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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 16
Chapter 16
Gandhi found the answer, — Britain must quit India. It is not for them to think of what would happen if they left, when they left. India was there before they came. India would look after itself when they left. For heaven's sake, quit. Leave the country to God, or anarchy. But go. The country pricked its ears. Here was the voice of revolution, a non-violent revolution.
Some leaders of the Congress were baffled. Even Jawaharlal and Azad were not sure of the wisdom of the proposal. They thought that it might help the enemies of democracy. Some Britishers condemned Gandhi as a fifth columnist, an agent of the Axis powers and Japan. But Gandhi's erstwhile adversary against whom he had fought for 20 long years in South Africa, General Smuts, said "It is sheer nonsense to talk of Mahatma Gandhi as a "fifth" columnist. He is a great man. He is one of the great men of the world."
Gandhi wrote and spoke explaining the reasons behind his proposal. He explained it to the world through the interviews he gave to outstanding columnists like Louis Fischer. His message echoed throughout the length and breadth of the country. Faint hearts picked up courage. The nonplussed saw that there was a way. In the course of a few weeks the country was electrified. Students, young men and women, workers, villagers, — every section of the people felt that the hour had come. The country depended on them. The future depended on them. Gandhi told them that the hour had come to "do or die". It was only when individuals went forth to seek death that nations lived. In a few weeks, Gandhi had set the country on fire.
The Working Committee of the Congress met at Sevagram, and took the momentous decision on the 14th of July. The resolution asking Britain to Quit India was adopted by the All India Congress Committee at the Gowalia Tank grounds at Bombay, on the 8th of August 1942. Gandhi had told the meeting that he would meet the Viceroy and try to convince him. If he failed, he would tell the country what to do. It would be an unprecedented mass upsurge, — revolution, but strictly non-violent. Anything else will misfire and lead to a rout. He asked the country to wait for his signal and the programme of Civil Disobedience and Non-cooperation, if his talks with the Viceroy failed.
The country was waiting for his signal when the Government struck. Soon after midnight on the morning of the 9th of August, Gandhi was arrested. So were all the members of the Congress Working Committee and all the known leaders of the Congress at the Central, State and District levels. The papers were muzzled; so no one knew what had become of Gandhi or the leaders. Rumours spread that Gandhi had been taken to Africa. It was after a day or two that people came to know that Gandhi had been taken to Poona, and lodged in the Aga Khan's Palace which had been converted into a special prison. The leaders in the Working Committee including Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Sardar Vallabhbhai, and others were lodged in the Fort at Ahmednagar which was protected by a moat that encircled it. All the leaders who could speak or guide authentically were taken away and isolated from the people.
A tidal wave of fury swept the country. It seemed as though all restraints gave way. It seemed as though there was only one objective. Hit back and give the Government a taste of the fury of the people. Since most of the older leaders had been removed from the scene, the leaders of the younger generation took over. No instructions had been formulated or left behind since Gandhi was waiting to know what would transpire in his talks with the Viceroy.
Hundreds of thousands of processions were taken out in all the States, almost all towns and villages, in defiance of prohibitory orders. Attempts were made to hoist the National Flag on the offices and buildings of the Government, and in public places. The country echoed with the cry "Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai", "Britain, Quit India". Attempts were made to disrupt communications. Fish plates and rails were removed. Bridges were blown up. Government buildings were set on fire. Telephone wires were cut off. Efforts were made to prevent rail traffic. Students and young men and women were in the forefront of action. They forced the closure of schools and colleges for months. Many young men and women were shot down while hoisting the National Flag. There were indiscriminate arrests, and detention without trial. Those who attempted to lead processions or hold meetings were mercilessly lathi charged or shot at. Machine guns were used. Unarmed crowds were fired upon from the air. A reign of terror was launched. Collective fines were imposed. Villagers were forced to patrol tracks at night, on penalty of arrest and collective fines. Women were maltreated. At many places, police entered villages and indulged in orgies of rape and shooting. Prisoners were treated with cruelty. Many were tortured. Even leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan were subjected to torture.
There was unprecedented, deliberate, barbarous repression. In some States like Bengal, Bihar and Maharashtra, parallel governments were set up in villages and Tahsils, and the supporters and henchmen of the Government were subjected to corporal 'punishment'. Gandhi came to know of all this only much later. In the meanwhile, the Government launched an intense campaign to malign Gandhi and the Congress leaders. They blamed Gandhi for the violent demonstrations and 'sabotage', and accused Gandhi of having sanctioned them or connived at them, if he had not plotted them. They suggested that he had given up his faith in non­violence. Some implied that his non-violence was a ploy, and that he was indulging in downright hypocrisy when he talked of non-violence. They tried to spread these stories all over the world.
Gandhi was in prison. He had no way of answering these allegations in public and countering the calumny that was put out. He wrote to the Viceroy and the Government on these allegations. He charged the Government with having precipitated the struggle, isolating the leaders from the people with a midnight sweep; provoking the people and unleashing a reign of "leonine violence" against the people. If he had not been arrested and isolated, he would have appealed to the people to stick strictly to the path of non-violence. It was most likely that he would have succeeded. His faith in non-violence was the breath of his life. It was no ploy. He had often declared that he did not care for an independence that was won through violence, because it would not signify the freedom of the common man. It seemed as though the Government had lost all sense of propriety, fair play or justice. How else could they level such grave allegations against him and yet not give him a chance to answer the allegations? If they had a shred of evidence they should put him on trial. If found guilty, he would bear the consequences. Time was of the essence in meting out justice. His correspondence with the Government only brought long and tortuous replies, but not acceptance of the challenge to prove him guilty in a court of justice.
Even before Gandhi settled down in the prison in the Aga Kkhan's Palace, he was shaken by a tragic blow. Mahadev Desai, who had worked as his secretary, almost from the beginning of his public work in India, died of a sudden heart attack on the 15th of August. Desai had served Gandhi and the cause dutifully, — recording Gandhi's interviews and speeches, helping him answer his voluminous mail, writing continuously in the Young India and Harijan, and helping Gandhi in the work of editing these journals, keeping accounts, regulating appointments, keeping in touch with Congress workers and the organisation for constructive work that Gandhi set up, maintaining contacts with the high officials of the British Government and so on. Mahadev Desasi's death was a truly irreparable loss for Gandhi.
As on the previous occasion when he was in prison Gandhi kept himself busy with daily prayers, spinning, writing to the Government and detailed discussions with his prison mates on matters of religion, political philosophy, economic programmes, techniques of revolution, the ideal of a classless and stateless society, and similar subjects. The Government had lodged some of his colleagues with him, Kasturba was with him. Others who were with him at the Aga Khan's palace included Sarojini Naidu, Mirabehn, Pyarelal Nayyar and Sushila Nayyar. He read many books and discussed them with his colleagues. It was during these days that he first read Marx's Das Capital. There were, therefore, incisive and extensive discussions on Marx and Marxism, the Soviet experiment, and the superiority of techniques and goals based on non-violence.
By February 1943, Gandhi felt that he had waited long enough for a reply from the Government on his demand for an opportunity to clear himself of the charges that the Government had levelled against him. He should do something to vindicate himself. He decided to go on a fast of 21 days. It began on the 10th of February. The Viceroy dismissed it as political black mail. But as Gandhi embarked on his fast there was deep agony in India. He was in poor health, and in no condition to undergo the rigours of a 21-day fast. Soon he entered the 'danger zone'. The doctors who attended on him said that he would suffer an irretrievable breakdown, and would die if he did not take glucose. Every moment seemed crucial. None of his Indian colleagues could dare suggest to Gandhi that he should take glucose in the water he was drinking. Yet they too knew that nothing else could save him. They were disconsolate. The Surgeon-General who was an Englishman was so moved and so keen to try to save Gandhi that he decided to try and persuade Gandhi. He broached the subject. Gandhi managed a smile, and signalled that he was in the hands of God. When Gandhi's colleagues entered the room, they found the Surgeon-General wiping his tears on the verandah. The nation was on an anxious vigil. The British Government, on its part, had made up its mind to let Gandhi die. They assembled a pile of sandal-wood inside the precincts of the Aga Khan's Palace for the funeral pyre. But the miracle occurred. Gandhi came back from the brink of death, much to the surprise of the doctors, much to the chagrin of the Government, and much to the joy of the Indian people. There was a spurt in programmes of defiance all over the country. The nation's agony was so intense that three Indian members of the Viceroy's Executive Council disassociated themselves from the policy of the Government, and resigned.
Kasturba Gandhi had been in indifferent health from 1943. The illness did not respond to treatment. In February 1944, she breathed her last with her head in Gandhi's lap. A few days earlier, she had told Gandhi : 'Now, I am going.' As Gandhi said, 'They were indeed a couple out of the ordinary.' She had been his partner for over sixty years in a saga of ordeals, suffering, discovery of self, and sadhana for truth and non­violence. It was another irreparable loss that he sustained while in the Aga Khan's Palace.
All these began to tell on Gandhi's health. He was laid low with malaria. He had also contracted amoebiasis. As reports of his health came to be known, and his condition deteriorated, there were increasing and insistent demands for his release, from India and outside. The fortunes of the war had turned in favour of the Allies. The Government was no longer in a state of panic. They decided to release Gandhi.
On his release streams of visitors began to converge at Gandhi's residence. He found that he was too weak even to talk. He had to conserve his energy by observing silence. But he rallied soon, and began to pick up the threads of his preoccupations.
The members of the Working Committee were still in prison. So were most others who had been detained. A way had to be found to lead the country out of the deadlock. He wrote to the Viceroy and the Prime Minister Churchill offering his services "for the sake of your people and mine, and through them those of the world". He met with a rebuff.
He saw that political progress was being blocked by the persisting differences with Jinnah and the Muslim League. He decided to try to reassure Jinnah and narrow down differences. He sought a meeting with Jinnah. Gandhi and Jinnah parleyed at Jinnah's residence at Mount Pleasant Road in Bombay for nearly two weeks. But the ice could not be broken. Jinnah refused to relent or even specify his demands. In 1940 the Muslim League had met at Lahore and passed a resolution demanding the partition of the country and the creation of a new State (to be called Pakistan) consisting of the areas in which Muslims were in a majority.
Jinnah was not willing to concede the right that he demanded for the Muslim minority in India to the non-Muslim minority in the areas that he claimed as part of the projected Pakistan. The talks broke down.
The phase of defiance had quietened down. But the other part of the programme, the constructive programme which, in Gandhi's eyes, was as essential as Civil Disobedience could be carried out, had to be carried out. Many new ideas had occurred to him while in prison. He, therefore, convened meetings of workers who were engaged in the fields of Khadi and Village Industries, Nayi Talim or Basic Education, Harijan Seva, Tribal Welfare, Hindustani Prachar, organizations of women, students and labour and so on, and chalked out plans to deepen and revolutionize these activities, with the objective of working for a new human being and a new society. He had also revived the morale of the workers of the Congress and organizations of constructive work. He travelled to the different States of the country, meeting workers and people, rebuilding morale, re­vitalizing programmes, trying to kindle new hope.