So, do you remember Chauri Chaura?
It was a small village in 1922; now it is a congested town in the Gorakhpur district.
It was the site of a tragedy that made Mahatma Gandhi take a decision for which he was roundly criticised. Some historians claim that it was the most controversial public decision he ever took.
Back then most people failed to understand and I suspect that even today most people fail to grasp Gandhi's thinking.
It comes to my mind because of the controversy around the Islamist preacher, Zakir Naik, whose speeches are said to have "inspired" some of the killers in the Dhaka atrocity last month.
It also springs to mind because of the legitimate warning by Prime Minister Modi that the country is under threat from "preachers of hatred".
He is right; there are many of them, and many of them are not Muslim.
This is not to excuse Naik, if he has preached hatred. I have never listened to him, and the little I have read of his speeches in papers seems to be predictable.
There is a long 20th century history of Islamist preachers (many of them with no formal training in religious texts, like Naik) who set themselves up as public debaters, and usually succeed by appealing to the converted.
Many Hindutva preachers do so too. Almost all of these assume a combative, dismissive approach towards other communities - Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Socialist, whatever - that can feed the anger among many of their followers.
And that is why I think of Chauri Chaura today.
|'Preachers' of today cannot meet Gandhiji’s humanity, political foresight and moral courage.|
The Satyagraha or Non-Cooperation Movement was at its height in 1922; the country had been charged by the call of Gandhiji and the Congress to oppose the British in non-violent ways.
Then on February 5, a mob set a police station in Chauri Chaura on fire.
Twenty-two policemen were burnt to death. The Satyagraha Movement had put the British on the defensive.
For the first time since the Ghaddar of 1857, it was looking somewhat possible that India could become independent, or at least win substantial self-rule.
In light of this, the tragedy in Chauri Chaura was a minor mistake, for many protesting Indians.
Most people in the Congress would too have looked the other way - as some peaceful Islamists do when violent extremists murder other Muslims and non-Muslims, as some peaceful Hindutva-supporters do when there are accusations of pogroms against Muslims.
It was, as American forces put it, "collateral damage".
Not so for Gandhiji.
Against all opposition, he called off the movement. He did so not because he had urged the violence; he had strongly preached against it.
And yet, because the violence had come out of his non-violent protest, he assumed moral responsibility for it.
He went on a fast of atonement.
He did so knowing well that it would give the British authorities a handle to punish him personally - and punish him they did. They imprisoned him for six years.
After all, had he not conceded his complicity in the violence – by accepting moral responsibility for it and going on a fast of atonement?
Not that Gandhiji failed to see the perverse use that the colonial authorities made of the tragedy of Chauri Chaura.
They did what some white racists do when largely peaceful "Black Lives Matter" protests are disrupted by violence, such as the sniper shooting of policemen by ex-US military veteran, Micah Johnson, some days ago.
They use these violent tragedies to dismiss a legitimate and largely non-violent movement.
Gandhiji saw this, and protested against it without either defending the violence or ignoring it.
Professor Yogendra Yadav notes that Gandhi wrote this in Young India:
"The brutal conduct of the Chauri Chaura crowd was indefensible. One does not know whether it contained volunteers. Let the volunteers who were violent be punished by all means; but no such mob misconduct can possibly excuse the use of (official) force against innocent and inoffensive men."
I have never been a blind bhakt of Gandhiji: there is a lot I admire about him but there are also things I differ from.
And yet, in cases like this, whether you agree with Gandhiji over other matters or not, you have to concede not just the greatness of the human being that he was but also the sane acuity of the political thinker in him.
The two, contrary to what many believe, go together: the Machiavellian politician, so celebrated these days, is like the doctor who cures one disease with a pill that leaves you with five other diseases later on.
And, yes, so I think of Gandhiji and Chauri Chaura today.
Neither Islamists like Naik, nor rabid Hindutva ideologues and other kinds of combative fundamentalists, have the honesty and the courage to assume moral responsibility for statements that might drive confused and angry young men to grab a weapon and take innocent lives.
Some of these ideologues are far more complicit in the violence that issues from their openly combative speeches than peaceful Gandhiji was in the tragedy of Chauri Chaura.
But not one of them seems to have Gandhiji’s humanity, political foresight and moral courage.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)