At the beginning of the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Gandhiji, one is overwhelmed with the richness of his legacy and at a loss as to which part of it to choose for remembering him. After much thought, I have chosen to focus on his relationship with the people, the masses, whom he described as the ‘poor dumb millions’, because it is they, the suffering poor, who were at the heart of his politics. It was this unique capacity which he had, to move the millions, to reach out to them, to listen to them, that marked him out.
Gandhiji’s tremendous popularity among the poor is revealed by many accounts, but a particularly moving scene was in 1945, when Gandhiji emerged from his talks with Governor Casey to find that the huge reception hall of Government House in Calcutta had been spontaneously lined on both sides by the staff and servants, a large number of whom were Muslims, standing with folded hands to greet their beloved leader.
I wonder what was going through the mind of the Governor when he witnessed this amazing spectacle of ordinary Indians, bowing not to the power and pomp of their rulers of two centuries, but to the moral grandeur of the half-naked fakir. It was also reported that during Gandhiji’s tour of rural Bengal around the same time, poor villagers would start walking early in the morning to attend Gandhiji’s prayer meetings at dusk, and the attendance often reached 2,00,000 and 3,00,000.
If the people in their millions were inspired by the Mahatma, he in turn drew his strength from them. How else can we comprehend the blazing courage he demonstrated in the twilight of his life? There are few images more moving than that of this frail, 77-year-old man, who could have all that anyone could want for the asking, walking bare-foot through communally ravaged blood-stained villages of Noakhali in Bengal, where his people had descended to the lowest depths, staying only for one night in one village, sleeping in the huts of the poor, searching for an answer, in yet another experiment with truth.
The call for ‘Direct Action’ by Jinnah and the Muslim League in August 1946 had inaugurated a new stage in communal politics. The resultant ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ which was estimated to have cost around 5,000 lives, both Muslim and Hindu, was followed in early October by violence erupting in Noakhali, a remote district of East Bengal, with a majority Muslim population. The Muslim League Government led by Suhrawardy in Bengal failing to take strong action, the situation deteriorated rapidly.
With his small band of devoted comrades, Gandhi went into the villages of Noakhali, not for a visit, not for a tour, not for an on the spot survey, as leaders are wont to do, but to stay as long as it was necessary. He stayed from November 6, 1946 till March 4, 1947, almost four months, in this remote corner of India. It is difficult today to even comprehend how the most revered leader of a vast country in the throes of difficult negotiations, charting out its path to independence from a colonial power, could spend such a long time almost out of reach of his own movement.
He spent the first two weeks visiting the villages and towns in the affected area and meeting large numbers of people. He then settled down in a village named Srirampur and spent the next 43 days there. He soon sent off all his associates except two, Parasuram, his typist, and Nirmal Kumar Bose, his interpreter, thus depriving himself of even basic care and small comforts. As if this was not enough, he followed it up with a padayatra in which he did not sleep for more than one night in any one village.
The Hindu communal group led by Savarkar which, according to the Justice Kapur Commission, planned the conspiracy, and the assassin who gunned him down believed that he was the chief obstacle to the setting up of a Hindu Rashtra after Partition. And they were right. From October 1946, when communal violence began to spread, Gandhiji devoted all his energies to the taming of the communal monster
The satyagrahi was trying, by his own suffering, to melt the heart of the opponent and win him over. Gandhi was also sharing, through the crucifixion of his flesh, the pain of the victims and expressing the torture of his own soul. Thus, when broken glass and excreta were thrown in his path to dissuade him, his answer was to remove even his simple sandals and walk bare-foot. ‘Ekla Cholo Re’, Tagore’s apt song, was often on his lips as it seemed to have been written for him.
We can also never forget that he was martyred to the cause of secularism. The Hindu communal group led by Savarkar which, according to the Justice Kapur Commission, planned the conspiracy, and the assassin who gunned him down believed that he was the chief obstacle to the setting up of a Hindu Rashtra after Partition. And they were right. From October 1946, when communal violence began to spread, Gandhiji devoted all his energies to the taming of the communal monster. In Noakhali, where he spent four months in remote villages, in Bihar, in Calcutta, in Delhi, he was on call as the ‘one man boundary force’, as Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, called him.
His commitment to secularism was absolute. The call for Quit India in 1942 was accompanied by his unequivocal declaration: “Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian Raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion.” (Harijan, August 1942).
In November 1947, when the clamour for Hindu Rashtra was very loud, he said: “the state was bound to be wholly secular” and the “state of our conception must be a secular, democratic state” (Harijan, 31 November 1947). In August 1947, he had already made it clear that “If a minority in India, minority on the score of its religious profession was made to feel small on that account, he could only say that this India was not the India of his dreams.” (Tendulkar, Mahatma, p.56.)
In his death, he gave a new lease of life to the new-born nation, which remained free of communal strife for almost a decade after his death. His life and martyrdom continue to inspire and empower those who are striving towards the India (and the world) of his dreams
His martyrdom at the hands of a Hindu communalist was the pinnacle of self-sacrifice and had a cathartic effect on the whole nation ravaged by sectarian strife, which came to an abrupt halt. Many of those who had indulged in communal violence felt guilt and remorse and held themselves responsible for the tragedy.
In his death, Gandhi gave a new lease of life to the new-born nation, which remained free of communal strife for almost a decade after his death. His life and martyrdom continue to inspire and empower those who are striving towards the India (and the world) of his dreams.
I conclude with a quote from a great intellectual who grasped the essence of the Mahatma in these moving words:
“A leader of his people, unsupported by any outward authority: a politician whose success rests not upon craft nor the mastery of technical devices, but simply on the convincing power of his personality; a victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force; a man of wisdom and humility, armed with resolve and inflexible consistency, who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people and the betterment of their lot; a man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.
Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
That was Albert Einstein.
The author is a retired Professor at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU
This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday