It was a cold winter afternoon in Delhi on 23 December 1926. Swami Shraddhanand, the leader of the Arya Samaj, was in his Naya bazar residence in Delhi. After a whirlwind propaganda of shuddhi (reconversion to Hinduism) activities that he had undertaken, he was exhausted. He was also convalescing after an attack of bronchial pneumonia. It was close to 4 PM when a Muslim man knocked at the doors and insisted on meeting Swamiji. The attendant tried explaining that Swamiji was unwell and was resting. But the man was persistent and said he had pressing religious matters to discuss, and also that it would not take too long. Hearing the altercation from inside, Swamiji asked his attendant to let the man in. Quite reluctantly he was led inside. When the attendant went to get him a glass of water, the visitor Abdul Rashid whipped out his revolver and point blank fired two rounds at the seventy-year old seer. The secretary Dharmpal and others came running, overpowered the assassin and held him till the police was called. But Swamiji was dead by then.
The assassination sent shock waves across India, as Swamiji was a deeply respected seer who had done yeoman service for the causes of Hindu sangathan (unity) and shuddhi. The trigger for his assassination was his whirlwind shuddhi movement across the then United Provinces to reclaim the Malkana Rajputs back to the Hindu fold. The Malkanas were Rajputs scattered across various parts of Mathura, Agra, Etah, Mainpuri and other areas. Though their customs were largely Hindu, long centuries of Muslim influence made them adopt Muslim practices and even declare themselves as Muslims in Census and surveys. Shraddhanand had decided to correct this and managed to convert nearly 60,000 of them back to Hinduism.
The 1920s saw the maximum communal conflicts in the country till then, unprecedented by the prevalent standards. The deep polarisation that the 1920s created culminated in the eventual painful partition of the country. In his letter dated 22 April 1926 to Viceroy Lord Irwin, Sir Henry Wheeler, the Governor of Bihar and Orissa summed up this tinderbox situation that much of India found itself in during this time. “In the old days,” explained Wheeler, “we used to be on the look out for riots at the Muharram or Bakr Id (festival times), but not otherwise; nowadays they occur over anything…”
The genesis of this problem was undoubtedly the foolhardy Khilafat movement that was embarked upon by Gandhi and the Congress from 1919. It was a toxic mobilisation on religious grounds. Muslims of India were exhorted by Gandhi to agitate against the British to restore the caliphate in Turkey after the First World War-----something that Turkey or the rest of the Muslim world itself did not care much for. Gandhi promised swaraj within a year of launching the Khilafat that later got merged into the Non-Cooperation agitation. His associates in the Khilafat, the Ali brothers Maulana Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali were with Gandhi merely to get this end of theirs, and hardly for the freedom of India. They were secretly critical of Gandhi as well. Shraddhanand, who was also a member of the Congress in addition to being an Arya Samaj leader, had been aghast to hear what Shaukat Ali said of Gandhi. In the Calcutta Session of September 1920, he was sitting on the dais along with Shaukat Ali. He heard him loudly telling a few others in his company-‐ ‘Mahatma Gandhi is a shrewd bania. You do not understand his real object. By putting you under discipline, he is preparing you for guerilla warfare. He is not such an out and out non--violencist [sic] as you all suppose.’ “I was shocked,” said Shraddhanand, “to hear all this from the big brother and remonstrated with him, which he treated with humour.” Shraddhanand even tried to warn Gandhi but these were not taken too seriously. In the Khilafat Conference at Nagpur, ayats (verses) from the Quran were recited by Maulanas that contained frequent references to violent Jihad “against and the killing of kafirs.” When Shraddhanand drew the attention of Gandhi who was listening to these verses intently, “Mahatma ji smiled and said - ‘They are alluding to the British bureaucracy.’” In reply, Shraddhanand told him “that it was all subversive of the idea of non-violence and when a revulsion of feeling came, the Muhammadan Maulanas would not refrain from using these verses against the Hindus.” Gandhi kept a studied silence.
Shraddhanand’s words proved prophetic. The failure of the Khilafat and the religious mobilisation of violent people led to several grievous communal genocides — the Moplah rebellion in the Malabar, Gulbarga, Multan, Kohat and other places. Entire Hindu populations and villages were wiped out or forcibly converted. In response to this, the shuddhi movements tried to bring those who were forcibly converted back into the Hindu fold.
The Congress leaders hardly gave much credence to the riot stories from across India. For instance, they disbelieved the stories from Malabar initially and Gandhi himself spoke of the “brave God‐fearing Moplahs” whom he described as patriots who were “fighting for what they consider as religion, and in a manner which they consider as religious.” He went on to add: “Hindus must find the causes of Moplah fanaticism. They will find that they are not without blame. They have hitherto not cared for the Moplah. It is no use now becoming angry with the Moplahs or Mussalmans in general.”Ironically his allies, the Khilafatists passed resolutions congratulating the Moplahs for their heroism!
This was the back-story to the tragic assassination of Shraddhanand in 1926. Coincidentally the All India Congress Committee Meeting was underway in Guwahati at the same time. Gandhi was to address the gathering on 24 December 1926. In a bizarre normalisation of a crime as heinous Gandhi shocked his audiences with his audacious remarks:
Gandhi’s repeated reference to Abdul Rashid as a ‘dear brother’ caused a lot of consternation among an already agitated crowd. In an attempt to clarify this, he spoke again on 26 December, which did not make matters any better.
In a Young India essay dated 30 December 1926, Gandhi further elaborated:
Far away, holed up in conditional release in the district of Ratnagiri, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was deeply perturbed both by the murder and Gandhi’s responses to it. As a tribute to the man who was martyred, he decided to start a weekly titled “Shraddhanand” from Bombay, beginning 10 January 1927. It was envisaged to be a mouthpiece for Hindu sangathan and shuddhi movements. Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha also started a fund called ‘The Swami Shraddhanand Fund’ to carry forward the Swami’s mission of shuddhi.
In the very inaugural issue, in a stinging editorial titled “Murder of Swami Shraddhanand and Gandhi ji’s impartial partiality” Savarkar strongly denounced the ambivalent stand taken by Gandhi and his attempts to blame the Hindu community for it. Savarkar argued that Abdul Rashid had himself confessed that the motives behind the gruesome crime were apprehensions that Islam was in danger because of the shuddhi movements and to avenge the Malkana Rajput agitation that Swamiji had launched. Yet to apportion the blame on both communities equally or to chide the Hindus for everything to create false equivalences was becoming a hallmark of the Mahatma, Savarkar opined.
What would the Mahatma have to say about the countless documented atrocities, the mass conversions and rapes in Malabar committed by the Moplahs and testified by so many in courts of law, he asked. Whose handiwork was behind these — the Hindus again? Savarkar accused Gandhi of taking the side, in one of his articles, of a lone Muslim witness who had claimed that the Moplahs were hardly responsible for the Malabar genocide. So, was one to assume that Young India and its esteemed editor too were guilty of being a “walking plague” that fanned communal passions, he wondered. Was Gandhi not guilty of addressing even those brute Moplah rioters as ‘brave,’ though in this case he seemed to whitewash Abdul Rashid’s crime by claiming that he was an ignorant and hot-headed misled man. Savarkar urged Gandhi to make an assessment of the riots that had rocked India after Malabar — Gulbarga, Kohat, Delhi, Panipat, Calcutta, East Bengal, Sindh and several low-intensity clashes all round the year in some place or the other and analyse which community began the skirmish in each case and who perpetrated the crimes. Could Gandhi list cases of rapes of Muslim women by Hindu mobs or was it the other way round, he challenged. Were there assassinations of any leaders of the Muslim community by Hindus, while the converse had numerous examples of martyrs for the shuddhi cause beyond Shraddhanand? On the other hand, innumerable Hindu leaders had courted jail and hardships for a cause alien to them---that of establishing a caliphate in Turkey. Yet, the Mahatma insists that the responsibility of spreading venom is equal for both communities, asked Savarkar in exasperation.
When reports have been pouring in about how Abdul Rashid’s photographs were being circulated in several places as a ‘Ghazi’ or martyr for a religious cause and his act was being eulogised, does the Mahatma’s statement that it was just an individual act of foolhardiness cut any ice, questioned Savarkar. Concluding his piece, Savarkar rationalised that if the diagnosis of a disease is done wrongly, the medication and the subsequent side effects are bound to have detrimental effects. It is the same with Gandhi’s assessment of the fundamental reasons behind Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India.
This peep into a sad and painful past of this country astonishes us about how arguments and counter-arguments have remained very much the same, almost a century later. The normalisation of certain kinds of terror activities by calling it individual acts of misguided people or the monkey-balancing by apportioning blame on all communities equally, or worse — coining terms such as ‘Hindu terror’. The latest in this has been the nonsensical statements by actor-politician Kamal Haasan on Nathuram Godse being independent India’s first terrorist and a Hindu at that. But in this tale of two assassinations, it is such a sad and unfortunate irony that the man who circumlocuted all over the place to justify a crime as heinous as the murder of a saint, was to face the same fate 22 years later. It is perhaps for this very reason that they say, history repeats itself only because nobody was listening to it the first time.
Dr. Vikram Sampath is an author/historian/political analyst and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, with an upcoming biography ‘ Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past’.
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