In March, 1937, M.K. Gandhi published an article entitled "Need for Tolerance". This was in response to a letter he had received from a Muslim friend. This man, a liberal and sceptic, wondered why, when referring to the Prophet Mohammad or the Koran, Gandhi never analysed them critically. "I am at a loss," he wrote, "to understand how a person like you, with all your passion for truth and justice, who has never failed to gloss over a single fault in Hinduism or to repudiate as unauthentic the numerous corruptions that masquerade under it, can holus-bolus accept all that is in the Koran." The friend was "not aware," he told Gandhi, "of your ever having to called into question or denounced any iniquitous injunction of Islam. Against some of these I learned to revolt when I was scarcely 18 or 20 years old and time has since only strengthened that first feeling."
Reproducing and then answering this letter in Harijan, Gandhi remarked, "I have nowhere said that I believe literally in every word of the Koran, or for that matter of any scripture in the world. But it is no business of mine to criticize the scriptures of other faiths or to point out their defects. It should be, however, my privilege to proclaim and practise the truths that there may be in them.'
Gandhi held the view that only adherents of a particular faith had the right to criticize its precepts or sanctions. By that token, it was both his "right and duty to point out the defects in Hinduism in order to purify it and to keep it pure. But when non-Hindu critics set about criticizing Hinduism and cataloguing its faults they can only blazon their own ignorance of Hinduism and their incapacity to regard it from the Hindu viewpoint. ... Thus my own experience of the non-Hindu critics of Hinduism brings home to me my limitations and teaches me to be wary of launching on a criticism of Islam or Christianity and their founders."
Critics from within had the capacity and empathy to reform and redeem their faith; critics from without the tendency to mock and caricature the other's faith. Gandhi thus concluded that it was "only through such a reverential approach to faiths other than mine that I can realize the principle of equality of all religions".
Gandhi was writing in 1937, at a time when Hindu-Muslim relations in British India were fraught with tension. Muslims had enthusiastically participated in the non-cooperation movement of 1920-22. But they had largely stayed away from the second major campaign led by Gandhi, the Salt Satyagraha of 1930-31. His associates in the 1920s, such as Shaukat and Mohammad Ali, had now become Gandhi's bitterest opponents.
In 1934, M.A. Jinnah returned from self-imposed exile in England. He took over as president of the Muslim League, and infused new energy into the organization. It began to emerge as an all-India party. In this context, Gandhi and his Indian National Congress had to be even more careful not to alienate Muslim opinion, if they wished to build a broad front against colonial rule. Thus his gentle, ginger approach to the question of whether he, a Hindu, could criticize Muslim icons or religious texts.
Must liberal Hindus be as cautious in 2016 as Gandhi was in 1937? If (like Gandhi) we have a critical, sceptical, attitude towards our own faith, must we yet be "reverential" towards other faiths? I ask this question in the context of the controversy that has broken over some incendiary remarks about the Prophet Mohammad made by a Hindu Mahasabha leader named Kamlesh Tiwari. The remarks were deplorable; yet surely the response by Muslims across India was grossly out of proportion.
In my own home town, Bangalore, the Deccan Herald reported that "a huge procession was taken out during the evening, culminating in a rally at Khuddus Saheb Eidgah (Haj camp) on Miller's Road at 7 p.m". The rallies "led to traffic jams in some areas". Meanwhile, "a large number of Muslim traders closed down their business establishments and participated in the procession". At the rally itself, speakers demanded that "the Central Government should intervene and ensure steps against such utterances".
The protests in Bangalore took place in mid-December, several weeks after Kamlesh Tiwari's remarks. A month later still, a mob went on the rampage in the Malda district of West Bengal, burning shops and homes, angry about what Tiwari was reported to have said.
Bangalore and Malda are a thousand miles from Uttar Pradesh. And Kamlesh Tiwari is an obscure figure in an obscure political party; he will soon slip back into the obscurity he deserves. However contemptible his remarks, did they really call for such large protests across India? And is the faith of Muslims in the Prophet so fragile that it can be disturbed by a single vile remark by an unknown or insignificant man?
This brings me back to Gandhi's question, or dilemma. What does a liberal who happens to be a Hindu do when Muslims or Christians submit to misguided or malevolent leaders of their faith? Does he stay silent, or speak up? I think the latter. Goodness knows that Muslims in Bangalore and Malda suffer from all kinds of handicap: poor schooling, inadequate housing, patriarchy within, discrimination in the workplace without. Tragically, rather than focus on these vital issues of everyday life, Muslim 'community' leaders seek to channelize the energies of their followers only in a defence of the Prophet.
As a Hindu, I believe those who think that Mohan Bhagwat is an able or credible leader are misguided. For Bhagwat has not disavowed the idea of the Hindu rashtra; indeed, he publicly venerates his predecessor M.S. Golwalkar, he who claimed that Muslims, Christians and Communists were the three main enemies of the nation. In 2016, the RSS still does not fully endorse gender equality, while it is savagely prejudiced towards gays and lesbians. In sum, it is not the kind of Hindu body that I believe deserves to lead and guide Hindus in the 21st century. As an Indian, I think the fact that the most important Muslim leader in our most populous state is Azam Khan is a disgrace to Muslims, to Uttar Pradesh, and to India. He has a known track record in polarizing Hindus and Muslims. (Notably, it was an offensive remark of Azam Khan that sparked the offensive retort of Kamlesh Tiwari.)
In terms of sheer venality, Azam Khan may be in a class of his own. Sadly, the Muslim leaders elsewhere in India are not much better. They also seek to stoke the insecurities of their constituency, rather than provide them hope and opportunity. Rather than start schools, or offer vocational training, they choose to use the funds and manpower at their disposal to organize processions ostensibly in defence of the Prophet, but, in truth, to consolidate their own power and prestige within the community.
Gandhi was right that religious reform is largely brought about by critics within the tradition. It was because he was a Hindu that he could successfully challenge the Sankaracharyas when they defended the pernicious practice of untouchability. By the same token, it may only be that when Muslim liberals are numerous and organized enough that practices such as polygamy and the triple talaq can be abolished.
At the moment, they are not. One of the peculiarities of liberal discourse in India is that while there are many Hindu writers and politicians ready to criticize Hindutva fanatics, Muslim writers and politicians are hesitant to take on the bigots in their own community. It is disappointing to see even professedly modern, cosmopolitan politicians like Salman Khurshid and Omar Abdullah so reluctant to openly confront the likes of the Owaisi brothers and Azam Khan.
Back in 1937, Gandhi suggested that Hindus should stay clear of criticizing Muslim precept and practice, and vice versa. Perhaps in the peculiar conditions of colonial rule one had to be careful, since the British wanted Indians to divide, so that they could rule. But now that we are all citizens of an independent and democratic republic, the same constraints do not apply. To be sure, one need not be unnecessarily provocative. But one must still have the right to offer friendly advice, and even criticism, to fellow Indians, regardless of what religion or community they belong to. What Kamlesh Tiwari said cannot be defended. But the reaction, in Bangalore, Malda and other places, was surely a tragic misdirection of the talents and energies of these Muslims who also happen to be Indians.
Gandhi's own prudence and restraint was a product of the times he lived in. But now, in 2016, all thinking liberals must speak out against bigotry and narrow-mindedness, whether it emanates from Hindus or from Muslims, and whether they themselves are Hindu, or Muslim, or neither.