The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 18


The story thus far…After the defeat of Japan in August 1945, Britain agreed to a planned withdrawal from India. All through his life Gandhi had worked for unity between Hindus and Muslims, without much success. There was a large section of nationalist Muslim in the Congress but leaders of the Muslim League were drifting further and further away. Gandhi was not the man to give up hope, however, and he pursued his efforts to bring about a settlement. On the other hand, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, was hostile to the idea of unity.

The Viceroy invited all leaders to Simla and tried to find a solution and bring about Hindu-Muslim accord. Jinnah would not agree to anything except a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. Britain announced and held an election in India. The Congress won most of the non- Muslim seats and the Muslim League won most of the Muslim seats. The deadlock continued.

“We can settle the Indian problem in ten minutes if Mr. Gandhi agrees to the creation of Pakistan,” said Jinnah. But Gandhi was distraught. “Cut me in half,” cried Gandhi, “but do not divide India in two.”

His words fell on deaf ears. In February 1946, the British government sent a Cabinet Mission to India. It consisted of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander. The task of the Cabinet Mission was to study the situation and make recommendations. After careful consideration, the Cabinet Mission issued a statement proposing the withdrawal of British authority from India. They had the idea of a united India.

On August 24, 1946, the Viceroy announced the formation of an Interim National Government to replace the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Jawaharlal Nehru was the Vice-President of the Interim Government. The Muslim League declined to join on the ground that it had not been given the right to nominate all the Muslim members.

After the installation of the Interim Government, Gandhi was anxious to return to Sevagram, his ashram near Wardha, but the Congress leaders prevailed on him to stay longer in Delhi because they wanted his advice. Then the Muslim League decided to join the Interim Government and an announcement was made to that effect on October 15, 1946.

Gandhi once again felt free to return to Sevagram. He was about to leave Delhi when news came of disturbances in Bengal. There was widespread communal rioting in Calcutta and in the Muslim majority district of Noakhali in East Bengal, with murder, arson, looting, forced conversions, forced marriages, and abduction.

Gandhi was confused and grief-stricken. Instead of returning to Sevagram, he set out for Noakhali to try to bring peace there. The communal riots spread. There were similar riots in Bihar and the Punjab. Several thousand were killed and injured. Gandhi was greatly distressed by these events. He tried to calm and reassure the people.

He walked from village to village and from house to house carrying his message of peace. Wherever he was, there was peace, at least outwardly, but the general situation in India was worsening. Rioting spread from the towns to the villages. In Bihar the Muslims were suffering and Gandhi went there to instill courage into the Muslim minority. The situation in India was so dreadful that the Congress leaders realized that the best way open to them was to accept Jinnah’s demand for a division of the country. Nehru met Gandhi to inform him of this decision.

Gandhi asked him, “Is there no way out? No hope of a united India?” Nehru was sad and grave. “Bapuji,” he replied, “unity is impossible… we have to accept it (division of India). Otherwise this deadly turmoil will never cease.”
Gandhi bowed his head to hide his despair. On June 3, 1947, British Prime Minister Attlee announced the plan for partition. The Congress and the Muslim League accepted it. For Gandhi it was a spiritual tragedy. With infinite sadness he said, “All of India must accept Pakistan in loving resignation. We have no choice. Hindus must lead the way to a friendly settlement.”

Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy, was anxious not to delay the ushering in of independent India and independent Pakistan. He shortened the time limit for the British to quit India. The date for the declaration of Indian independence was fixed for August 15, 1947.

Thus on August 15, 1947, India’s long struggle and suffering for freedom was over. A new nation, although split in two, was born. Lord Mountbatten hailed Gandhi as “the architect of India’s freedom through non-violence.”

Gandhi had never given his approval to partition, but when it was done he accepted it and did everything possible for the attainment of Hindu-Muslim friendship. Yet the tension between Hindus and Muslims continued to increase. As a result of partition over 700,000 Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Muslims, fearing the Muslims, in Pakistan left their homes and set out towards security in India. From India about the same number of Muslims, fearing the Hindus, left their homes for Pakistan.

One and half million people on the move were exposed to starvation, disease, and death on the way. Gandhi was on his way to the Punjab when he stopped in Delhi, hoping to quell the riots that had broken out there. Gandhi’s gospel of forbearance and forgiveness towards Muslims marked him as a traitor in the eyes of many Hindu extremists. In the face of fanatical opposition, Gandhi redoubled his efforts and the major disturbances in Delhi subsided, but there were still disturbances here and there. Gandhi decided to do penance by fasting, which he thought would bring about a change in the attitude of the Hindu fanatics. The fast began on January 13, 1948. There was gloom all over India at the news of Gandhi’s fast. People thought that he would not be able to survive another fast.

The whole world watched as Gandhi, 78 years old, fasted to save his country from destruction. On January 18 a peace committee, representing all communities, met and signed a pact pledging unity and the protection of life, property, and faith to the Muslim minority. Gandhi was informed of the pledge and he broke his fast. Gandhi was staying at Birla House. Every evening he held a prayer-meeting in the grounds.

During his prayer-meeting on January 20, a bomb was thrown at him, but it missed its target. Gandhi continued his prayer meeting as if nothing had happened. “Bapuji, a bomb exploded near you,” said a voice. “Really?” Gandhi said. “Perhaps some poor fanatic threw it. But let no one look down on him.”

On January 30, after a midday nap, Gandhi woke up at 3.30 p.m. The whole day he had had a stream of visitors. Sardar Patel went to see him at 4 p.m. Nehru and Azad were to come after the evening prayer. Gandhi left his room at 5 p.m. and went towards the prayer hall. He passed through a cordoned-off path, accompanied by Manu and Abha, his grand-daughters. As he was walking along a youth came forward as if to seek his blessings.

But he stood in front of Gandhi and at point-blank range fired three shots in quick succession. All the bullets hit him. Gandhi fell, uttering the prayer, “Hay Ram.” Gandhi was dead. The assassination gave the world a tremendous shock.

Nehru went on radio to tell the country of Gandhi’s death, his voice choked with emotion: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that. Nevertheless, we will not see him again as we have seen him for these many years. The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many, many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.”

– Concluded