This Day in History (29-May-1936) – Gandhi’s eldest son creates a controversy as he converts to the Muslim faith

Harilal Mohandas Gandhi was the eldest son of Mahatma Gandhi. Harilal wanted to go to England for higher studies and hoped to become a barrister as his father had once been. His father firmly opposed this, believing that a Western-style education would not be helpful in the struggle against British rule over India. Eventually rebelling against his father’s decision, in 1911 Harilal renounced all family ties. Harilal converted to Islam at the Jumma Masjid, Bombay on 29th May 1936 and took up the name Abdullah Gandhi. Gandhiji wrote to his another son, Ramdas Gandhi, the following day, “There could be no harm in his being converted to Islam with understanding and selfless motives. But he suffers from greed for wealth and sensual pleasures. I shall be spared all mental pain if I find my impression wrong and he turns a new leaf.” However as Gandhiji had predicted, Harilal followed Islam for a very brief period. In November he reconverted to Arya Samaj Hinduism.

Harilal married to Gulab Gandhi and they had five children, two of whom died at an early age. He appeared at his father’s funeral in such derelict condition that few recognized him. He died from liver disease on 18 June 1948 in a municipal hospital in Bombay. Harilal described Gandhiji as “the greatest father you can have but the one father I wish I did not have.” Mahatma Gandhi once confessed that the greatest regret of his life was that there were two people he had not been able to convince. One was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose demand for a separate homeland for Muslims led to the partition of India and Pakistan in August 1947 and the other person was his own eldest son Harilal.

Nilam Parikh, the daughter of Ramibehn, who was the eldest of Harilal’s children, wrote a biography on him, titled Gandhiji’s Lost Jewel: Harilal Gandhi. The troubled relationship between Harilal and his father is the subject of the film and play Gandhi, My Father.



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