While Mahatma Gandhi is revered across India and the world, there are some who praise and even worship his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who shot him dead on January 30, 1948. However, the two cannot be compared. Godse is remembered only as his killer, while Mohandas Gandhi is remembered for a million things. Apart from leading India to freedom, promoting satyagraha, and focusing on truth and spirituality, throughout his life Mahatma Gandhi thought deeply and explored various ideas and issues, expressing many of his thoughts in writing. His writings have been collected in 100 volumes, now available online as well, providing glimpses of an extraordinary personality. Volumes have been written about him too, but those who write after his death cannot capture the quality of his living presence. Gandhi was not perfect, yet he embodied a moral presence, a spiritual force. On his 78th birthday, Sarojini Naidu attempted to explain this, in a radio broadcast. She said, “Who is this Gandhi and why is it that today he represents the supreme moral force in the world?….[he is] a tiny man, a fragile man, a man of no worldly importance, of no earthly possessions, and yet a man greater than emperors….This man with his crooked bones, his toothless mouth, his square yard of clothing….he overthrows emperors, he conquers death, but what is it in him that has given him this power, this magic, this authority, this prestige, this almost god-like quality in the hearts of men?” She said it was the same quality that the great religious teachers of the world, such as Christ, Buddha, Mohammad and others had. With them, he shared a vision, “that love and humanity would endure, grow, and reach the stars”.
During the freedom movement the Mahatma never allowed any violence to take place, immediately withdrawing the movement if a violent incident occurred. Yet on this 78th birthday, he had to face the violence accompanying Partition and his heart was full of sorrow. At the time of Partition he went to Bengal, and his very presence maintained a relative peace there, with Lord Mountbatten referring to him as ‘a one man boundary force’. Reaching Delhi in September 1947, his presence alone was unable to stop the madness and violence across the city. He prayed to God, to ‘take me away from this vale of tears’, rather than make him a helpless witness to what was going on.
Often, his method of preventing or ending violence, and getting people to follow a peaceful and truthful path, was to go on a fast unto death. It was the people’s love and reverence for him that led them to respond to his fasts. He began one last fast on January 13, 1948. There were many things that Gandhi wanted, and one of them was that the Indian government should stop withholding Rs 55 crore to be paid to Pakistan as part of the division of assets. On January 15 the Indian government agreed to revoke its earlier decision and pay the amount to Pakistan. The other reasons for his fast were still to be addressed, and by January 17 he was growing weaker. Gandhi put forward seven conditions, and if all groups and parties agreed to it, he would end his fast. A Central Peace Committee with 130 members was set up under the chairmanship of Rajendra Prasad. Representatives of all parties and communities, including the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha, and Muslim and Sikh organisations agreed to his conditions, and signed the declaration which began: “We wish to announce that it our heart-felt desire that the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and members of other communities should once again live in Delhi like brothers and in perfect amity, and we take the pledge that we shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and that the incidents which have taken place in Delhi will not happen again”. Other clauses were that the annual fair at Khwaja Qutbuddin mazaar would continue to be held, and that Muslims would be free to move about as they had done in the past. The mosques occupied by Hindus and Sikhs would be returned, Muslims who had left their homes were free to return and their safety was guaranteed. The declaration ended, “We assure that these things will be done by our personal efforts and not with the help of the police or the military. We request Mahatmaji to give up his fast, and to continue to lead us, as he has done hitherto.” All the leaders assembled in Mahatma Gandhi’s room at Birla House. Gandhi said he was deeply touched by their assurances, and also asked them to take responsibility for other parts of India. If they could not make the whole of India understand that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were brothers, both dominions would face problems in future. If Hindus felt Muslims were aliens or incapable of realising God, it was the worst blasphemy. Muslims too should have the breadth of outlook to understand and appreciate the religious convictions and practices of others. All gave their assurances, then a prayer ceremony was held. Texts from Japanese Buddhist, Muslim and Parsi scriptures were recited, followed by the mantra, ‘Lead us from darkness to light’. A Christian hymn was sung, and then Ramdhun, and finally Gandhi ended his fast on January 18 at 12.45 pm. Others then departed but Nehru stayed on. He told Gandhi that he too had been fasting from the previous day, and Gandhi was deeply moved. After Nehru left, Gandhi wrote him a note: “Now break your fast. May you live for many long years and continue to be Jawahar (the jewel) of India. Bapu’s blessings.” Less than two weeks later the Mahatma was shot dead; a shocked and grief-stricken Nehru wept and announced on the radio, “The light has gone out of our lives.” But, he added, that light could never really go, as it represented the living truth.
Over 70 years have passed, but there is still much to learn from the Mahatma’s ideas and convictions, and from that light that he represented.
(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored more than ten books)
Monday, 10 June 2019 | Roshen Dalal | Dehradun
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