Away from official ceremonies, he was fighting communal fire in Kolkata
Ashish Mehta | August 21, 2018 | New Delhi
On August 15, 1947, he woke up at 2 am, an hour earlier than usual. The whole nation – nearly a fifth of the humanity – was soon to gear up for its greatest moment in history, but Mahatma Gandhi was in no mood for celebration.
A lifelong witness of the desolate darkness that always preceded the dawn, he wanted to face it up once again, inside out, before India woke up to freedom.
He was the uncontested supreme leader of the freedom struggle, but when the historic moment arrived, he was predictably not in Delhi where Nehru made the memorable ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech. Nehru and other dear colleagues wanted him there, but he was instead in Kolkata.
He avoided Delhi even while coming here from Kashmir, and he wanted to move on to Noakhali to douse the flames of communal fire. Shaheed Suhrawardy, premier of Bengal, urged him to stay in Kolkata where his presence was needed more. Gandhi acquiesced, with the condition that he too should stay with him. Thus, Gandhi spent a few days from August 13 in an old Muslim woman’s home, Hydari Manzil, in the Hindu-majority Beliaghata, with Suhrawardy as his host.
For the past few years, August 15 was anyway a day of prayers and fast for him, in memory of Mahadev Desai, his alter ego and spiritual heir apparent, who had passed away on this day in 1942 in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune during their incarceration after launching the Quit India campaign.
Gandhi began the day with prayers. Remembering Mahadevbhai, he read the Gita, the whole of it. At dawn, the other inmates of the temporary ashram joined in for the morning prayer meet. Soon they heard the chorus of a ‘prabhat feri’ – a group of young women doing rounds of the streets singing Ravindra Sangit: “Pratham prabhat udit tav gagane…” Hearing prayers, they stopped for a while and resumed when the Gandhian prayer meet concluded. The words of ‘Kavivar’ must have struck a chord with the Mahatma, recalling his most perceptive interlocutor in this city on this day.
Gandhi then turned to spinning. The inveterate letter writer could not write a letter that day, but dictated one, to British champion of the labour class and a supporter of India’s cause, Agatha Harrison. “This letter I am dictating whilst spinning. You know, my way of celebrating great events, such as today’s is, to thank God for it and, therefore, to pray. This prayer must be accompanied by a fast, if the taking of fruit juices may be so described. And then as a mark of identification with the poor and dedication there must be spinning. Hence I must not be satisfied with the spinning I do every day, but I must do as much as possible in consistence with my other appointments.”
And other appointments, there were many. As the day progressed, the house he stayed at became a pilgrim centre with thousands queuing up for his ‘darshan’. Among the visitors were also Rajaji, the governor of West Bengal, and the whole state cabinet led by Prafulla Ghosh. A glimpse of the gist of these conversations:
ADVICE TO WEST BENGAL MINISTERS
“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.”
From ‘Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Vol 2’ by Pyarelal
TALK WITH C RAJAGOPALACHARI
“The new Governor of the province, C Rajagopalachari, paid him a respectful visit and congratulated him on the ‘miracle which he had wrought’. But Gandhiji 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 future deterioration in spite of the present enthusiasm.”
From ‘My Days with Gandhi’ by Nirmal Kumar Bose
TALK WITH COMMUNIST PARTY MEMBERS
“At 2, there was an interview with some members of the Communist Party of India to whom Gandhiji said that political workers, whether Communist or Socialist, must forget today all differences and help to consolidate the freedom which had 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 was failing them when it came to the establishment of Hindu-Muslim unity. With regard to the celebrations, Gandhiji said: I can’t afford to take part in this rejoicing, which is a sorry affair.”
From ‘My Days with Gandhi’
TALK TO STUDENTS
“Gandhiji explained in detail why the fighting must stop now. We had two States now, each of which was to have both Hindu and Muslim citizens. If that were so, it meant an end of the two-nation theory. Students ought to think and think well. They should do no wrong. It was wrong to molest an Indian citizen merely because he professed a different religion. Students should do everything to build up a new State of India which would be everybody’s pride. With regard to the demonstration of fraternization he said: I am not lifted off my feet by these demonstrations of joy.”
From ‘My Days with Gandhi’
The evening prayer meeting had to be held in an open ground, Rash Bagan Maidan, because everyone who could wanted to have a ‘darshan’ of the Mahatma on this most memorable of the days. An estimated thirty thousand turned up to listen to him. Suhrawardy too addressed the crowd, echoing Gandhi’s message of peace and speaking of the miracle that the Mahatma had delivered in bringing the two warring communities together. At his urging the mixed crowd of Hindus as well as Muslims joyously shouted in unison, ‘Jai Hind’. Narayan Desai, in his four-volume biography in Gujarati [‘Maru Jivan Ej Mari Vani’], records that Gandhi’s face lit up with a smile for the first time in the day.
At night, Gandhi had a curious request for his host, Suhrawardy. He wanted to mingle with people and see how they were welcoming the new era – but he wanted to go out anonymously. The host arranged for a car, and the two went out. The premier was driving, with the Father of the Nation sitting next to him: How could people have not spotted them? The journey was stopped at many places, with people crowding around the vehicle, shouting “Mahatma Gandhi Zindabad”, and inviting both to shout along with them, “Jai Hind”.
The first day of the independent India had brought Hindus and Muslims together in celebrations. Was “the dream of my youth” finally getting realized in “the evening of my life”? Was this a miracle or accident? Gandhi must have wondered. The next day, he found time to pen down his own account of the day for the journal Harijan. Answering the question, he wrote,
“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 Shaheed Saheb. 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. The utmost therefore, that man can do is to refrain from interfering with the dance and that he should render full obedience to his Maker’s will. Thus considered, it can be said that in this miracle He has used us two as His instruments...
“In the present exuberance one hears also the cry of ‘Long Live Hindustan and Pakistan’, from the joint throats of the Hindus and the 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, and here evidently they are not, 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 article appears in the August 31, 2015 issue)
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