When the Great War ended with the disbanding of the Ottoman Empire, Gandhi persuaded the Congress to support the Khilafat Movement – a violent agitation for restoration of the Islamic Caliphate deposed by the victorious British. Before long, he pinched his nose and plunged into the murky waters of religious appeasement and terror rationalisation in the wake of the ghastly anti-Hindu violence perpetrated by the Malabar Muslims (Moplahs) in 1921.
Ambedkar, who saw Gandhi’s advocacy of the Khilafat Movement as a pernicious political stunt (“The movement was started by the Muslims. It was taken up by Mr Gandhi with a tenacity and faith which must have surprised many Muslims themselves.”), viewed the Moplah rebellion as nothing but jihad. The Muslim agitators, he said, “preached the doctrine that India under the British Government was Dar-ul-Harab [The Abode of War; a place where the Muslims are not in power] and that the Muslims must fight against it and if they could not, they must carry out the alternative principle of Hijrat”. Ambedkar continued, pulling no punches. “The aim was to establish the kingdom of Islam by overthrowing the British Government. Knives, swords and spears were secretly manufactured, bands of desperadoes collected for an attack on British authority. On 20th August a severe encounter took place between the Moplahs and the British forces at Pinmangadi. Roads were blocked, telegraph lines cut, and the railway destroyed in a number of places.
As soon as the administration had been paralysed, the Moplahs declared that Swaraj had been established. A certain Ali Mudaliar was proclaimed Raja, Khilafat flags were flown, and Ernad and Walluvanade were declared Khilafat Kingdoms. As a rebellion against the British Government it was quite understandable. But what baffled most was the treatment accorded by the Moplahs to the Hindus of Malabar. The Hindus were visited by a dire fate at the hands of the Moplahs. Massacres, forcible conversions, desecration of temples, foul outrages upon women, such as ripping open pregnant women, pillage, arson and destruction – in short, all the accompaniments of brutal and unrestrained barbarism, were perpetrated freely by the Moplahs upon the Hindus until such time as troops could be hurried to the task of restoring order through a difficult and extensive tract of the country. This was not a Hindu-Moslem riot. This was just a Bartholomew [reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572].”
To Ambedkar’s horror, Gandhi laid the blame squarely on the Hindus. “Hindus,” said the Mahatma, “must find out the causes of Moplah fanaticism. They will find that they are not without blame. They have hitherto not cared for the Moplah. They have either treated him as a serf or dreaded him. They have not treated him as a friend and neighbor, to be reformed and respected. It is no use now becoming angry with the Moplahs or the Muslims in general.”
If such rationalisation wasn’t unpleasant enough, Gandhi went further, blaming everyone else for the Moplah barbarity but the Moplahs themselves. “The Government has thoroughly exploited the Moplahs’ madness,” he said. “They have punished the entire Moplah community for the madness of a few individuals and have incited the Hindus by exaggerating the facts. Malabar Hindus, like the Moplahs, are an excitable people and the Government has incited them against the latter.” The outbreak, said Gandhi, “would not have taken place if the Collector had consulted the religious sentiment of the Moplahs”.
That religious sentiment, as analyzed by Ambedkar, was jihad. Indeed, Muslim leaders themselves agreed with Ambedkar. Maulana Hasrat Mohani, the eulogized freedom fighter and a friend of the Mahatma, and one who had coined the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad”, justified the massacre of Hindus by saying that this was Islamic jihad and that according to the rules of jihad, those who help the enemy become enemies themselves. Shockingly, Gandhi was conciliatory towards the Maulana. “I do not blame the Maulana. He looks upon the British Government as an enemy. He would defend anything done in fighting it. He thinks that there is much untruth in what is being said against the Moplahs and he is, therefore, not prepared to see their error. I believe that this is his narrowness, but it should not hurt the Hindus. The Maulana speaks what is in his mind. He is an honest and courageous man. All know that he has no ill will against the Hindus.” “In spite of his amazingly crude views about religion,” said Gandhi, “there is no greater nationalist nor a greater lover of Hindu-Muslim unity than the Maulana”.
So here was Gandhi, a Hindu, schooling a Maulana on Islam. He wasn’t done yet. He transmogrified next into a Maulana himself, quibbling on Islamic sanctions just so he could venture into the minds of the men who Ambedkar had called barbarians and rationalise their barbarity. “Their [the Moplahs’] notions of Islam were of a very crude type,” claimed the Mahatma. “Forcible conversions are horrible things,” counselled Gandhi. “But Moplah bravery must command admiration. These Malabaris are not fighting for the love of it. They are fighting for what they consider is their Religion and in the manner, they consider is religious.”
Then came the cruellest of blows – a plea to the Hindus to rationalise the bloodbath by taking recourse in dharma. “Even if one side is firm in doing its dharma,” said Gandhi, “there will be no enmity between the two. He alone may be said to be firm in his dharma who trusts his safety to God and, untroubled by anxiety, follows the path of virtue. If Hindus apply this rule to the Moplah affair, they will not, even when they see the error of the Moplahs, accuse the Muslims.” “I see nothing impossible in asking the Hindus to develop courage and strength to die before accepting forced conversion,” preached the saint.
“I was delighted to be told that there were Hindus who did prefer the Moplah hatchet to forced conversion.” “Even so is, it more necessary for a Hindu to love the Moplah and the Muslim more, when the latter is likely to injure him or has already injured him.” “Why should a single Hindu have run away on account of the Moplahs’ atrocities?”
This was sheer lunacy. The Mahatma was beseeching the Hindus to hold their ground even as they were being hunted down and butchered. One could quote more, much more, of this utterly reprehensible apologia from the Mahatma’s playbook were it not so tormenting. Of little comfort is the fact that the saint continued to hold such views despite condemnation by men like Ambedkar.
Decades later, while preaching to those affected by the pre-partition Hindu-Muslim violence, he said: “Hindus should not harbour anger in their hearts against Muslims even if the latter wanted to destroy them. Even if the Muslims want to kill us all we should face death bravely. If they established their rule after killing Hindus we would be ushering in a new world by sacrificing our lives. None should fear death. Birth and death are inevitable for every human being. Why should we then rejoice or grieve? If we die with a smile we shall enter into a new life, we shall be ushering in a new India.”
Ambedkar was incensed at Gandhi’s selectivity, more so of his stand on the Moplah Massacre. “Mr Gandhi has never called the Muslims to account even when they have been guilty of gross crimes against Hindus,” said Ambedkar. “Mr Gandhi has never protested against such murders [of prominent Hindus like Swami Shradhanand, Rajpal, Nathuramal Sharma]. Not only have the Muslims not condemned these outrages but even Mr Gandhi has never called upon the leading Muslims to condemn them. He has kept silent over them. Such an attitude can be explained only on the ground that Mr Gandhi was anxious to preserve Hindu-Moslem unity and did not mind the murders of a few Hindus, if it could be achieved by sacrificing their lives.”
Ambedkar next turned to Gandhi’s behaviour during the Moplah Massacre, a pogrom he had condemned in the strongest of terms earlier. “This attitude to excuse the Muslims any wrong, lest it should injure the cause of unity, is well illustrated by what Mr Gandhi had to say in the matter of the Moplah riots. The blood-curdling atrocities committed by the Moplahs in Malabar against the Hindus were indescribable. All over Southern India, a wave of horrified feeling had spread among the Hindus of every shade of opinion, which was intensified when certain Khilafat leaders were so misguided as to pass resolutions of ‘congratulations to the Moplahs on the brave fight they were conducting for the sake of religion’. Any person could have said that this was too heavy a price for Hindu-Moslem unity. But Mr Gandhi was so much obsessed by the necessity of establishing Hindu-Moslem unity that he was prepared to make light of the doings of the Moplahs and the Khilafats who were congratulating them. He spoke of the Moplahs as the ‘brave God-fearing Moplahs who were fighting for what they consider as religion and in a manner which they consider as religious’.”