Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by Hindu communalists on January 30, 1948. His birthday and martyrdom days are commemorated every year. But much of what he said and did is forgotten or distorted.
Gandhi opposed Partition till the end. In the 1937 legislative elections, the Congress won a majority in Uttar Pradesh. Muhammad Ali Jinnah asked Jawaharlal Nehru for a coalition with the Muslim League, but the latter refused despite Gandhi's advice to build bridges with the Muslim League.
However, Nehru was eager to get independence as soon as possible. Such a political stance coupled with British imperial manoeuvres made the Partition inevitable.
The Congress mass contact programme with Muslims in 1934 had already failed. But Nehru was unfazed. It appears that he was reconciled to Partition. He was clearly not aware of the havoc this would lead to. It was not that viceroy Lord Mountbatten and British generals did not warn him, though they themselves might have underestimated the disaster, but mass bloodshed was definitely going to happen.
But much before that, Gandhi made the Congress into a mass organisation through innovative strategies like the Dandi March, salt satyagraha, actions against the growing of indigo at the cost of food crops, Swadeshi, and so on. Gandhi made the Congress, Nehru plucked the fruits, though after colossal blunders.
Gandhi was arguably the most politically astute man in Indian politics, who understood the peasantry better than anyone else. He was aware of the strength of caste despite his differences with Babasaheb Ambedkar. Gandhi did not want the Dalits to be separated from the caste Hindus.
However, as Ambedkar pointed out, the caste Hindus had since the varnasharam days, cast the Dalits out. In spite of that, Gandhi, like virtually every leader, respected Ambedkar's Herculean efforts in drafting the Constitution.
Gandhi's economics was questioned by many who considered it quaint and obsolete. Gandhi was, however, fully aware that modern industrialisation, which he despised, was capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive. The cost of hand-spun cloth would be higher than mill-made cloth, but it would employ more labour.
Nehru and others were dismissive of such calculations, which they considered archaic and potentially disastrous. It is not that Gandhi did not listen to Indian industrialists. Ghanshyam Das Birla, the leader of Indian big business and founder of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), was a confidante of Gandhi. He contributed to the Congress, and Gandhi often stayed in Birla House when in Delhi.
In retrospect Gandhi had a point. Employment was decisive, not the profits of capital. An axiom his successors, all the way, from Nehru to Manmohan Singh forgot. The stark negative realities of this kind of industrialisation are with us still.
By 1939, Partition was looming. Gandhi's political clout diminished. Nehru, Sardar Patel and other prominent leaders were looking forward to forming a government. Already in 1938, Gandhi's candidate for Congress president Pattabhi Sitaramayya was defeated by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
In the Quit India movement in 1942, new leaders arose like Aruna Asaf Ali emerged, and the revolt witnessed instances of violence, like the disruption of rail traffic, blowing up of bridges, and so on.
This pained Gandhi, but the people were exasperated, and wanted the British out. It is not that Gandhi had any illusions about the British. When asked in London by journalists when he had gone for the Round Table Conference, what he thought of British civilisation, he answered, tongue in cheek, "I think it would be a good idea."
His last acts in 1947-'48 was to ensure through his fasts that no Muslims, including women who were left behind, should be repatriated to Pakistan.
On August 15, 1947 when asked to give a statement on Independence Day, he refused to do so. Partition, and the bloodbath he had feared, had occurred.
He continued his fasts for peace and justice. These acts enraged the Hindu Right: the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. On January 29, 1948 evening, a group of conspirators: Nathuram Godse, Gopal Godse and others visited VD Savarkar's house.
The next day, Gandhi was shot dead. India's greatest son was history. Nathuram Godse was hanged. His brother Gopal Godse was awarded life imprisonment. VD Savarkar was released on a technicality. The RSS was banned by Sardar Patel.
The ban was lifted when the RSS agreed to reduce its activities to that of a "cultural" organisation, from which it resiled later, and which no prime minister from Nehru onwards had the courage to reinstate. Gandhi would probably have had a wry smile. He had seen defeat before.