by IRFAN AHMAD
Amidst Israel’s recent deadly attacks on Gaza and what Venezuela’s President called ‘its policy of genocide’, many have invoked Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) on two counts. First, he opposed settler colonialism. One analyst in The Economic Times gave a quote, also shared on Facebook: ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French’. Second, implicit in invoking Gandhi is the idea that he stood for non-violence and thus the indicting advice to the terrorised Palestinians to ‘choose peace’.
Both these positions linked to Gandhi, when analysed historically, are misleading, even incorrect and wrong. In 1921, Gandhi did oppose the imposition of Jews over the Arab land. However, later he subtly endorsed settler colonialism. As for Gandhi’s official preaching of non-violence and civil disobedience (satyagraha), they were at best tactical, contextual and temporary. Contrary to his deified mythology as apostle of non-violence, Gandhi indeed justified killing, even felt proud of violence, and opposed civil disobedience when both suited his political and national interests.
Zionist Colonialism through Arab ‘Goodwill’ and ‘Generosity’
Gandhi’s politics in India largely coincided with the tenure of the British Mandate in Palestine. One of Gandhi’s earliest statements on Palestine is of 16 March 1921. To London’s Daily Herald, he said: ‘No canon…of ethics or war can possibly justify the gift by the Allies of Palestine to Jews. It would be a breach of implied faith with Indian Mussulmans in particular and the whole of India in general’.
Gandhi made that statement when Khilafat movement in India, which he supported, was in action. Launched in 1919, the Khilafat movement contested the WW I victors’ design to dismember Ottoman Empire and distribute its territory, including the Arab holy places, to local puppet rulers obedient to Europe. In an interview to The Jewish Chronicle, in 1931, Gandhi said: ‘Zionism meaning reoccupation of Palestine has no attraction for me… The real Jerusalem is the spiritual Jerusalem. Thus he [a Jew] can realise this Zionism in any part of the world’. Gandhi’s interview drew sharp reaction. The Jewish Chronicle described it as ‘nonsense’. DrStephen Wise, an American Zionist, found it ‘strange’ that Gandhi said ‘reoccupation’ of Palestine. For Wise it was ‘re-entry’ of Jews.
From 1937 on, Gandhi began to deploy the Zionist meaning, however. That year the British proposed the Partition plan and the Jewish Agency, created by the Mandate to ‘assist the British…in the integration of Jewish immigrants’ and mobilize ‘international support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland’, approached Gandhi for a ‘secret offer to mediate’. To this end, the Jewish Agency deputed Kallenbach, an intimate friend of Gandhi in South Africa. Kallenbach, an architect, was a Gandhian and Zionist at once.
In June 1937, Kallenbach travelled to India and stayed with Gandhi for three weeks. He enlightened Gandhi with the Zionist cause. He also sent Zionist literature to Gandhi, who found it ‘impressive, deeply interesting’. On 4 July Kallenbach left India for Jerusalem. Stressing the non-involvement of British, Gandhi’s mediating statement, kept secret for 50 years, to Kallenbach read:
…Jews should disclaim any intention of realizing their aspirations under the protection of arms and should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs. No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to find a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfilment, till Arab opinion is ripe for it.
Gandhi predicted that if ‘physical force is disclaimed and the Jewish colony begins to depend upon the goodwill of the Arab population, their position would be safe’ (Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi and the Middle East, 2008, p. 63).
In 1938, Gandhi published The Jews, which unlike his 1921 statement, left ample space for the realization of Zionist colony. While saying ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English…’ he also said: ‘They [Zionists] can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs’. Experts like Simone Panter-Brick attribute this shift in Gandhi to his friendship with Kallenbach. That might well be. However, already in 1921, soon after his first statement cited above he gave another one: ‘All I contend is that they can’t possess Palestine through a trick or moral breach’.
Silence, Secrecy, Trick
Yet, there was a trick at work evident from Gandhi’s shifting positions, contradictory statements, maintenance of secrecy coupled with an eerie silence. In 1939 Kallenbach revisited Gandhi. No statement was issued. Total silence! Shohet, of Bombay Zionist Association, observed: ‘…he [Gandhi] will not say anything about it, even in the minutes of a private interview. He is receptive. He is also shrewd’ (Panter-Brick, p. 134). Throughout WWII, Gandhi maintained silence.
In 1946 Honick, President of the World Jewish Congress and Sidney Silverman, an Anglo-Jewish Member of Parliament, held a meeting with Gandhi who directed his secretary, Pyarelal, not to publish its report. To Silverman, Gandhi made a statement. Transmitted to his American biographer, Louis Fischer, the statement, confirmed by Gandhi, read: ‘I told Sidney Silverman that the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim in Palestine, the Jews have aprior claim’ (Panter-Brick, p. 147). The tiny word ‘prior’ was a superb linguistic trick deployed by a clever lawyer that Gandhi was. It was not about ethics or truth he claimed to represent; it was raw politics.
After Gandhi was killed in 1948, Pyarelal destroyed all papers on Palestine. ‘[T]here are materials I have decided to suppress’, he said. When asked which ones, Pyarelal answered: ‘Gandhi’s views on Israel, for a start. I am able to suppress them from history, since by God’s grace, I am the only one who knows about them’.
With the archive destroyed we cannot know more about Gandhi’s views on Palestine. However, the existing evidence suggests that his position was inconsistent and contradictory – some might even say deceitful. He didn’t oppose the goal of Zionist colonialism; he opposed the British involvement in its pursuit. However, even this apparent opposition to the British was less than genuine because nothing unfolding under the Mandate was outside colonialism’s arms. The Jewish Agency he made secret offer to was itself a wing of colonialism. To alter demography to realize a long-term goal by bringing ‘immigrants’ –‘newcomers’ in Gandhi’s words –was equally colonial. Likewise to appeal to Arabs under colonial subjugation to display ‘goodwill’ and ‘generosity’ was to pay homage to colonialism. It is striking that the word ‘home’ occurs simultaneously in the Balfour Declaration and secret offer Gandhi made to the Jewish Agency.
How does one explain what Gandhi expert Simone Panter-Brick calls his ‘conversion’. She seemed to suggest that the Holocaust made Gandhi sympathetic to Zionism. To sympathise with Jews after Holocaust is human –no humane person would do otherwise; to say that Jews have a prior claim over Palestine is quite another. Importantly, Gandhi’s second statement of 1921 already contained seeds of pro-Zionism.
Apostle of Violence and Opponent of Civil Disobedience
Clearly, Gandhi’s disagreement was not over Zionism’s goal but the means to secure it. When asked about solution to the Palestine problem, in June 1947 he replied: ‘The abandonment wholly by the Jews of terrorism and other forms of violence’. Was Gandhi himself genuinely and eternally committed to non-violence? Evidence shows he was not.
Before outlining non-violence, let’s recall that Gandhi had participated in three wars to help the British: the two Boer Wars, Zulu War and WW 1 (Gandhi himself acknowledged his participation in these three wars in a statement made to the colonial court in Ahmedabad in relation to the British charges of spreading ‘disaffection towards the Government’ by publishing articles inYoung India). Soon after India’s independence and Pakistan’s creation, at a prayer meeting on 20 December 1947, Gandhi proclaimed (pp.160–161):
Do I imagine that the several crores of Muslims in India will be loyal to India and fight against Pakistan? …we must not assume anyone to be bad till he has been proven to be bad… If later they [Muslims] betray you, you can shoot them. You may shoot one or two or a certain number. Everyone will not be disloyal… We must be brave and trust the Muslims. If later they violate the trust you can cut off their heads.
In the winter of 1947 the Indian army operation began against the tribal raid in Kashmir from Pakistan’s side. Gandhi said (p.85): ‘I consider it barbarous for the tribal raiders to have attacked Kashmir; we had to send an army to fight them’. Not only did he permit violence Gandhi (p. 88), as his disciple Sardar Patel recalled, felt proud of it: ‘I feel so proud when I hear the noise of those aeroplanes… when this Kashmir operation began, I began to feel proud of them and every aeroplane that goes with materials and arms and ammunition and requirements of the Army, I feel proud’. To state the obvious, those warplanes didn’t carry flower bouquets.
Seventeen years earlier, in 1930, he had justified violence by reprimanding soldiers who refused to kill. The Royal Garhwal Rifles soldiers, largely Hindus, disobeyed the order to shoot at Peshawar’s anti-colonial protesters, mostly Muslims. Gandhi rebuked the soldiers. When asked how he reconciled this with his ‘doctrine of non-violence since these men were punished for having refused to be party to an act of violence’, Gandhi said:
A soldier who disobeys an order to fire…renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask… soldiers to disobey, for when I am in power I shall…make use of… those same soldiers.
What about civil disobedience? Conventional wisdom has it that it was truth to Gandhi. He himself stated: ‘If I had the power I should never use it…for suppressing civil disobedience, no matter how or where it arose, for I hold civil disobedience to be a permanent law of our being’. In 1933, he wrote a letter urging the Viceroy to recognize civil disobedience as a ‘constitutional right’. His secretary asked if ‘tomorrow, when India is free, would you say that satyagraha is a constitutional right’ for it would mean anybody ‘could break the law…and nothing could be done?’ ‘I have decided not to send that letter’, replied Gandhi.
Israel’s barbaric violence against Palestinians and all other forms of violence across the globe should prepare justice-desiring people to collectively craft a new philosophy of active peace and a fair world so as to move beyond Gandhi’s tactic of mere non-violence – contradictory, inconsistent, limiting, and exclusively nationalist as it was.
(This article was first published in Kafila.org)
Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia. Earlier he has taught at the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University, The Netherlands and Monash University, Australia.