. Lohia wanted the Congress to adopt the socialist creed and connect with workers and kisan organisations to realise this. Gandhi spoke of dissolving the party not in the limited context of being disillusioned with the power politics, which dominated it, but as part of the transformation of the party to make it a fit instrument for the new situation. Gandhi had been engaged in these discussions on the future role of the party since he was in Noakhali and had continued them in Delhi in late 1947 and early 1948.
Tracing the evolution of this debate on the role of the Congress shows that ‘dissolution’ was not a distinct Gandhian perspective, counterposed to the official Congress line that it is made out to be. It appears that this claim is made time and again, as it conveniently fits in with the popular mythology about Gandhi standing apart from the Congress and its leaders in his last years. A mythology, which allows for selective appropriation of the Mahatma and other nationalist leaders and debunking of others. This is of course part of a continuing trend in the (mis)appropriation of national leaders by the BJP.
Sucheta Mahajan is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU
The views expressed are personal