Tables had turned in the War. Hitler and Mussolini were on the verge of defeat. The Japanese Armies had been pushed back, and many countries in the East liberated. A new Viceroy had come to India, Lord Wavell. He wanted to find a way out of the deadlock in India. The leaders of the Congress or the members of the Working Committee were released. As the first step he wanted to reconstitute his Executive Council and include leaders of the people. He convened a Conference at Simla, and put forward his proposals. The Congress and the Muslim League under Jinnah participated in the Conference. But Lord Wavell's efforts failed when Jinnah insisted that the Muslims should have as many members in the Executive Council as the 'Caste Hindus' had, and the Muslim League should have the sole right to nominate Muslims for inclusion in the Executive Council. The Congress could not accept either of these demands without giving up its claim to be a national organisation representing all communities. The Conference failed.
In the meanwhile, the
war ended in Europe, and elections were held in Great Britain. Churchill and
the Conservatives were defeated, and the Labour party came to power. Labour
had sympathy for the Indian cause. In March 1946, the new Prime Minister
Clement Attlee decided to send a Cabinet Mission to India. It consisted of
three of his eminent colleagues. Two of them, Lord Pethick Lawrence and Sir
Stafford Cripps were known to Gandhi, and were known as friends of India and
The Mission held
discussions with the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League and many
other public figures. They took counsel with Gandhi too. When they failed to
find a consensus, they presented a proposal of their own. The Constitution
would have three tiers. The Union of India at the top would have control of
foreign affairs, defence and communications. The rest of the powers would
vest in the States. There would be three sections of States, each of which
would decide whether they should function as a group and if so, what
subjects should be delegated to the government at the group level. The
elaborate proposals were an answer to the question: should India remain one
or should the country be divided. It seemed as though the Labour Government
preferred a United India. Jinnah declared that he could never accept a Union
of India. From 1940 or earlier he had held that India consisted of two
nations, the Muslims, and the Hindus and others. His contention was that
each nation had a right to have its own state. The two nations, Hindus and
Muslims could not live together. The Congress rejected 'Pakistan'. Gandhi
had termed it as vivisection, and said that if it took place it would take
place over his dead body. He could never look upon religion as a dividing
force nor as the basis of nationhood. To him there was only one nation in
India, and it comprised of and would always comprise of people of different
Gandhi and the Congress
believed that religion was not the basis of nationhood. There were many
other factors including history, language, culture and so on. India had been
a nation though it had different languages and sub-cultures in different
areas. There had always been a cultural personality of India which was based
on, and evolved from its diversities. India had never smothered pluralism.
It had thrived on it,
and evolved its distinct culture of tolerance and pluralism. This nation
could not be split on the basis of religion. People of both Hindu and Muslim
religions and other religions resided in all parts of India. It was not
therefore possible to create a state on the basis of religion without
uprooting or annihilating large masses of people belonging to other faiths.
This would only result in carnage and misery.
But Jinnah was adamant.
He insisted that there were two nations, and that they could not live
together in one State — India. A new state had to be created by the British
before they left. He had already worked his followers up to a white pitch.
He was not satisfied with the Cabinet proposals.
The Cabinet Mission had
also proposed the setting up of a National Government. They did not succeed
in setting up one before they went back to England. Now Lord Wavell tried
again. He asked Nehru to form one. Jinnah was in a fit of fury. He called
the Congress a Caste Hindu fascist organisation, and refused to be a party
to their "campaign to dominate the Muslims and other non-Hindus". He would
now discard constitutional methods and take to "Direct Action" to achieve
Pakistan. He appealed to the Muslims to observe the 16th of August 1946 as
Direct Action Day.
Against whom was the
Direct Action planned? The British Government? The Congress? The Hindus?
What would be the means? The answer came in Calcutta on the 16th of August.
On that day, Muslim 'hooligans' went on a rampage, killing hundreds of
Hindus, raping Hindu women and killing innocent children. It looked as
though elaborate preparations had been made, and arms had been collected and
stockpiled. For two days the Hindus were dazed. But then they rallied,
killed, looted, raped and set fire to property as Muslims had done. The
casualties were high on both sides. Many houses and buildings lay in embers.
The reprisals by the
Hindus resulted in further reprisals by the Muslims in areas where they were
in absolute majority. One of these areas was the district of Noakhali in
East Bengal. It became the scene of an unprecedented carnage. Hardly a
handful of Hindu huts and families could survive the onslaught. Hindu men,
women and children were slaughtered. Some were forcibly converted to Islam.
Women were subjected to repeated rape and humiliation. Some were kidnapped
and subjected to forcible "marriages". Some committed suicide to escape rape
or capture. The charred remains of houses stood as reminders of the insanity
and inhuman cruelty that had ravaged the fair green land where Hindus and
Muslims had lived like blood brothers for centuries, speaking the same
language, singing the same songs, sowing, and reaping the same harvests and
sharing each other's joys and sorrows.
Gandhi heard of the
great Calcutta Killing when he was in his Ashram at Sevagram. He rushed to
Delhi to proceed to Calcutta. At Delhi, he, as well as the country, came to
know of the holocaust in Noakhali. For nearly a week the Government of
Bengal, under Suhrawardy, had censored and suppressed the news. When the
reports of the carnage and rape in Noakhali reached Bihar where Hindus were
in a majority there was a deafening and stunning echo. Muslims were killed
and raped. Their houses were gutted by arson, and looted.
The Hindus in Bihar vied
with the Muslims of Noakhali in repudiating the values of humanness and
mutual love that had characterized and sustained Indian society for
centuries. They descended to levels that would have shamed the most
barbarous tribes and animals.
Gandhi 'had reached
Calcutta on his way to Noakhali, when reports of the Bihar outrage reached
him. He was overcome with sorrow and shame. What was happening to India
which had set an example to the world in tolerance and mutual love? What had
happened to all the lessons that people had learnt: about the power of love
and Satyagraha? Were we destined to destroy each other in fratricidal strife
and kill each other as animals, or even as animals will not do? He had
special affection for Bihar. It was there that he had started his first
Satyagraha in India and served the exploited, starving people. He decided to
live on "the lowest diet possible" a semi-fast, and announced that he would
go on a fast unto death, if the people of Bihar did not immediately halt the
madness and turn a new leaf. Gandhi's semi-fast and the timely measures
taken by the Government had their effect, and the madness abated in Bihar.
Gandhi proceeded to
Noakhali. He wanted to go alone. But a Minister and Parliamentary
Secretaries of the Government of Bengal accompanied him. He had to travel by
train and car and boat. He was almost besieged by people who had flocked for
As Gandhi approached
Noakhali he saw the havoc that communal madness had wrought, — the charred
remains of houses, the skulls and skeletons that were strewn beside huts and
houses; the vacant and lifeless looks of women whose honour and self-
respect had been looted, the living dead who were haunting the villages that
had become charnel grounds. They had seen their husbands or children or
fathers being butchered before them. Men had seen their mothers or wives or
sisters being raped before being killed. Gandhi did not know how to console
them. Who could give back to them what they had lost forever? Gandhi said
that he had not come to console, but to give courage. He would stay with
them. No, he would stay alone in the hut of any Muslim who would house him,
living on whatever he could get to eat, sleeping on the mud floor, at the
mercy of hooligans and would-be murderers for the twenty-four hours of the
day. He would share their agony and risks. He would try to bring back sanity
through his courage and his appeal to the sense of humanness and compassion
in the Muslims. He decided that he would send the members of his entourage
to live alone in far dispersed areas, as he lived, instilling courage in the
minds of the Hindus and compassion and human kindness in the minds of the
He himself would set up
his headquarters in the village of Srirampur. It was a typical site. Only
three of the hundreds of Hindu families living there had survived. Gandhi
had with him his Bengali Secretary, Nirmal Kumar Bose, and his stenographer.
His granddaughter Manu too was with him. The madness that he saw launched
Gandhi into intense and ruthless introspection. He had tried to place the
law of love before the people, in South Africa, in India. He had tried to
practise it incessantly. He had passed through fire many times to purify
himself and his people. Yet today what he could see all around him was
untruth and hatred and brutal violence. It appeared as though he had failed.
Why did he fail? Was there something lacking in him?
Was there something
lacking in his understanding of the law of love? Had he been too frail and
too broken an instrument to be the medium of an invincible power? He should
purify himself even further. He should reduce himself to zero and rid
himself of his impurities. The moment demanded that he pass through fire to
rid himself of his impurities so that the pure ore of love would shine
through him and bring people to their senses.
He decided to disband
his camp at Srirampur and to walk alone from village to village. He would go
alone, entrusting himself to* God, — the God of love and Truth. The district
was crisscrossed by rivulets, and was marshy. Paths were overgrown with
thorny bush. Rivers had to be crossed by walking along bamboo poles that had
been stretched above the waters to serve as bridges. He was old and weak. He
might slip and fall into the flowing waters or eddies. He discarded the use
of footwear. He would walk on barefoot, braving thorns and quagmires. He was
willing to leave a trail of blood, — his own blood — to mark his quest for
compassion and love. He was at the mercy of the very people who had gone on
rampage and killed and looted and raped. He would expose himself to their
fury, Gandhi was not- far wrong. They stood sullen and furious as he wended
his way on barefeet. At some places, they placed thorny bushes on the narrow
footpaths through which he had to pass, or placed nightsoil along the
footpaths that he had to take. He bent down and removed the nightsoil with
dried leaves and placed his feet on the path. The looks of many showed their
unrepentant anger. Some taunted Gandhi, and asked him if he was not going to
Bihar. Was he only concerned with the safety of Hindus? He replied that he
made no distinction. The sins of the Hindus of Bihar were as black as the
sins of the Muslims of Noakhali.
He would go to Bihar and
Punjab as soon as some sanity was restored in Bengal. To him Allah and
Ishwar were one. There were some who harkened to his call, and vowed to work
for the return of sanity and humanness.
After two months of this
'pilgrimage' in Noakhali, in March 1947, Gandhi decided to go to Bihar to
spread the message of sanity and love. Here, it was the Hindus who had gone
mad and done all that the Muslims had done in Noakhali. Gandhi's task here
was to bring solace to the Muslims who had been the victims of the
holocaust, and bring Hindus to the path of sanity. Here, the response that
Gandhi received was far more warm and reassuring. Many who had been guilty
of perpetrating atrocities on the minorities confessed their guilt, and
promised to turn a new leaf. Moved by Gandhi's words on the miseries of
Muslim women who had suffered, many Hindu women gave Gandhi their jewellery
to give help to their 'sisters'? Gandhi was unsparing in his condemnation of
what the Hindus had done in Bihar and what the Muslims had done in Noakhali.