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Mainstream, VOL LV No 41 New Delhi September 30, 2017

Gandhiji at the Dawn of Freedom

Friday 29 September 2017

by Kshitish Chandra Das Gupta

The Fifteenth of August, 1947, was drawing near. India was going to shake off two centuries of British domination and join the comity of nations as a sovereign independent country. None could have been happier at this prospect than Mahatma Gandhi, looking at the fulfilment of the struggle he had led for nearly three decades—a struggle unique in world history.

But happy he was not. The 16th of August, 1946, had marked the beginning of the Muslim League’s “Direct Action” movement for carving out a separate State—Pakistan—for the Indian Muslims. It had started in Calcutta, then spread to Noakhali and set off a chain reaction affecting Bihar, UP, the Punjab and many other parts of India. Senseless killings had taken place, women had been violated, houses and properties burnt. The virulent poison of communalism had equally affected the two major communities—the Hindus no less than the Muslims.

Gandhiji was a witness to this painful phenomenon—the dehumanisation of his people, the destruction of all human values, the depletion of the moral reserves of the nation.

The poignancy was made all the more acute for him by the defeatism of the Congress leaders whom he had reared up as his own sons. They had already agreed to the vivisection of India as the price of independence. In their impatience to get into the seats of power, they felt no moral compunction to accept in practice—though not in theory—the two-nation theory of M.A. Jinnah, and undo in one stroke all that the national movement led by Gandhiji had slowly achieved over the decades, namely, the unity of the people of India, irrespective of caste, community or language, in the fight for freedom.

Quite understandably, Gandhiji was sad, sorrowful and soul-stricken. He had repeatedly said that the partition of India could be made only over his dead body, but now that it was coming, he found himself deserted by his lieutenants. To resist Partition, he would have to call on his people, but that would mean turning against Jawaharlal, Vallabhbhai, Rajendra Prasad and who not... against his sons, as it were.

Communal atrocities which included loot, arson, murder, rape and en masse conversion, affecting nearly 50,000 people, had taken place in Noakhali in October, 1946. When the news reached him in Delhi, Gandhiji decided to go to Noakhali. Thus began his historic Noakhali Peace Mission. From November 7, 1946, to March 2, 1947, that is, for four months, he walked barefoot from one riot-affected village to another, ignoring the severe winter, restoring confidence and dignity to the panic-stricken Hindus and rekindling the flame of love and brotherliness in the Muslims who had been carried away by passion.

His non-violence was being put to the acid test in Noakhali, said Gandhiji and declared that he would not leave the district till his mission had succeeded and non-violence had been proved to be the strong leaven that he claimed it was.

When, however, news reached him that communal riots had taken place in Bihar and his presence was necessary, he came to Calcutta and left for Patna (March 5, 1947), leaving his unfinished work in Noakhali to his colleagues and co-workers who were enjoined to remain at their respective posts of duty.

From his Bihar tour Gandhiji went to Delhi. He came back to the Khadi Pratisthan Ashram at Sodepur on May 9, intending to return to Noakhali. Meanwhile, the situation in Calcutta had again deteriorated. Riots had claimed many more lives and property. On reaching Sodepur, therefore, Gandhiji discussed the communal situation in the city with Sri Suhrawardy (the then Chief Minister of Bengal), Sri Sarat Chandra Bose and other leaders.

On May 14, 1947, Gandhiji went out to visit the riot-affected areas of the city, touring conti-nuously for two hours. He first visited Paikpara in North Calcutta, then went to Bagmari, Goalapara, Kankurgachi, Narkeldanga and Beliaghata—all in the eastern part of the city with concentrations of Muslim population. All along the tour, I was with him in his car as his escort.

From Calcutta, Gandhiji was to go to Howrah. As our motorcade was passing along the Beliaghata Main Road, some Hindus stopped our car near Minabazar and explained to Gandhiji how they had fared at the hands of the Muslims. This irritated Sri S.M. Osman, ex-Mayor of Calcutta and a Muslim League leader, who was with Gandhiji showing him the areas where Muslims had been affected. Sri Osman’s irritation so unhinged him that he told Gandhiji in as many words that he very much resented Gandhiji listening to the stories of atrocities committed by Muslims.

When our car reached the Entally area near the Lower Circular Road junction, Sri Osman said that as Gandhiji had already been “biased” against the Muslims, it was no good taking him to Howrah. So saying, he got down from the car in a huff. The Howrah tour had thus to be cancelled abruptly. Pyarelalji, his Secretry, and myself, took Gandhiji back to Sodepur.

Sri Suhrawardy did not at all like the idea of Gandhiji going back to Noakhali again, just as he did not like Gandhiji’s first visit to the district after the communal riots in October the previous year. He tried to dissuade Gandhiji from going to Noakhali and assured him that the situation there was quite normal and that the Hindus were not being harassed or threatened, although Gandhiji had been informed by Sri Satish Chandra Das Gupta (whom he had put in overall charge of the Peace Mission before he left Noakhali) and other leaders like Sri Haran Chandra Ghose Chowdhury that tension was very much there, that stray attacks were taking place almost daily and that criminals like Golam Sarwar (he was the chief organiser of the October riots) were moving about scot-free, intimidating the Hindu population.

Anyway, due to the obstructionist tactics of Sri Suhrawardy, Gandhiji’s departure for Noakhali had to be repeatedly put off. Ulti-mately, he left for Delhi on May 15, that is, the day after he visisted the disturbed parts of Calcutta. Just after he had left, the situation in the city worsened. On May 19, communal disturbances flared up in Calcutta and on the 24th the police had to open fire.

But Gandhiji did not give up his intention of returning to Noakhali. On August 6, he was at Lahore. In reply to a question put by some local Congress workers, he said: “The rest of my life is going to be spent in East Bengal or West Punjab perhaps the Frontier Province... I have been yearning to come to the Punjab ever since I came to Delhi, but there were certain forces which were against my coming to this Province. My present place is in Noakhali and I would go there, even if I had to die. But as soon as I am free from Noakhali I will come to the Punjab. I hope I will be free from Noakhali very soon.”

Gandhiji came back to Sodepur in August. By a strange coincidence, the date was the ninth, the fifth anniversary of the August movement which had served the final “Quit India” notice on the British. The British were, at last, going to quit. In six days’ time, the Union Jack was going to be hauled down and the Trivarna hoisted in its place. India would be free. But was it “the India of my dreams”? Was it, also, the freedom he had fought for? The year preceding independence had seen the worst fratricidal strifes. Rivers of blood had flowed through the country as brother fought brother savagely. Independence was coming to a partitioned India whose air was heavy with the blood of the innocent victims and the tears of those who had been left alive to mourn.

Gandhiji had come to Sodepur on his way to Noakhali where he was going to fulfil his promise of completing the unfinished tour. His post- prayer speech in the evening was devoted to the Calcutta riot situation. The next day, the 10th, he said at his prayer meeting that he had thought of going to Noakhali the next day, that is, the 11th but due to pressure from his Muslim friends, had decided to stay on to see if he could contribute to bring back sanity in Calcutta.

On the 12th, Gandhiji said that he had decided to prolong his stay in Calcutta by two more days at the instance of his Muslim friends. The previous night Shaheed Sahib (Sri Suhrawardy) had suggested to him that it would be contrary to Gandhiji’s practice to leave Calcutta while the city was going through the horrors of communal strife. He had accepted the suggestion.

Gandhiji proposed to Shaheed Sahib who had come to meet him at Sodepur that both he and Gandhiji should live together under the same roof in some disturbed part of Calcutta, without taking any police or military protection but depending solely on the people. Gandhiji asked him to consult his aged father as well as his daughter and get their consent, instead of giving a hasty reply then and there.

As far as he was concerned, however, Gandhiji had obviously taken the decision, because shortly after noon, around half past one, he asked me to accompany Sri Osman to find out a suitable place in a Muslim area in Calcutta. He made it clear that any place in a Muslim bustee, even a burnt house, would be good for him. Accordingly, Sri Osman and I went to the old Paikpara area in search of a suitable place, but none could be found that would be fit for Gandhiji’s use, that is, had space enough to hold his afternoon prayer meetings or even to accommodate the scores of visitors who would be thronging throughout the day and even late into the night.

We next decided to go to Beliaghata in eastern Calcutta, where Muslim houses and bustees had been attacked and destroyed by local Hindu young men. Most of the Muslim population had fled from this area. Sri Osman, therefore, was quite unwilling to go there unprotected. On my insistence, he said he could go only with armed police escort. We, therefore, went to the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Police, North, who provided the escort.

After inspecting several houses, I selected the one beside the Essavi Match Factory on the Beliaghata Main Road, a little way off from Raja Rajendralal Mitter Road. Earlier, Sri Osman had come with the message that Sri Suhrawardy had obtained the consent of his father and daughter and had agreed to Gandhiji’s proposal to live together.

The next day, August 13, Gandhiji arrived at the Muslim house at Beliaghata in the afternoon. With him were Sri Osman, Prof Nirmal Kumar Bose, Smt Abha Gandhi and Smt Manu Gandhi, Smt Hemprabha Devi, myself and a few others from the Sodepur Ashram.

On our arrival at the Beliaghata house, Gandhiji said that except Prof Bose, Abha and Manu, all others should leave the place without delay and that from now on he should be exclusively in the hands of the Muslim friends. This was an order that had to be obeyed. With a heavy heart and much against our will, therefore, Smt Hemprabha Devi, myself and others from the Sodepur Ashram, came away. Sri Suhrawardy had not till then arrived. He was to come at about eight in the evening to live with Gandhiji.

It may be mentioned that the selected house—Hydari Mansion—was untenanted, full of dirt and the yard in front was full of mud and puddles of stagnant water. The yard had to be filled up with cinder. The rooms had to be cleaned, disinfected and white-washed. At my request, the Mayor got all this done by the Calcutta Corporation people.

There was also the question of ensuring Gandhiji’s safety. By the time I left Beliaghata, I had come to know that a group of Hindu youngmen, armed with revolvers, sten guns and other lethal weapons, were roaming in the locality and that they very much resented Gandhiji coming to the rescue and protection of the Muslims. I had also been told that when I had come to the locality the previous day and was searching for a house, these people, taking me for a Muslim (perhaps becaue of the imperial that I sport) was about to aim their guns at me, when someone among them recognised me just in the nick of time.

On getting back to the Sodepur Ashram, therefore, I rang up Dr P.C. Ghosh, who was due to succeed Sri Suhrawardy as the Chief Minister, and told him about the place and environment where Gandhiji was without police or military protection Late in the evening, Dr Ghosh posted police pickets near Gandhiji‘s house.

Before I left Beliaghata, a crowd had already assembled at the gate and wanted to see Gandhiji. When I went to him and told him about them, he said six people could be brought to him. Accordingly, I let in six from among the crowd. Thereupon Gandhiji again asked me to go back to Sodepur. He began talking to these people. He spoke in Hindi while Prof Nirmal Bose, acting as an interpreter, translated it into Bengali. A few minutes later, there was a furore and a large crowd rushed through the gate and stormed into Gandhiji’s room. One of these was dead drunk. Another, still in his teens, talked and gesticulated in a most insulting and offensive manner. Some others stood outside, because the room was too small. Later, it transpired that the whole thing had been purposely organised by elements who wanted to force Gandhiji to leave the area.

The angry crowd demanded to know from Gandhiji as to why he had not come after the 16th August, 1946, when there was the Great Calcutta Killing, when the Hindus were butchered, their houses burnt and property looted. Gandhiji replied that he was now in Calcutta on his way to Noakhali. He had to postpone his journey as Shaheed Sahib had flown from Delhi just to say that he (Gandhiji) should stay in Calcutta to bring peace. Gandhiji thought that by staying in Calcutta, he would be able to serve the Hindus of Noakhali.

At the prayer meeting he wanted his audience to believe that if Calcutta returned to sanity, the rest of India would be safe, including Noakhali. During the next few days, he bent all his energies to the cause of restoring peace and confidence in the city. He met representatives of both the communities, prominent citizens and political leaders—official as well as non-official. It was clear that Calcutta was his first concern and that he would not leave the city till conditions had become normal again.

Came the Fifteenth of August. On that day the whole atmosphere suddenly changed as if at the touch of a magic wand. People came out of their houses in their lakhs, Hindus and Muslims embraced each other warmly and affectionately, sweetmeats were distributed, fireworks lit up the night sky of the city and the bitterness of the past was totally forgotten, or so it seemed at the moment. Looking at the jubilant and joyous crowds, one could scarcely believe that violence and vengeance, mistrust and misgiving had vitiated the air till the day before.

But Gandhiji was not impressed by this sudden effusion of communal amity. He was too farsighted to take the apparent for the real. He knew that the rot had gone too deep. People’s minds had been poisoned, the moral fabric of the nation had become weak. To rid itself of the hatred, animosity and rancour that had been bred, the nation, he knew, would have to go through a purgatory of penance and purification of the heart. How valid his apprehensions were was to be proved very shortly.

He felt out of tune with the mood of gaiety that marked the day. His heart was heavy. Sad and withdrawn, he sat silently in his room and in spite of requests declined to come out and see the celebrations and festivities with which the city was welcoming the advent of freedom. It was not a day of merrymaking but a “day of prayer and fasting”—he said.

The next day, the 16th, Gandhiji wrote: “Shaheed Sahaib Suhrawardy and I are living together in a Muslim manzil in Beliaghata. We occupied the house on Wednesday the 13th. The Muslim volunteers are attending to our comforts... Muslim volunteers do the cooking. Many were eager to come from Khadi Pratisthan for attending but I prevented them.” (What Gandhiji refers to as the “manzil” was in fact an old single-storeyed uncouth pucca house, having three rooms only.)

On the 19th, Gandhiji visited affected areas in Kanchrapra, Barrackpore, Titagrah and some other places in the industrial belt north of Calcutta. The next day, the 20th, he told a prayer meeting at Khangraputty in the Burra Bazar area of Calcutta that the Central Peace Committee should now consolidate the results so far achieved. There should be Mohalla Peace Committee and they should find at least one Hindu and one Muslim of clean heart to work together.

The Calcutta Corporation gave a civic reception to Gandhiji on August 24. It was held at the Maidan in the evening. In his reply, Gandhiji siad that this was the third time he was receiving an address from the civic body. The first was given to him by Deshbandhu C.R. Das when he was the Mayor. The second was given when Sri Nalini Ranjan Sircar was heading the Corporation. In course of his speech, Gandhiji recalled the late Acharya P.C. Ray under whose roof he had lived for the one month in 1901.

On August 27 and 28, Gandhiji held prayer meetings at Metiaburuz and the Science College respectively. On the 29th a meeting was held at Beliaghata on the “Ras Maidan” on Raja Rajendralal Mitter Road.

As Vande Mataram was being sung, the audience including Sri Suhrawardy and other Muslims and Hindus on the dais stood up. Gandhiji alone remained seated. He said later that Indian culture did not require standing as a mark of respect when a national song or a devotional song (bhajan) was being sung. It was an unncessary importation from the West. A responsive posture was the corect one on such occasions. After all, it was the mental attitude that mattered, not the outward appearance.

On the 30th, Gandhiji attended a prayer meeting at Barasat in 24-Parganas, Calcutta, at the time, was apparently calm. Gandhiji’s mind, however, was far from peaceful. After some hesitation, he decided to go to Noakhali in the beginning of September.

There was some demonstration before the Beliaghata house on the 31st evening against the Peace Committee referred to in the Khangra-putty prayer speech. Gandhiji told his secretary, Sri Pyarelal, who had just come from Noakhali: “My resolve to go to Noakhali has collapsed after this evening’s happenings. I cannot to to Noakhali, or for that matter any-where, when Calcutta is in flames. ...You have, for the time being, therefore, to return to Noakhali without me. You can tell the people of Noakhali that if my colleagues, for any reason, cannot be there, they will find me in their midst.

The Ist of September was Monday, his day of silence. On this day, Gandhiji decided to go on fast. There was a recrudescence of communal violence in the city and the fast was undertaken to rouse the conscience of the people. At about half-past eight in the evening, he prepared a statement explaining the reason for which the fast was undertaken.

At about ten in the night, an incident took place right within the Beliaghata house. An angry mob besieged the house. Gandhiji appeared at the doorway of the main hall opening out from a side room. First a lathi (stick) was thrown at him and then a piece of brick. A Muslim standing by the side of Gandhiji was hurt. At the request of the police, Gandhiji drew back.

on the 3rd, Sachindra Nath Mitra and Smritish Banerjee were killed while they were leading peace squads—Sachin in the Murgihatta and Smritish in the Park Circus areas of the city. Sushil Das Gupta, who was with Smritish, was severely wounded and five days later died in the hospital.

Gandhiji’s fast continued. Sri Rajagopalachari, the then Governor of West Bengal, Sir Suhra-wardy and other leaders came to Gandhiji and tried their utmost to persuade him to give up the fast. Rajaji assured him that the Govern-ment was taking every possible step against the miscreants and guarding against possible eruption of violence.

Gandhiji replied that the Government would deal with the situation in its own way. But what would the common people do under the circumstances? They did not want riots or lawlessness but felt powerless to assert them-selves. His fast was undertaken on behalf of these common people.

On September 4, an appeal signed by about 40 Hindu and Muslim representatives was brought to Gandhiji, in which the signatories solemnly pledged to maintain communal harmony and resist breach of the peace. Sri Suhrawardy told Gandhiji that their hearts had been touched (by the fast). Rajaji was present as also the Hindu Mahasabha people. At a quarter past nine, Gandhiji broke his fast which had lasted for 73 hours. The next day, the 5th, he still felt too weak to address a prayer meeting.

On the 6th, Gandhiji attended a farewell function arranged on behalf of the citizens of Calcutta to express their gratitude. Referring to the Deputy Mayor’s speech, Gandhiji said that the word “farewell” was misapplied. He had made his home among the Muslim friends in Beliaghata and not in Khadi Pratisthan, Sodepur, which was his permanent home. He would not allow even Srimati Hemprabha Devi and her co-workers to come to his new abode for looking after him. He said he would be satisfied with what his Muslim friends gave him in the shape of service. He had made no mistake. He was in the habit of living comfortably in the Muslim homes in South Africa. He referred to the martyrdom of Sachin and Smritish and said he was not sorry. Such innocent deaths were necessary to keep the communities together.

Gandhiji left Bengal for Delhi on September 7, 1947, for the last time. During this, his last stay he was in Calcutta for thirty days—six days at Sodepur Ashram and twentyfour days at the Beliaghata house.

When Gandhiji was approached for a message, on the eve of his departure, he wrote it down in Bengali: Amar Jeevan-i Amar Vani (My life is my message). He signed it in Bengali as Mo Ka Gandhi.

Little did we know, as he left us, that he was soon to vindicate his message with his life as he did on that fateful Friday of January 30, 1948.

(Mainstream, October 5, 1968)

The author was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and along with his elder brother, Satish Chandra Das Gupta, founded the Khadi Pratisthan in Bengal for implementing Gandhiji’s Constructive Programme. He was a pioneer in manufacturing printing ink under Indian entrepreneurship. He was also a pioneer in introducing scientific bee-keeping in India.

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