One-man Boundary Force

Not only was the idea of Partition repugnant to Gandhiji's faith in the unity of his country, he could also foresee the rivers of blood flowing in its aftermath.

So much so that when shouts of "Mahatma Gandhi ki jai" rent the air on 15 August 1947, Gandhi was not there in New Delhi. He was in Calcutta and he was not rejoicing. He spent the day in prayer and fasting. "My independence has not yet come.....unless this terrible poverty is banished, there is no room for merriment....." he had remarked. In fact when he was approached by the emissaries of the Government for a message to be broadcast on Independence Day, his brusque reply, "There is no message at all" spoke his mind amply. A similar request from BBC was also turned down.

Gandhiji had originally planned to go to Noakhali after Partition but he could not leave Calcutta without pouring, as he put it "a pot of water over the fire that was burning." H. S. Suhrawardy, the Prime Minister of undivided Bengal requested Gandhiji to stay on in the city till peace returned. Gandhiji agreed-on the condition that Suhrawardy should join him in his mission and live under the same roof. Suhrawardy whom most Hindus held responsible for the killing of their brethren, a year would face considerable danger to his life. So Gandhiji asked him to take permission of his father and daughter.

The house selected for the purpose belonged to an old Muslim lady. It was a place vulnerable to attack. Hindu youths were angry that he had come to protect Muslims, having failed to come to the rescue of Hindus who were mercilessly butchered a year earlier. Gandhiji was aware of all this--yet refused to have any armed guard for protection.

When he moved into this house on the afternoon of 13 August, he was met at the gate by a band of hostile young men shouting "Gandhi go back" Suhrawardy's car was surrounded and when he was finally allowed to enter, stones were pelted through the glass windows. Gandhi sent for the demonstrators and calmly explained to them the purpose of his mission, and his determination to `do or die' at his post. His words had a calming effect and after one more session with the still half-angry young men the following day, the tempest of hatred subsided. On the second day he even asked Suhrawardy to address the Hindu crowd after the prayer meeting.

Suddenly, a transformation took place. On 14 and 15 August, days which all were dreading, the frenzy of hatred seemed to give way to an outpouring of affection and cordiality, described by the poet Sudhindranath Datta as "the only miracle I have seen." Hindus and Muslims gathered in the streets to celebrate jointly the eve of Independence.

But Gandhiji was not unduly elated. He had doubts whether the transformation was real enough to last long. So, on Independence Day, when all around-Hindus and Muslims-were rejoicing together, Gandhiji observed fast for the day.

What happened subsequently in Calcutta is well known. Riots broke out again on 31 August. Gandhiji went on a fast to "end only when conflagration ends." It did end. The "one-man boundary force" had brought peace to Bengal.

Adapted From Gandhi; A life by Krishna Kripalani