Communalism and 70 years of Gandhi’s last fast

Gandhi spent last 144 days of his life in Delhi confronting the communal frenzy born out of the tragedy of Partition. There was a series of inhuman and cruel acts which compelled him to come to Delhi

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Rohit Prakash

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated when he was 79 years old. Seventy years have passes since then. These 149 years of Gandhi’s life and since then are like a decisive and permanent imprint on the Indian society and on global map as well.

Gandhi had spent the last 144 days of his life in Delhi confronting the communal frenzy born out of the tragedy of Partition. He was residing in Birla House at that time where he was assassinated. At present, that place is called Gandhi Smriti, 5, 30 January Lane. This house was opened for public on August 15, 1973. There is no doubt about the fact that Gandhi’s assassination was an assault of communal thoughts on the vision of a secular India.

The communal hysteria had engulfed the Delhi in 1947-1948. Definitely there was a series of inhuman and most cruel acts which compelled him to come to Delhi. Since the time he arrived in Delhi on September 9, 1947, right till his death on January 30, 1948, he devoted all his time to creating communal harmony and establishing peace in the city. He knew the fanaticism of the majority is always more dangerous. Perhaps that is why, he naturally stood by Muslims at a time when it was difficult and dangerous for Muslims to even live in Delhi.

It was like a ray of hope for Muslims of Delhi. In the old city, people started saying, ‘Delhi will be saved now’, or ‘Muslims will be safe now.’ And this turned out to be true too. No major incident of riot took place in the city after Gandhi’s arrival. On September 13, he visited the refugee camp situated in Purana Qila, where Muslims were living in miserable conditions. And suddenly, the government sprung into action. Muslims were started being treated as India’s ‘own’ citizens and many amenities and security were provided to them. In a prayer meeting in October 1947, Gandhi said, “Delhi has a distinguished history. It would be insane to try to erase it.”

Perhaps the writers writing on Delhi have not considered it important to pay attention to that particular character of its history.

Even then, the violent incidents were not coming to an end. On December 20, 1947, Gandhi wrote almost in a state of agitation, “If we so wish that the Muslims should leave India then we should say it clearly or the government should declare that it is not safe for Indians to live in India.” The condition was so serious, and Gandhi decided to adopt his most successful method.

On January 13, he started fasting unto death. Nehru, the former editor of The Statesman, Arthur Moor and thousand others also joined him. Among these people, a majority were Hindus and Sikhs and many of them were refugees from Pakistan. On January 12, a written speech of Mahatma Gandhi was read during the prayer meeting because on that day Mahatma Gandhi was observing ‘Maun’.

“Any human being who is chaste, can sacrifice nothing more than his own precious life. I hope I have the purity enough to be able to go on fasting. This fast will begin after the first meal tomorrow morning (Tuesday). The duration of the fast is uncertain. I will have water only with or without salt or lemon. I will give up fasting only when I am confident that there is harmony among all the communities and they are maintaining peace and harmony not because of some outside pressure but because they understand their own religion or faith.”

The fasting had a miraculous impact. More and more people started gathering in support of Gandhi at various places in Delhi. On January 15, 1948, the residents of Karol Bagh assured Gandhi that they have faith in his ideals and they formed a peace brigade and ran a door-to-door campaign. In a workers’ meeting, people took a pledge that they will start working towards creating harmony among various communities. This meeting was addressed by Humayun Kabeer too. Under the chairmanship of Principal NV Thadani, a meeting of the teachers and students of the university was organised and a resolution was passed that they will also contribute in reestablishing peace and harmony in the city. In a meeting at Nehru Park all citizens were urged to maintain order and peace.

In a public speech at Birla House on January 17, Nehru said, “Since the time I was informed about Mahatma Gandhi’s fast, I had neither asked him to not go on fasting, nor have I requested him to reconsider his decision, because I know what he wants. It is now up to people to fulfil their duty properlyand only then he could be persuaded to give up fasting.”

On January 18, 1948 representatives of more than 100 organisations, including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and Jamaite-Ul-Ulema met Gandhi ji at 11.30 in the morning and accepted all the conditions put forward by Gandhi ji. They presented a ‘Shati Shapath’(pledge for peace) too. After that, Mahatma Gandhi announce that he will end the fasting. On that very day a peace committee was formed which included 130 people of various religions and organisations. Dr Rajendra Prasad, who was the organiser of the committee assured Gandhi ji that there will be no discrimination of the minority communities, not even economic. The mosques of Delhi would be returned to the Muslims and if the Muslims who have gone to Pakistan want to return, then they will be provided with all facilities. The Urs fair at the Durgah of Khwaja Qutubuddin will be observed every year as before and there no religious festival of the Muslims will face any kind of obstruction.

This fast by Gandhiji with the objective of reestablishing communal harmony lasted for five days, due to which Muslims started returning to their homes.

Amid all this, the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi was also being hatched. On January 20, 1948, unsuccessful attempt was made to kill Gandhi during a prayer meeting at Birla House and after ten days he was assassinated. Both the successful and unsuccessful attempts at killing Gandhi were made by Hindu fanatics. But his assassination did what his fasting could not. ‘The world was changed’ for the Muslims. The Hindu-Muslim violence had stopped completely. People were scared that the secular elements in the country will become weak. But exactly opposite of it happened- the government was forced to take strict action against the communal forces and organisations.

Various writers have criticised Gandhi for many of his political actions. People who have tried to evaluate Gandhi from the perspective of class have even seen him as a representative of the ruling class trying to direct the class conflict towards harmony. But on the issue of communalism, Gandhi seldom seems willing for any compromise. The threat of communalism is so densely interwoven in the environment of this country that it keeps emerging time and again and many a time, instead of a feeling of self defence, it stirs up a feeling of guilt.

The renowned Hindi poet Shamsher Bahadur Singh once wrote about another great Hindi poet Nirala- “whenever I lost the path and wandered about/ Only you glimmered in mind, o great poet.”

Often ignoring Gandhi’s untiring tirade against communalism, this country disappoints greatly.

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