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Gandhi's Last Painful Days
By Bhiku Parekh*
Hindu-Muslim relations did not have such a happy outcome. During the 1930s their relations were strained, but there was no cause for concern. Gandhi thought he had done much to bring the two communities together at the personal and political levels, and that things would improve further once the colonial government with its policy of ‘divide and rule’ was out of the way. The Congress enjoyed support among the Muslim masses, and included several Muslim leaders of provincial and even national suture. The provincial elections of 1937 were crucial; especially as the 1935 Act had granted considerable autonomy to the provinces and was generally seen as paving the way for Indian independence. The Congress did very well in the general constituencies and, although it performed badly in Muslim constituencies, so did the Muslim League. The Congress fanned ministries in all but four provinces.
The 1937 election results presented the Congress with both a challenge and an opportunity. It realized that Muslims were not behind it and should be won over, as also that they were not behind the league either and could be won over. Accordingly it launched a programme of ‘mass contact’ with a view to reassuring them that it posed no threat to their religious and other interests. The Muslim League read the situation in more or less the same way, and launched a similar campaign of its own, a rather vicious one which concentrated on arousing Muslim fears and sense of insecurity. Realizing how much and how quickly the Muslim masses were becoming ‘communalized’, the Congress called off its mass-contact programme and urged the League for a reciprocal gesture. Jinnah, the leader of the League, not only refused to call off the campaign but intensified it.
Jinnah, Gandhi’s greatest adversary, was a complex figure, and the relationship between the two is full of strange ironies. Gandhi, who had succeeded in winning over or at least commanding the deepest respect of almost all his opponents, including such strong-minded leftist leaders as Subhash Bose and M.N. Roy, completely failed before Jinnah. Jinnah came from the same part of India as Gandhi, shared his language and culture, and was also trained as a lawyer. His family was first-generation Hindu converts.
‘Jinnah’ was a Hindu name and an example of a fairly common practice among Hindu converts of retaining part of their original name. Like Gandhi, Jinnah adored Gokhale and regarded him as his political mentor. Unlike Gandhi he was not religious and strongly disapproved of the introduction of religion into politics. He had married a much younger Zoroastrian girl, enjoyed alcohol, and had no objection to pork. He knew Gandhi’s charm and manner of establishing personal relationships, and carefully insulated himself against them. He spoke to him in English rather than their native Gujarati, shook hands with him rather than using the traditional Indian form of greeting with folded palms, and addressed him formally as ‘Mr. Gandhi’ in preference to the more respectful ‘Gandhiji’.
Jinnah obviously could not mobilize the vast and illiterate Muslim masses without simplifying the political reality and offering them a naive and rather distorted conception of themselves and their place in India. Not surprisingly, he introduced the language of nationalism and dramatically changed the character of the political debate. Hitherto he and the League had argued that the Muslims were a minority community entitled to a separate electorate and constitutional safeguards; they now began to argue that they were a nation, a distinct cultural and political unit entitled to full equality of status with the Hindus, and that India consisted of two nations. Although Jinnah was initially content to plead for their equality within a single state, the momentum of events soon got out of control and he became a strong advocate of the partition of the country.
During his negotiations with Jinnah, Gandhi challenged his two-nation theory. He argued that the language of nationalism was both inapplicable to India and inherently absurd. Unlike the European countries, India was not a nation but a civilization which had over the centuries benefited from the contributions of different races and religions and was distinguished by its plurality, diversity, and tolerance. Hindus and Muslims, most of them Hindu converts, shared a common culture and, since even their religions had deeply influenced each other, they could not possibly be called separate nations.
Furthermore, the very idea that each nation should have its own state was preposterous and impractical. In any case, the new state of Pakistan would include a large number of Hindus, even as India would include millions of Muslims. Since both states were bound to be multi-religious and had to find ways of accommodating minorities, there was no reason why the united India could not do the same. Gandhi told Jinnah that although he himself did not consider Pakistan a ‘worthy ideal’, he was prepared to admit that he could be wrong or biased. Since Jinnah believed in reason and non-violence, he should ‘respectfully’ listen to others and win them over by patient reasoning, or at least agree to a plebiscite in the Muslim majority areas, and even launch satyagrahas against the Hindus. What in Gandhi’s view Jinnah was not entitled to do was to arouse religious passions and threaten mass violence if he did not get his way.
Although the two-nation theory and the underlying conception of nationhood were untenable, Muslim fears were deep and genuine. Muslims had ruled over Hindus for centuries and feared reprisal or at least discrimination in independent India. The increasing use by Congress of socialist rhetoric frightened away Muslim landlords and upper classes, from whom many of the ardent advocates of Pakistan were drawn. The Congress in particular missed the opportunity to win over Jinnah and the Muslim League during its period of office between 1937 and 1939, and to prevent an opportunistic alliance between the middle-class Muslims of which he was a spokesman and the feudal classes whom he had long loathed. It was this alliance that made Pakistan possible and explains its subsequent history. Given more time, a more relaxed political environment, a less manipulative colonial government, and greater sensitivity and understanding on the part of both the Congress and the Muslim leadership, ways could perhaps have been found to allay these fears. Whatever the explanation, the Hindu-Muslim estrangement was so deep that many well-meaning constitutional schemes collapsed without a fair trial, and the much-dreaded partition of the country with all the attendant violence seemed inevitable.
While the bulk of Congress leadership came round to accepting the partition, Gandhi resisted it not because he was worried about India’s territorial shrinkage but because he considered it a ‘falsehood’. It denied a thousand years of Indian history and rested on the inherently ‘evil’ principle of religious nationalism. He was also afraid that it would lead to much bloodshed and permanently sour the relations between the two countries. When he realized that the fast that he had long threatened was likely to make matters worse, he gracefully accepted the partition and endeavoured to create a climate that would both minimize violence and maximize future reconciliation. By and large he saw the partition in the image of the Hindu joint family. Those who could not live together were free to set up a separate household to avoid constant quarrels, but there was no reason why they should deny their shared history, hate and kill each other, or reject co-operation on matters of common interest.
During the last few months of his life, Gandhi fought heroically against the corybantic wave of violence that had gripped most of north India. For many years past he had been plagued by profound political and spiritual doubts. He had often passed through deep troughs of despondency about the problems facing India and his own spiritual struggles, had even wondered if he was the right leader and urged others to guide him and take over his burden, and had left Congress in 1934 to allow ‘hill play of reason’ and not to estrange the intelligentsia from it. Now he had no doubts about his course of action, for his duty could not be clearer. Knowing that the ‘day of reckoning’ that he had long feared had at last come, he decided, at the age of 77, to put his nonviolence to the ‘final test’. Everything he had stood for all his adult life was at stake, and his very God was on trial. Since Gandhi had been loyal to his God all his life, the latter would not let him down in his and his country’s greatest hour of need. Gandhi now became a transcendental. God-possessed figure with no other mission than to tame the ‘demon’ of violence.
The personal and the political were inseparable for Gandhi. Every time he had faced a momentous political struggle in the past, he had turned inward to concentrate his being and summon up all his moral and spiritual energy. ‘How can a damp matchstick kindle a log of wood?’ The battle against the horrendous inter-communal violence required a more intense inner search than ever before. His religious faith dictated that good would always triumph over evil that all violence would dissolve in the presence of pure non-violence. The continuing violence had to be explained, and Gandhi characteristically blamed himself. God or cosmic energy was not working through him because of some deep inadequacy in him. Although he thought that he had eliminated all traces of violence in himself, he must be wrong. The only possible source of violence could be the presence of unconscious sexuality, for Gandhi a form of aggression. Accordingly he decided to put his celibacy to the severest test by embarking on the extraordinary experiment of sleeping naked with carefully chosen female associates, partly to flush out such residues of sexuality as might still remain and purify himself, and partly to generate the immense energy he thought he needed to subdue the evil raging around him. The experiment generated great unease, and he wrote publicly about it. Although he was attacked, ridiculed, and shunned by some of his colleagues, he remained resolute. Just because his countrymen had made him a Mahatma, he was not prepared to confront to their expectations of him. His life was his and he had to follow truth as he saw it if that meant losing his Mahatma-hood, he was only too happy to ‘shed the burden’. Gandhi’s experiments assured him that he was totally pure and that his God had not forsaken him.
In order to fight violence Gandhi had only one weapon left, his life, and only one way to use it, namely to make a sacrifice of it by means of well-calculated fasts designed to awaken the consciences and mobilize the moral energies of his misguided countrymen. In utter disregard of his physical safety and frequently murmuring ‘kya karoon, kya karoon’ [what shall I do?, what shall I do?], he began his pilgrimage of peace to the Noakhali district of Bengal, the scene of die worst Hindu-Muslim violence¬† . He stayed there from October 1946 to February 1947, walking from village to village, living in the huts of those willing to put him up, listening to their stories of atrocities, calming passions, and consoling the distressed and bereaved. He worked eighteen hours a day and covered forty-nine villages. Sometimes his path was strewn with filth and brambles and, since as a pilgrim of peace he often walked barefoot, his feet became sore and developed chilblains. He had to cross bridges consisting of nothing more than loosely fastened bamboo poles, and sometimes he narrowly missed falling into the mud several feet below. There were also several threats on his life and a couple of violent scuffles. Undeterred, he continued his work, summoned up immense physical energy in his disintegrating body, and by the sheer force of his personality succeeded in restoring peace.
When India became independent on 15 August 1947, Gandhi did not go to Delhi or even send a message. He was busy fighting violence several hundred miles away, and saw no reason for celebration. Soon after independence when Calcutta became the theatre of mass violence, Gandhi rushed to the city. When all his appeals failed, he began a fast unto death on 2 September 1947, just as he had done a year earlier. Within three days he had performed a ‘miracle’. Many who had been busy killing arrived at his bedside, wept at his tormented body, surrendered their weapons, and gave him a written undertaking that they would allow no more violence to occur, if need be at the cost of their lives. Lord Mount-batten was not exaggerating when he said that Gandhi had achieved single-handed what a body of 50,000 well-armed soldiers had failed to achieve in the Punjab. Gandhi saw no miracle, for it only confirmed his lifelong conviction that ‘soul-force’ was infinitely more powerful than the physical. And he needed no thanks, for his fast had given him ‘ineffable joy’ and a profound sense of ‘inner peace’ bordering on the experience of the divine.
From Calcutta Gandhi rushed to Delhi, where riots were raging. He visited Muslim areas and reassured their frightened residents. He also visited camps full of Hindu refugees from Pakistan who had lost all their possessions; some had lost their loved ones, and all were full of anti-Muslim hatred. Alone and unprotected, he consoled them, urged them that there was ‘no gain in returning evil for evil, and pleaded with them to show forgiveness. Angry and bitter Hindus sometimes broke up his multi-religious prayer meetings. Some objected to his recitations from the Koran and, since he would not compromise, the meetings sometimes ended abruptly. Gandhi even ventured into a meeting of 500 members of the RSS, a paramilitary body of Hindu militants, and warned them that their intolerance was ‘killing’ Hinduism. In order to shock the ‘conscience of all’ in both India and Pakistan, he commenced his last fast on 13 January 1948 to create ‘real peace’ in place of the deadly calm imposed by the troops, and to pressure the government of India not to renege on its solemn promise to transfer to Pakistan, which was then already at war with India, its share of collective assets. Although many exasperated Hindus accused him of political naivety and pro-Muslim sympathies, they conceded that he was only being true to his principles and had nothing but India’s stability and honour at his heart. After five days Gandhi got what he had asked for. As he ended his fast, which was much admired in Pakistan, he feared for the two countries and broke down in tears. Gandhi’s repeated triumphs against human savagery stunned his awestruck countrymen and made him a sublime and sanctified figure, an object of deepest pride and reverence even to those who were otherwise very critical of his fasts and religious appeals. It was almost as if they felt that he had atoned for and redeemed them and lightened the burden of their shame and guilt.
Gandhi knew that violence was drawing closer to him. There had been several threats on his life; a bomb had been dropped at his prayer meeting ten days before his death and he had refused to be frightened of ‘a mere bomb’. He received abusive letters accusing him of appeasing Muslims and calling him ‘Mohamed Gandhi’; ‘Death to Gandhi’ was not an uncommon chant at some of his meetings and even his close friends showed impatience with him. He knew that he might be killed any day, but rejected all offers of protection. Indeed, it would seem that the violence had not only sapped his will to live but created a positive desire to die a violent death in the hope that his death might achieve what his life had not. He evidently told his great-niece the night before his death that he should be called a ‘true Mahatma’ only if ‘someone shot me and I boldly received his bullet in my bare chest without a murmur and while continuing to chant the name of Rama’. The following day a well-educated, highly articulate, modernist, and militant Hindu, who ideologically stood for almost all that Gandhi rejected, killed him after first bowing to him in reverence. Gandhi died instantly, allegedly murmuring ‘hey Ram ’. His assassination on 30 January 1948 had a cathartic effect. It discredited Hindu extremists, chastened moderate Hindus, reassured the minorities, and pulled the mourning nation back from the brink of a disaster.
Gandhi survived Indian independence by just under six months. During that brief period when he was not busy fighting violence, he spent his time nurturing the Indian state and thinking about its future. He regularly advised Nehru, a secular socialist whom he had declared his ‘political heir’ several years earlier and who now was the Prime Minister of the country. He reconciled the growing differences between Nehru and some of his senior colleagues, urged his activist followers to leave Nehru alone to get on with the task of state-building, defended Nehru’s departures from Gandhi’s own ideals, and approved of sending Indian troops to Kashmir. As for India’s future course of action, Gandhi articulated his vision in terms of the tripartite strategy on which he had relied for nearly thirty years. The state was to be relatively autonomous and left in charge of those suited for conventional politics. The Congress, which had spearheaded the struggle for independence, was to dissolve itself and be reborn as an organization pursuing the Constructive Programme, keeping a watchful eye on the state, and, when it acted unjustly, leading satyagrahas against it. Since these were the tasks on which Gandhi had himself concentrated, he was in fact proposing that the Congress should institutionalize, preserve, and perpetuate his spirit. It spumed his advice, denying Gandhi’s spirit an organizational incarnation.
Courtesy: This article has been adapted from the book, Gandhi by Bhikhu Parekh.

* Bhikhu Parekh is Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Hull. Email: B.Parekh04@westminster.ac.uk.