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146. The Fast
Gandhiji began his fast for allaying the communal frenzy and restoration of sanity in Calcutta at 8-15 p.m. on the 1st of September, 1947, and broke it at 9-15 p.m. on the 4th instant with a glass of sweet lime juice which Mr. Suhrawardy served to him.
It is necessary to go back into the history of the fast, in order to prepare the background of the story as to how and under what conditions it was finally broken.
From the 14th of August till the 31st peace reigned. That evening there was a demonstration against Gandhiji's peace mission. On the following morning communal frenzy, in a very intense form, once more swept over several parts of the city. There were already indications in the morning that Gandhiji might fast; but the final decision was taken at eleven in the evening when, according to him, friends had failed to show any satisfactory reason why he should not take the contemplated step. The last sweet drink was taken at 7 p.m. He made the provisional decision at 8-15 p.m.
Anyway, the fast was taken and perhaps partly on account of it and partly also because the common citizen, who had tasted peace after one year's life in the trenches, did not want the recrudescence, the riots rapidly cooled down, so that on the 4th the Government as well as the public could come and report to Gandhiji that not one incident had taken place during the last twenty-four hours. Parties after parties came to Gandhiji either with reports or with promises, and in spite of his weak state, he insisted on speaking in his feeble voice to every batch of interviewers. Dr. Sunil Bose, the celebrated physician and brother of Netaji, came to Gandhiji with a request that he must take plenty of rest and not talk at all. But Gandhiji told him he could not exclude relevant talk. Such necessary loss of energy was inevitable. He was certainly desirous of living, but not at the cost of work that duty demanded. "I can't interrupt the work," he said to Dr. Bose, "which has made me fast and which makes me live. If my life ebbs away in the process, I would feel happy."
This was at half past eleven in the morning. A few minutes afterwards a batch of twenty-seven friends belonging to Central Calcutta came to see him. During the communal disturbance of the last year, resistance groups had grown up here and there, and the present party represented such a group in Central Calcutta which had become the focus of the recrudescence on Monday. They had c0me to Gandhiji with the promise that henceforth there would be no more incidents in their part of the city and he should, therefore, break his fast now, otherwise all of them were prepared to go on a sympathetic fast with him. Gandhiji argued long with them, and what he said in substance was this: The present occasion was not one in which there was scope for a sympathetic fast. Hindus and Mussalmans had fought for one whole year, at the end of which the major parties had agreed that India should be divided into two States. Both had Hindu and Muslim subjects. It was now time for everyone to create the sense of common citizenship, to rebuild the land so that men might taste the fruits of freedom. To this end all should work. Gandhiji said that if the friends had come to him only for the sake of saving his life, it was nothing.
Referring to the Poona Fast which ended with the desired amendment of the Communal Award, it was suggested by some that though the amendment was not to their desire, they accepted it for the sake of saving his life. This was a wholly wrong approach. Such fasts were intended to stir the conscience and remove mental sluggishness. Truth could not be sacrificed even for the sake of saving a life, however precious it was. Gandhiji, therefore, warned the present company that they should create real Hindu-Muslim unity by educating the people in a sense of common citizenship of the State, where every single man enjoyed perfect equality of rights which flowed from duty performed. If they worked with this aim in view, and succeeded after a few days' effort in making the Muslims in Calcutta feel safe where they now did not, it would be time for him. to break the fast. Gandhiji was clearly of opinion that although his work was now confined to Calcutta, yet his one aim with respect to the Hindu-Muslim question was that the solution would be complete only when the minority, whether in the Indian Union or in Pakistan, felt perfectly safe even if they were in the minority of one. There would be no favoured and no depressed community anywhere. All should forget their religious affiliations. He was working to this end. He was working in such a manner that the majority community in each State should go forward and create the necessary conditions of freedom.
Someone asked him : Was it possible that his fast would have any effect on the anti-social elements in society? Today, i.e. during the present recrudescence, it was this element which had gained the upper hand. Could their hearts be converted by Gandhiji's crucifixion? Gandhiji's answer was very clear and emphatic. He said that goondas were there because we had made them so. During one year of past anarchy, it was understandable how these elements in society had gained respectability. But the war between Pakistanis and those for Undivided India had ended. It was time for peace-loving citizens to assert themselves and isolate goondaism. Non-violent non-co-operation was a universal remedy. Good was self-existent, evil was not. It was like a parasite living on and round good. It would die of itself when the support that good gave was withdrawn. The heart of the anti-social elements may or may not be changed; it would be enough if they were made to feel that the better elements of society were asserting themselves in the interests of peace and in the interests of normality.
To the interviewers from Central Calcutta Gandhiji's advice, therefore, was that they should desist from a sympathetic fast, go forth among the oppressed in each quarter, assure them that they were safe, and rebuild life so that safety would be a permanent feature of the new State of India. He would personally have loved to move about from quarter to quarter in Calcutta in order to place his views before the various bodies, but his physical condition would not permit it. If others worked, how could he rest? Yet he was bound to make his contribution. He felt that it should be in the shape of a fast.
The friends from Central Calcutta were followed by others. There came a deputation from the Bar Association of Calcutta with the promise that its members would do all that lay within their power to restore peace. Friends from Belliaghata, who had a few weeks back looked upon Gandhiji's peace mission with suspicion, had been electrified by the fast. They had appreciated now the full significance of the mission and had, with all their energy, set about the task of rehabilitating the deserted Muslim bustees. Pressmen who had met the evacuees who had returned home testified to the sincerity and solicitude with which those who had driven them away a few weeks back, now treated them. All this was good news for Gandhiji, but yet he did not reach the point when the fast could be broken.
Towards evening, Sjt. N. C. Ghatterjee, President of the Hindu Mahasabha, Debendra Nath Mookerjee, its Secretary, Sardar Niranjan Singh Talib, Editor of the Desk Darpan, Dr. G. Jilani of the Muslim League, Dr. Abdur Rashid Chowdhury and Mohibur Rahaman of the Pakistan Seamens' Union came accompanied by some other friends to report on the quiet and with their request to Gandhiji to break his fast. Rajaji, the Governor of West Bengal, Acharya Kripalani, Dr. P. C. Ghosh and Mr. H. S. Suhrawardy were also there. They had a long discussion with Gandhiji which left him rather worn out. Gandhiji heard what they said and did most of the talking. This is what he had to say.
He said that ever since the 14th of August although he had relished the fraternization between the Hindus and the Mussalrnans, yet he looked on the ebullition of emotion with caution and reserve. If the feeling was due entirely to friendship newly found, to the sense of brotherhood through common citizenship newly attained, there would be more signs of it e.g., in intensified efforts for rehabilitation. That sign was lacking. The recrudescence had then come. Therefore, Gandhiji felt he must fast. God had at least given him the capacity to work and die for communal peace. If there were anti-social elements in society, where a rowdy or a goonda plundered or killed a man whether Hindu or Muslim, his fast might not affect him. He knew his limitations. He fasted for the restoration of communal harmony. The sanity that had been in evidence for the last twenty-four hours was not enough for him. If the present company was going to assure him that it was a sincere affair and was going to be permanent, he would expect them to give him something in writing. It must state that supposing Hindu-Muslim riots broke out once more in Calcutta, they should assure him that they would give their lives in the attempt to quell the riots. If they agreed, that would be enough. They must so work from tomorrow that real peace and common citizenship was created as a feature of Calcutta life, no matter what happened elsewhere. Communal peace should be their prime occupation. Their other occupations or avocations must henceforth occupy a second place.
There was another matter, but that was a condition which automatically attached itself to the situation. As in Bihar, as in Noakhali, so also in Calcutta, he wanted to tell the friends who were making themselves responsible for the break of his fast, that if communal frenzy broke out in Calcutta again, he might have to go on an irrevocable fast. The present fast was meant to activize the better, peace-loving and wise elements in society, to rescue them from mental sluggishness and make goodness active.
Realizing their responsibility, the friends retired to another room. Free and frank discussions took place between them. Suspicions were freely expressed, fears that the signatories might not rise to the heights demanded of them were discussed in an atmosphere of frankness, and finally came the decision to sign the document with all its implications.
Gandhiji felt glad. He took the signatories at their word, prayed that God might give them the courage and strength to implement their promise in daily life from the following morning; and with that prayer on his lips, he broke his fast last night. A-heavy responsibility now lies upon the people of Bengal who have to implement the promise made sacred in Gandhiji's presence. May we have the requisite wisdom, strength and perseverance to see it through.
Calcutta, 5-9-'47
Harijan, 14-9-1947