Rajmohan Gandhi is a Research Professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois. A biographer and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, he has written widely on the Indian independence movement and its leaders, Indo-Pakistan relations, human rights and conflict resolution. He is also a former member of the Indian Parliament and a recipient of several international awards including the International Humanitarian Award.
Associated with Initiatives of Change, Rajmohan Gandhi has been engaged for half a century in efforts for trust-building, reconciliation and democracy and in campaigns against corruption and inequality. He talks about Indo-Pak relations and other subjects to Mashal Usman in this exclusive interview for SouthAsia.
To what extent do you see female politicians like Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee changing the political scene in India?
I don’t know whether it’s possible to give a very large meaning to this but this is certainly a very welcome development which includes Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Mayawati in UP and Sheila Dixit who is the CM of Delhi. There are some other women politicians at the national level as well. This is certainly a very welcome development - it represents both diversity as well as expansion of democracy, it gives a richer meaning to our democracy but it is still too early to say that this is a revolutionary development.
Would you say that Indian women are playing the political game differently than men, with less rhetoric and more substance?
I wish I could say that, that the emergence of women politicians means that politics is much more meaningful or much more realistic and more sincere, but I can’t.
Do you believe that women will be more effective in delivering to the people?
In every society women can be expected to be more realistic and to put the essential needs first, so undoubtedly their entry into politics would give them enormous hope for the future. Mayawati is a dalit woman and dalits, particularly dalit women, have been greatly inspired by her. Similarly, Jayalalithaa is a Brahmin and it’s a very curious thing that she leads a political party in Tamil Nadu. Mamata Banerjee too hails from a remarkable background and has shown the capacity to stand up to a very powerful government. This gives the ordinary woman in India great hope for the future.
Do you see the rise of female politicians being replicated in the rest of South Asia?
Female politicians have been well-known throughout South Asia. Sri Lanka had a woman prime minister before India had. Then there were Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. Of course, it has been said, with some truth, that in the case of many of these successful women, either their fathers or their husbands played a role.
Here I must mention one disappointment in India - the women’s reservation law under which there was a plan to reserve one-third seats in the lower house for women. Many political parties have paid lip-service to this for the past fifteen or 20 years but it has not yet come about. Some political parties are cautious because they feel that if one third seats are reserved for women then women from privileged sections or high castes would hog the benefits at the expense of low caste voters.
Do overlapping identities in India - Muslim women as a minority within a minority - further impede the formation of a uniform base for women?
Undoubtedly it does as it dilutes women’s identity but I think we should be willing to take a really broad perspective. We may say in theory that an upper caste woman will also look after the interests of all deprived sections of the population but will that always happen? Those who fight, say, for rights of untouchables should also fight for women’s rights and those who fight for Muslim minority rights should also fight for women’s rights.
What role has your biography of your grandfather Mahatma Gandhi - The Man, His People and the Empire - played in your life?
I am a historian but I am also a grandson of Gandhiji, so naturally I have great warmth for him, a strong connection. I always reminded myself while writing the book that I am, above all, a historian, I benefited from the fact that he himself said many times that truth is the most important thing. This awareness facilitated my task. People have on the whole welcomed it so I am thankful that this rather challenging task was somehow completed.
The ideas of satyagraha and ahimsa are a recurring theme in Gandhi’s life. From a contemporary perspective, how useful can this kind of approach be in bringing India and Pakistan together?
Both Indians and Pakistanis feel that they have been wronged by the other. Much of this may be true but it’s not the whole truth. Another part of the truth is that we too may have taken some wrong steps or even if we said something correctly we may not have said it in the best possible way or the most thoughtful way. So, turning the searchlight inwards is absolutely essential if we are to build a strong bridge between India and Pakistan. All human beings have some evil inside them, they are imperfect but there is also a great deal of wrong in society, in the world as a whole. The African nations that were colonized by the African powers may have had several weaknesses but that does not mean that imperialism was not a problem - it was a huge problem. Gandhi was a terrific fighter against imperialism but he didn’t say that the Indians should only concentrate on the wrongs that they may have committed - so that is only a partial expression of Gandhi’s philosophy.
There is a text that you published once titled “Closing the Chapters of Enmity” in which as a 16 year old, on hearing that Liaquat Ali Khan had been attacked, you said “I hope he gets killed.” Looking back now, how would you explain this?
My reaction was horrible, a very stupid reaction. Later, when I reflected on it, I realized that there were two reasons for it: one, that I shared the popular ill will towards Pakistan as so many Indians and Pakistanis at that point had negative views towards one another but a stronger reason for my stupid remark was that I was kind of an adolescent, a boy trying to become a man and I wanted to be a macho man. I thought that such a remark would make me seem more manly. Of course it was very stupid - manliness is a much deeper, much greater thing.
Would you say the new generation of Indians and Pakistanis is moving away from these old prejudices and have a much more conciliatory approach towards each another?
You are absolutely right, the new generation is much more willing to look at the future rather than the past, but not everybody - logon ko bharkaya jaa raha hai. There are many people who play on fear and a lot of poison is being injected into our society because some people see some gain from the politics of fear.
Rajmohan Gandhi is a biographer and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and a research professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.