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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 18, New Delhi, April 17, 2021

Hundred Years Back in Odisha Gandhi understood pre British Period from the perspectives of Swaraj | S N Sahu

Friday 16 April 2021, by S N Sahu


Hundred years back on 23rd March 2021 Mahatma Gandhi visited Orissa (now Odisha) for the first time. The objective of that visit was to mobilise and sensitise people about non-cooperation movement for enlisting their participation in large numbers and achieve Swaraj in one year. As he arrived in Cuttack in 1921 he was greeted by thousands with the cry of Vande Mataram and Hindu-Musalman ki Jay. The later slogan captured the spirit of Khilafat movement embodying the unity of Hindus and Muslims and underlining the fraternity of people and the ideals of pluralism, tolerance and harmony.

Odisha Assembly Unanimously Adopts Resolution for inclusion of Non-violence in the Preamble

The centenary of that visit was celebrated across the State with enthusiasm and gusto rarely seen in recent history. The Odisha State Assembly devoted the forenoon session of 21st March 2021 to discuss the manifold dimensions of that historic visit and later a resolution, moved by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, for inclusion of non-violence in the preamble of the Constitution, was adopted unanimously cutting across party lines. Chief Minister while moving the resolution very thoughtfully covered several aspects of Gandhi’s worldview and said that his commitment to pluralism and his message of tolerance and harmony remained deeply relevant for the world confronting increasing polarisation and divisiveness.

Gandhi Defended Honour of Islam, Hinduism and India

It is noteworthy that during his visit to Orissa Gandhi talked about unity and solidarity of all faiths and thereby discarding the divisiveness in the name of religion. His very first address in the meeting organized in Cuttack on 23rd March 1921 was devoted to Hindu- Muslim unity which he regarded as "first condition of Swaraj."

Next day on 24th March while addressing a meeting of the Muslims in Cuttack he asked them "to live in amity and goodwill with the Hindus", made clear that "He did not want to make a bargain with the Mussulmans with respect to cow-killing" and asserted by saying, "He wanted to keep the honour of Islam, Hinduism and India".

Aspects of Swaraj in Pre British Era

Apart from making such statements affirming unity of all faiths Gandhi, while addressing a huge meeting in Cuttack on 24th March 1921 on the sands of Kathjodi river, said with rare and farsighted understanding, "The pre-British period was not a period of slavery. We had some sort of swaraj under Mogul rule. In Akbar’s time the birth of a Pratap was possible, and in Aurangzeb’s time a Sivaji could flourish. Has 150years of British rule produced any Pratap and Sivaji? You have got several feudatory Native Chiefs everyone of whom bends the knee before the Political Agent and admits his slavery. We must be able to hold the country".

That statement that "The pre-British period was not a period of slavery" and "We had some sort of swaraj under Mogul rule", need to be incorporated in our education curricula.

Strained inter faith relations would Stain Education

It is painful that that the New India being conjured up by the leadership of our country these days recurrently talk of communalising history and teach a version of our past in a misguided manner for dividing people on the basis of religion. For instance pre British period is dubbed as a period of slavery with an intent to distort history and make it toxic. All these are by products of careful and calibrated measures taken by the top leadership of our country to give primacy to religious identity of people over their multiple identities. Such mobilisation on the basis of religious identities in complete disregard of their common socio, economic and cultural issues negates their shared outlook, urges and aspirations as Indians. The toxicity arising out of strained relations among Hindus , Muslims and all other religious groupings because of divisiveness promoted by the leadership operating State apparatus would get reflected in education as well. It was apprehended by Mahatma Gandhi on 2nd November 1947 that strains caused on unity of people professing diverse faiths would adversely impact contents of education and prejudice the minds of younger generation. He wrote " Then take the Hindu-Muslim question. The poison has assumed such dangerous proportions, that it is difficult to forecast where it will land us. Assume that the unthinkable has happened and that not a single Muslim can remain in the Union safely and honourably and that neither Hindu nor Sikh can do likewise in Pakistan. Our education will then wear a poisonous form. If, on the other hand, Hindus, Muslims and all the others who may belong to different faiths can live in either Dominion with perfect safety and honour, then in the nature of things out education will take a shape altogether pleasing."

Exactly what Gandhi said has come true and our education instead of taking a pleasing form has become poisonous. The latest UGC draft syllabus on history separating phases of history on the basis of religion and ignoring the contributions of Muslims is indicative of the poison being deliberately injected to the education curriculla. Gandhi had cautioned by saying that "... if we make the vain attempt of obliterating the Muslim period, we shall have to forget that there was a mighty Jama Masjid in Delhi second to none in the world, or that there was a Muslim University in Aligarh, or that there was the Taj in Agra, one of the seven wonders of the world, or that there were the great forts of Delhi and Agra built during the Mughal period. We shall then have to rewrite our history with that end in view". Gandhi apprehended by making such an attempt, "...we shall cast about for the day when there was only one religion represented in Hindustan and retrace our steps to that exclusive culture. It is just possible that we might not be able to find any such historical date and if we do and we retrace our steps, we shall throw our culture back to that ugly period and deservedly earn the execration of the universe". Very prescient words indeed.

It is tragic that India on the basis of wrong understanding and interpretation of history and religion unity and solidarity of people of diverse faiths has been strained. The sinister legislations concerning love jihad combined with many other divisive policies and pronouncements are manifestations of bigotry and hatred being promoted in a deliberate manner to polarise society.

Over the years when so many Muslims have been lynched in the name of beef and other specious reasons by forces representing intolerance and hatred statements of Gandhi made on the soil of Odisha hundred years back in defence of all faiths constituted a splendid example of cultural liberty encapsulating pluralism, unity and harmony.

Liberal Spirit Associated with Religion

Before Mahatma Gandhi said in Cuttack in 1921 that "The pre-British period was not a period of slavery. We had some sort of swaraj under Mogul rule" he was introduced by his close associate from Odisha, Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das on whose invitation he visited Odisha in for the first time. It is illuminating to note that Gopabandhu Das while introducing Gandhi recalled the age old legacy of Odisha demonstrating liberal spirit on religion and people pursuing diverse faiths always living together in the region. He then requested the Odias assembled on the occasion to listen to Gandhi with a liberal spirit associated with religion.

It is enlightening that hundred years back on the soil of Odisha liberal spirit was invoked by Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das to pay heed to the speech of Gandhi which embraced in its scope the unity and solidarity of people of diverse faiths throughout different phases of India’s history.

On the occasion of commencement of the celebrations of seventy fifth anniversary of India’s independence on 12h March 2021, when 91st anniversary of Dandi March was observed, we need to be tuned to the values of freedom struggle as mandated by Fundamental Duties of the Constitution and uphold the understanding of history discarding its communal interpretation. By doing so we will keep our education free from communalism and communal interpretation which of late has robbed the liberal spirit for the pursuit of education and defending the constitutional vision of India which the national policy on education policy of 2020 aims at upholding.

* (Author was OSD and Press Secretary to President of India late K R Narayanan)

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