For the Mahatma, the meaning of Independence, nation and religion
Healing divisions as India turned free, Gandhi was clear a nation could have no religion or sect
Independence — his goal of decades — was round the corner. As was Partition, an anathema. But the mayhem and murder, presaging those two events, were all around him when, late in the night of November 6, 1946 , Mahatma Gandhi reached Chandpur by ferry. He was to stay a full four months in the stream-washed wetlands of Noakhali, East Bengal, heeding to calls from brutalised Hindus.
No sooner did he reach that first stop in the tour came news of Muslims in Bihar having been counter-attacked, mercilessly. Grieved and ashamed, Gandhi said, “The Independence of India is today at stake in Bengal and Bihar. Biharis have behaved as cowards. If the Biharis wanted to retaliate they could have gone to Noakhali and died to a man”.
Two deputations met him the next day — the first, Muslim, maintaining that no disturbances had taken place at Chandpur and the second, Hindu, seeking police and military protection. Addressing a gathering of some 15,000, mainly Muslims, at Chandpur that evening, he said, “ I have heard of forcible conversions, forcible feeding of beef, abductions and forcible marriages, not to talk about murders, arson and loot. People have broken idols. Muslims do not worship idols. Neither do I. But why should they interfere with those who wish to worship them? These incidents are a blot on the name of Islam.”
The fires having been doused, if not extinguished, in East Bengal , he left on March 3, 1947 to the “opposite theatre” — Bihar. In the village of Bir, he learnt of the brutalities visited on innocent Muslims. Speaking to a gathering in that village, he could barely control his fury. “I wish to ask you, how could you live to see an old woman of 110 butchered before your eyes ? I will not rest nor let others rest. I will wander all over on foot and ask the skeletons what happened. There is such a fire raging in me that I will know no peace till I have found a solution for all this .”
As steps towards the transfer of power to the two dominions began taking final shape, Gandhi remained firmly away from all of that. His feet took him where his heart said he should be — among the victims of the trauma surrounding the change. And, in early August, he went back to Bengal from Bihar. His specific intention was to return to the still-smarting Noakhali.
In Calcutta, a big Muslim delegation urged him to stay on in the city to help quell the riot-like situation there. He agreed on two conditions: One, those Muslims in Calcutta urging him to work for peace in the city must do what they can to ensure the safety of Hindus in Noakhali. Two, he would live in a Muslim locality in the city where Hindus must ensure the safety of its Muslim residents.
Hydari Manzil in the Beliaghata suburb of Calcutta was identified.
“It was a very shabby house,” Manu Gandhi records, “without any sort of facility…open on all sides…only one latrine…every inch of the place covered with dust and muddied by rain…Only one available room where everybody and everything had to be accommodated including Bapu himself…”
An officer of the information department met him on August 9 and asked him for a message to the nation on August 15. Gandhi declined to give one. The officer persisted, “It will look kharab if you do not”. Gandhi replied, “Hai nahin koyi message, hone do kharab (There is no message, let it be kharab).”
On August 14, there was a change in atmosphere — for the better, it seemed. This day being his last in office, premier HS Suhrawardy sought and got the privilege of driving Gandhi around parts of the city to see the eager anticipation of Independence, the departure of the last British governor, the induction of the first Indian governor and the Congress government headed by PC Ghosh.
And then a message did come. It was in the shape of a reflection. “Tomorrow we will be free from bondage to the British, but from midnight tonight Hindustan will be broken into two pieces. So tomorrow will be both a day of rejoicing and mourning”.
For him, August 15 1947 was a day to fast. Too much was gnawing at his heart. And he recalled his son-like secretary Mahadev Desai who had died on that day, in 1942. Thousands flocked to his Beliaghata room. These included the new ministers to whom he said : “Do not fall prey to lure of wealth”.
On the next day, August 16, 1947 John Kellas, principal of Scottish Church College asked him, “What is the relation between a nation and religion?”
Witness to mutual slaughter in the name of religion, devotee of Rama who believed Ishvara and Allah were two names for the same, Gandhi gave a reply that echoes, re-echoes with a new urgency today. “A nation does not belong to any particular religion or sect. It should be absolutely independent of either.”
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal