Gandhi’s last battle

On 11 January, 1948 a group of Delhi’s Muslims met Gandhi asking him to help them in their “ passage to England.” They had decided not to go to Pakistan but it was made impossible for them to stay in India. Gandhi felt defeated.

“ We are steadily losing hold on Delhi” , Gandhi wrote to a friend. “If it goes, India goes and with it goes the last hope of world peace.” Describing Gandhi’s state of mind in what were to be his last days, his biographer D G Tendulkar says that it was intolerable to him that Dr. Zakir Hussain or even Shaheed Suharwadi could not walk on the streets of Delhi with as much safety and assurance as himself.

Feeling lost, Gandhi struggled within to find a way. And as had happened earlier in his life, he turned to his inner little voice which had been beckoning to him for a long time and decision was made :he had to fast again. “ The fast begins from the first meal tomorrow(Tuesday, 13 January)…it will end when I am satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities brought about without any outside pressure, but from a awakened sense of duty.”

The decision of a 79 year old man to undertake fast for an indeterminate period stunned his friends and his family as well. Devadas Gandhi reprimanded his father for having surrendered to “ impatience,whereas the mission that you had undertaken is essentially one of infinite patience.” His patient labour had saved lakhs upon lakhs of lives and could still save many, but “ your patience seems to have suddenly snapped.”

Gandhi wrote back to his son calling him a “high minded friend” but rejected the charge of being hasty : “behind the lightning quickness was my my four days’ heart searching and prayer.”

Gandhi explained his decision in his prayer discourse, “I never liked to feel resourceless, a Satyagrahi never should. Fasting is his last resort in place of sword- his or other’s. I have no answer to the Mussalman friends…. My impotence has been gnawing at me of late. It will go immediately the fast is undertaken….. No man, if he is pure , has anything more precious to give than his life.”

As a votary of Ahimsa, he had no other way of registering his protest against the wrong done by his people.He blamed no one but if the “Hindus and Sikhs insisted on turning out Muslims from Delhi, they would be betraying India and their won faith.”

Gandhi, before camping in Delhi had wandered barefoot in Noakhali telling the Muslims what he was now asking the Hindus and Sikhs to do to their neighbors. There too he was unwelcome but that had not deterred him. He had walked from village to village telling Muslims that by killing and driving out Hindus they were acting against their faith. In Calcutta, he camped with the hated Suharavardi and forced Hindus to lay down arms. His colleagues, Nehru and others were in Bhagalpur and other places quelling the fire of communal violence.

Delhi was not to be his destination. He wanted to go to Punjab in the newly created Pakistan with a strange dream of taking with him the Hindus and Sikhs who had to flee their land and bring back with him the Muslims who had fled from India. It was true that two new nations were created but how could neighbourhoods be broken!

It was the grief stricken face of the usually jovial Sardar Patel and the the gloom in Delhi which made his decision. He had to be in Delhi and “do or die.”

Very few Gandhians have noted the recurrence of his famous slogan “ do or die”. Gandhi had laboured hard from September, 1947to January, 1948 to persuade Hindus and Sikhs that revenge from the Muslims of Delhi for what was done to them in Pakistan was wrong .He demanded the same from the leaders of Pakistan constantly asking what happened to their commitment of safeguarding the minorities. He wanted to go their to their succour. “ But with what face could he now go there if he could not guarantee full redress to the Muslims in Delhi?”

Hindus were a majority in India. But on the strength of their numbers they could not make Muslims secondary in the project of the nation of India. Hindus must understand that they were not big brother or patron to Muslims and Muslims were not to live as vassals of Hindus in India. Hindu way of life was not to be confused as the only Indian way of life. One should remember that he had firmly rejected the suggestion by Rajendra Prasad to legally ban cow slaughter and beef eating.

The doing part seemed to be over and time had to come to die for the cause dearest to his heart. Like Maulana Azad, a free India without equality for all religious communities was unacceptable to him :“ Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than that I should be a helpless witness to the destruction of India, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam.”

The streets of Delhi were milling with angry Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan who had lost everything. Slogans wishing death for Gandhi were not uncommon. Gandhi shared their pain but never wavered from telling them that they were playing in the hands of Satan by occupying mosques, capturing Muslim houses and driving the Khadims out of the Dargah of Mehrauli.

Gandhi had fasted many times. But would his body, frail and exhausted from his relentless wandering and his soul worn out from the violence it sought to confront, be able to survive this time? Gandhi did not want people to rush to action to save him. They should examine the purpose of his fast and let him die, if must, in peace.

Gandhi was attacked for taking the fast on behalf of Muslims. His response was again unambiguous, “ My fast….is undoubtedly on behalf of the Muslim minority in the Indian Union and,therefore, it is necessarily against the Hindus and 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.”

Gandhi felt that this was a clumsy compression of his long held belief. He is not for balancing between communalisms. What he is telling the world that the bedrock principle of Indian democracy is protection and respect for minority rights. Gandhi felt that he had equal claim over India and Pakistan. Pakistan failed him by not standing by its minorities. Exactly 70 years after the commencement of Gandhi’s last fast, can we say that India stands by its minorities with the resolve Gandhi expected from it?


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