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Mahatma Gandhi


Gandhi's Epic Fast

- Vasant G. Gandhi

On January 31, 1948, in Delhi, a sea of people clad in white clothes merged at Rajghat, the place a few yards away from the holy waters of the Yamuna river, to witness the cremation of Gandhiji. His body, covered with sandalwood logs and incenses, was laid on the pyre. The mood was sombre, and the weather was sunny. Ramdas, his third son, lit the pyre at 4:45 p.m., and the flames reduced the pyre to bones and ashes. He was no more; however, his search for truth, his selflessness, his impeccable integrity, his love and respect for life, his humility, his insistence on non-violence, and the practice of his preaching will forever echo the earth.

This is the story of Gandhi's epic fast. The year was 1932. The episode involved the Untouchables, termed Harijans by Gandhi and the "Depressed Classes" by the British. The protagonists were Gandhi and Ambedkar. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a graduate of Columbia University School of Law in New York and the main leader of the Untouchables, was stubborn. As an attendee of the Second Round Table Conference in London from September to December 1931, he proposed a separate electorate or reservation of seats for the Untouchables within the Hindu bloc in the provincial legislatures. Gandhi opposed the proposal, saying that it would divide the Hindus and the Harijans. The British saw another opportunity to divide Indians further and to keep them quarreling among themselves. Back in 1909, the British had introduced separate electorates for the Hindus and the Muslims. As a result, a Hindu could vote only for a Hindu candidate, a Muslim only for a Muslim. Consequently, religious differences surfaced in every election, and for the two communities - unable to vote for the each other's candidates - the gulf of mistrust deepened and widened.

The decree by the British government would grant separate franchise (the statutory right to vote) to the Depressed Classes for twenty years in seven out of nine provinces in which the government had decided to set up Indian Provincial Legislatures. Was this not giving the Untouchables an advantage in fighting for their rights against Hindus? British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, in a letter to Gandhi dated September 8, asked this question.

Gandhi, who was in jail in Poona, declared, "I am certain that the question of separate electorates for the Untouchables is the modern manufacture of satanic government. I will resist it with my life." He was opposed to separate electorates and saw three Indias: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables. He took his last meal at 11:30 a.m. on September 20. His admirers asked, in letters, pleas, and telegrams, why was he throwing away his life by starving to death for Harijans. Nehru writes in his autobiography, "I felt annoyed with him for choosing a side issue for his final sacrifice."

The authorities in London did not want Gandhi's death and said that Britain would accept any voting arrangement that was satisfactory to both Hindus and Harijans. The Hindus rushed to Bombay and met the Harijan leaders. Ambedkar was filled with anger and ill will towards the Hindus. He thought that Gandhi's fast was a ploy. But as Gandhi's health began to decline, the negotiators were pressured to come to an agreement. Ambedkar, too, came under pressure from the Hindus.

On the third day of fasting, Thursday, September 23, Gandhi's blood pressure was dangerously high. British Prime Minister MacDonald awarded 71 seats to the Untouchables, though Ambedkar wanted 197. Gandhi wanted only the Harijans to nominate candidates for each panel. A panel was to consist of five Harijans for every seat to choose from; Ambedkar wanted a panel of two. Gandhi set a five-year time limit in which the reserved seats for the Harijans in the legislatures would be abolished; Ambedkar demanded fifteen years.

On the fifth day of fasting, Saturday, September 25, Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed that though all Hindus, including the Untouchables, would vote in joint electorates, 147 seats would be reserved for the Harijans regardless of the vote. They also compromised on the size of the panel of Harijans. On the issue of time limit to erase the political differences between Hindus and Harijans in elections, Ambedkar came down to ten years. However, Gandhi would not change his position from five years. Later during the day, C. Rajagopalachari suggested that the time limit to eradicate the electoral differences between the two parties be determined after further discussions and without any political referendum. Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed. The agreement, which came to be known as the Yeravda Pact, was drafted and signed by chief Hindu and Harijan negotiators. The text was sent to London. MacDonald, who was attending a funeral in Sussex on Sunday, rushed to 10 Downing Street and studied the text with his advisors until midnight.

On the seventh day, Monday, September 27, an announcement came from London and Delhi that the British government had accepted the Yeravda Pact. Gandhi broke his six-day fast at 5:15 p.m. His wife, Kasturba, gave him a glass of juice.

News spread around the country that Mahatmaji was fasting and dying and that the Hindus had been unjust to the Harijans. Immediately, temples in Calcutta, Banaras (Varanasi), Allahabad, Baroda, Bombay, and other cities were flung open to welcome Harijans for the first time. Gandhiji taught the Hindus that it was a moral sin to deny the Harijans their basic civil and religious rights. It was a remarkable victory.

Gandhiji achieved extraordinary outcomes with ordinary tools. He fought stubbornness with shrewdness, hate with love, fear with courage, and lust with self-control.

Source : This article was published in 'One India One People' Magazine.

The writer is a citizen of India and lives with his family abroad.