On the stroke of the midnight hour on August 15, 1947, while Nehru delivered his tryst with destiny speech, the father of the nation, Mahatama Gandhi, slept through it in Calcutta. He woke up only at 2am to participate in his daily prayer meeting, not sure what the day would bring.
The cycle of violence that began in Calcutta one year back on August 16, 1946, when the Muslim League called for a “Direct Action Day”, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah declaring that the League wanted “either a divided India or a destroyed India”, had set in train a series of events that made the Partition of India unavoidable.
Thousands (estimates range from 4000 to 10,000) were killed in a matter of days in Calcutta and the riots first spread to the Bengal countryside, then Bihar and the United Provinces, and finally, and most savagely, the Punjab.
In late-October 1946, Gandhi started his peace mission, starting with Calcutta and from November onwards, spending weeks walking on foot from village to village in the Noakhali district of East Bengal where retributive rioting by Muslims who were overwhelmingly in the majority, had led to hundreds of Hindus dying.
Gandhi had promised the Noakhali Hindus that on the fateful day of August 15, 1947, when freedom and partition came, he would be with them as they would find themselves living in the newly created Muslim State of Pakistan, as he decided to make one last tour of Kashmir before Partition after spending four months in Noakhali.
But on his way back to Noakhali, when he halted in Calcutta in August 1947, he was persuaded by prominent Muslims to stay on in the capital city, arguing that riots in 1946 had started in Calcutta and peace in the city would mean peace throughout Bengal, both in the west which was still part of India, and in the east, now to be part of Pakistan.
Gandhi asked Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bengal's Muslim chief minister, under whose watch the violence of August 1946 had been carried out and who had once described the Mahatama as “that old fraud”, to join him in the peace efforts and held a public meeting with him on August 13, 1947.
Horace Alexander described the meeting and said that first they were greeted by slogans such as "Gandhi go back" till Gandhi brought Suhrawardy forward, and stood with one hand over his shoulder.
The critical moment came, Alexander wrote, when a young man shouted at Suhrawardy: "Do you accept the blame for the great Calcutta killing of last year?”
“Yes,” replied Suhrawardy. "I do accept that responsibility. I am ashamed of it.”
"That," said Gandhi to Alexander a few minutes later, "was the critical moment. There is nothing more effective than public confession for clearing the atmosphere. In that moment he won them over."
As Alexander put it, while Suhrawardy was speaking, a policeman came with news that in another part of the city, Muslims had joined Hindus across one of the invisible but potent barriers to put up the Indian national flag.
As Gandhi kept up his dialogue with protesters, promising that if Hindus provided safety to Muslims in Calcutta, Muslims in Noakhali would keep their pledge and protect the Hindus there, eventually persuading them into giving up their rancour. Alexander described the moment of independence: "After a year of darkness, suddenly the sun was shining again. The whole city was intoxicated. With joy, it was Calcutta on the 15th of August, 1947."
Gandhi insisted that there had been no miracle. He was to prove right as rioting broke out again in Calcutta within a matter of days, as news about arrival of dead bodies from West Punjab added fuel to the smouldering embers of communalism. It was then that Gandhi announced a fast unto death which was broken only on September 4 when concern about his falling health forced the rioters to surrender their weapons and pledge instead to protect those they were out to kill earlier.
As the horrors of Partition continued unabated, with violent killings in Punjab, estimated by some to be over one million, Bengal remained largely peaceful.
The Morning News, a Muslim League newspaper, wrote: "He was ready to die so that we may live peacefully." The Times of London wrote, "Gandhi has achieved more that what thousands of troops would have achieved."
Lord Louis Mountbatten, the viceroy who had now become the Governor-General of India wired Gandhi:
"My Dear Gandhiji, in the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man and there is no rioting. As a serving officer, as well as an administrator, may I be allowed to pay my tribute to the One Man Boundary Force".
And thus it was that Gandhi finally left for Delhi on September 7, 1947, hoping to travel on to Pakistan and appeal for peace there. It was not to be.