First published on: 28 Sep 2019
Gandhi spent the last year of his life trying to quell communal violence
This year we celebrate 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. Organisations are planning functions, memorials, and marches in his honour across not just India but the entire world. At the same time, subtle efforts to subvert his message and redirect even his title of “Father of the Nation” are under play in contemporary India. His greatest legacy has beenof Ahimsa (non-violence) and communal harmony, the cause which he ultimately lost his life to.
Do young Indians remember his efforts towards the same after the Independence of India was achieved?
He preached “Ahimsa”(non-violence) throughout the Independence movement and it was this brand of seeking justice that made him revered by Indians and feared by British colonisers. In a cruel twist of irony, he met a violent death. But even before his assassination, the Mahatma had repeatedly voiced how he did not want to live anymore because his teachings of Ahimsa had been disregarded by his own people who indulged in widespread violence before and during Partition.
On October 2, 1947, he is quoted to have said,
‘‘मेरे लिए तो आज मातम मनाने का दिन है। मैं आज तक जिन्दा पड़ा हूं। इस पर मुझ को खुद आश्चर्य होता है, शर्म लगती है, मैं वही शख्स हूं कि जिसकी जुबान से एक चीज निकलती थी कि ऐसे करो तो करोड़ों उसको मानते थे। पर आज तो मेरी कोई सुनता नहीं हैं। मैं कहूं कि तुम ऐसा करो, ‘नहीं, ऐसा नहीं करेंगे’ ऐसा कहते हैं।… ऐसी हालत में हिन्दुस्तान में मेरे लिए जगह कहां है और मैं उसमें जिन्दा रह कर क्या करूंगा ? आज मेरे से 125 वर्ष की बात छूट गई है। 100 वर्ष की भी छूट गई है और 90 वर्ष की भी। आज मैं 79 वर्ष में तो पहुंच जाता हूं, लेकिन वह भी मुझको चुभता है।’’
(“Today is a day of mourning for me. The fact that I am still alive surprises and embarrasses me. I am the same person whose words were followed by crores of people, but now, no one listens to me. If I ask them to do something, they say, no, we will not do this. In such circumstances, where is my place in Hindustan and what will I gain by remaining alive? I used to say I want to live till the age of 125, but I have given that up now, not even 100, not even 90, today I have reached 79 years of age and even this hurts me.”)
In the lead up to agreements about Partition and Independence between Indian leaders and British authorities, rifts were evident between the extreme “Hindu” and “Muslim” factions. Sensing that political leaders were ready to risk civil war in the pursuit of power, Gandhi distanced himself from the negotiations that commenced in 1946. He called the planned Partition “vivisection of India” and set off to Naokhali in East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) where riots had erupted in mid-1947 following the proclamation of impending Partition. He walked from village to village nursing, consoling, and appealing for peace.
He travelled back to Delhi due to appeals from the British Viceroy seeking his advice on how to stop the killings, he soon realised it was a charade and that the administration was not interested in taking steps to ensure peace. He decided to leave Delhi and return to Noakhali where he was needed and listened to. Before reaching Noakhali, his train stopped at Calcutta (modern day Kolkata) and he was greeted by crowds of Muslims who were pleading with him to stay on, in Calcutta.
The Muslim minority there feared that the transfer of power to a “Hindu Congress” government in West Bengal would revive riots that had started a year ago, on August 16, 1946, after the proclamation of “Direct Action Day” by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League. The man most widely blamed for the violent riots that followed Direct Action Day was Bengal’s Muslim League,chief minister, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy who had given the police, a “holiday” to celebrate Direct Action Day which rendered the people unprotected when mobs broke out. The British Army, coldly inactive despite being present, was equally to blame for its inaction during the riots.
Suhrawardy was stripped of Calcutta’s chief ministership. He even had to give up his dream of presiding over an independent nation of Bengal—Bangladesh—a new nation state he had lobbied hard to have carved out of the Eastern quarter of British India by integrating the Hindu majority West Bengal and Muslim majority East Pakistan into a single unified land of Bengali speakers, whose language and culture would transcend any differences of religious doctrine or practice.
When the crowds of Muslims requested Gandhi to stay in Calcutta in August 1947, he agreed on one condition, that he and Suhrawardy would live under the same roof, so that they could appeal to Muslims and Hindus alike to live in peace.
“Adversity makes strange bed-fellows,” Gandhi told his prayer meeting in Calcuttaon August 11, 1947. He moved into the abandoned Hydari House with Suhrawardy. This symbolic gesture was intended to demonstrate forgiveness and communal harmony to Calcutta‘s angry and fearful Hindus and Muslims. When Hindu mobs tried to break into the house asking why the Mahatma was siding with Muslims, he answered, “I have come here to serve not only Muslims but Hindus. You can obstruct my work, even kill me. I won’t invoke the help of the police. You can prevent me from leaving this house, but what is the use of your dubbing me an enemy of the Hindus? I will not accept the label.” The Mahatma then asked them what good it would do now to “avenge” the wrongs committed in 1946.
On August 14, 1947, Gandhi had a discussion with angry Hindu youth –even a young couple who had lost a son to bitter communal hatred—and, by evening, he had won their hearts and minds. When questioned in anguish by these young parents on how they could overcome their feelings of anger and grief at their young son’s killings, he said, “adopt a Muslim child, the same age as your lost son. Bring him up as a Muslim. In these acts let your feelings of bitterness and revenge dissolve into ultimate forgiveness and compassion. Remember your son in your adopted son.”
An estimated ten thousand people gathered to hear Gandhi’s prayer that evening. “If the flames of communal strife envelop the whole country,” Gandhi asked, “how can our newborn freedom survive?”
When the moment of freedom did arriveon August 15, 1947, he awoke at 2 a.m.in Calcutta, having slept through Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech at midnight. He was not in Delhi on the very eve of India’s Independence even as political leaders in Delhi called him the architect of Indian Independence and hailed him as “Father of the Nation”. He knew his work to bring about communal peace was more important.
He was already planning to go to West Pakistan to make a final pilgrimage to bring an end to the violence against Hindus and Sikhs. As we know, it was not to be. He was assassinated a few months later, and now, 150 years after he was born, his ideologies of Ahimsa and Communal Harmony seem to be dying a slow death too.
This Gandhi Jayanti, as we participate in functions and memorials, as we undertake activities like Swachchta Abhiyan in his honour, let us remember that the greatest way to honour him is to practice Ahimsa and honour the cause he died for- PEACE and COMMUNAL HARMONY.
Note: With thanks to Nitin Thakur, Asst. Editor TV9 Bharatvarsh, for valuable inputs.
- Gandhi: Ek Asambhav Sambhavna –by Sudhir Chandra
- Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi –by Stanley Wolpert
- Nitin Thakur Page
- Gandhi’s contribution to Communal Harmony
- An Essay for Our Times: Diversity and Indian Nationalism
- Right to Analyse Gandhi and Appraise Godse