Each day of the Mahatma’s selfless life was eventful even before he returned to India in 1915 from South Africa from where he from successfully launched Satyagraha that was to follow in India on a much wider scale, leading to independence. Here we will recall the important events of January 1948, the last month of Mahatma’s life that continues to be a great source of inspiration for millions of people throughout the world.
In the beginning of the month, as a consequence of Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir, the Indian Cabinet decided to withhold payment of Rs. 55 crores (40 million pounds) due to Pakistan as part of assets of partition. Both Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy PM Sardar Patel were in favour of withholding the payment even though Lord Mountbatten, the first Governor General (earlier the last Viceroy) had described the Cabinet decision “unwise, unstatesman like and the first dishonorable act’ of the free government of India. On Kashmir, Mahatma Gandhi, had categorically stated that ‘troops of Pakistan would have to be driven out.’ But the withholding of payment of the amount to which the Indian government had been committed, the Mahatma thought, was on a different footing. This non-payment became one of the causes and not the only one, for Mahatma Gandhi to commence a fast-unto-death on 13 January.
As in Bengal, and more so in Punjab, the communal situation in Delhi was extremely tense. Cases of violence against innocent Muslims, who had decided to stay back in India, were brought to the notice of Gandhiji who felt hurt that even in the nation’s capital the Muslim were not safe. He knew what was happening in Delhi was in retaliation for what had been happening to Hindus in Pakistan. But the apostle of peace and non-violence would have none of it. He could not tolerate this kind of revenge. In his prayer meetings he had many a times stated that if Hindus suffered in Pakistan, that was no reason to heap sufferings on innocent Muslims in India.
Rajendra Prasad, the Congress President, and and Maulana Azad mobilized citizens,officials and organizations. In sympathy with Gandhi, a number of Hindu and Sikh refugees cut down on their food. So did Nehru, as also a Bristish journalist and former editor of the Statesman, Arthur Moore. When Azad and Prasad asked Gandhi what he wanted in Delhi, they received clear answers: ‘Muslims should be allowed to hold their annual fair at the mausoleum of Khwaja Qutbuddin. Mosques converted into temples and gurdwaras should be returned.Muslims should be ensured safety in their homes and on trains. The economic boycott imposed against Muslims in some Delhi localities should be lifted.’
Many groups of Delhi’s Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims called on Gandhi and assured acceptance of his demands. A peace pledge was signed by more than two lakhs people. On the eighteenth, a large delegation of citizens, politicians and officials led by Prasad called on Gandhi and described a shift in the city’s mood. The Pakistan High Commissioner Zahid Hussain was also present.
Dr Prasad told Gandhi: ‘We take the pledge that we shall protect the life, property and faith of the Muslims and that the incidents which have taken place in Delhi will not happen again.’ ‘You have given me all that I have asked for,’ replied Gandhi. He said he would end the fast but added that he would not ‘shirk another fast should he afterwards discover that he had deceived himself into breaking it prematurely.’
The accomplices of Godse, who assassinated Gandhi, made an attempt to kill the Mahatma ten days earlier. On January 20, Madanlal Pahwa, a refugee from western Punjab set off a bomb behind Gandhi. While he was speaking at his regular prayer meeting at Birla House. Gandhi escaped unhurt and continued speaking. Next day he said:
“You should not have any kind of hate against the person who was responsible for this. He had taken it for granted that I was an enemy of Hinduism. Is it not said in Chapter 4 of the Gita that whenever the wicked become too powerful and harm dharma, God sends someone to destroy them? The man who exploded the bomb obviously thinks that he has been sent by God to destroy me. But...if we do not like a man, does it mean that he is wicked?...if then someone kills me, taking me for a wicked man, will he not have to answer before God?...when he says he was doing the bidding of God, he is only making God an accomplice in a wicked deed...Those who are behind him or whose tool he is should know that this sort of thing will not save Hinduism. If Hinduism has to be saved it will be saved through such work as I am doing.”
In police custody, Pahwa revealed names of his co-conspirators and though security was tightened as Birla House, Gandhi refused permission for frisking participants at his prayer meetings.
Three prominent leaders of Parsi community, two Indians – Jehangir Patel and Divshav Mehta – (and one Pakistani – Jamshed Mehta – met Gandhiji on January 22 to arrange his visit to Pakistan regarding which they had already met M A Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The date for Gandhi’s planned historic visit to Pakistan, which will never be, was fixed for 8 or 9 February.
On January 23, birthday of Subhas Bose, Gandhiji remembered the hero of INA who, before his tragic plane crash, had sought his blessings for his Azad Hind Fauz. By January 29 Gandhiji met a stream visitor who included Vincent Sheean (later his biographer), Kingsley Martin and Margaret Bourke, all eminent foreign journalists/pacifists.
On the morning of Januray 29 a delegation of 40 Hindus from the frontier province met Gandhi. They had suffered in the riots and most of them bore wounds on their bodies. They held Gandhi responsible for them plight. The same evening the Mahatma referred to the incident in his prayer speech: “One of them said I had done enough harm already and that I should stop and disappear from the scene...I asked him where he wanted me to go. He said that I might go to the Himalayas...I asked why I should go merely because he wished it...I can only do as God bids...God is the help of the afflicted, but an afflicted person is not God...God will do what he wills. He may take me away...My Himalayas are here.”
How did the Mahatma spent his last day on earth? Gandhiji woke up, as was usual, at 3:30 in the morning and at 3:45 joined his companions for the morning prayers: “Forgive, O Merciful and Loving God of Gods, all my sins of hand or foot, body or speech, eye or ear, of commission or omission...I ask neither for a kingdom nor for Heaven nor for liberation but only for an end to the pain of the suffering ones...” Till eight he wrote some notes on the rice cris in Madras province and prepared a draft for the Congress organisation. His breakfast at eight comprised of goat’s milk, boiled vegetables, tomato, radish and orange juice.
Amongst those who called on Gandhiji were Rustom Sorabji, an old associate of his South Africa days and Congress Leader U N Dhebar (who later became President INC) and De Silva from Sri Lanka whose daughter obtained the last autograph/paper Gandhi would sign. Earlier, his secretary Pyarelal and Sudhir Ghosh, an associate for long, showed Gandhi an editorial in London Times alleging Nehru – Patel rift.
Gandhi told them he will be taking up the matter with Patel who was meeting him at 4, and with Nehru with whom the meeting was scheduled at 7 after the prayers. While the assassination came in the way of Nehru’s meeting, Patel arrived at 4 accompanied by his daughter Maniben. Patel’s last meeting with his political guru commenced at 4:15. Gandhi told Patel categorically that he had come to the conclusion that both Nehru and he were indispensable to the Cabinet. Any breach between them would be disastrous for the infant nation. The Mahatma also told him that he will talk on similar lines with Nehru after the prayer meeting.
The Gandhi – Patel talks continued till 5:10, and the Mahatma, who had disciplined himself never to be late even by a minute, was 10 minutes late for his prayer meeting. Though his ‘timekeepers’ Manu and Abha, had done their bit to see that Gandhi was not delayed, the Mahatma while walking to the prayer ground told them in a lighter vain: “ It is your fault that I am ten minutes late. It is the duty of the nurses to carry on their work even if God himself should be present there. If it is time to give medicine to a patient and you hesitate, the poor patient may die. I hate if I am late for prayers even by a minute.”
There, perhaps, can be no better description of Mahatma’s last moments than the account penned by his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi. Writes the eminent historian in The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi:
“From the side to the left of Gandhi, Nathuram Godse of Pune roughly elbowed his way towards him. Godse had been on the scene ten days earlier for the abortive attempt to kill Gandhi, had slipped away, travelled to Bombay, and returned with a fresh plan of assassination. Thinking that Godse intended to touch Gandhi’s feet, Manu asked Godse not to interrupt Gandhi, added that they were late already, and tried to thrust back Godse’s hand. Godse violently pushed Manu aside, causing the Book of Ashram Prayer Songs and Gandhi’s rosary that she was carrying to fall to the ground. As she bent down to pick the things up, Godse planted himself in front of Gandhi, pulled out a pistol and fired three shots in rapid succession, one into Gandhi’s stomach and two into his chest. The sound ‘Rama’ escaped twice from Gandhi’s throat, crimson spread across his white clothes, the hands raised in the gesture of greeting which was also the gesture of prayer and of goodwill dropped down, and the limp body sank softly to the ground. As he fell, Abha caught Gandhi’s head in her hands and sat down with it.”
The light that led India to freedom was thus silenced by a fanatic whom Jawaharlal Nehru described as a ‘madman’: “ A madman has put an end to his life, for I can only call him mad who did it, and yet there has been enough of poison spread in this country during the past years and months, and this poison has had effect on people’s minds...the first thing to remember now is that no one of us dare misbehave because we are angry we have to behave like strong and determined people.....nothing would displease his soul so much as to see that we have indulged in any small behaviour or any…”
Acharya J.B. Kriplani, a lifelong associate of the Mahatma and Congress President when independence came, wrote: “The most cruel past of the tragedy is not only the death of Gandhiji. It is that he fell by the blow struck by one who considered himself a Hindu, against one who had ordered his life in the spirit of the Upanishads and the Gita. The assassin has betrayed the whole history of Hindusim....The Hindus have not only tolerated but even welcomed differences in belief, honestly held and propagated. It was for such misguided people, who injure their religion while seeking to protect it through violence and murder, that it was said they know not what they do.”
The writer, an ex Army officer, is a former member of NCM and a political activist propagating secular unity