Nehru’s Word: Gandhiji’s fast for communal harmony

"We know Muslims are oppressing non-Muslims in Pakistan but should we lower ourselves to their standards? Such things cannot be allowed to happen in India simply because they go unchecked in Pakistan"

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India

Mridula Mukherjee

The recent controversy around the supposed advice given to Savarkar by Mahatma Gandhi and the claims that only Savarkar could have prevented the Partition of the country has brought the public attention to bear on the tumultuous months preceding and following the Partition and leading up to the assassination of the Father of the Nation. Among these, a landmark event was the last fast undertaken by Gandhiji from 13 January 1948, less than three weeks before his death. We bring to you extracts from Jawaharlal Nehru’s speeches and writings during this period to give you a sense of the gravity of the situation and the heroic nature of the attempts being made to overcome it.

At a public meeting in Delhi on 16 January 1948, Nehru said:

“Mahatma Gandhi has undertaken this fast to stop the people of India from treading the path of communalism and to make them alive to the grim dangers which are staring them in the face. He has gone on fast to draw our attention to our own faults, to rouse our conscience, and to make us realise that internal peace and communal harmony are essential if the country is to progress….

“Some communal organisations talk of riots and disturbances. This sort of talk is bad at all times, but it is dangerous at present. These organisations do not seem to realise that they are playing with the interests of India and will bring her utter ruin.

“Retaliation in India is no way to avenge the wrongs done to Hindus in Pakistan. It will be a vengeance against ourselves. If a few people forcibly occupy houses of Muslims, they are not solving the refugee problem. There are crores of Muslims in India and if we go on creating internal troubles, it will take decades before we can make any progress. Moreover, no civilised government can tolerate such actions….

“We know Muslims are oppressing non-Muslims in Pakistan but should we lower ourselves to their standards? Such things cannot be permitted to happen in India simply because they go unchecked in Pakistan. We are not framing the destinies of India on the lines adopted by Pakistan. We have our own standards of judging what is right and wrong. We must not follow the example set by Pakistan. They are at present in a shaky position because their actions, right from the beginning, were improper.”

On 17 January, speaking to a gathering on the lawns of Birla House, where Gandhiji was on a fast, he said:

“For the last 20 years India has followed the advice and guidance of Mahatma Gandhi. He has impressed on us that we as a nation cannot progress unless we build up our inner strength and that this can be done only by the nation adopting good means to achieve good ends. Good results cannot be achieved by adopting bad methods.

“Gandhiji has taken the decision to fast not out of anger or petulance. He has gone on fast because he wants to save the country which he has served for so many years. He is one of the bravest men in the world. He has never countenanced any wrong action.

"For the past four days he is on fast. It is shameful that we should be eating thrice a day and that he should bear the burden of our sins all alone. (Nehru also did not take any food during the period of Mahatma Gandhi’s fast.) But you should return to sanity and end communalism for your own sake and not merely for saving the life of Mahatma Gandhi. You should act in such a way that I may be able to go to Gandhiji and tell him that the great purpose for which he raised his silent voice has been realised.”

On the 18th of January, Nehru was able to announce in a public meeting that Gandhiji had ended his fast as a result of a pledge by the people. (A committee of 130 members, representing Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and other communities and organisations, set up on 18 January, with Rajendra Prasad as convenor, gave a pledge promising Mahatma Gandhi to end discrimination against Muslims, including economic boycott, ensure conditions for the return to them of 17 mosques in Delhi and provide facilities for them to travel freely and hold their annual fair.)

“For the past few days the eyes of the whole world were focused on Delhi. The people of Delhi were on trial. I am glad that your solemn pledge has made it possible for Gandhiji to break his fast. There is some relief over Gandhiji's ending his fast, and there is no danger to his life now. Another grave responsibility has, however, been placed on our shoulders. We have given a pledge that there will be peace not merely in Delhi but in the whole of India. It is our duty to implement that pledge.”

The same day, in a cable to Indian envoys in Moscow, New York and other world capitals, Nehru wrote:

“Gandhiji broke his fast just now today. During last five days as a result of his fast great change in Delhi. Numerous mass meetings, processions and demonstrations in favour of communal harmony. As Gandhiji deteriorated, this movement became more urgent and widespread. Gandhiji yesterday laid down certain conditions which related principally to Delhi and neighbourhood. This morning representatives of all groups and communities including communal organisations accepted fully those conditions and pledged themselves to work for peace and harmony. Thereupon Gandhiji agreed to end his fast.”

Though relieved by the ending of the fast, Nehru was clearly worried about the communal atmosphere. Four days later, on 22 January, he wrote to Sardar Patel, the Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister:

“Most of the Urdu and Hindi newspapers of Delhi have been writing poisonous stuff during the last few weeks. This was noticeable especially during Gandhiji's fast. These newspapers or some of them are official organs of the Hindu Mahasabha or are aligned with it.

"I do not know what steps can be taken about this matter but I think much of our trouble at this end is due to this totally unbalanced writing in the press, just as the Pakistan newspapers write poisonous stuff. In view of the attitude of the Hindu Mahasabha and the R.S.S. it is becoming increasingly difficult to be neutral towards them.” (A footnote to this letter in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru states: A leading article in The Hindu Outlook stated that Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru should be murdered, an anonymous poster in Hindi incited the public "to murder Mahatma Gandhi, to cut him to pieces and throw his flesh to dogs and crows". The Hindu Mahasabha held meetings in defiance of the ban order and criticised the Congress and the Government for helping the Muslims.)

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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