On January 31, 1948, in Delhi, a sea of people clad in white clothes merged at Rajghat, the place a few yards away from the holy waters of the Yamuna river, to witness the cremation of Gandhiji. His body, covered with sandalwood logs and incenses, was laid on the pyre. The mood was sombre, and the weather was sunny. Ramdas, his third son, lit the pyre at 4:45 p.m., and the flames reduced the pyre to bones and ashes. He was no more; however, his search for truth, his selflessness, his impeccable integrity, his love and respect for life, his humility, his insistence on non-violence, and the practice of his preaching will forever echo the earth.
This is the story of Gandhi’s epic fast. The year was 1932. The episode involved the
Untouchables, termed Harijans by Gandhi and the “Depressed Classes” by the
British. The protagonists were Gandhi and Ambedkar. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji
Ambedkar, a graduate of Columbia University School of Law in New York and
the main leader of the Untouchables, was stubborn. As an attendee of the
Second Round Table Conference in London from September to December 1931, he
proposed a separate electorate or reservation of seats for the Untouchables
within the Hindu bloc in the provincial legislatures. Gandhi opposed the
proposal, saying that it would divide the Hindus and the Harijans. The
British saw another opportunity to divide Indians further and to keep them
quarreling among themselves. Back in 1909, the British had introduced
separate electorates for the Hindus and the Muslims. As a result, a Hindu
could vote only for a Hindu candidate, a Muslim only for a Muslim.
Consequently, religious differences surfaced in every election, and for the
two communities—unable to vote for the each other’s candidates—the gulf of
mistrust deepened and widened.
The decree by the British government would grant separate franchise (the statutory right to
vote) to the Depressed Classes for twenty years in seven out of nine
provinces in which the government had decided to set up Indian Provincial
Legislatures. Was this not giving the Untouchables an advantage in fighting
for their rights against Hindus? British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, in
a letter to Gandhi dated September 8, asked this question.
Gandhi, who was in jail in Poona, declared, “I am certain that the question of separate
electorates for the Untouchables is the modern manufacture of satanic
government. I will resist it with my life.” He was opposed to separate
electorates and saw three Indias: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables. He took
his last meal at 11:30 a.m. on September 20. His admirers asked, in letters,
pleas, and telegrams, why was he throwing away his life by starving to death
for Harijans. Nehru writes in his autobiography, “I felt annoyed with him
for choosing a side issue for his final sacrifice.”
The authorities in London did not want Gandhi’s death and said that Britain would accept any
voting arrangement that was satisfactory to both Hindus and Harijans. The
Hindus rushed to Bombay and met the Harijan leaders. Ambedkar was filled
with anger and ill will towards the Hindus. He thought that Gandhi’s fast
was a ploy. But as Gandhi’s health began to decline, the negotiators were
pressured to come to an agreement. Ambedkar, too, came under pressure from the Hindus.
On the third day of fasting, Thursday, September 23, Gandhi’s blood pressure was dangerously
high. British Prime Minister MacDonald awarded 71 seats to the Untouchables,
though Ambedkar wanted 197. Gandhi wanted only the Harijans to nominate
candidates for each panel. A panel was to consist of five Harijans for every
seat to choose from; Ambedkar wanted a panel of two. Gandhi set a five-year
time limit in which the reserved seats for the Harijans in the legislatures
would be abolished; Ambedkar demanded fifteen years.
On the fifth day of fasting, Saturday, September 25, Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed that though all
Hindus, including the Untouchables, would vote in joint electorates, 147
seats would be reserved for the Harijans regardless of the vote. They also
compromised on the size of the panel of Harijans. On the issue of time limit
to erase the political differences between Hindus and Harijans in elections,
Ambedkar came down to ten years. However, Gandhi would not change his
position from five years. Later during the day, C. Rajagopalachari suggested
that the time limit to eradicate the electoral differences between the two
parties be determined after further discussions and without any political
referendum. Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed. The agreement, which came to be
known as the Yeravda Pact, was drafted and signed by chief Hindu and Harijan
negotiators. The text was sent to London. MacDonald, who was attending a
funeral in Sussex on Sunday, rushed to 10 Downing Street and studied the
text with his advisors until midnight.
On the seventh day, Monday, September 27, an announcement came from London and Delhi that the
British government had accepted the Yeravda Pact. Gandhi broke his six-day
fast at 5:15 p.m. His wife, Kasturba, gave him a glass of juice.
News spread around the country that Mahatmaji was fasting and dying and that the Hindus had been
unjust to the Harijans. Immediately, temples in Calcutta, Banaras (Varanasi),
Allahabad, Baroda, Bombay, and other cities were flung open to welcome
Harijans for the first time. Gandhiji taught the Hindus that it was a moral
sin to deny the Harijans their basic civil and religious rights. It was a remarkable victory.
Gandhiji achieved extraordinary outcomes with ordinary tools. He fought stubbornness with
shrewdness, hate with love, fear with courage, and lust with self-control.