STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 18
Gandhi was in Bihar when a new Viceroy Lord Mountbatten took over at Delhi. He had been sent to India with a specific mandate to find a solution and implement it before the end of June 1948. The Muslim League had decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly. The new Viceroy wanted to seek Gandhi's advice before he came to his own assessment. Gandhi told him that the best course would be to ask Jinnah to take over as Prime Minister and run the affairs of the country. If Jinnah declined, the Congress should be asked to shoulder the responsibility. Gandhi thought that his proposal would ensure the survival of a United India, and there would be no partition. The Viceroy was baffled, Jinnah said it was too good to be true. The Congress was wary about the Mahatma's proposal.
Mountbatten came to the conclusion that there was no alternative to the partition of the country, and on the same grounds dividing or partitioning the Muslim majority states in the North-West and North-East to keep the areas with Hindu majority in India. He was able to convince the Congress that this was the only solution to save the country from Civil War, and to protect the rest of India from fratricide. It is difficult to say what argument clinched the issue with the leaders of the Congress, — saving the rest of the country; fear of civil war, desire for the immediate end of British rule and independence; the sheer impossibility of working with the representatives of the Muslim League or fear of continued paralysis if they were to work with the representatives of the League.
Gandhi was firmly against partition. He did not see any good coming out of it. Rivers of blood would flow. There would be carnage. Millions would be uprooted. It would mean the surrender of all that he and the Congress had stood for and struggled for, — the unity of India, the belief in pluralism and tolerance on which, Indian society was based, the belief in secular nationalism that refused to make religion the basis of nationhood.
He advised the Congress leaders, — implored them, not to accept partition in a hurry. The worst that could happen was that they would have to wage another struggle to obtain independence without losing the unity of the country. Even if partition was to come, let it come after the British left. Their presence created an artificial situation. But Gandhi could not convince the leaders of the Congress. They had made up their minds. They did not want to sail with him. They went through the ritual of consulting him. But they did not lay all the cards on the table. They did not let him know that they had conveyed their acceptance of partition to Mountbatten. It was from others that Gandhi came to know that they had accepted partition.
As one irreversible step after another was taken on the path towards partition, Gandhi cautioned and implored the Congress and the Government at every step. He asked them not to be in a hurry, not to abdicate the claim of the Congress to represent the nation; not to accept anything which would reduce Congress to the position of a representative of the Hindus or Caste Hindus; not to accept the partition of the Punjab or Bengal on grounds that were based on religion; not to accept the partition of the country. At every point, the Congress either disagreed with Gandhi or circumvented Gandhi. Mountbatten brazenly told the Mahatma, 'The Congress is not with you; it is with me.'
As the negotiations progressed the Congress was not keen to keep Gandhi in the picture. Two leaders of the Congress, Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru told the Viceroy not to worry too much about what Gandhi said. Often Gandhi was kept in the dark, and came to know of the decisions of the Congress only after they had been conveyed to the Government or arrived at in consultation with the Government. He was unwanted. From the beginning of the negotiations, Gandhi was clear that he wanted independence for united India. If the Government were not prepared to accept that position, he felt the Congress should not agree to the partition of India, but should be prepared for another non-violent struggle to achieve independence for an undivided India.
The Congress leaders particularly Nehru, Azad and Patel had decided that immediate independence was more important than the unity of India. They might have had their reasons. The British Government wanted partition. Jinnah wanted partition. Gandhi was isolated. His colleagues had deserted him.
He was still prepared to fight. But he knew that he had no time to build up a new alternative leadership. He told his attendants : "Today I find myself all alone. Even the Sardar and Jawaharlal think that he was wrong, and peace was sure to return if partition was agreed upon. Nevertheless, I must speak as I feel ... we may not feel the full impact immediately, but, I can see clearly that the future of independence gained at this price is going to be dark. Should the evil I apprehend overtake India ... let posterity know what agony this old soul went through, thinking of it.... Let it not be said that Gandhi was party to Indian vivisection." It was a Monday, his weekly day of silence on which Mountbatten met Gandhi to talk of the Congress's acceptance of partition. Mountbatten was astonished by Gandhi's 'self-effacement' and 'self-control'.
It seemed to him that his colleagues and the Government had no need of him, anymore. He decided to leave Delhi, and go where he was needed. He was needed in Calcutta, in Noakhali, in Bihar, in the Punjab, — everywhere where people were in anguish, where they had been blinded by anger and had sunk to the level of brutes. He had to assuage their suffering, give them solace, atone for their sins, cool their passions, teach them to live with each other. Hatred could not quench hatred. Only love could. So the lone pilgrim, the messenger of peace and love set out for Noakhali where he had left his work uncompleted.
On the way when he was in Calcutta, trouble broke out in the city. The former premier Suhrawardy and many others requested Gandhi to stay and restore peace. He agreed to do so if Suhrawardy would stay with him under the same roof and work with him.
A house was chosen in a locality that had been badly affected. On the day on which Gandhi moved in, an angry mob of youngsters surrounded the house, pelted stones, broke panels, forced their way in, and confronted him with blood-shot eyes, brandishing lathis. Gandhi stood in their midst with arms folded, fearless, — cool in his courage and compassion, ready to be set upon, and lynched. The anger abated. The assailants retreated. It appeared as though there was a change of heart. A few days later, on the 14th of August, on the eve of Independence, the two communities jointly waved the national flag and celebrated the coming of Independence. But the peace was fragile. Anger welled up again. The desire for retaliation asserted itself; on the 31st August a menacing mob of Hindus, armed with lethal weapons approached and surrounded the house. They were looking for Suhrawardy. But Suhrawardy had left a few minutes ago. Their quarry had escaped. But their fury did not abate. The missiles that they had brought flew past Gandhi. They were in no mood to listen to him.
Gandhi saw that he could salvage the situation only with an appeal to the highest in man. He had always believed that man had both the beast and the super human in him. The way to enter their hearts and tap the springs of divinity or 'humanness' was through a fast. He went on a fast on the 1st of September. It worked the miracle. It melted hearts. The leaders of all communities gathered and assured him that the chapter of hatred and violence would be closed forever. Hindus and Muslims danced on the streets with joy and embraced each other. The world hailed his success as a miracle. He had accomplished what many divisions of the army could not accomplish elsewhere. Lord Mountbatten hailed him as 'the one man Peace Brigade'.
Gandhi now felt that his work in the East was done, and he should hurry to the Punjab from where harrowing tales of misery and carnage were pouring in. Meanwhile the day that had been set for the transfer of power arrived. On the 15th of August, India and Pakistan were to emerge as two Independent states, after nearly three centuries of foreign domination. The day for which the people of India had longed and struggled and suffered had arrived. But the man who had taken them from the wilderness to the threshold of power and independence was himself struggling in the wilderness, carrying his cross on his shoulders. He was far away from the jubilation and revelry of the capitals. The new Government asked him for a message. He said he had no message — no new message to give.
Gandhi reached Delhi on his way to the Punjab. But at Delhi, he found that the flood of human misery that had gathered in the Punjab and Sind had reached Delhi. Millions of people who had been uprooted from their homes and lands and lost their all had arrived at Delhi on their trek to safety. It was undoubtedly the biggest exodus that history had seen.
Their misery, agony, bitterness and anger were beyond description.
There were among them people who had seen the gory murder of their parents or spouses, their sisters and brothers and children. Many women had been raped. Many had been abducted and kept as slaves or forcibly married. Children had been picked up by their feet and killed by being dashed on the ground. Houses had been burnt and looted in village after village, city after city. People had escaped detection and fled from their homes and lands, carrying whatever they could salvage, not knowing where to go, not knowing where they could find safety. Caravans of those who sought refuge formed themselves; husbands were missing; wives were missing: parents and children were missing. There were also orphans and helpless old people who had lost their grown up children. Aerial surveys showed that some caravans were sixty miles or more in length. They had no rations to survive on. Many died on the way. Those who came later had to wade through corpses. The stench of corpses and swarms of vultures were in the air. Worse still, sometimes caravans were ambushed, and subjected to murder, loot, rape and abduction. At some places, those who sought water were given poisoned water, and they died on the way. The caravans had no assurance of security, even when they survived. They had to start life again in refugee camps, living on rations, living in squalor. How could they resume their lives and find their human dignity again? All this happened to columns that moved from one country to the other.
To Hindus who poured into India from what had become Pakistan, and to Muslims who were fleeing for safety to Pakistan.
What else could one find in the camps and concentrations of refugees except anger, misery and the spirit of revenge? They were angry with the leaders whose actions had brought them to a state of misery and despair. Gandhi felt that it was his duty to visit these camps and to do whatever could be done to bring solace to them, trace their kin and rehabilitate them. The Government was looking after the problems of rehabilitation. But he had to apply the balm to their wounded and embittered minds and hearts. He stood in their midst, unprotected, listening to their woes and trying to comfort them. He visited one camp after another, of arriving Hindus as well as fleeing Muslims. He felt sad and ashamed at the depravity that had engulfed the minds of his people. Then came another blow that shocked him. The Government of India had decided to withhold the 55 crores of rupees that were Pakistan's share of the common assets at the time of Partition. Gandhi thought that this was immoral. The money was part of what belonged to both at the time of partition. At partition, assets too were partitioned as happened in every family. Both had agreed on what would constitute Pakistan's share. How then could it be held back, merely because the treasury happened to be in Indian hands?
If a family partitioned its assets and two brothers had agreed on each other's share, how could the elder brother refuse to pay what was agreed to be the younger brother's share? This would be too immoral a beginning for Independent India. He asked Mountbatten for his view. Mountbatten said that his personal opinion was similar to Gandhi's.
Gandhi decided to go on a fast to appeal to the conscience of his colleagues who were now in Government, and also to restore sanity and love to the minds of his people.
As the fast progressed and Gandhi's health started sinking, the country began to realize that it was running the risk of losing the Mahatma forever. Intransigence gave way to introspection. The Government decided to release the 55 crores. Hardened hearts began to melt. Waves of penitence and high sentiments swept the country. There was a sense of imminent pathos. Once again, the leaders of communities assembled, expressed their deep sorrow and promised to live in peace and love. Gandhi had triumphed yet again.
But there were some in India who looked upon Gandhi's successes as an anathema. There were such people among supporters of the British as well as among Hindu and Muslim extremists. But Gandhi's work in Bihar, Calcutta and Delhi had brought about a change in the attitude of his Muslim critics. They now looked upon him as the saviour of Muslims in India. Even the people and leaders in Pakistan had begun to hail Gandhi as 'the great man of India', the Mahatma.
However, fanatics and extremists among the Hindus had become more bitter about Gandhi. They accused him of being soft to the Muslims. They thought he was anxious to please Muslims, and was willing to sacrifice the interests of Hindus to protect the Muslims. Many of them were opposed to the virtues of tolerance and non-violence that Gandhi propagated as characteristics of the Hindu tradition. During his campaign against untouchability, and at other times, they had accused him of betraying Hinduism. Many of them believed that Hindu interests should rule in India, that India was Hindu India. Partition and the riots that occurred in its wake had given them an opportunity to inflame communal hatred and openly advocate aggression and retaliation. Gandhi believed that retaliation would imprison the country in a cycle of mutual hatred and efforts at mutual annihilation. This was not sane or humane; nor was it consistent with what he understood of Hinduism and Indian nationalism.
His Hindu detractors knew that he had immense influence with the Government; even more intense influence with the masses. The masses looked upon him as the incarnation of the soul of India; as a demigod.
Some looked upon him as the avatar of Vishnu. They began to feel that the evil influence of such a person should be removed, if necessary, by doing away with him.
There were enough reports with the Government, and in the press, to indicate that these forces might try to assassinate Gandhi. The Government offered police protection. Gandhi declined it, saying that his life was in the hands of God. Moreover, as he had already said when Mir Alam had tried to assassinate him in South Africa, "To die by the hand of a brother, rather than by disease. It cannot be for me a matter of sorrow. And if, even in such case, I am free from the thought of anger or hatred against my assailant, I know that that will rebound to my eternal welfare."
Of late, it had appeared that he had a premonition. He had lost his desire to live for the full span of human life — which he believed was 125 years. He often said that he would like God to take him away if he could not serve his people, but only be a witness to fratricidal strife and inhumanity. He had no desire to live to see this misery and madness if he could not end it. Every day in the evening he sat with the people in common prayer to God who was Ishwar to some, Allah to some. He never missed his prayer. On the 20th of January, while he was at prayer, there was an explosion and commotion in the audience. Gandhi sat through the prayer motionless, without even a muscle twitching. When Lady Mountbatten congratulated him on his escape and utter equanimity, he said, "If somebody fired at me point blank and I faced the bullet with a smile, repeating the name of God in my heart, I should indeed be deserving of congratulations." On the 29th of January, a day before the end, he told his granddaughter that if he were a true Mahatma he would face the bullet of an assassin with love in his heart and God's name on his lips.
On the 30th of January at 5 p.m. as on every preceding day, the crowd was waiting for Gandhi in the prayer ground. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had come to meet him, perhaps to talk of differences that had surfaced between the Mahatma and him, and Jawaharlal and him. Gandhi was talking to him when his granddaughter Manu pointed out that he was getting late for prayer. He could not bear being late, least of all, for prayer. He got up in a hurry, took leave of the Sardar and walked briskly to the prayer ground, leaning on the shoulders of Manu and Abha, his granddaughter and granddaughter-in-law. As he neared the raised ground, someone tried to edge forward, ostensibly to touch the Mahatma's feet. Manu tried to push him away. But he managed to reach the Mahatma. In a second, he bowed to the Mahatma, and as he rose pumped three bullets into him from a pistol that he had hidden in his dress. The shots were fired point blank. Two pierced the Mahatma's chest and went out, one was lodged in his lung. The Mahatma seemed to flounder. He slipped down with folded hands and the cry "Hai Ram" on his lips. For a minute, the crowd did not know what had happened. Then they were stunned and speechless. The Mahatma was dead. He had been killed before their eyes, by an Indian, a Hindu. In life, he was known as Bapu, the Father. Bapu was no more. India felt orphaned.
The country was plunged in gloom. No one could find words to talk to anyone. They could only sob. Everyone felt that something within him had died, something which he had cherished, which was linked to his pride as an Indian and as a human being. Wherever the news of Gandhi's death reached, life came to a standstill, and a pall of gloom and shame descended. When the news reached the United Nations, there was stunned silence. Human beings everywhere moaned the loss of something they cherished.
In India, Pandit Nehru spoke on the radio and said: "The light has gone out of our lives.... Yet I am wrong, for the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light.... And a thousand years later, that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it.... For that light represented the living Truth."
Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad said that he had woken up from a dream, feeling that his hands were blood-red. He saw that his hands as well as the hands of all others in the country had been stained with the blood of Gandhi. A few days later, addressing Gandhi's associates in Gandhi's Ashram at Sevagram, Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, "We have betrayed him before the cock crew thrice in the morning."
Gandhi is no more. But, as he himself foresaw: "When I am dead and buried, I will speak from my grave." Gandhi's body has been cremated, but not his message. That message will continue to be the message of hope for humanity.