Gandhi at Independence – Part 2: ‘From today, you have to wear the crown of thorns’

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on how Gandhi spent the days leading up to Independence and just after.

Tushar A Gandhi

August 15, 2021

Delhi was lit up and preparations to usher in India’s freedom were in full force. The Central Hall of Parliament was decorated and soon began to fill with people gathered to witness the historic transfer of power.

At midnight when India became free and its first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered his historic speech (“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny…”), the architect and author of that tryst slept in a dark and dilapidated home in the densely populated Muslim locality of Belliaghata in Calcutta, oblivious to the jubilation all around his country.

The work goes on

On Independence Day, Mahatma Gandhi woke up as usual at 4 am. It would be his day of fasting, prayers and extra spinning of khadi. He sent a message to the ministers of the Bengal government: From today, you have to wear the crown of thorns. Strive ceaselessly to cultivate truth and non-violence. Be humble. Be forbearing. The British rule no doubt put you on your mettle. But now you will be tested through and through. Beware of power; power corrupts. Do not let yourselves be entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember, you are in office to serve the poor in India’s villages. May God help you. Bapu.”

The new Governor of the province, C Rajagopalachari, visited him and congratulated him on the “miracle which he had wrought in Calcutta”. But Bapu replied that he could not be satisfied until Hindus and Muslims felt safe in one another’s company and returned to their own homes to live as before. Without that change of heart, there was likelihood of deterioration in spite of the present enthusiasm.

At 2 pm, Bapu met with members of the Communist Party of India. To them, he said: “Political workers, whether communist or socialist, must forget today all differences and help to consolidate the freedom which has been attained. Should we allow it to break into pieces? The tragedy was that the strength with which the country had fought against the British is failing us when it comes to the establishment of Hindu-Muslim unity.” As to the celebrations, he said: “I can’t afford to take part in this rejoicing, which is a sorry affair.”

Bapu congratulated Calcutta on Hindus and Muslims meeting in perfect friendliness. Muslims shouted the same slogans of joy as the Hindus. They flew the Tricolour without the slightest hesitation. What was more, Hindus were admitted to mosques and Muslims were admitted to temples. This news reminded him of the Khilafat days when Hindus and Muslims fraternised easily.

If this exhibition was from the heart and was not a momentary impulse, it was better than the Khilafat days. They had both drunk from the poison cup of hatred. The nectar of friendliness should, therefore, taste sweeter than before. Gandhi was, however, sorry to hear that in a certain part poor Muslims had been targeted. He hoped that Calcutta would be free from the communal virus forever. Then indeed they wouldn’t need to fear about East Bengal and the rest of India.

He was sorry also to hear that madness still raged in Lahore. He could hope and feel sure that the noble example of Calcutta would positively affect Punjab and other parts of India. He then referred to the fact that the people, experiencing freedom for the first time, filled Government House and besieged their new Governor Rajaji affectionately. He would be glad if it meant only a token example of the people’s power. But he would be sick if the people thought that they could do what they liked with the government and other property. That would be criminal lawlessness. He hoped that they had of their own accord vacated the Governor’s palace as readily as they had occupied it.

He would warn people that, now that they were free, they should use freedom with wise restraint. They should know that they were to treat the Europeans who stayed in India with the same regard as they would expect for themselves. They must know that they were masters of no one but themselves. They must not compel anyone to do anything against his will.

The shared journey

Gandhi at Hydari Mansion in Calcutta during his peace mission. Photo courtesy: Gandhi Research Foundation

“Suhrawardy and I are living together in a Muslim manzil in Beliaghata where Muslims have been reported to be sufferers. We occupied the house on Wednesday the 13th instant and on the 14th it seemed as if there never had been bad blood between Hindus and Muslims. In their thousands, they began to embrace one another and they began to pass freely through places which were considered to be points of danger by one party or the other… As I have said above, we are living in a Muslim’s house and Muslim volunteers are attending to our comforts with the greatest attention. Muslim volunteers do the cooking. Many were eager to come from the Khadi Pratishthan for attendance, but I prevented them. I was determined that we should be fully satisfied with whatever the Muslim brothers and sisters were able to give for our creature comforts and I must say that the determination has resulted in unmixed good. Here, in the compound, numberless Hindus and Muslims continue to stream in, shouting their favourite slogans. One might almost say that the joy of fraternisation is leaping up from hour to hour. Is this to be called a miracle or an accident? By whatever name it may be described, it is quite clear that all the credit that is being given to me from all sides is quite undeserved; nor can it be said to be deserved by [Suhrawardy]. This sudden upheaval is not the work of one or two men. We are toys in the hands of God. He makes us dance to His tune… Thus considered, it can be said that in this miracle He has used us two as His instruments… This is neither a miracle nor an accident. A chain of events can be clearly seen… In this process, our advent on the scene enabled the onlooker to give us credit for the consummation of the happy event… The delirious happenings remind me of the early days of the Khilafat movement. Then we had the objective of the Khilafat and Swaraj as our twin goals. Today, we have nothing of the kind. We have drunk the poison of mutual hatred and so this nectar of fraternisation tastes sweeter and this sweetness should never wear out. In the present exuberance one hears also the cry of ‘Long Live Hindustan and Pakistan’, from the joint throats of Hindus and Muslims. I think it is quite proper. Whatever was the cause for the agreement, three parties accepted Pakistan. If then the two are not enemies one of the other,  surely there is nothing wrong in the above cry. Indeed, if the two have become friends, not to wish long life to both the States would probably be an act of disloyalty.”


The much praised miracle of Calcutta lasted another 10 days, after which hate once again prevailed and the city burned in an orgy of madness. Gandhi was attacked at Hydari Mansion. Suhrawardy escaped because he had gone home to pack so that he could accompany Gandhi to Noakhali the next day.

Gandhi went on a fast unto death to restore peace. His will prevailed after four days of savagery; peace was once again established but by that time horrifying reports were emanating from East and West Punjab. Bapu left Calcutta to replicate the miracle there but, when he reached Delhi, he discovered that the inferno had spread there. He had to forego his Punjab plans to establish sanity in Delhi and spend the next few months in the City of the Dead, as Delhi was called in those days.

On January 30, 1948, Bapu died after being shot thrice. Delhi was, indeed, a City of the Dead that day.

So much he said in those last few months of his life proved to be prophetic. Today, as we celebrate a landmark Independence Day, his words are a chilling  reminder of the mistakes we made 74 years ago and are once again repeating today.

Lest we forget.

Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: Excerpts courtesy: ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 89.’