In Muslim League-ruled Bengal, Gandhi encountered a demoralised Hindu population. He had to literally talk his way into people’s hearts, counsel courage and dignity.

Talk to Relief Workers, Chandpur, November 7, 1946

Gandhiji: What goes against my grain is that a single individual can be converted or a single woman can be kidnapped or raped. So long as we feel we can be subjected to these indignities, we shall continue to be so subjected. If we say we cannot do without police or military protection, we really confess defeat even before the battle has begun. No police or military in the world can protect people who are cowards.

Today you say thousands of people are terrorising a mere handful, so what can the latter do? But even a few individuals are enough to terrorise the whole mass, if the latter feel helpless. Your trouble is not numerical inferiority but the feeling of helplessness that has seized you and the habit of depending on others. The remedy lies with you. That is why I am opposed to the idea of your evacuating East Bengal en masse. It is no cure for impotence or helplessness.

A worker: East Bengal is opposed to such a move.

Gandhiji: They should not leave. 20,000 able-bodied men prepared to die like brave men non-violently might today be regarded as a fairy tale, but it would be no fairy tale for every able-bodied man in a population of 20,000 to die like stalwart soldiers in open fight...I will proclaim from the housetops that it is the only condition under which you can live in East Bengal.

You have asked for Hindu officers, Hindu police and Hindu military in the place of Muslim. It is a false cry. You forget that Hindu officers, Hindu police and Hindu military have in the past done all these things – looting, arson, abduction, rape. I come from Kathiawar – the land of petty principalities. I cannot describe to you to what depths of depravity human nature can go. No woman’s honour is safe in some principalities and the chief is no hooligan but a duly anointed one.

Worker: These are cases of individual depravity. Here we have got this on a mass scale.

Gandhiji: But the individual there is not alone. He is backed by the machinery of his little State.

Worker: He is condemned even by his compeers. Here such acts are not condemned by the Muslims.

Gandhiji: I have heard nothing but condemnation of these acts from Shaheed Suhrawardy [the Chief Minister of Bengal] downwards since I have come here. Words of condemnation may tickle your ears, but they are no consolation to the unfortunate women whose houses have been laid desolate or who have been abducted, forcibly converted and forcibly married. What a shame for Hindus, what a disgrace for Islam!

No, I am not going to leave you in peace. Presently you will say to yourself, “When will this man leave us and go?” But this man will not go. He did not come on your invitation and he will go only on his own, but with your blessings, when his mission in East Bengal is fulfilled.

Worker: It is a part of their plan for Pakistan.

Gandhiji: It is midsummer madness and they [the Muslim League] have realised it. They will soon sicken of it. They have already begun to.

Worker: Why do not they come here then and set this right?

Gandhiji: That stage will come. Sickness only marks the crisis. Convalescence must precede cure. You see I am a nature-curist....There is not a man, however cruel and hard-hearted, but would give his admiration to a brave man. A goonda is not the vile man he is imagined to be. He is not without his noble traits.

Worker: A goonda does not understand reason.

Gandhiji: But he understands bravery. If he finds that you are braver than he, he will respect you. You will note that for the purposes of our present discussion I have not asked you to discard the use of arms. I can’t provide you with arms. It is not for me to provide arms to the Chittagong Armoury Raid men [Bengali militants who raided a government armoury during the 1930s; they were part of the crowd that Gandhi addressed]. The most tragic thing about the Armoury Raid people is that they could not even multiply themselves. Their bravery was lop-sided. It did not infect others.

Worker: ...I am myself an Armoury Raid man.

Gandhiji: You are no Armoury Raid man or, you should not have been here to tell these things. That so many of them should have remained living witnesses of the things that have happened is in my eyes a tragedy of the first order. If they had shown the same fearlessness and courage to face death in the present crisis as they did when they made that raid, they would have gone down in history as heroes. As it is, they have only inscribed a small footnote in the page of history.

You will see I am not, as I have already said, asking you just now to unlearn the use of arms or to follow my type of heroism. I have not made it good even in my own case. I have come here to test it in East Bengal. I want you to take up the conventional type of heroism. You should be able to infect others – both men and women – with courage and fearlessness to face death when the alternative is dishonour and humiliation. Then the Hindus can stay in East Bengal, not otherwise. After all, the Mussalmans are blood of our blood and bone of our bone.

Worker: Here the proportion of Mussalmans and Hindus is 6 to 1. How can you expect us to stand against such heavy odds?

Gandhiji: When India was brought under British subjection, there were 70,000 European soldiers against 33 crores of Indians.

Worker: So we are to fight with arms anyhow?

Gandhiji: Not anyhow. Even violence has its code of ethics. For instance, to butcher helpless old men, women and children is not bravery but rank cowardice. Chivalry requires that they should be protected even at the cost of one’s life. The history of early Islam is replete with such instances of chivalry and Islam is all the stronger for them.

Worker: Would you permit the Hindus to take the offensive?

Gandhiji: The people of Bihar did and brought disgrace upon themselves and India. They have set the clock of India’s independence back. I have a right to speak about Bihar. In a sense I feel closer to Bihar than to Bengal as fortune enabled me to give a striking demonstration of the non-violence technique in Champaran.

I have heard it said that the retaliation in Bihar has “cooled” the Muslims down. They mean it has cowed them down for the time being. They forget that two can play at a game. Bihar has forged a link in the chain of our slavery. If the Bihar performance is repeated or if the Bihar mentality does not mend, you may note down my words in your diary: Before long India will pass under the yoke of the Big Three with one of them probably as the mandatory power.

The Independence of India is today at stake in Bengal and Bihar. The British Government entrusted the Congress with power not because they are in love with the Congress but because they had faith that the Congress would use it wisely and well, not abuse it. Today Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru finds the ground slipping from under his feet. But he won’t let that happen. That is why he is in Bihar. He has said he is going to stay there as long as it may be necessary. Biharis have behaved as cowards.

Use your arms well, if you must. Do not ill-use them. Bihar has not used its arms well. If the Biharis wanted to retaliate, they could have gone to Noakhali and died to a man. But for a thousand Hindus to fall upon a handful of Mussalmans – men, women and children – living in their midst is no retaliation but just brutality.

It is the privilege of arms to protect the weak and helpless. The best succour that Bihar could have given to the Hindus of East Bengal would have been to guarantee with their own lives the absolute safety of the Muslim population living in their midst. Their example would have told. And I have faith that they will still do so with due repentance when the present madness has passed away. Anyway that is the price I have put upon my life if they want me to live. Here ends the first lesson.

Harijan, 1-12-1946 (93: 1-4)

Not entirely sure if he had managed to heal divisive hearts, Gandhi left Bengal and travelled to Bihar. He had resisted visiting that site of violence, since he had heard that the Congress government that was in power there was handling matters rather well. When reports to the contrary reached him, he immediately set out for Bihar.

Speech at Prayer Meeting, Patna, March 5, 1947

... This Bihar of ours has today committed a heinous crime. The atrocities perpetrated on a handful of Muslims have no parallel, so say the Muslims, in the annals of history. I too have read some history. I know that the world has witnessed greater brutality by man on man. But it is no use repeating them here. We must not compete in doing evil and that too against whom? Those who cry for avenging Noakhali in Bihar do not know the meaning of vengeance. Is it manliness to return barbarism for barbarism?

We ought to overcome violence by love...It had been reported to me that some Congressmen had a hand in these crimes. It would be wrong even today to say that there was not a single Congressman involved in the mad upheaval. In India the Congress has to accept the responsibility for the misdeeds of all communities and all individuals. I had claimed in London on your behalf that the Congress represented the whole of India by right of service. Hence any sin committed by India comes to the door of the Congress.

You who are listening to me may not have done any evil, yet you have to accept the responsibility. I have become hard-hearted now. I have not come here to shed tears or to make you cry. I would rather wish to steel your hearts. I could make you cry if I chose. But I do not wish to do so. We should not disown responsibility by saying that our hands are clean. India consists of many communities…The way to achieve independence consists in all Indians saying with one voice that unless they gave to the whole world all that was good in them, their survival would be meaningless. Are we going to compete in [making] atom bombs? Are we going to match barbarism with even more barbarous acts?

India has placed before the world a new weapon...We have been insisting that we will attain independence through nonviolence. I do not claim that all Indians have accepted non-violence as a matter of creed. But even when we accept anything as a matter of policy, it becomes our duty to act upon it...Those who are under the illusion that Bihar has saved other people by committing these barbarities are talking nonsense. This is not the way to attain freedom.

If Muslims believe that they would annihilate the Hindus or if Hindus believe that they would annihilate the Muslims, I should like to ask them what they would gain thereby? Muslims will not serve Islam if they annihilate the Hindus; rather they would thereby destroy Islam. And if the Hindus believe that they would be able to annihilate Islam it means that they would be annihilating Hindu dharma...

All religions are equal and they are founded on the same faith...Scriptures have said that one who condemns other religions, condemns one’s own religion…We should not gloat over the massacre of Muslims by Bihar Hindus…The Hindus of Bihar have committed a grave sin. They will raise the head of Bihar much higher if they do honest reparations, greater in magnitude than their crimes...

Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar: I, pp. 1-6, and Harijan, 23-3-1947 (94: 74-75)

Gandhi held several public meetings during his stay in Bihar, as he had done in Bengal, where he spoke of matters that had been brought to him, or of letters he had received with regard to the rioting and violence.

Speech at Prayer Meeting, Patna, March 8, 1947

... I have received a telegram from a Hindu brother. It says that I must not condemn the Hindus in Bihar. It warns me that due to my influence over them I may mislead them and prevent them from taking revenge. Look at the cheek of this gentleman who is trying to teach me my duty! He calls himself a Hindu but does not act like one...

We have committed a dirty crime and I have come here to cleanse the dirt and brighten the image of Hinduism. Am I going to flinch from my duty if someone beats me up or abuses me for doing it? It is my duty to speak out the truth and if I withhold it, I shall be disloyal to Hindus, to Muslims and to India. I shall therefore advise you not to listen to those who incite and misguide you. I wish to tell you one thing more.

…The Hindus in Bihar…should do their duty by contributing to a fund for the relief of Muslims by way of repentance. No one should think that he need not lift his little finger since there is already a Congress ministry with a Congress majority here, which will do everything that needs to be done…I did not beg for money in Noakhali because I received unsought about three lakh rupees. Today I thought I should hold out the begging bowl here and awaken the conscience of the people…I can only remind you of your duty. I cannot perform your duty. Hence you must contribute generously to the Bihar fund.

A Muslim child must feel entirely safe in a Hindu locality and the Muslims should be convinced of this change of heart. A friend came to me and asserted that there was a time in Bihar when Hindus and Muslims lived together and called each other uncles. Today it is no longer like that. We must atone for this ...

Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar: I, pp. 136, and Harijan, 30-3-1947 (94: 85-86)

Speech at Prayer Meeting, Patna, March 12, 1947

... Today I visited a village where Hindus had caused great damage. An old Muslim showed me his own house and those of his relations with broken door-frames where bricks were removed from the doorsill. I was shocked and shaken to see that the Hindus had caused these depredations.

I had wept when I saw the ruins caused by Muslims in Noakhali. Today also I might have wept. But my tears cannot render any succour to the sufferers. What I witnessed today does not behove human beings. We are all responsible for this vandalism so close to the city of Patna. Even if you did not participate personally in the loot, you cannot escape the charge of abetting the marauders. A mosque was also damaged in the village Kumarahar…Those who desecrated the mosque were not men but devils; because mosques, temples or churches are all houses of the Lord.

I have come here today to convey to you my grief. You may perhaps be smiling and thinking that whatever happened was all very good. But I assert that this is potent injustice. I am grieved when I hear that Muslims have desecrated a temple. Should I retaliate by damaging a mosque? How can such damage save the temple or benefit the Hindu religion?

If Muslims are about to desecrate a temple, it becomes my duty to prevent them from their vandalism, irrespective of my not being an idol-worshipper. I should hug the idol and request them not to demolish the temple. I should lay down my life to protect the idol but refuse to hand it over to them. My entreaties will impress them, they will realise that I mean no harm to them and then they will become my friends...

Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar: I, pp. 23-5, and Harijan, 30-3-1947 (94: 102-03)

Discussion with Relief Committee Members, March 15, 1947

Will you advise Muslims to return to their villages in the prevailing disturbed conditions?
If you have the courage and if you have the requisite faith in God, I shall advise you to return to your villages. I do realise that it is a difficult task. If I had under gone such harrowing experience, perhaps I myself would not have been able to go back; it would have made me a raving lunatic. The memory of murdered men and women would have haunted me. But I aspire to reach a stage when I shall have such abiding faith in God that I would go and stay in the midst of people who had become my enemies.

If there is no change of heart in the majority community, what should the suffering minority do? Should they live in small pockets or leave the province forever?
If you do not return and since it was the fault of the Hindus, the Government is bound to compensate you for the loss of your property. But I do not understand your demand that the Government should allot land somewhere else. Well, if you can arrange mutual exchanges, no one can prevent you. But if the Government arranges this, it will not lead to a purification of hearts. Many people are talking of pockets. I simply do not understand this. If those villages where the Muslims are in majority welcome you, who can prevent you from going there? Similarly, no one can prevent you from leaving the province if you decide to go in spite of my promises of affection…

Should or should not those who have committed murder, rape, arson and other heinous crimes receive appropriate punishment? If you think they should, how will you advise the Government of Bihar?
Of course, those responsible for devilish deeds must be punished. The Government of Bihar has not abjured the principle of punishment. There is no such government anywhere in the world today. When such a government comes into being, I shall listen to their argument. But a government which believes in the theory of crime and punishment but does not punish the criminal has no right to call itself a government…

How will it be possible to make good the historical, cultural, social and religious damage done by the madness of the majority?
This has been a cruel and terrible tragedy. Such holocausts have shaken the world earlier and will do so even in the future. Only when we are reformed and tolerant enough to realize that all religions lead to the same God called by various people by various names, will the world change for the better. Till then the earth not be a habitable place. Till that change comes about, it is impossible to prevent such barbarity and the irreparable losses resultant from it.

What should be done with those officers who openly helped the rioters and deliberately helped one side against the other?
Those officers against whom such charges can be proved can have no place in the government.

What do you propose to do to prevent the repetition of riots at places where the Muslims have suffered? Even now the houses and properties of Muslims are being damaged.
I am doing my best to prevent a repetition. I shall continue to stay here till I succeed in my effort. I have already declared that I shall do or die. God will either grant me success or put an end to my life. I believe that a change of heart is essential if I am to succeed. As I have been telling the Hindus in Noakhali, this is not a work where the army or police can be of much help. You must gather courage and fear no one except God. I shall advise the Ministers to frame a law making Hindus responsible for the safety of the Muslim minority. Such laws will not in fact be needed where hearts have been purified.

Can the cruelties and injustices meted out to us detain you for long in Bihar? Your prolonged presence is needed for the help of the refugees.
You need not worry on that account. I shall not leave Bihar so long as Hindus and Muslims do not jointly allow me to do so on the basis of their brotherly feelings.

Will you call them Congressmen who organised and led the recent riots? If not, what action will be taken against them to preserve the prestige of the Congress?
How can those who participated in riots be called Congressmen? Before condemning them, I must listen to their versions of the story. I am a devotee of truth and shall lay down my life in serving truth.

Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar: I, pp. 35-8 (from Urdu) (94: 113-115)

Gandhi called Congress workers to a meeting, where he interrogated their alleged role in the rioting.

Discussion with Congress Workers, Bir, March 19, 1947

... Is it or isn’t it a fact that quite a large number of Congressmen took part in the disturbances? I ask this question because people are making this allegation. But the Congressmen assembled here can themselves tell the truth. How many of the 132 members of your Committee [district Committee of the Congress party] were involved? It would be a very great thing if all of you assert that none of you was involved.

But this assertion cannot be made…I wish to ask you, how could you live to see an old woman of 110 years being butchered before your eyes? How could you tolerate it? I do not wish to talk about anything else. I have vowed to do or die. I will not rest nor let others rest. I would wander all over on foot and ask the skeletons lying about how all that had happened. There is such a fire raging in me that I would know no peace till I have found a solution for all this.

You know what happened when I reached Sodepur [in Bengal, where Gandhi was until he hurried to Bihar]…I had not gone there for rest. I proceeded to Srirampur. It was a predominantly Muslim area with only a sprinkling of Hindu houses which had been burnt down. The Muslims welcomed me. Even then I hurried from there and wandered from village to village. I am afraid I will have to go through the same ordeal in Bihar. If I find that my comrades are deceiving me, I will be furious and I shall walk barefoot on and on through hail or storm.

...When Muslims in Noakhali taunted me to go to Bihar, I used to feel hurt. Some Muslims look upon me as an enemy of Islam. Some people expressed doubts whether I could achieve what I wanted to in Noakhali. But I had no doubts…The work in Bihar this time is far more difficult and significant. This time it seems I will have to strive to the utmost to prove that Hinduism and Islam can exist side by side.

This is being put to the test today. Many people believe that they cannot and one will have to remain subordinate to the other. I do not think so…There are people today who declare that I am out of date and that I should give up all politics. I do not agree with this. This region is teeming with Hindus. We will not rely upon the police for our work although they are our police. We must do this work ourselves...

The Government here have also deployed the police. I ask them, what is the police for? Muslims are not going to kill me here; the Hindus may probably think of doing so. That is why I wish that the task of establishing peace should be undertaken by you all and not only by the Government although it is our Government. You should either achieve success in your mission or die in the attempt.

Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar: II, pp. 13-6 (from Urdu) (94: 147-150)

Gandhi felt that one could not talk enough about forgiveness and repentance. His Bihar prayer meetings are singular in this respect.

Speech at Prayer Meeting, Chorhuan, March 21, 1947

... You should go to the Muslim brethren and tell them to forget the past, that it will never be repeated and persuade them to return and live peacefully as before. Tell them that their misery is your misery, that you are their brothers, that both Hindus and Muslims are sons of the same soil, both eat and drink from the same source and breathe the same air, hence there should be no ill will between them. Tell them that you will not get any peace of mind until they return to their homes.

It is possible that the Muslims may turn round and ask how they can go back and live in the houses where their kith and kin have been done to death. They will be justified in saying so. But if the guilty persons go to the Muslims with truly penitent hearts, I am sure, they will be persuaded. Human hearts melt before love. When the murderers themselves go to them in sackcloth and ashes and promise them never to repeat such deeds, even a stony heart will melt.

You should not depend on the Government to do this work. The Government will of course lend a hand. But it is mainly your task. The Government can give you tools and materials; but the cleaning has to be done by you.

Amidst this mad upheaval there were some Hindus, like oases in a desert, who risked the wrath of the violent mobs and saved the lives of many Muslims and gave them shelter. They deserve congratulations though they do not need any…Since we have become strangers to human sentiments these days, we are impelled to congratulate any evidence of human love. Those who gave shelter to Muslims did not do so from any selfish motives.

If I have not gone to meet them, let them not think that I have no regard or respect for them. I would love to meet them and know how they saved the lives of Muslims. I have been unable to go to them in spite of my admiration because I have come here like a physician who goes only to those who are suffering. I have come to lighten the sufferings of Muslims in Bihar. I have been told that the Hindus have also suffered in the riots at some places. If there are any such Hindus, they too will be given relief. But I pay more attention to Muslims because there are quite a few of them here who are willing to help the Hindus...

Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar: II, pp. 29-32 (from Urdu) (94: 165-66)

Soul Force: Gandhi’s Writings On Peace

Excerpted with permission from Soul Force: Gandhi’s Writings On Peace, edited by V Geetha.