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Gandhi and the Great Divide: Portrayal of Gandhi/sm in Partition Novels
By N.S. Gundur*
The present paper aims at exploring the image of Gandhi and Gandhism as portrayed in the fictional narratives on the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. The study undertakes the analysis of novels - what reality of Gandhi do they construct? Do they condemn or critique or idealize Gandhi/sm? How far are they historically authentic and aesthetically appealing? It is argued here that the Indian English novels on Partition affirm humanism as against sectarianism, and celebrate values of love, peace and non­violence that were very central to Gandhi's lifelong mission. The idiom of their message is Gandhian - 'violence breeds violence; hence non-violence.

Mahatma Gandhi and the Gandhian Movement have been among the most sought after themes in the post-colonial novels in India. This article is an attempt to trace the image of Mahatma Gandhi as it is constructed in the Indian English novels on Partition. The story of nation-building has been intricately connected with the tragedy of nation-dividing during the transfer of power from the erstwhile British Empire to the emerging nation-states. The men who were behind the nation- building, namely Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and other leaders were also, to some extent, involved in the nation-dividing. The role of these leaders has been a much contested area in the historiography of Partition. There are many blame games, defences and misunderstandings about these leaders. Among them the position of Gandhi is worth our enquiry as it is quite complex. Gandhi, the epitome of peace and communal harmony, by all means, opposed Jinnah's 'Two-nation Theory', the basis of the great divide. When violence erupted across illogically and hastily drawn political borders, Gandhi took to the mission of restoring peace; he was very much at the service of the victims of communal rioting.
There is a considerable production of literature and films which deal with Gandhi's role at the time of Partition. We have historical narratives and we have artistic productions such as films, poems, plays, fiction, etc. This study deals specifically with fictional narratives. Fictional narratives stand out as a substantial and varied output and has given birth to a genre called Gandhian Novels. Historical narratives limit themselves to facts and try to construct an objective political history of Gandhi and Partition. Fictional narratives construct a different history—the human experience in its all complexity, which is not possible to deal within the genre of historical writing. What history offers is the historical truth, but what fiction offers is the poetic truth. Histories debate the responsibility of Gandhi and the adequacy of his ideology. Fictional narratives, while tracing the impact of Gandhi on human images, go beyond the historical concerns and deal with human values such as 'love', 'compassion’, 'humanitarian approach', 'tolerance', etc, which the Mahatma believed in. That is why, most Partition novels, which deal with these values, are, in a way, Gandhian narratives. To get a broader perspective of Gandhi's role in the history of Partition it is worthwhile studying fictional narratives along with polemical literature.
The focus is on selected Indian English novels as these scarcely figure in the discourse on Gandhi in relation to Partition. While tracing the image of the Mahatma, from R.K Narayan's The Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) to some of the later literary renderings, the article positions Gandhi in the historical context of Partition. It undertakes a study of the novels - what reality of Gandhi do they construct? Do they condemn or critique or idealize Gandhi/sm? How far are they .historically authentic and aesthetically appealing? Finally, it is argued that most fictional narratives on Partition are, in a way, Gandhian narratives.

Gandhi and Political History of Partition: An Overview

It is appropriate to understand Gandhi in the historical backdrop of Partition politics. As Partition historiography illustrates, there is no single history of the event. There are multiple histories with different approaches such as Imperial historical writings, Indian nationalist history, Subaltern histories, and historical writings from the Pakistani view point, etc, which throw light upon different facets of the Partition. Partition was an out-come of "a very complex interplay of forces."1 It has been an 'over-determined phenomenon'. In the case of materialization of eventful Partition, pointing at a single community, a single leader and a single group of leaders, in fact, to a single history, would be unfair. The forces - Communalism, Imperialism and Nationalism were intertwined and influenced each other in the culmination of the holocaust. It is important to note that these ideologies could not be created in isolation. The role of the political leaders, their thinking and unthinking, their making and unmaking decided the flow of events over a period of time. The men behind these forces such as Mohamad Ali Jinnah, Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and the British representatives, for example, Mountbatten, etc, - their ideas, whims and fancies and their power politics, along with other historical factors, played a crucial role in making the Partition a fait accompli. The roles of these leaders have generated a lot of debate in the sphere of both 'popular public opinion' and 'serious academic discourse'. In this context, Gandhi, like his counterpart Jinnah, remains the most inscrutable figure.
As far as the politics of Partition is concerned there have been, by and large, two views about Gandhi:

  1. Gandhi, a staunch opponent of the 'Two-nation Theory' and a messiah of Hindu-Muslim amity, stood for a united India.
  2. Gandhi as a leader was responsible for the division of the country; he could have averted it.
When Gandhi replaced Tilak as a mass leader in the anti-colonial struggle, communalism had reached its zenith. Many historians have argued that the labels Hindu and Muslim got communal colouring in 19th century India.2 But Gandhi had firmly believed that the future of India lay in the mutual co­operation between Hindus and Muslims. He once said:
The first thing is that politics has divided India today into Hindus and Muslims. I want to rescue people from this quagmire and make them work on solid ground where people are people.3
Along with his war against untouchablity and other social evils, Gandhi undertook to play the role of a messiah of Hindu-Muslim amity. During the Khilafat Movement, he strove to promote harmony between the two warring communities. So far as the division of the country was concerned his stand from the beginning was very clear. By all means he opposed the idea of 'Two-nation Theory'. He declared:
If the Congress wishes to accept partition, it will be over my dead body. So long as I am alive, I will never agree to the partition of India. Nor will I, if I can help it, allow the Congress to accept it.4
The events leading to Partition challenged his belief in a united India and the creed of non-violence.
‘The popular' opinion about Gandhi's role in connection with the division of the country has been a question of Gandhi's responsibility inasmuch as he could have averted it. Hindu fundamentalists, and even imperial historians uphold the view that Gandhi was partly responsible for Partition.5 Accusing Gandhi in this context is a historical fallacy, because he was "the most helpless man in the whole sordid drama (Partition), never party to it, yet a victim to the charges that he did not assert himself to avoid it. While the prime responsibility of Partition rested with Jinnah, part responsibility of it lay with the British and the Congress high command for their collective inability in finding an alternative solution to division."6 Gandhi was the most misunderstood personality in the debate over the divide. It went this way: for the Muslim community he was "the father of Hindu nationalism" and for the Hindu extremists he was a "betrayer of the Hindu cause and a promoter of Muslims"7 Gandhi was hardly understood by the Indians in a proper perspective. It was partly because people did not make sense of Gandhi's idiom. His use of symbols and mythology from Hinduism in both his speech and writings dubbed him a staunch Hindu. At the same time his respect for the Quran and upholding the cause of the Muslim community made him a target of the staunch Hindus. Gandhi's use of the religious idiom was beyond the parochial view. He believed that genuine religion should bring people together rather than separate them.
The sub-text of Gandhi/sm was different. He loved each and every creature and was intolerant of injustice. Though his external fight was against the British Empire his internal fight was against socio­political unfairness. He condemned colonialism, not individual Britishers. In spite of his confidence that he could combat violence, he was helpless during the division of the country. The political situation of the day went beyond his control. His followers in the Congress sidelined him.
Nehru and Patel's attitude to Partition was markedly different from that of Gandhi. Because of the uncontrolled communal riots and their own inner drive for personal hegemony over power politics, they thought it was a necessary evil. When the day of freedom dawned, they neglected Gandhi and were mongering for power. B. R. Nanda writes, "It hurts him (Gandhi) to see that he was unable to carry conviction with his closest colleagues and even with the rank and file of the Congress. It has been suggested that he was isolated and even betrayed by Nehru and Patel who were avid for power."8 It is evident that the Nehru-Patel solution to the political deadlock of the time was not in tune with that of Gandhi. Gandhi asked Mountbatten to invite Jinnah to form the government but Patel and Nehru did not approve it. There was the question of power-sharing which did not materialize. In his India Wins Freedom (1959) Maulana Abul Kalam Azad records:
When I met Mountbatten the day after Gandhiji talked to him; he told me that if the Congress accepted Gandhiji's suggestion, Partition could still be avoided (...). Unfortunately this move could make no progress as both Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal opposed it vehemently. In fact, they forced Gandhiji to withdraw his suggestion. Gandhiji reminded me of this and said that the situation now was such that Partition appeared inevitable".9
Thus, Gandhi has been relatively the most misrepresented leader in the politics of Partition. The power politics within the Congress sidelined and ignored him at a crucial stage of the transfer of power. Extremist Hindus misread his 'humanism' and the Muslims his language full of the Hindu idiom. The result was massacre and martyrdom. In fact, "the Mahatmas" become scapegoats and they remain misfits forever. If this is the story of history then let us explore the history (Gandhi) in story.

Gandhi in Indian English Novels on Partition

An attempt has been made to understand how fictional narratives view Gandhi in the light of Partition. One of the greatest mass leaders of the 20th century whose life was full of events has so much to offer for the novelist that it has given rise to the sub-genre of the Indian novel - 'the Gandhian Novels.
The beginning of the Indian novel in English in the hands of the trio - R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao - has offered some of the finest Gandhian narratives. Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable (1935), Raja Rao's Kanthapura (1938), which tells the story of the impact of Gandhi on a south Indian village and R.K. Narayan's Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), which offers a true image of Gandhi which no Socio-historical report can do,10 have become classics of Gandhi/sm. Most Indian English novelists of the 20th century have dealt with Gandhism and his political life, directly or indirectly. The whole range of issues associated with Gandhian politics such as the Non-cooperation Movement, non­violence, fighting for tolerance both religious and social, emancipation of women"11 find place in novel after novel. Novels that deal with the Partition holocaust have necessarily to reckon with the phenomenon known as Gandhism.
It is interesting to note that R.K. Narayan's Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), which is perhaps the first novel to refer to the Partition among Indian novels in English, is avowedly a Gandhian novel. It is not a full-length novel on Partition. Set in the 1940s, the novel is basically about Gandhi and his impact on Sriram and Bharati, the central characters of the novel. In its attempt to portray Gandhi, the novel documents political events, like the Non-Co-Operation Movement, the Civil Disobedience Movement, the Quit India Movement and inevitably the Partition. Referring to Gandhiji and the fallout of the Partition, one of the characters says:
'On the 15th of August when the whole country was jubilant, and gathered here to take part in the Independence Day festivities, do you know where Bapu was? In Culcutta where fresh riots had started. Bapu said his place was where people were suffering and not where they were celebrating... He spoke kindly to those who had perpetrated crimes he wept for them, and they swore never to do such things again. I have seen with my own eyes aggressive rowdy-looking men taking a vow of non­violence and a vow to protect the opposite faction" don't ask what community they were: what one community did in one part of the country brought suffering on the same community in another part of the country.12
While portraying the impact of Gandhi on the men and women of the time, the novel documents the humanitarian work Gandhi undertook in riot-hit areas, which is historically very authentic.
An in-depth and objective representation of Gandh/ism comes from Manohar Malgonkar's A Bend in the Ganges (1964). While juxtaposing the violence of Partition with the non-violence of Gandhi, the novel shows the limitations of the latter both as a way of life and as a political philosophy. The task before the Gandhian agenda was to form a united India free from violence. But what resulted was a divided India with human massacre on such a large scale.
The novel shows that the failure of Gandhism lies in the failure of the people who fail to carry it out, and that, to some extent, the philosophy of non-violence succeeded in India because of the 'inherent decency' of the British; before dictators like Hitler it might fail. But the novel upholds the view that "violence is certainly not an alternative to non-violence"; on the other contrary, the novel "concedes the reality of violence but shows it to be self- consuming and destructive."13
What is unique about the work is that out of the din of these two conflicting forces, the novel affirms "the value of love which transcends violence and non-violence" the real and the unreal."14 It is important to mention here that though the novel finds an adequate reason in the violence of Partition to critique Gandhi/sm, it does not find fault with the creed of non-violence as such. It recognizes its value but shows how Gandhi/sm fails in countries like India. It seems the novel very subtly makes an appeal to us to understand Gandhi holistically.
On the other hand Raj Gill's The Rape (1974), which traces the impact of Partition on the Sikh community and narrates the pathetic story of a father raping the beloved of his own son, condemns Gandhi. The protagonist, Dalipjeet, who is disillusioned due to the trauma of Partition, kills Gandhi in his hallucination before Gandhi is killed in the course of the narrative of the novel:
'Gandhi has been shot dead at his prayer meeting.' He laughed to himself amused at the sentence. How could Gandhi be shot dead? He was not living. He had shot Gandhi long back, years ago. They could not shoot a dead Gandhi. It was nonsense.15
It is quite contrasting in Chaman Nahal's Azadi where a Sikh character called Niranjan Singh wants to hack Nehru to pieces. But Gill's The Rape while portraying a negative picture of Gandhi (perhaps this is the only Partition novel to do so) gives a positive picture of Nehru. The novel contrasts the two personalities— Gandhi and Nehru: the novelist presents this through Dalipjit's consciousness:
The person who was still hesitant about the partition formula was Nehru. Nehru wanted independence for an undivided India, at least, an India which was not divided on religious grounds.... Dalipjit knew Nehru was feared by his colleagues. He was feared by the British also, especially by Lord Mountbatten,.... He could, in fact, be said to be the only leader in India whom the masses liked, loved, and adored...
The fear from Nehru was a positive fear for the British Government while the fear from Gandhi was a negative one. However, it was much more difficult to understand Gandhi. The little, puritan, barely clad saint, with his eccentric and often devious reactions, was completely unpredictable.16
Chaman Nahal's Azadi (1975), which narrates the biography of a Hindu family during the Partition - its displacement and trauma, presents an ideal picture of Gandhi. We can read it by all means as a Gandhian novel. ln Azadi Nahal celebrates Gandhian values through the suffering saga of Lala Kanshi Ram.
The novel portrays two images of Gandhi: one, the image of Gandhi as responsible for Partition and his failure to avoid it; second, the image of Gandhi as a messenger of Hindu-Muslim amity. As many Indians of the time expected, some of the characters in the novel too expect that Gandhi would never accept the Partition plan. For the Lalas the only ray of hope is Gandhi who would never agree to a division of the country. This kind of expectation from the Mahatma resulted in blaming him as being responsible for the division of the country; he could have prevented it. The spirit of the novel does not endorse this view.
At the basis of the writer's vision in the novel is the Gandhian ideology. The protagonist - Lala Kansi Ram, a grain merchant - is a Gandhian hero. His motives in the entire narrative are guided by the Gandhian principle. His attitude that India must win freedom without the division of the sub-continent represents that of an average Indian of the time influenced as he might be by the Gandhian whirlwind. Lala's friendship with Chaudhri Barkat Ali that symbolizes communal harmony is further invested with the idea of Gandhian secularism.
Nahal defines the meaning of 'Freedom' in a typical Gandhian idiom: that 'Azadi' means "self-discipline" and/'self- sacrifice", which can be achieved through Hindu-Muslim unity.
Shiv K Kumar's A River with Three Banks (1998), treats Gandhi more or less in an idealized way. The novel primarily narrates the romantic story of Gautam, a Hindu by birth and a journalist by profession, who converts himself to Christianity for the sake of divorce, and later to Islam for the sake of his love for Haseena, a victim of the Partition. The protagonist who crosses religious barriers, metaphorically three banks, in a way, is a Gandhian hero. Kumar counterpoints the universal religion of humanism as against communalism.
The novel unfolds the image of Gandhi as projected through the newspapers of the time. It records what pro-Hindu news papers like Our Land wrote about Gandhi. According to this paper Gandhi's protest against imperialism is too mild because he loves individual Englishmen. It raises the doubt as to whether Gandhi should be called the father of the nation when he has dedicated himself exclusively to the welfare of Muslims. It thinks that Gandhi's recital from the Quran is an affront to Hindu Dharma. It also raises the doubt if Gandhi "is itching for martyrdom, so that he may be ranked with Jesus Christ, Thomas Beckett and Buddha"17. In contrast to the attitude of Our Land, The Challenge reflects a different view of Gandhi. It describes him as "a radical socialist". However, the authenticity is provided to Gandhi's image in the novel as Kumar portrays it through journalism, i.e., how newspapers of the time perceived Gandhi.
Mukund Rao's The Mahatma (1992) is an attempt to write a literary biography of Gandhi during his last days. The novel depicts two aspects of Gandhi personal and public. If the personal story is about his experiment with sexuality, the public story is about his sincere attempt to soothe the wounded souls of Partition victims. He goes to riot-torn Naokhali in 1946 when the whole of India waits for the moment of Independence. The Partition provides a test for the Mahatma's stubborn belief in non-violence. The novel, while portraying the historical Gandhi, fully appreciates his creed of non-violence.

Concluding Remarks

It is indubitable that M.K. Gandhi has been rather a misunderstood leader in the political history of Partition. He never viewed Hinduism and Islam in a narrow monolithic religious framework. The India he envisaged was a multicultural India. Therefore, he was by all means against the division of the subcontinent on a communal basis. But he could not help its being divided. When the newly born nation was hit by communal riots the only task before Bapu was to serve the victims of the holocaust. If historical accounts construct the political side of Gandhi during Partition, novels on Partition recreate his humanitarian work, his fight for Hindu-Muslim amity; love and compassion. We need to study fictional narratives along with historical ones to situate Gandhi in a proper historical context of the Partition discoursed.
The novels discussed in this paper vary in their perception of Gandhi's role in Partition. A classic partition narrative on Gandhi, on par with Raja Rao's Kanthapura, is yet to appear in Indian literature.
Some novels on Partition, such as Khushwant Singh' Train to Pakistan (1957), do not deal with Gandhi directly, they uphold Gandhian values. They affirm non-violence as against violence. An overwhelming yearning for peace and communal harmony in these narratives is too obvious to be missed. In his presidential address at the Indian History Congress, Mushirul Hasan very rightly remarked:
It is worth reiterating that the 'heroes' in the partition story are not the rapist, the abductors, the arsonists, the murderers and the perpetrators of violence, but the men and women - living and dead - who provide the healing touch ..., their exemplary courage ... that is celebrated.18
Hasan's observation clearly indicates that creative literature endorses Gandhi/sm and what they uphold are the essential components of Gandhian ideology. Moreover, the treatment of violence in these novels forms part of the discourse on 'peace' that is the essence of the Gandhian discourse. It is the 'Gandhianness' in these novels that connects them to Peace Narratives and the study of these novels in this framework could form part of Peace Studies. It is evident that these fictional narratives affirm secularism as against communalism and celebrate the values of love and non-violence which were very central to Gandhi's life-long mission. Their message is very clear - violence breeds more violence; hence Gandhian non-violence.

Notes and References:
  1. Asghar Ali Engineer, "Fault Lines in Two-Nation Theory" in RESOURSE/2nation.html accessed on 10 Sept 2005.
  2. See Romila Thapar, "The Tyranny of Labels", in Alok Parasher Sen, ed., Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  3. Quoted in B.R.Nanda, "Tragedy and Triumph: The Last Days of Mahatma Gandhi", in S. Settar and Indira Baptista Gupta, ed., Pangs of Partition, Vol.1, (New Delhi: Manohar, 2002), p. 41.
  4. Maulan Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom (Calcutta: Orient Longman, 1956), p. 186.
  5. See B.M. Pandey, "Mahatma Gandhi and the Partition of India: A Historiographical Analysis of the Writings of Penderal Moon", Gandhi Marg. 22.1 (Apr-Iune, 2000), pp. 85-94.
  6. M.N. Das, "Review of Gandhi and Partition of India, by Sandhya Chaudri", Indian Book Chronicle. 10.13 Qui 1, 1985), p. 223.
  7. Chittabrata Palit, "Mahatma Gandhi and the Partition of India", in S. Settar and Indira Baptista Gupta, ed.. Pangs of Partition, Vol.1 (New Delhi: Manohar, 2002), p. 53.
  8. B.R. Nanda, Op.cit. p. 45.
  9. Maulan Abul Kalam Azad, Op.cit, p. 187.
  10. William Walsh, Indian Literature in English (London and New York: Longman, 1990), p. 43.
  11. Jasbir Jain, The Problems of Post-Colonial Literature and Other Essays (Jaipur: Printwell,1991), p. 85.
  12. R.K.Narayan, Waiting for the Mahatma (Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 1999), p. 243.
  13. G.S. Amur, Manohar Malgonkar (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1973), p. 104.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Raj Gill, The Rape (New Delhi: Sterling, 1974), p. 288.
  16. Ibid, pp. 57-59.
  17. Shiv K. Kumar, A River with Three Banks (New Delhi: UBSPD, 1998), p. 87.
  18. Mushirul Hasan, Partition Narratives: Presidential Address (Modern India) at Indian History Congress 62nd Session (Bhopal: Bhoj Open University, 28-30th Dec 2001), p. 14.

* N. S. GUNDUR, taught English at National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, Pune for four years. He is now Assistant Professor of English, Government College, Alnavar (Karnatak University, Dharwad), Karnataka State, India. He is the author of The Partition and Indian English Fiction and has published research articles in national and international journals. His current research interests include Literary Theory, Sociolinguistics, ESP, Anthropological Studies, etc. At present he is working on a UGC Minor Research Project on English for Military Purposes. Email: and