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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 43 New Delhi October 12, 2019

Last Phase in the Life of Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday 13 October 2019, by Gargi Chakravartty

Commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, it may be strange to focus on the days before his martyrdom. To me that was the most glorious phase of his life, when he was bold enough and uncompromising on issues most dear to him since his plunge into our national movement. Among those the most vital was the quesition of Hindu-Muslim unity. He battled throughout his life to make the Congress and also the people of the entire country to understand the importance of the issue. There were huge challenges from religion-oriented political parties, representating both the Hindus and Muslims. Still in his own way he tried till the end not to yield to any pressure to divide the country on the basis of religion.

Two things most dear to his heart and soul were non-violence and Hindu-Muslim unity. But at the last phase of his life India had to witness the worse form of violence and communal hatred. Gandhi rushed to places of riots, undertook fasts and tried his best not to accept the proposal of partition of India.

Gandhi’s evolution helps one to find a distinct Gandhi, firm and determined, at the fag end of his life. Though we had seen earlier Gandhi drafting resolutions in the cow-protection conferences, the same Gandhi said in 1947: “The Hindu religion prohibited cow slaughter for the Hindus, not for the world. The religious prohibition came from within. Any imposition from without meant compulsion. Such compulsion was repugnant to religion. India was the land not only of the Hindus, but also of the Musalamans, the Sikhs, the Parsis, the Christians and Jews and all who claimed to be of India and were loyal to the Indian Union....Just as Shariat could not be imposed on the non-Muslims, the Hindu law could not be imposed on the non-Hindus.†1 This he spoke at a prayer meeting on July 25, 1947, when he was told by Dr Rajendra Prasad that the latter had received 50,000 postcards, 30,000 letters and thousands of telegrams asking for the prohibition of cow-slaughter in the Union of India. Today when several Muslims are being lynched to death by the so-called gau-rakshaks in the country, when the accused ones are being welcomed and felicitated by the BJP leaders with garlands, one is reminded of Gandhi and how he would have reacted to such a development if he was alive.

Communal riots are the worst form of violence. When Gandhi as a crusader of non-violence was asked to show the “way of quelling riots†, he answered in a pretty long speech whose last lines were: “Several lives like mine will have to be given if the terrible violence that has spread all over is to stop and non-violence reign supreme in its place.†2

Gandhi did not agree with the idea of partition. He opposed from the very beginning. Precisely for this reason he had several rounds of talks with Jinnah in September 1944, but these, however, failed. This endeavour for unity was opposed by the Hindu supremacists, who not only shouted slogans against Gandhi but also tried to stop him from meeting Jinnah. On the other hand, the then General Secretary of the CPI, P.C. Joshi, wrote in a pamphlet: “The Gandhi-Jinnah meeting is a great event in the national history of India.†3 He was extremely disappointed at the failure of the Gandhi-Jinnah meet and called upon them to meet again. After the failure he brought out another pamphlet, They Must Meet Again, which was sold on the street by the comrades. This contrast reflects the two bi-polar streams of our nationalism—one opposed to Hindu-Muslim unity, and the other strongly in favour of an understanding so that partition is averted.

Finally our country was moving fast towards partition, which was no doubt a defeat for secular nationalism and a victory for religious nationalism of both the Hindu and Muslim variety.

In February 1947, the Congress was totally against partition. However, within four months, the political scenario changed and most of the Congress leaders felt that giving the Muslim League Pakistan might bring an end to the uncontrollable communal frenzy and thereby restore peace. Finally when the AICC passed the resolution on partition, many of the Congress leaders considered it to be a temporary one. For example, Congress leader Maulana Azad said: “The division is only of the map of the country and not in the hearts of the people and I am sure it is going to be a short-lived partition.†4

Gandhi felt helpless to convince everybody who seemed to be impatient for independence. A few days before the AICC resolution on partition was passed Gandhi said in a monologue: “Should the evil I apprehend overtake India and her independence be imperilled, let posterity know what agony this old soul went through thinking of it. Let it not be said Gandhi was party to India’s vivisection. But everybody is today impatient for Independence. Therefore there is no other help.†5

On the day of the independence, that is, August 15, 1947, Gandhi was far away from Delhi. He could not share the country’s jubilation. His residence at Beleghata turned into a place of pilgrimage for the citizen of Calcutta; there one did witness many a moving scene of Hindu-Muslim fraternisation. Gandhi, however, observed the Independence Day by fasting and spinning without holding any special function. When a government official went to him for a message, he said: “I have run dry.†When it was conveyed to him that if he declined to give any message, it would not be a good thing and might be misconstrued, Gandhi replied: “There is no message at all. If it is bad, let it be so.†6

India became independent with partition which killed a million people and created ten million refugees on both sides of the border. It destroyed Gandhi’s mission of his lifelong struggle since the days of satyagraha in South Africa. His concept of unity of hearts, of non-violence, of bringing Hindus and Muslims together failed to achieve what he had wanted. His letters to Tagore and C.F. Andrews make it clear how lonely he had become. Historian Uma Dasgupta compiled those letters in a book titled, Friendships of Largeness and Freedom, and in her Introduction aptly described the inner struggle of Gandhi in the following words: “Gandhi clearly lived with a moral loneliness (emphasis mine) throughout his leadership.... He increasingly felt helpless over the longstanding problem of Hindu-Muslim unity.... It was an agony that he could not ‘move’ the Congress over something as essential for the country’s future as Hindu-Muslim unity.†7

His cherished dream of Hindu-Muslim unity and a united India shattered with partition. But that was not the end of the story. He came back to Delhi on September 9, 1947 from Calcutta in a communal charged scenario, where angry Hindus refugees were up in arms against local Muslims. He said in his prayer meeting on September 5, 1947: “Let the Hindus and Sikhs take the right step and invite the Muslims who have been driven out of their home to return. If they can take this courageous step worthy from every point of view, they immmediately reduce the refugee problem to its simplest terms.†8 He also said: “The transfer of millions of Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims is unthinkable. It is wrong. The wrong of Pakistan will be undone by the right of resolute non-transference of population. I hope I shall have the courage to stand by it even though mine may be the solitary voice in its favour.†9

On November 28, 1947, Gandhi, while addressing the Sikhs on Guru Nanak’s birthday, described Sheikh Abdullah as the ‘Lion of Kashmir’ (whose son Farooq Abdullah has been now imprisoned under the PSA by the Modi Government). Gandhi spoke in such a fondly tone about Sheikh Abdullah. That needs to be remembered today. He spoke at the gathering: “You can see Sheikh Abdullah Sahab with me. I was disclined to bring him with me, for I know that there is a great gulf between the Hindus and Sikhs on the one side, and the Muslims on the other. But the Sheikh Sahab, known as the Lion of Kashmir, although a pucca Muslim, has won the heart of both, by making them forget that there is any difference between the three. He had not embittered.... Now the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs of Kashmir and Jammu are fighting together to defend the beautiful Valley of Kashmir. I am glad, therefore, that you are receiving the two of us with cordiality.†10

The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular try to appropriate Gandhi as a person worthy of reverence. Modi started the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan commemorating Gandhi’s birthday in 2014 and similarly this year on October 2, celebrating Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, he launched the anti-plastic campaign. The idea is commendable, but there is an element of hypocrisy. On the one hand some of his important party leaders like Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Pragya adore Nathuram Vinayak Godse, the assassin of Gandhi, as a patriot. Many built temples in his name and even some of their people, for example, V.K. Mittal of Indore, in-charge of their IT cell, suggested to sell ’Godseji’s pistol’ on auction to find out how many deshbhakts are their in this country! Those eulogising Godse and addressing him as ‘Godseji’ are never being questioned or criticised by Modi, who, on the other hand, by simultaneously projecting himself as a follower of Gandhi, gives an impression to the people of our country, how faithful he is to the Father of the Nation. This duplicity and falsehood in a person of the PM’s stature is deplorable to those who really follow Gandhian principles.

The first shock of my life was years back when I was teaching partition and Gandhi in college. One student stood up and said to my utter astonishment that ‘Godse was a patriot’. After many decades now I often here the same attribute from many BJP leaders!

Whatever has happened in the last five years and continues to happen even today, in that parameter Gandhi would have been called an ‘anti-national‘ and ‘unpatriotic’ by the ruling dispensation. The present generation is ignorant of the earlier attempts made by those Hindu supremacists on the life of Gandhi (that ultimately succeeded on January 30, 1948) because they considered Gandhi’s mission of Hindu-Muslim unity as detrimental to their idea of a Hindu nation, their concept of two nations, Hindu and Muslim, which was lucidly spelt out by their ideologue, V.D. Savarkar, in his address to the 19th session of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937,11 that is, much before Jinnah’s Lahore speech in 1940. Dr B.R. Ambedkar even said: “Strange as it may appear, Mr Savarkar and Mr Jinnah, instead of being opposed to each other on the one nation versus two nation issues, are in complete agreement about it.†12 The threat of a Hindu Raj, the social humiliation of the Muslims by the upper-caste Hindus and their economic grievances at the lower level, particularly in Bengal, enabled the elitist leadership of the Muslim League to convince them about the idea of Pakistan as a dreamland.

Gandhi became a martyr of Partition. He was shot dead on January 30, 1948 not by a mad fanatic, as claimed by BJP spokespersons, but by an associate of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. There are ample evidences on it. He was killed by these Hindu extremists, because Gandhi was considered pro-Muslim by them. All his speeches during his last prayer meetings were aimed at bringing sanity to the nation. Though he was a truly devout religious Hindu and Rambhakt, he was, at the same time, upright and secular in his approach to the communal issue. Gandhi’s life is a clear example of a person who had no contradiction between religious faith and secularism.

We need to remember that at a time when Kashmir was attacked by Pakistani tribals, Gandhi was busy in Delhi taking up the issue of financial quota to be given to the newly-born Pakistan. The Nehru Government had been pressurised by the Hindu public opinion, influenced by the RSS propaganda, to refuse the due share of financial quota to Pakistan. Gandhi took it up as a moral issue and launched his fast unto death on it. He began his fast at noon on January 13, 1948. A few lines from the long speech he delivered then relfect his determination and firmness on the issue: “Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than that I should be a helpless witness of the destruction of India, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. That destruction is certain if Pakistan ensures no equality of status and security of life and property for all professing the various faiths of the world and if India copies Pakistan.†13

Gandhi suggested to Sardar Patel, the then Home Minister, that the question of Pakistan’s share of the cash assets, which had been withheld by the Union Government, should be given the priority. Gandhi himself wanted to go to Pakistan. The entire Cabinet of the Indian Union met around Gandhi’s bed to consider the issue while he was on fast. Hindu supremacists regarded this act of Gandhi as the most glaring evidence of his partiality towards the Muslims. (Earlier his talks with Jinnah in 1944 were also seen by them as Gandhi’s appeasement of the Muslims.)

Gandhi gave his life for his mission of Hindu-Muslim unity and a secular India. Therefore he became a martyr, being killed as a part of a conspiracy hatched by the Mahasabha/RSS; otherwise why did these people distribute sweets after they had heard the news of Gandhi’s assassination? Godse never regretted. One gets a clear picture from Ramachandra Guha’s book entitled, Gandhi: the years that changed the world:“When asked whether he (Godse) had anything to say, Gandhi‘s murderer ‘smiled blandly’ and remarked: ‘For the present I only want to say that I am not at all sorry for what I have done. The rest I will explain in court.’†14

After Gandhi’s assassination Sardar Patel as the Home Minister banned the RSS and in a letter to M.S. Golwalkar on September 11, 1948 clearly explained his position as to why he had to do so. “All their speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organise for their protection. As final result of the poison the country had to suffer the invaluable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of the sympathy of the Government or of the people no more remained for the RSS. In fact, opposition grew. Opposition turned more severe when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death. Under these conditions it became inevitable for the Government to take action against the RSS.†15 This poison was created by the speeches of RSS leaders like Golwalkar and others. Let us go back to December 1947, when in the first week Golwalkar remarked referring to Muslims that “no power on Earth could keep them in Hindustan. They shall have to quit this country. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep the Muslims in India so that the Congress may profit by their votes at the time of election. But, by that time, not a single Muslim will be left in India... Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.†16 This has been the aim of the RSS from the very beginning. So its crusade to oust the Muslims from India through the Citizenship Amendment Bill and NRC is a means to carry forward Golwalkar’s pernicious ideas.

Golwalkar’s speech explains the reason why Gandhi had to be assassinated. In spite of such venom, Gandhi was firm and determined in his mission. His speech during his last fast in January 1948 is memorable and unique; it clarified his position. “My fast as I have stated in plain language is undoubtedly on behalf of the Muslim community in the Indian Union and therefore, it is necessarily against the Hindus and the Sikhs of the Union and the Muslims of Pakistan. It is also on behalf of the minorities in Pakistan, as in the case of the Muslim minority in the Union.†17 It meant that Gandhi would be protective about the Muslims in India, similarly about the Hindus in Pakistan. It is obligatory for the majority community to be concerned about the minorities. That was Gandhi’s understanding of composite and secular nationalism. And precisely for this reason, he was opposed by the Hindu supremacists in various phases of his life. Their narrative of Indian history and nationalism failed them to understand Gandhi. They were bound to criticise him, misread him and hate him. Otherwise such poison or venom would not have been spread against him so as to provoke one of their followers to shoot him.

It is an irony that today Gandhi is used as a symbol for issues like Swachh Bharat or anti-plastic campaign. On the other hand apart from this trivialisation, the continuous hate-campaign against the minorities, spread by the BJP through the lynching of Muslims and Dalits by RSS affiliates, speeches in eulogy of Godse, hurting the sentiments of Kashmiri Muslims through authoritarian steps like abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A (the right to abrogate the Articles remained with the Constituent Assembly of Jammu & Kashmir and not with the Indian Parliament), the initiation of the NRC in all States and the clear declaration by Home Minister Amit Shah that the NRC would not include Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, making it very obvious that it was directed against the Muslims—all these signify that the persons in power in New Delhi today have murdered the ideas of Gandhi. The sharp oppostion of their majoritarian ideology to Gandhi’s uncompro-mising and firm defence and protection of the Muslims goes against the very principles for which Gandhi had to lay down his life. Modi’s silence on this issue is understandable. Therefore by commemorating Gandhi let him not befool the people, particularly the present generation, who have  no idea and knowledge of why and how Gandhi was killed.

The Congress could have exposed this hypocrisy, but unfortunately the Congress, instead of taking up the challenge of Gandhi’s unfinished work to enhance secular nationalism, is seen competing with the RSS/BJP to appease the Hindu majority. This strategy is definitely un-Gandhian, suicidal and goes against the very principles which the Congress had once stood for. Secularists expect the Congress to go to the grassroots with the last message of Gandhi, the first martyr after the country’s independence. Otherwise they too would be held responsible for the dismantling of secular India.

ENDNOTES

1. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Volume 8, p. 61.

2. Ibid., Volume 7, p. 171.

3. People’s War, August 20, 1944.

4. Quoted in Dilip Hiro, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan, Nation Books, 2015, p. 97.

5. D.G. Tendulkar, op. cit., Volume 7, p. 415.

6. Ibid., Volume 8, p. 80.

7. Uma Dasgupta (ed.), Friendships of Largeness and Freedom: Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi: An Epistolary Account 1912-1940, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. xxxv.

8. D.G. Tendulkar, op. cit., Volume 8, p. 120.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 207.

11. Samagra Savarkar Wangmaya (Collected Works of Savarkar), Hindu Mahasabha, Pune, 1963, p. 296 (countercurrents.org)

12. The Times of India, January 25, 2019.

13. D.G. Tendulkar, op. cit., Volume 8, pp. 247-248.

14. Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: the years that changed the world (1914-1948), Penguin Random House, India, 2018, pp. 882-883.

15. Quoted in Neerja Singh, Patel, Prasad and Rajaji: Myth of the Indian Right, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2015, p. 82.

16. Quoted in Ramachandra Guha, “Gandhi and the RSS†, The Telegraph, September 28, 2019.

17. D.G. Tendulkar, op. cit., Volume 8, p. 259.

The author is a former Associate Professor in History, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi. She is the Vice-President of the National Federation of Indian Women.   

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