‘Must you bring Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into everything you write?’ a friend asked me. “He was great and all that….but there is more to life than one great man”.
The point was well taken.
And yet, I said, I cannot help going back to him. He is a kind of tyrant in one’s memory cells. Or, if you like, the one grocer in the village who sells essentials, gives you a bill written on the back of a lifafa with the right change. I cannot do without him.
The last August of his life, especially the fortnight from August 1 to August 15 was as even more amazing than the rest of that year.
Between those two dates he travelled from one extremity of India to the other — Rawalpindi to Calcutta (now Kolkata) — by slow trains, mind you, no aircraft, commercial or chartered. He was in Rawalpindi on August 1 and in Calcutta on August 15 ‘doing’ Srinagar, Jammu, Lahore and Patna in that west to east journey. In other words, he traversed the entire band of present and future trouble, tension and trauma.
Independence was in the air. On reaching Srinagar on the evening of August 1, the Gujarati traveller in him let himself be taken for a drive. He noticed illuminations. “What are these for?” he asked. The State had illumined the city to celebrate the restoration to Kashmir of Gilgit, he was told. “A great mistake…,” he said. “They should have taken the opportunity immediately to proclaim autonomy for Gilgit within Kashmir”. There is something called prescience.
Gandhi then sent a ‘report’ on his visit to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru , to be shared with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Talking of his meeting with the Maharaja and Maharani, parents of Dr Karan Singh, he wrote: “I met them… Both admitted that with the lapse of British Paramountcy, the true Paramountcy of the people of Kashmir would commence…” In another letter to the Sardar, he wrote “… In my opinion the Kashmir problem can be solved”. There is something called practical idealism.
Moving on to Lahore where he stayed with Rameshwari Nehru who was doing (and was going to continue to do) epic work of uplifting displaced persons and abducted women, Gandhi was stirred to his core. And when being seen off in Lahore, he said the rest of his life was going to be spent in Pakistan as a guardian of communal harmony there. “Maybe in East Bengal or West Punjab, or perhaps the Frontier Province”. There is something called a sense of priorities.
But priorities are not about ‘large’ issues alone. On the train journey to Patna, it rained heavily all night. The roof of his carriage leaked. The guard urged him to move to another compartment that was drier.
The Gandhi-Railway Guard conversation about shifting to another bogey is a nugget.
“What will happen to this one?”
“Other passengers will occupy it”.
“If it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me…”
“Is there any service I can render?”
“Do not harass poor passengers and do not take bribes. That will be the greatest service you can render to me”.
The communal issue was not the nation’s only problem. There was such a thing as ‘day-to-day problems’.
In Patna, at a public meeting, he said August 15 was going to be a day when we would be put to a test. The freedom that is coming is not a day for illuminations. “Can we”, he asked, “feel celebratory when foodgrains, cloth, ghee, oils and the like are in such short supply?” No, he said. “Independence Day should be spent fasting, praying and spinning”.
On August 11 itself — this day in 1947 — Gandhi was in Calcutta. Riots had erupted. If he had seen Hindus cowering in terror in West Punjab, he saw Muslims in fright here. Responding to entreaties from the Muslim community to defer going to East Bengal, he decided to stay on in the city for a while longer. “I am willing”, he said to former Calcutta Mayor Usman Saheb, “but then you have to guarantee the peace of Noakhali…”
He toured the riot-cleft city that day — this day — from 2:30 pm to 5:15 pm with chief minister-designate PC Ghosh and the outgoing prime minister HS Suhrawardy. He told the future prime minister of Pakistan, “We shall have to work till every Hindu and Mussulman in Calcutta safely returns to the place where he was before. We shall continue in our effort till our last breath…”
The result was that Gandhi and HS Suhrawardy moved to a house in Beliaghata, Hydari Manzil, and stayed there together until, after many moments of high drama and danger, including an attempt on their lives, and a historic fast by the Mahatma, peace returned.
Gandhi left Beliaghata and Calcutta only when he could see that the crisis, at least in its worst aspect, had abated.
Is there any point, any point at all, in this historical re-wind today?
None, if we are convinced that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have exorcised the ghosts of hatred, suspicion and vendetta.
None, if we are convinced that refugees can be ignored, ‘pushed back’, or manipulated.
None, if we are convinced that sub-regions within our States have no sense of their own identities or aspirations of their own.
None, if we are convinced that the ordinary citizen can be pushed about by a servile, crony and corruptible mandarinate, to keep the high and the mighty comfortable.None, if we think political rights can compensate for shortages in the supply of essential goods and services.
And — above all — none, if we are convinced that our leaders in high office cannot place themselves right amongst the agonised, not just on duty visits, but until clear signs can be seen of the agony abating.
As the surgeon’s knife began its work over the sub-continent’s political map, Gandhi was asked about the region’s future. The answer he gave can be repeated in the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh context and otherwise as well: “The future will depend on what we do in the present”.
Remembering Gandhi is not gratuitous.
It is about what we are doing with the present.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal