remembering history

Gandhi, who helped defeat the mighty British empire, struggled to win the battle with his own people

His efforts to stop the majority community in newly born India and Pakistan from targeting minorities led to his assassination on this day, 69 years ago.

“I must apply the old formula ‘Do or Die’ in the capital of India,” said Gandhi when he arrived in Delhi on September 9, 1947. Die he was going to this time, five months later. An old man by the standard of his times, his frail frame harassed and tortured by his constant movement – in Noakhali (in newly-created East Pakistan), Bihar and Calcutta – burning in the hatred of communal violence, Gandhi was to turn 79 on October 2.

He was literally walking on fire, taking its intensity upon himself. He was trying to tell Hindus and Muslims that long-settled neighbourhoods could not be destroyed for the sake of an imaginary, abstract abode called the nation.

The principle of neighbourliness, derived from his readings on Christianity, had proven to be brittle under the assault of communal nationalism. He had tried to restore it. Before coming to Delhi he had faced distrust, anger, abuses, and even physical attack.

Muslims did not want him in Noakhali. Muhammed Ali Jinnah had convinced the majority of Muslims that Gandhi could only be seen as a leader of Hindus. Hindus, in turn, hated him for coming in their way of giving Muslims their due in their demand of a nation in their name. And they reckoned that if Hindus and Sikhs were being raped, killed, converted and driven out from their homes in Pakistan, why should Muslims in the Union of India not meet the same fate?

Gandhi sought to appeal to the best in them. With his immense faith in the divinity that lies in all human beings, he tried to speak to them in plain language: You should not kill, nor degrade others, for when you do it, you demean your own self.

Gandhi kept reminding Jinnah of his promise that Hindus and Sikhs would be treated with fairness and dignity in Pakistan, the newly-created land of Islam. Gandhi said that he would hold Jinnah to his word. He said by killing and ravaging Hindus and Sikhs, Muslims in Pakistan were destroying Islam.

Hindus and Sikhs filled with rage felt that it was only just to humiliate and murder Muslims in the Union of India.

The test of non-violence

Gandhi felt defeated. His people, who were being hailed by the world for having achieved their freedom with the force of non-violence, renounced it the moment power came to them. Theirs was an opportunistic engagement with this sacred principle.

Gandhi admitted that he had been wrong all these years, that it was not non-violence that was being practised by Indians. It was actually passive resistance of the weak people who adopted it, as they could not match the might of the empire. Non-violence could not be a weapon of the weak and opportunistic.

Was the principle wrong then? Gandhi could not accept that. There must be something defective about the instrument through which this infallible principle was being practised. Gandhi said that he was this instrument and he would have to go through a test of fire.

“I am sitting in a fire-pit,” he said. He repeatedly told his friends and well-wishers that he did not know what was going to happen next. He had learned to live moment by moment. “Look at the sparrows,” he wrote, and said that he was like a sparrow who did not know what her next perch would be.

“Once I was the general of non-violence,” he lamented, adding that his voice was now a cry in the wilderness. This battle was more difficult than the one he had won fighting against the mightiest empire of the world. He was faced with his own people. Even Congress men did not share his conviction. The man he could rely on most was Jawaharlal Nehru. He did not want to give up on Vallabhbhai Patel and tried to dispel the mistrust that Muslims expressed when talking about him. He told them that Patel was often blunt in his language but was firm in his belief that India was to be nation equally of Hindus and Muslims.

Punjab burns

It was Patel who received Gandhi in Delhi when his train from Calcutta reached Shahdara in September. Patel told him about the grim situation in Delhi. There were angry refugees from Pakistan milling around in Delhi, and the native Muslims of Delhi were under real threat. Violence raged all around.

Gandhi had hoped that after restoring peace in Bengal he would go to West Punjab, now in Pakistan, to resettle Hindus and Sikhs and bring Muslims who had fled India back to their homes.

Patel and Nehru wanted him in Delhi. “I heard enough to warn me that I must not leave Delhi for the Punjab until it had regained its former self,” he wrote in the statement.

Zakir Hussain told Gandhi about an attack on him in Punjab in which he would have been killed had it not been for his Hindu friend who saved him. It also shamed Gandhi that Delhi was not safe for Huseyn Saheed Suharwardi, a prominent leader of the All India Muslim League.

He kept moving from refugee camp to camp, talking to inhabitants, calming them, telling them that retaliation was no remedy. He said that by attacking Hindus, Muslims were disgracing Islam. He argued this would disgrace Islam only in the lands of India and Pakistan while it would continue to flourish in other countries. The Hindu religion, however, had only one land to prove itself. If Hindus of India imitated Pakistani Muslims, Hinduism would disappear from the earth as it had no other shelter, argued Gandhi.

Violence continued in Delhi despite his presence. He decided to pull out of his arsenal his supreme weapon. He knew it well. He, as a practitioner of non-violence, had only his body to offer when other means failed. His son, Devdas Gandhi, tried to dissuade him. But Gandhi said that it was now decided that he “was to put his head in the lap of God”.

The last fast

Gandhi started his fast on January 13. There was worldwide concern that his frail body would not able to withstand it this time. Gandhi said that he had to die if he could not do. His fast was to make Hindus understand that they were committing a criminal folly.

Gandhi was clear: “When it is relevant, truth has to be uttered, however unpleasant it may be. Irrelevance is always with untruth and should never be uttered. The misdeeds of the Hindus have to be proclaimed by the Hindus from the roof-tops…Confession of one’s guilt purifies and uplifts.”

Gandhi was blamed for being partisan to Muslims. He was unambiguous. This fast was on behalf of Muslims of the Union of India, and therefore necessarily against the Hindus and Sikhs of India and against the Muslims of Pakistan.

Gandhi was acting for the minorities on both sides of the border. Majoritarianism could not be the creed of the two new nations.

Gandhi broke his fast on January 18, only after assuring himself that the pledge by community leaders to restore peace was genuine. But Gandhi had also asked the government led by his friends not to go back on its word to give Pakistan the financial dues it was owned, even if Pakistan had indulged in hostile acts against it.

Two days after he withdrew his fast, Gandhi was attacked. He could have died, he said later. He knew that he was under threat. On January 28, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur asked Gandhi if there had been commotion at his prayer meeting. Did she fear anything, he asked lightly, and said that he was quite aware that he could be killed any day by a mad man.

Three shots

It was not a rush of madness that killed Gandhi. It was a well-deliberated plan, which was finally executed by Nathuram Godse on January 30, when he fired three shots that felled Gandhi.

I must do or die, is what he had said. And he died. The shock of his death stopped the Hindus. The votaries of Hindu Rashtra retreated only to regroup and strike again nearly 13 years after this sacrifice, when anti-Muslim violence broke out in Jabalpur.

Gandhi’s resolve was left for his “jewel of India” Nehru to carry. Most of the Congress did not even share Nehru’s Gandhian conviction. This is what his daughter Indira had warned him in 1948, watching the Congress men of Uttar Pradesh. Nehru, the last genuine Gandhian, was soon to depart from the scene. Since then, majoritarian politics has had a field day in India and also its neighbouring countries.

The promise given to Gandhi was broken with a deceptive cowardice. We have started practising a majoritarian secularism. Muslims and Christians have been shown their rightful place. Untruth is being uttered and practised. At the very least, we can admit to this much today. We do not have to be Mahatmas for that.

Apoorvanand is a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi.

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