Today is Martyrs' Day.
Convoy fleets will take their uneasy occupants to Rajghat, and to that far more compelling site on Tees Janvari Marg where, in Ramchandra Gandhi's words, the 79-year-old Mahatma "stopped three bullets on their deathly trajectory of hate". After the siren-cars have departed and the sentries on duty have melted away, simple folk nostalgic for yesterday, angry about today, and bewildered by tomorrow will get there as well, to pay honest homage to the man who spurned the false and lived the truth.
Some truly sensitive person — who I do not know — gave January 30 the imaginative and aptly collective title of Martyrs' Day. Apt, because the compulsive sharer of joys and sorrows who died on that date in 1948 would not have liked to monopolise martyrdom, even in the very particular form with which it came to him.
I would like to invoke five such persons today.
It was the third week of March 1931.
The immortals, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev had just attained martyrdom on the gallows of the British Raj. The country was astir, angry and aspiring to acts of supreme courage for the country's liberation.
Yet another kind of martyrdom, no less demanding, no less needed, was just round the corner. And its site was not the altar of freedom but the public square of humanity. The most savage communal violence had engulfed Kanpur's mixed mohallas. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, teacher, journalist, founder of The Pratap and president of the UP Congress Committee in 1929, did not phone the police. He did not go to newspaper offices to fulminate against communalism. He did not lapse into prayer, wailing or rhetoric. He did just what Gandhi wanted satyagrahis to do in communally-charged situations.
Over four days, Vidyarthi saved the lives of several — hundreds — of Hindus and Muslims from the blind fury of murderous hordes. On March 25, his biographer Anandi Prasad Mathur tells us, when Vidyarthi heard of violence having erupted in Maida Bazar, he left home for the locality, despite pleadings from his wife. ‘You fret for nothing,' Vidyarthi told her, ‘I have not displeased any community, no one will harm me… God will help me…'
A man running for his life asked Vidyarthi to save some people who were hiding nearby. Not for the first time that day Vidyarthi was in the direct line of death. Someone tried to save him by pulling him to a side gully. 'Why are you dragging me?' Vidyarthi said, 'If these people's anger is to be quenched by my blood, so be it…' And then blow upon blow raining on him, sharp instruments pierced his thin frame. Gandhi wrote in Young India: "The death of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi is one to be envied by us all… Let this noble example stimulate us all to similar effort should occasion arise again."
The 'occasion' arose in 1946 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
It was July 1, the day of Asad Sud, when images of deities are taken out in a rath yatra. The city broke into the most ghastly communal riots. Thirty-year-old Vasantrao Hegiste and 17-year-old Rajab Ali were colleagues in the Congress. Vasant had participated as a volunteer in the Dandi salt satyagraha and was an active member of the Seva Dal. Rajab, drawn to Marx and Gandhi, had undergone three spells of imprisonment. When news came from the suburb of Jamalpur that frenzied mobs were on the rampage there, Vasant and Rajab ran to the spot. They were threatened but they defied the armed bullies and lay down on the rioters' path to protect their victims. They died crushed by several murderous feet.
In the August and September of 1947, when Gandhi was in Calcutta, communal frenzy reached new heights. Gandhi moved to one of the city's most turbulent quarters, Beliaghata. Hydari Manzil, where he stayed was attacked on the night of August 31, 1947, by bloodlust-crazed youths. They took an associate of Gandhi, Bishen, to be a Muslim and were about to kill him when Gandhi confronted them: 'Kill me, kill me I say, why don't you kill me?' The mob melted away. Two brave youths, in their 30s, volunteers of the Gandhi school — Smritish Banerjea and Sachin Mitra — went into the riot affected areas the next day. Sachin was stabbed while trying to still mob fury on Calcutta's Zachariah Street, while Smritish became a martyr while watching over a peace march.
Gandhi was to live for but five months after the Sachin-Smritish martyrdoms. During his last fast in Delhi, in January, 1948, Prime Minister Nehru heard some angered men outside Birla House say 'Let Gandhi die'. Jumping out of the car he had just entered, Nehru fumed: "Who said that, who? Let him say that to my face…He will have to kill me first…"
Those who place flowers at Rajghat today must recall, with the Mahatma, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, Vasant-Rajab, Sachin-Smritish and countless others like them, including security personnel, who have given their lives to keep India secular and sane. They must also remember the innumerable innocents who perished on both sides of the border in 1946-47 at the hands of venal beings invoking religion, for they are martyrs no less, in the cause of civilised living.
Martyrdom is not history, nor courage the stuff of legends from an earlier era. Formidably brave, honest and idealistic men and women have died in recent months battling corruption and the politician-mafiosi nexus that is swindling our natural resources. They have been martyred in our cause of clean governance, exercising our Right to Information, for the India that Gandhi gave his life for.
Communalism kills in the heat of frenzy, corruption in cobalt-cold calculation. Amazingly, there are many 'unknown' persons prepared to face that danger with courage, even elan. But very few will protect a potential martyr today with 'Kill me… I say, kill me first…'
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.