A birth anniversary special in which I address misinformation regarding Gandhi. Part 1 of 2.
On 11th June, my old school friend HS Prasanna
1, an executive for a global consumer goods company, forwarded me a WhatsApp message. He followed that up with a text in typical WhatsApp lingo:
“Is this true fact or another spam[?]”
At precisely 415 words, this piece of Whatsapp ‘wisdom’ turned out to have 22 claims about M.K. Gandhi, known widely as Mahatma Gandhi and sometimes in my school WhatsApp Group as ‘that fellow’. According to it, Gandhi was not just pro-Muslim (a widely held view among the Right) but actually a Muslim himself
2.When confronted with such messages, fact-checkers will usually go line-by-line. We will separate out what can be verified (in this case, 22 claims about facts) and what cannot (an additional 5 assumptions or opinions).
In this message, there was a claim
3, every 19 words, which is quite a feat. But in addition to the claims and assumptions, there were also hidden or embedded narratives. These embedded narratives behave exactly like any cultural reference, be it street lingo, dialogues from Hollywood, Bollywood, or words from internet culture: if you don’t know them, you don’t understand them.
Here’s the entire message, with some basic annotations from me.
WhatsApp Forward Text (with my annotations): Why was Gandhi pro-Muslim? [Assumption 1] Prof. K.S. Narayanacharya has given some hints in this book. Everyone knows that Nehru and Indira belonged to the Muslim community. [Claim 1] But few people know Gandhiji's caste roots. Let's take a look at the reasons they give here. 1. Mohandas Gandhi or Apana *Rastrapita Gandhiji* was the son of his Pita Karamchand Gandhi's fourth wife Puthalibai... Puthalibai originally belonged to the Pranami sect. [Claim 2] This Pranami sect was and still is an Islamic organization under the guise of Muslim Hinduism. [Claim 3] 2. Ghosh's book "The Qur'an and the Kafir" also mentions Gandhi's heritage... [Claim 4] Gandhiji's father, Karamchand, worked under a Muslim zamindar. [Claim 5] Once Gandhiji's Pita Karamchand stole money from his landlord's house and ran away. [Claim 6] Then the Muslim landlord took Karamchand's fourth wife (Gandhiji's mother) to his house and kept her as his wife... [Claim 7] Karamchand was in hiding for three years, when Mohandas (Gandhiji) was born. [Claim 8] 3. Gandhiji was born and brought up in a Gujarati Muslim family. [Claim 9] 4. All expenses of his schooling till college (London Law College) were borne by his Muslim parents. [Claim 10] 5. Those who set up their legal practice in South Africa were also Muslims. [Claim 11] 6. In London, Gandhi was a partner of the Anjuman-e-Islamia organization. [Claim 12] Therefore, it is not surprising to note that Gandhi had pro-Muslim leanings. [Assumption 2] His final stand was: "Even if Hindus are killed by Muslims, keep silent. Do not be angry with them. We should not fear death. Let us die a heroic death." [Claim 13] What does that mean? Gandhi did not take a pro-Hindu stance at any stage of the freedom struggle. He continued to speak in favor of Muslims. .. [Assumption 3 & Claim 14] When Bhagat Singh and other patriots were hanged, Gandhi also refused to sign the petition not to hang them. [Claim 15] We should note that Annie Besant himself condemned this attitude of Gandhiji. [Claim 16] 1. Defended the Muslim murderer of Swami Shraddhananda... [Claim 17] 2. He supported the Muslim movement in Caliphate Turkey, so against it Dr. Hegdewar broke away from Gandhiji and founded R.S.S.. ! [Claim 18] 3. After independence, Muslim Nehru was made Prime Minister despite Vallabhbhai getting full majority..!!! [Claim 19] 4. After the separation of Pakistan, Gandhi went on hunger strike to give 55 crores to Pakistan..! [Claim 20] 5. Always caressed Muslims and treated Hindus as second class citizens...which is still being continued by its Gandhian politicians...!!! [Assumption 4, Claim 21] So he became our national father and sat on our head................ ..Congress party is 100% muslims party [Assumption 5]...Even Papu also made it clear that Congress is Muslim party....[Claim 22] Wake up Hindus Wake up ...Believe in real secular party BJP...💐💐
Apart from the 22 claims, the five assumptions in the text come under the domain of opinion, and opinion as a rule cannot be fact-checked. Let’s summarise these five assumptions into the following four points.
- Gandhi was pro-Muslim.
- Gandhi was anti-Hindu.
- Gandhi treated Hindus as ‘second-class citizens’, a policy that continues to be followed by ‘Gandhian politicians.’
- The Congress party is a ‘100% Muslim party’.
In Good Faith
As I said, the opinions above cannot be fact-checked, but they can be contextualised with good faith arguments. Here is an example:
- There were reasons to believe Gandhi was pro-Muslim, but does that automatically make him anti-Hindu? Generally speaking, there is nothing sinister or wrong about anyone being pro-anything. For example, after partition, Gandhi stayed and travelled through both Muslim-minority and Hindu-minority regions to prevent them from being attacked further.
- It may be tempting to believe that Gandhi was anti-Hindu, but does this opinion take into account his words and deeds in the right context? Does it take into account the greater record of his personal faith, and his acts as a Hindu reformer? Who benefits politically by referring to Gandhi as anti-Hindu? What does ‘anti-Hindu’ mean anyway, given that there are several fierce arguments about Hinduism from within the faith?
- There are people who claim Gandhi treated Hindus as second-class citizens, but are those claims rooted in good faith? Have they considered all explanations and facts, even ones that show that he actually conceded more to fellow Hindus?
- Who benefits from the idea that the Congress party is a ‘100% Muslim party?
Of course, my contextualised arguments above aren’t as compelling as the bullet points above them. This is because people prefer simple narratives, even when they may not be true. This is also why fact-checks alone can’t deal with sophisticated forms of misinformation and propaganda. For these, we need a method I call the Story-Check.
Ingredients of a story-check
A story-check will need to incorporate some (or all) of the following five elements.
- A fact-check as a first layer (if any of it is fact-checkable).
- A ‘narrative-check’. This could be a listing of all the archetypal stories or narratives that a piece of misinformation might evoke.
- An ‘emotion-check’, a list of all emotions that a piece of misinformation can generate.
- A ‘context-check’, which lists hidden and coded messages in the misinformation, and answers to questions about who the message is intended for, and so on.
- A ‘bias-check’ — a list of all mental traps that humans are hard-wired to believe in.
Let’s dive in further.
I’ve already contextualised the assumptions in the piece. Now for the claims. There are 22 of them. In Part 1 (this piece), I will address the first 10 claims.
Claim 1: “Everyone knows that Nehru and Indira belonged to the Muslim community.”
Most people I know would be astonished at such a claim. But I’ve learnt never to take anything for granted. Maybe the basic facts about India’s first prime minister aren’t widely known now, so here they are: Jawaharlal Nehru was a Kashmiri Pandit. He married Kamala Nehru, a fellow Kashmiri Pandit and they had a daughter Indira. She married Feroze, a Parsi, in a ceremony that adhered to Hindu rituals.
Claims 2, 3, 4: Gandhi’s mother Putlibai (misspelt as Puthalibai in the message) belonged to the Pranami set which “was an Islamic organization under the guise of Muslim Hinduism.”
Putlibai was indeed a devotee of the Pranami Sampradaya, which believes Krishna is the Supreme God. It is a product of the Bhakti movement in India, and like many such movements, wove in elements from other faiths into its fabric.
Here’s what Rajmohan Gandhi says about Gandhi and his early religious influences in his book, Gandhi: The Man, His People and the Empire.
“More liberal than some other Modh Banias of his time, Kaba [Gandhi’s father] and his wife also went to the ‘rival’ Shiva temple, and their home was often visited by Jain monks. At times Muslim and Zoroastrian friends visited Kaba in his home and talked about their faiths — Mohan thought that Kaba listened ‘with respect and often with interest’. The worldly-wise Putlibai was also strongly religious and fasted frequently. The Pranami sect to which her parents belonged was said to bear an Islamic influence and did not worship idols, but Putlibai seemed entirely comfortable with the images of Krishna, Rama and Shiva honoured by the Gandhis; and she respected Jain monks.”
At any rate, Gandhi’s views on his own Hindu faith are well known. His Collected Works — his own writings and utterances running into 100 volumes — are vast and contain a massive record of the evolution of his ideas.
Claims 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10: If the earlier claims are about Gandhi’s mother, then claims 5-10 are about his father Karamchand Gandhi, also known as Kaba.
They are even more astounding: that he worked under a Muslim zamindar, that he stole money from his Muslim landlord’s house and ran away, that the Muslim landlord took Gandhi’s mother as his wife, and that Kaba was in hiding for three years, that Gandhi was brought up by a Gujarati Muslim family.
These are easy to fact-check: Karamchand Gandhi had a career that was well-documented: he was a Diwan (chief minister) to Vikmatji, the Rana of Porbandar. Later in his career, he moved as Diwan to the city of Rajkot. Kaba died when Gandhi was 16. Two years later, supported by his brother Tulsidas, Gandhi travelled to London to qualify as a lawyer.
We will examine Claims 11-22 in Part 2 of this piece.
As we have seen, the claims about Gandhi’s parentage are easily dismissed. Gandhi was not a Muslim. His writings and speeches show that he was a devout Hindu who in the later half of his life had two main obsessions: how to achieve independence from British rule, and how to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity.
But the question remains: why this obsession about Gandhi being a Muslim?
It is worth pointing out to those of us who have been radicalised that being a Muslim isn’t illegal, immoral or unethical in India. It is as ‘normal’ as being a Hindu.
Let’s look at the narratives that are embedded or hidden within the WhatsApp Forward.
Narrative 1: Hindus must discard Gandhi and stop thinking of him as their leader.
This is the big one. We don’t think of Gandhi in such terms, but he was also a religious philosopher in his own right and did what many other religious leaders in India have done in the past, going back to Sankaracharya — which is assimilate ideas from outside into Hindu faith. His lifelong pursuit of Ahimsa, Swaraj, Satyagraha, and peace between religious communities was rooted in a moral philosophy which prioritised means over ends.
Gandhi’s Hinduism is the very opposite of Hindutva. Which is why it makes sense for propaganda-makers to cast doubts on him.
Narrative 2: Hindus were victims, but no longer.
This is another master narrative, going back to the decades before independence. Not one part of the messaging in this WhatsApp Forward would be effective if not for this narrative. This narrative is in fact rooted in another narrative, which is that Indian history can be divided neatly into three parts: Hindu, Muslim, British. This classification was created by a Scot, James Mill, in the first part of the 1800s, and seems to have been inspired by the division of British history into ancient, medieval and modern.
Both classifications are inaccurate, but the theory that Indian history can be divided into Hindu, Muslim, and British provides the basis for claims that Muslims ruled India for 1000 years, which is not an accurate claim. Large parts of India for India for instance were not under Muslim rule, and even in parts under direct Muslim rule, the influence of Islam only went so far. The period between 1000 AD up to the entry of the British also saw the exit of Buddhism from India, and the flowering of the Bhakti movement.
Bottomline: narratives are built on narratives and inaccurate narratives can be enormously influential and can become the basis of flawed identity politics.
Narrative 3: Gandhi should not be credited for bringing about independence. Others could have done so earlier anyway.
Gandhi’s detractors lay a number of charges at his door that are made up and likely in bad faith. However, it is important to ask tough questions in good faith.
Without Gandhi, would India have got independence? A number of historians believe that India would have eventually got independence without Gandhi’s efforts. It was just a matter of time. But they also question what kind of nation we would have inherited. What would have been India’s founding principles?
These are important questions that need to be explored in a spirit of open enquiry, and not with a pre-decided outcome in mind.
Anything else is propaganda.
What other narratives come to mind? I have no doubt that we will find others, but I’m leaving the Narrative-Check as it is for now. We will circle back in future posts to these themes.
For a piece of misinformation/disinformation to be successful, it has to weaponise emotions. It is always more difficult to appeal to the better angels of our nature because doing so requires complex narratives. Easier to appeal to our sense of anger, envy, fear, and hatred.
The emotions at play here are the latter. Fear, hatred, and suspicion of Muslims, anger and hurt in relation to Gandhi, and a sense of injured pride and victimhood about Hindus.
Bias-check, or mental traps
It’s been 12 years now since the publication of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist. With its publication and other works in behavioural sciences by other scientists and researchers, we are now aware of terms such as cognitive biases and heuristics. It has become clear that the human mind is subject to a number of biases.
How many? Well, we haven’t stopped counting, and more are being discovered everyday. Let’s just say that there are dozens of biases that we are aware of now.
For the purposes of this Story-Check, we focus on a few of them with the caveat that there are many more biases at play. Also, a handy term that I find useful is ‘mental trap’. For our purposes, it is easier to say mental traps, as opposed to biases.
If one believes in something, one will look for reasons to support that belief. If we think Gandhi is a bad person, we will look for and support any number of theories, both accurate and inaccurate about Gandhi that paint him in poor light. It works the other way as well. If we believe that Gandhi is God and should be above scrutiny, we will find a number of reasons to support that belief.
This is seen when an erroneous theory or a lie is repeated so many times that it becomes accepted fact. In our current political climate, it is common to view Gandhi as anti-Hindu. This view has been repeated, embedded, and reinforced countless number of times through utterances on mainstream media, social media and through WhatsApp Forwards.
This mental trap also closely mirrors what is known as Availability Bias.
To explain this, there is, in fact a Wikipedia entry about Gandhi. It goes like this: “most people, when asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died, will provide a much greater estimate of his age at death than others who were asked whether Gandhi was more or less than 35 years old. Experiments show that people’s behavior is influenced, much more than they are aware, by irrelevant information.”
Similarly, by making a fantastical claim that Gandhi was himself a Muslim, the propagandist is successful in influencing us about Gandhi’s alleged pro-Muslim, anti-Hindu stand.
I’ve mentioned only three sets of biases at play here, but there are several more.
What about my biases?
One other question is about my own biases as a writer and journalist. I have tried to be careful in understanding my own motives for writing this Story-Check, which is why I started this piece with the story of how I received it — from my old school friend H S Prasanna.
Now Prasanna and I haven’t spent much time together in a very long time. An early memory is from seventh grade and involves his lunchbox, which used to occasionally come with the most delicious akki rotis and chutneys. His mother was a superb cook who used two ingredients that my own mother refused to touch: onion and garlic. (I’m salivating at the memory even while writing this.)
I used to like his lunch so much that Prasanna took to hiding it from me. After a few weeks, I took the hint and settled down reluctantly to my own monochromatic lunch, usually a rotation of uppittu, idlis or curd rice.
After 10th grade, we went our separate ways. He remained in Bangalore and got into the corporate life and I moved out of the city, first to study, and then for work as a journalist.
In all likelihood, our interactions would have remained at the breezy hello and happy birthday level on our school WhatsApp group.
But on 5th August 2020, at the height of the first Covid lockdown and on the evening of the bhoomi puja of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, I began discussing politics with my classmates. Most of them were and are supporters of Narendra Modi, the BJP and Hindutva, and I fancied myself as a neutral person, disillusioned by many Congress policies but still more wary of the BJP.
Starting that day and over the next few weeks, months and years, we have had roaring debates on the group about Hindus and Muslims, and caste, reservations, gender, and Homeopathy. I have heard the strangest ideas about Gandhi, but I have also been able to understand where these ideas have come from and why.
We have had furious walkouts and also calls for making the group politics-free once again.
Somewhere along the way, Prasanna and I became better friends. He came to our home in New Delhi, and I try to meet him whenever I’m in Bangalore. The last time I saw him was at Malleswaram grounds, where we sat on the big stone steps leading down to the basketball court and talked about life.
All this is to say that when Prasanna sent me that forward, he probably did it out of trust. As for me, I had the following incentives:
i. Be a good friend to him.
ii. Check the piece for facts and opinions.
iii. Identify the narratives embedded in it.
iv. Provide context where necessary.
v. Make a good faith attempt to examine all biases, including mine.
In order to do justice to the task, I referenced several biographies of Gandhi’s. I will publish the full list in the second part of this piece.
I hope I have been successful.
In Part 2 of this piece, we will examine claims 11-22, and also look at some questions posed by my classmates—regarding Gandhi’s role in the partition of India, and his actions vis-a-vis Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose.
1. Name changed for reasons of privacy.
2. It should go without saying that the religion of a public figure shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately it does matter in reality.
3. The preferred term for a questionable fact is ‘claim’. Until we check something, we don’t say if something is a fact or a lie. Or if it is indeed the truth.
– H R Venkatesh ( Media Buddhi )