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GANDHI'S LAST DAYS > The last birthday of Mahatma Gandhi
2nd October 1947...The Last Birthday Of Mahatma Gandhi
Brijmohan Heda
mahatma-gandhi-in-londonOn hearing of the possibility of India being made independent, Hindu-Muslim communal riots erupted around the country. Gandhi had never subscribed to the two nation theory nor did he agree to it. But the Congress leaders and the public, tired of the communal tensions in the country, considered partition to be the lesser of the two evils. Gandhi had to finally give in to popular sentiment.
The weapons of truth and non-violence used by the Congress, and by default by the people, to achieve independence, were no longer considered adequate either by the same leaders of the Congress (who were in the forefront of the non-violent movement) or even the public. The views and the role of the vocal society on issues of communal harmony, khadi, village industries, Urdu, devnagari script, use of Hindustani (as against pure Sanskritised Hindi) and revival of Indian languages were very different. They considered Gandhi as an obstruction to achieve their ends.
After achieving independence without spilling even a drop of blood, the leaders now wanted to strengthen the armed forces of the country. They started to feel that to ensure the security of the country, we required strong and competent armed forces. The reason for this attitude was quite clear. Those depending on weapons do not need to worry about ethical behaviour; all they need is a façade. To practice true non-violence, one needs to cultivate a genuine feeling of international brotherhood and fraternalism which should reflect in one’s speech, thoughts and behaviour. Gandhiji used his prayer meetings to preach the creation of such a society.
The Congress was created to struggle for freedom and independence and once the goal was achieved, the need for the existence of the Congress had ended. That is why Gandhi thought that the Congress should be dissolved, but the Congress workers were eager to taste the fruits of the freedom that they had won. The idea of sacredness and sanctity of means to achieve ends, had become outdated.
The differences of opinion and the circumstances of the country at that time led to Gandhiji feeling alone and isolated. Gandhi’s dejection was palpable. He sounded distraught. Death was very much on his mind. He used to pray that either the almighty give him the strength to change all that was happening and if not, to give him death. In this kind of milieu, Gandhi’s 78th birthday was approaching on 2 Oct 1947. This would prove to be his last birthday to be celebrated. All those around him had come to offer their good wishes. One such visitor jokingly commented, “Bapuji, on our birthdays we touch the feet of others and on your birthday too we have to touch your feet, how fair is that?” Gandhiji grinned and said, “The ways of mahatmas are always different. That is not my fault. You people have wrongly declared me a mahatma, so now bear the consequences.”
As was his practice, he celebrated that day by fasting, praying and spending more time on his spinning wheel (charkha). Gandhi clarified that fasting purifies the heart and soul and that his life is dedicated to the service of the lowest life created by God. He transformed that birthday as one for the rejuvenation of the spinning wheel, which is the symbol of peace and non-violence. This symbol was as good as lost. He had not stopped celebrating his birthdays in this manner hoping that those still interested in the spinning wheel would understand the message and a hope that it would serve as an inspiration to such people.
Well-wishers close to him were waiting to greet him; among them Pandit Nehru, Sardar, his host Ghanshyamdas Birla and his relatives living in Delhi. The seat in his room was artistically decorated by Miraben with a beautiful cross, and the words ‘Hey Ram’, and an ‘Om’ written with colourful flowers. A small prayer was recited in which everyone participated. Then his favourite hymn ‘When I serve this wondrous cross’ and then the bhajan ‘Hey Govind rakho sharan’ were recited.
There was a constant flow of friends and well wishers all day to pay salutations to the father of the nation, including those from other countries. Many of them conveyed greetings from the leaders of their respective nations. Last to arrive was Lady Mountbatten with a bunch of letters and telegrams for Gandhi. “I do not wish to celebrate my birthday while such fierce fire is burning all around me, therefore, either douse this fire, or pray that the lord should call me to his side” was his refrain. He added, I do not like the idea of celebrating one more birthday while such conflagration is going on in India.”
This day has been carved as the most painful event in Gandhi’s life in the memory of the visitors on that day. He even opened up to Sardar and asked him “What crime have I committed that I have to live to see this tragic day?” It seemed that the communal fires around him were making him feel helpless. Maniben Patel, daughter of the Sardar, has noted, “We had gone there with enthusiasm; but we returned with a heavy heart”.
After all the visitors had left, Gandhiji again had another bout of coughing. Articulating his thoughts he said I invoke the aid of the all-embracing power to take me away from this ‘vale of tears’ rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage. I have lost all desire to live for 125 years due to this continuous battle which is going on around me”, he muttered in a complaining voice. Someone commented “that means you have come from 125 to 0?” “Yes, if this fire is not doused”, clarified Gandhi.
Many persons came to greet him in the evening. In spite of receiving hundreds and thousands of telegrams from the country and from out of the country, flowers from non-residents and several messages of good will, “There was nothing but agony in his heart… today, his was a lone voice. All he heard from them (masses) was that they would not allow Muslims to stay in the Indian Union… ” He said he cannot accept these letters of best wishes. “Where did the congratulations come from? Would it not be more appropriate to say condolences?” I have no wish to live among hate and killings. He requested people to remove this madness and purify their hearts.
Someone asked him if he would not listen to All India Radio who had planned a special program to commemorate his birthday? To this he replied “I would rather give more importance to the rentio (spinning wheel in Gujarati) rather than the radio.” The music of the spinning wheel is far sweeter he added. One can hear the silent tragic voice of humans. He did not give his permission to publish the letters, messages and telegrams that he had received. Even though he had received some very good messages from the Muslims, he would not allow those also to be published as he believed that his words had ceased to carry weight, even if temporarily, and therefore this was not a good time to publish them.
Among the several messages he had received, one was from Lord Ismay from the office of the Viceroy, which said that may God give you a long life to lead us on the path of peace. The message from Zakir Hussain, the High Commissioner of Pakistan in India said, “Today’s Indian public – and I include the Pakistanis also – is suffering from pain and famine as a result of inexpressible hate and enmity. At such a time of unprecedented calamity all eyes are turned towards Mahatma Gandhi... in many ways the key to the future of men is in the hands of India and we are all hopeful that taking inspiration from the Mahatma the public will play their role in an appropriate manner.
Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, who resigned post-independence wrote, “So much has happened since you celebrated your birthday last year; whether it is you or me, at the end of the day, whatever has happened is neither to your satisfaction nor mine, but international relations do not progress slowly like love. What we have gained is much more than what we have lost… while the sad incidences that we see today will leave scars, I hope that the abscess will not stay.”
Eighty- year old Lady Pethick-Lawrence had sent an independent message, in which she wrote, “2nd Oct is also our wedding anniversary….you have left a lasting impression in the history of the world and will remain so for many many years. Last year you had said you intend to celebrate your century; that this should happen is my heart-felt wish. I wish that each coming year increases your confidence and faith in your beliefs.”
Sir Stafford Cripps was watching from a distance the agony that Gandhiji was going through after partition. He could probably not overlook the contribution of the British Government to the sad and sorrowful events taking place in India. He wrote to Gandhi with these thoughts in his mind, “I have intentionally avoided writing to you when you, or rather your country, is going through such a difficult period. Your sincere efforts to win by answering bad with goodness is greatly appreciated by your friends here – and there are many of them. We, who sincerely wish your country well, are truly inspired by your efforts and work. Historical wrongs of the past which has resulted in today's unrest pricks our conscience and torments us. The communal fires flaring in your country will soon be extinguished with your efforts. We hope that India and Pakistan, marching on the path of progress to acheive the goals which you have been denied, will come together once more.”
According to the lunar calender, Gandhi's birthday was on 11th October that year. The Gujarati had decided to donate a fund to Gandhiji on the occasion of his birthday, for which they had collected money. On this occasion Sardar on being told to say a few words said, “Is this my birthday? He said teasingly that it is unfair that you people collected the purse for Gandhi but you want me to speak? Adding with affectionate humour, he said, even when this old man who has just recovered from grave illness. Now have a little pity on him and let him rest.
This article is translated from Marathi by Ms. Hina Manerikar.

(Brijmohan Heda was a Senior lecturer in India. Currently lives in San Hoje, California, USA. True believer of Gandhian philosophy. He translated many Gandhi books into Marathi. Email: bbheda@yahoo.com