May 14, 2021
“Jodi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re!”
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore
Mohandas Gandhi – Bapu – shared a long and close relationship with Bengal. It began in December 1901. Mohan had returned, temporarily, from South Africa. After leaving his family at their home in Rajkot, Mohan rushed to Bombay to enlist the support of a group of Congress members for a resolution supporting the Indian cause in South Africa. Mohan wanted them to propose it at the imminent party convention in Calcutta.
The Congressmen gave him a patient hearing, but dismissed his appeal. What Indians were facing in South Africa was no different than what Indians had to live with in India; they were more concerned about the suffering at home.
Mohan travelled with the group to Calcutta to attend the convention as an invitee. His political guru, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, was his chaperon.
Mohan formed many connections amongst the Congress elite and was able to brief them about his cause. There was an awareness about this Indian barrister taking on the empire in South Africa. Gokhale was helping Mohan, too, making introductions with the Congress’ leadership and important Indians and Britons in Calcutta. He often took Mohan to the India Club to play billiards and meet with the elite.
This was Bapu’s first contact with Bengal; he would go on to build many long-term friendships there.
The road to Champaran
In 1915, Ba (Kasturba, his wife) and Bapu – and what came to be known as the ‘Phoenix Family’ – permanently returned to India. They went to Calcutta as guests of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore at his Visva Bharati campus. It was during this visit that Bapu attempted to impart lessons in self-reliance to the Visva Bharati family. He saw that most of the students and all of the faculty depended on a retinue of servants. He talked to them about reducing dependence on others for personal needs and started, along with the Phoenix family, to do most of the menial jobs like washing, cleaning and cooking.
The Visva Bharati community reluctantly followed his lead but, as soon as Bapu left, they abandoned the self-help model. As a token of admiration for Bapu, however, they observed a Gandhi Day when the menial staff was given a holiday and for that one day in a year the teachers and students did all the work themselves.
It was from here that Bapu went to Varanasi to deliver his famous – or should I say notorious – lecture at Banaras Hindu University, where because he criticised the snobbery of the Indian elite and the vulgar display of wealth by Indian princes, and mentioned the taboo term ‘Home Rule’ in the presence of the Viceroy. He was asked to stop mid-speech by chairperson Annie Besant and faced a walkout by the elite in the auditorium and on the stage. But, at the urging of the students, the meeting moved to the lawns and Bapu continued his speech.
Raj Kumar Shukla, a farmer from Champaran, had been chasing Bapu ever since his return from South Africa with an appeal to champion the cause of the victims of the Teen Kathiya farming compulsion in Champaran, which especially affected poor Indigo farmers. Bapu was sceptical but, when Shukla landed up at Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad, Bapu told him he was going to Calcutta and would visit Motihari for a couple of days on his way back. He would decide on a course of action only after witnessing the situation in Champaran for himself. Shukla was waiting for Bapu in Calcutta and escorted him on a fact-finding mission. The rest is history.
Bapu, Tagore and Bose
One of Bapu’s most famous friendships was with Tagore. Although they had diverging views on many issues and publicly criticised each other’s methods, they shared a deep affection. It was Tagore who first called Bapu a ‘Mahatma’ and it was Bapu who began referring to Tagore as ‘Gurudev’.
There are many anecdotes. For instance, Tagore opposed Bapu’s concept of non-cooperation and Swadeshi but lent his support at crucial instances too. Sports producer and writer Joy Bhattacharjya (@joybhattacharj) recounts on Twitter: “In 1937, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Netaji visited Calcutta to meet Rabindranath Tagore and to get a sense of the political climate in Bengal, while staying at Sarat Chandra Bose, Netaji’s brother’s house, Gandhi fell ill. On hearing the news, Tagore immediately rushed to meet him. When he arrived he realised Gandhi was on the top floor and he could not climb the stairs. So Gurudev was carried up on a chair and his four bearers were Nehru, Netaji, Sarat Bose and the Mahatma’s trusted assistant, Mahadev Desai. Very big men with very small egos.”
He goes on to talk of a disagreement between the two: “The two disagreed on many things, particularly on food, Gandhiji once said ‘To fry bread in ghee or oil to make puris is to turn good grain into poison.’ Rabindranath Tagore gravely replied ‘It must be slow poison. I have been eating puris all my life and it has not done me any harm so far.’”
Describing another incident, Bhattacharjya says: “When Gandhiji decided to go on an indefinite fast to allow entry of Harijan to the Guruvayur
Temple, Tagore quietly wrote a letter to the Zamorin of Calicut asking him to give the right to the Harijans so that Gandhiji’s life could be saved.”
Yet another anecdote stated by Joy: “When Gandhiji decided to fast against the communal award in 1932, Tagore rushed to Poona to be with his friend. When the Poona Pact was announced, Gandhi broke his fast with a glass of orange juice from Kasturba and Tagore singing Jeeban Jokhon Shukaye Jaye from Gitanjali.”
Although very much his juniors in age, Bapu formed a very close bond with the Bose brothers and, even though it was Bapu who forced Subhas Chandra Bose to resign as Congress president and subsequently break away, their affection survived. Bapu always praised Netaji as a true patriot and it was Netaji who referred to Bapu as the ‘Father of the Indian Nation’ in his broadcast to the nation on Azad Hind Radio from Rangoon.
The Great Calcutta Killings
It was Bengal that put Bapu to his most severe test. During the most tragic period of life, his last years, it was Bengal which inflicted grave wounds on his heart, tested his mettle and also gave him a degree of satisfaction as he drowned in despair. Bapu died a hundred deaths between 1946 and 1948 – he was disobeyed, discarded, betrayed and traumatised by those he trusted.
As India was in the throes of birth, Bapu watched grief-stricken as it turned into his worst nightmare. India was set ablaze, an inferno of hate consuming it, and Bengal was at its forefront.
It began in August 1946, with brutal violence following the Muslim League-organised Direct Action Day to buttress its demand for Pakistan. Incited by the campaign, Muslims in Calcutta went on the rampage and massacred Hindus. Then Hindus rose to avenge the killings many times over. The riots came to be known as the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’.
Bapu was in Sevagram, Wardha, when this happened. He was pained and recalled the words of Gokhale: “What happens in Bengal today, will happen in the rest of India tomorrow.” Worried, he gathered his associates and warned them to be prepared to offer their lives if they wished to save the nation.
To avenge the massacre of Muslims, the League undertook a systematic campaign of hate in Muslim-majority districts in East Bengal. As a result, an orgy of violence erupted in the remote districts of Noakhali and Tipperah. What happened was beyond description – a genocide committed by mobs aroused, equipped and directed by League leaders.
Bapu was in Delhi when the news reached him. Without bothering to assemble his associates, he left immediately for Noakhali – to douse the inferno or be consumed by it. When Bapu reached Calcutta, there was news that violence had erupted in Bihar where Hindus were taking revenge on Muslims for the killings in Bengal.
Shaheed Huseyn Suhrawardy was Chief Minister of the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha Coalition Government in Bengal. He was the master planner and executioner of the Great Calcutta Killings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘Butcher of Bengal’. Before going to East Bengal, Bapu convinced a reluctant Suhrawardy to draft a peace plan and promise to act upon it. Then, accompanied by some ministers of the Bengal government and his small band of peace makers, Bapu entered riot-torn East Bengal.
For the next few months, Bapu was to perform a great miracle of peace making. He travelled through Noakhali and Tipperah, visiting villages where the most savage and brutal atrocities had occurred and doused the fires of hate. He often walked from village to village, usually alone or accompanied only by a translator. At one point he switched to walking barefoot, reasoning that the ground was soaked with the blood of innocents and slippers would desecrate their memory. He walked barefoot for more than 250 kilometres and lived in villages – often in the open.
Bapu did not differentiate between communities – to him, they were both victims, one of the propaganda of hate and the other the victim of that hatred. He had to cure the malady. In Noakhali, he saw the gravest danger to the idea of India; if he wished to save India, he had to douse the inferno in Bengal.
Dousing the inferno
The news from Bihar was frightening too. The Muslim League hounded him to go to Bihar to save Muslims. Neither the League nor extremist Hindu organisations ever acknowledged that Bapu did not differentiate humans by their religion, caste or gender. He did not see Hindus and Muslims, Brahmins or Shudras, nor man and woman – he cared for and loved humans without partiality.
After great effort, Bapu smothered the violence in Bengal but Bihar was still smouldering. So, Bapu went there.
In Bengal, it was the Muslim League that was responsible but Bihar was burning under the watch of a Congress government. Bapu repeated his peace pilgrimage there and brought about a semblance of sanity, which earned him the virulent hate of extremist Hindus. They were enraged that Gandhi had prevented them from implementing the final solution – the annihilation of Muslims in Bihar first and then in the rest of India. What they refused to accept was that Bapu believed that if he stopped the execution of Muslims in Bihar he would make Muslims responsible for the protection of Hindus in East Bengal. Even in Bihar, Bapu was praying for a miracle that would prevent the dismembering of his nation. But, alas, that was not to be.
Bapu was stuck in Delhi for the first half of 1947, attempting desperately to stave off Partition. He was the only leader who realised the tragedy Partition would inflict on the subcontinent. He had witnessed the trailer in Bengal and Bihar.
When Independence came, Bapu was not in Delhi celebrating. He realised that he was needed in Noakhali which would now be a part of East Pakistan. He had promised Hindus there that he would personally guarantee their safety after Independence. He was en route to Noakhali, camped in Calcutta, when Pakistan was born on the midnight between August 13 and 14, 1947, and on the midnight between August 14 and 15 when India gained independence. Although Independence Day went off peacefully, Bapu sensed trouble was around the corner.
Suhrawardy, now no longer the Chief Minister of Bengal and a chastened man, prevailed on Bapu to remain in Calcutta to keep the peace. In return, Bapu made him guarantee the safety of Hindus in East Bengal – which was now East Pakistan. Bapu moved into Hyderi House in a densely-populated Muslim locality and invited Suhrawardy to move in with him for a joint peace vigil. There were many attacks by extremist Hindus on Hyderi House, and then Calcutta erupted again. Bapu was once proven to be right again.
He had warned against this but no one had listened. Now the inferno threatened to consume him and his nation at birth. Bapu decided that he would rather die than witness the destruction. Gokhale’s prophetic words haunted him and he had to stop them from coming true – or die trying.
Bapu went on a fast unto death and on the third day sanity returned. The killings stopped, the arson and looting halted – Bapu had performed the miracle.
Bapu wanted to go on to Punjab and Pakistan to douse the infernos there, and Calcutta gave him a rousing sendoff – over 7 lakh people assembled at the Parade Grounds to pray with him and listen to his message. Then, for the last time Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, took leave of his beloved Bengal – with a broken heart but nursing a glimmer of hope to repeat what he had achieved in Bengal.
He was destined to be consumed by that inferno, but only after he had saved his beloved nation.
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.