Why is the spirit and resolve of 1947 missing in 2021? Studies in contrast

Neither leaders nor people exhibit the courage and commitment of 1947. Is it too much to ask we show some of the spirit and resolve we had in 1947, asks historian Mridula Mukherjee

Mahatma Gandhi in Noakhali in 1946 and Migrant workers walking back home after sudden lockdown in 2020
Mahatma Gandhi in Noakhali in 1946 and Migrant workers walking back home after sudden lockdown in 2020

Mridula Mukherjee

As India steps into the 75th year of her life as an independent nation, she deserved the luxury of an indulgent smile looking back on years well spent, her children well-settled, grandchildren healthy and joyful, nurturing and sustaining values bequeathed by ancestors passed on to the younger generations, who will ensure their flowering.

Without doubt, those who presided over her birth expected that the dark and divisive clouds of the colonial past would pass before long. Imagine their surprise and shock if all-knowing astrologers of the day had shown them the future that is the present we are living in today.

Seventy-four years after the birth, founders of the Republic would no doubt mark the sharp contrast between the ideals they formulated and efforts at putting them into practice and the almost complete impunity with which they are being violated today.

The crisis they faced preceding and following independence, a period which witnessed large scale communal violence, a mass migration induced by the Partition and the assassination of the Mahatma, was far greater than anything faced since then, including the present one caused by the pandemic.

And yet it was met with unbelievable commitment and courage. The country faced a holocaust like situation where tens of thousands were murdered and millions were rendered homeless. The communal situation had begun to deteriorate with the ‘Direct Action’ call by the Muslim League, resulting in the great Calcutta killings in August 1946, followed by the equally terrible communal carnage in Noakhali. Struggling to find an answer, Gandhiji embarked on what was to be his most amazing, awe-inspiring and heroic experiment with India’s civilizational truth.

With his small band of devoted comrades, he 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 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 satyagrahi was trying, by his own suffering, to melt the heart of the opponent and win him over. He was also sharing 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.

He stayed from 6 November 1946 till 4 March 1947, almost four months, in this remote corner of India. It is difficult even today to 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.

Gandhiji’s chosen heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, then President of the Interim Government, led the war against communalism on another front. Anger had been brewing ever since news had come of large numbers of Biharis killed in Calcutta in August 1946. The news from Noakhali added to this and communal trouble broke out in Bihar on 25th October 1946 which had been observed as Noakhali Day. Large bands of Hindu peasants roamed the rural areas of Patna, Gaya, and Monghyr districts and entire villages of Muslims were reported to have been wiped out.

Nehru rushed to Bihar and declared his intention to stay as long as it took to bring about peace. Between 4th and 9th November, Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Acharya Kripalani, Jayaparakash Narayan, Anugraha Narain Singh and many other Congress leaders covered the affected areas, holding public meetings and rallies, meeting officials as well as ordinary people, promising and ensuring prompt redress to victims, warning and persuading the perpetrators to give up their madness and return to sanity. Nehru also did not hesitate to use force to control the violence and used the military for this purpose. The result was that in less than two weeks, the situation was brought under control.

In fact, it is in Bihar that we get the first glimpse of the unambiguous, determined, and even emotional quality of Nehru’s secularism, which steered India through the stormy waters of the Partition when the communal pressure was at its height.

“I will go from village to village… to prevent communal riots. In case any man seeks to kill his compatriot, he will have to murder Jawaharlal first and then, by trampling over his corpse, he would be able to satisfy his lust for blood.” As lakhs of Hindu and Sikh refugees poured into East Punjab and Delhi, the situation became extremely grave. There were large scale disturbances in East Punjab in August followed by Delhi in September 1947.

While unfurling the Tiranga from the ramparts of the Red Fort the 16th of August, Nehru issued a stern warning and made a solemn promise: “The first charge of the Government will be to establish and maintain peace and tranquility in the land and to ruthlessly suppress communal strife…it is wrong to suggest that in this country there would be the rule of a particular religion or sect. All who owe allegiance to the flag will enjoy equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of caste or creed.”

On 30 January 1948, in a little over six months from the first, another great tragedy visited India. If Partition could largely be ascribed to Muslim communalism, aided by colonialism, then Hindu communalism bears the responsibility for the assassination of the “greatest living Hindu”.

This was clear to the government and with Sardar Patel as Home Minister, within five days it banned the RSS and put around 25000 RSS workers in jail.

The government communiqué dated 4 February 1948 declaring the RSS unlawful gave the reasons: “It has been found that in several parts of the country individual members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect fire arms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and the military.”

Explaining his action to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who raised objections, Sardar Patel was categorical: “The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the state.” The Chief Minister of Bombay, B.G. Kher, had already pointed to the role of the Hindu Mahasabha in a communication to Sardar Patel. Anticipating a similar ban, the Hindu Mahasabha dissolved itself.

What would the founders of the nation state have made of Parliament sessions wiped out because the Government and its agencies are suspected of spying on their own citizens, of farmers living in their thousands in the open at the locked gates of the national capital for months trying to make the deaf hear, of newspapers which reported bodies floating in the Ganga being raided by tax officials, of legislations being hastily pushed through in the name of protecting women or checking population increase or granting citizenship

What would they make of the death in custody of 84 year old Father Stan Swamy, who spent his life working for the rights of the poorest tribals, or of hundreds of others, teachers, students, journalists, human rights and farmer rights activists, lawyers, poets, kept in jail as undertrials, sometimes for years on end, without framing charges, but being stigmatized as urban naxals, or anti-nationals?

What indeed would they make of our new found sport of lynching of victims hailing from minority and marginalized groups? Or of organized violence which drives out people from their homes and destroys their livelihoods as in Muzaffarnagar and Northeast Delhi? Or if they saw millions of poor, their belongings on their head, children in their arms, turned out in the name of Covid lockdown, walking hundreds of kilometres from inhospitable cities to hungry and jobless villages?

To an unfamiliar observer, it might well appear that the state is at war with its own people;that India is divided against itself; that the elite have turned their backs on the poor and believe that by giving them five kilograms of free rice or wheat per month they have fulfilled their responsibilities!

(The writer is former professor of history at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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