This is the first of a two-part series on how Gandhi spent the days leading up to Independence and just after. The second part will be published tomorrow.
Tushar A Gandhi
August 14, 2021
A correspondent from Hyderabad (Deccan) wrote: “Gandhi is being buried alive. ‘Gandhi’ means Mahtama Gandhi’s ideals. It is through these ideals that we have got to where we are. But we are kicking away the very ladder on which we climbed this high. And it is those who are considered Gandhi’s greatest followers who are doing this. Hindu-Muslim unity, Hindustani, khadi and village industries have been completely forgotten. Those who still talk about them are either deceived or are deceiving others.”
To this, Bapu replied: “This is by far the best way of burying me alive. But can I believe that I have already been buried? Who is my greatest follower and who is the smallest? I have only one follower, that is myself or all Indians. My followers are those who have faith in the above-mentioned activities. I do hope that crores of villagers do believe in these few things. Even then the allegation is quite true… Let us hope that neither of the communities will give up khadi and cause harm to the village industries. I have already written about Hindustani. How can we give it up? How can the Muslims whose mother tongue is Urdu give it up? They have to make their Urdu simple. Similarly the Hindus will have to make Hindi simple. Only then can the two communities understand each other. The correspondent has forgotten the most important thing. The Hindus have to purify themselves by eschewing untouchability and caste differences. Similarly, Muslims have to purify themselves by giving up their hatred of Hindus.” (Srinagar, August 3, 1947, Harijan Sevak).
As we celebrate our 75th Independence Day, we must remember this hope that Bapu expressed of us and strive to become true to it.
A train to freedom
August 1947 was very tumultuous for India and for Bapu. As the hour of his greatest triumph drew near, he watched his dream turn into a nightmare. After a visit to turbulent Kashmir to convince the Maharaja to do what was best for his people, Bapu boarded a train for Calcutta. Earlier that year, he had promised the Hindu survivors of East Bengal that he would be in their midst to ensure their safety when Independence happened and East Bengal became East Pakistan.
Bapu boarded the Punjab Mail at Lahore on August 6. He would halt at Patna, then Calcutta before proceeding to Noakhali. There were big crowds at all the stops. It began to rain heavily at night and the roof of his carriage leaked, flooding the compartment. The guard suggested that Gandhi shift to another compartment.
Bapu: “What will happen to this one?”
Guard: “The passengers from the other compartment will occupy it.”
Bapu: “If it is good enough for them, it should be good enough for me too. How can I think of making myself comfortable at others’ expense!”
Guard: “Is there any service I can render?”
Bapu: “Do not harass poor passengers and do not take bribes. That will be the greatest service you can render to me.”
Back to the question asked by the correspondent of “is he buried alive?”. Bapu said: “There is substance in the biting criticism. But I cling to the hope that I am not yet buried alive. The hope rests on the belief that the masses have not lost faith in them (his ideals). When it is proved that they have, they will be lost and I can then be said to have been buried alive. But so long as my faith burns bright, as I hope it will even if I stand alone, I shall be alive in the grave and what is more, speaking from it… I am quite sure that if the Congress forsakes the ideals it adopted in 1920, it will commit suicide.”
The same correspondent went on to ask: “Will you leave politics after the 15th?” Bapu replied: “He asks whether I would leave politics after the 15th when India will be free. In the first instance, there is no freedom approaching that of the Kingdom of God. We seem to be as far from it as ever. And in any case the life of the millions is my politics from which I dare not free myself without denying my life work and God. That my politics may take a different turn is quite possible. But that will be determined by circumstances.” (Patna, August 7, 1947. From Harijan).
Dropping anchor in Calcutta
Gandhi’s faith in the people seemed to be vindicated in Calcutta, where he arrived on August 9 on his way to Noakhali to resume his peace mission there, intending afterwards to go to Bihar. Here he found Muslims “living in terror”. The memory of the “great Calcutta killing” of August 16, 1946, provoked by the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day was rankling in people’s minds. Especially the Hindus, it was reported to Gandhi, had started threatening brutal revenge.
The secretary of the Calcutta District Muslim League, Mohammad Usman, waited on Gandhi on August 10, accompanied by a large deputation of Muslims. They entreated Bapu to stay on, even if only for two more days: “We Muslims have as much claim upon you as the Hindus. For you yourself have said you are as much of Muslims as of Hindus.”
Bapu: “I am willing, but then you have to guarantee the peace of Noakhali. If I do not go to Noakhali before the 15th on the strength of your guarantee and things go wrong there, my life will become forfeit; you will have to face a fast unto death on my part.” The Muslim leaders accepted the condition.
Appealing for sanity in his prayer speech on August 11 , Gandhi said: “…we must unlearn the habit of retaliation in every shape and form, not merely in action but, more importantly, in thought.”
Late in the evening on the same day, the former Muslim League Premier of Bengal, HS Suhrawardy, arrived with his party’s leaders and requested Bapu to prolong his stay in Calcutta indefinitely, till peace was firmly restored. Bapu replied: “I would remain if you and I are prepared to live together. We shall have to work till every Hindu and Mussalman in Calcutta safely returns to the place where he was before. We shall continue in our effort till our last breath.” He asked Suhrawardy to think carefully before accepting the offer, for this would mean “that the old Suhrawardy” would “die” and become a fakir.
Bapu had made this offer to Suhrawardy before leaving for Noakhali in 1946 too. Then, Suhrawardy had laughed him off; this time he accepted and on the evening of August 13 the two moved into an abandoned and dilapidated home, Hydari Mansion, in the predominantly Muslim locality of Beliaghata.
‘You are welcome to turn against me’
Bapu wrote to his trusted co-worker Satish Chandra Das Gupta: “I have taken many risks; perhaps this is the greatest of all.” The Hindus were in an aggressive mood, for they rightly believed Suhrawardy was responsible for the killing on August 16, 1946. Facing an angry demonstration on the very first day of their arrival at the residence, Bapu reasoned with the leaders: “… I have come here to serve not only Muslims but Hindus, Muslims and all alike… I am going to put myself under your protection. You are welcome to turn against me…” Their reply was: “We do not want your sermons on ahimsa. Go away from here.” But Gandhi persisted in the non-violent confrontation. “You can obstruct my work, even kill me. I won’t invoke the help of the police… What is the use of your dubbing me an enemy of the Hindus? How can I, a Hindu by birth, a Hindu by creed and a Hindu of Hindus in my way of living, be an enemy of Hindus?” The opposition was softened somewhat, but not quite. The demonstrations continued, the anger at Suhrawardy directed at Gandhi.
Speaking at the prayer meeting on the eve of independence at Beliaghata, Bapu said that the next day was the day fixed for deliverance from the foreign yoke. They were bound to celebrate it. In his opinion, it was a day when both dominions were to shoulder a heavy burden. He invited everyone to join him in a 24-hour fast and prayer for the well-being of India as a whole and to pass it in spinning khadi. For it was hand-spinning that had knit the poor and the rich together and that had given occupation to countless men and women.
According to a source, a packed audience listened to Gandhi without the slightest disturbance. He then returned to the reason for his postponing his visit to Noakhali. He said that Suhrawardy had come to see him to do his bit to bring peace to Calcutta. He said he had agreed provided Suhrawardy went with him to the affected areas and stayed there under the same roof with him till the fury had abated and till complete friendship between the two communities was restored. Therefore, they were to work with one mind.
Gandhi had received many warnings against Suhrawardy but he was unaffected. He was bound to believe Suhrawardy’s word as he expected him to accept his own. They were working for the peace of all of Calcutta and he invited his audience to believe that if the city returned to sanity and real friendship, then Noakhali and the rest of India would remain safe. He mentioned that Suhrawardy was in the building but he had, with his consent, kept away from the meeting. He was glad that the audience had exhibited tolerance, which gave him the courage to bring Suhrawardy before the crowd. After all, they should live and work together in the open and in perfect cooperation if their difficult mission was to succeed.
Some young men shouted for Suhrawardy’s blood and ran towards Hydari Mansion, and the stone-throwing began again. Gandhi rebuked them: “He will not be able to stick to me if he is not sincere.” After he had calmed them down, he beckoned to Suhrawardy. Gandhi stood with him at an open window, his arm placed over Suhrawardy’s shoulder.
Suhrawardy’s admission of responsibility for the Great Calcutta Killing and expression of regret about it had a profound effect on the crowd. “It was the turning point,” Bapu remarked later. “It had a cleansing effect; I could sense it.”
It was late that night that the mob dispersed and the occupants finally got to rest. Bapu spun his regular quota of khadi, 1,000-yard strands, answered his correspondence and then lay down to rest.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Excerpts courtesy: ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 89.’