The Mahatma on His Last Birthday

Gandhi in October 1947

Gandhi in October 1947

“Where did the congratulations come in? Would it not be more appropriate to say condolences?”Gandhi was responding to the greetings sent to him on his 78th birthday.

It was October 2, 1947, Gandhiji’s first birthday after India gained independence. Lady and Lord Mountbatten came to congratulate him. Telegrams, letters, flowers, even money kept pouring in.

Gandhi was in Delhi. Held up, some would say, as his original plan was “to proceed to West Punjab.” But on reaching Delhi from Calcutta on September 9, he found the usual joviality of Sardar Patel – who had come to the station to receive him – missing. Patel looked crestfallen. Delhi had turned ashen. Patel hurriedly told him about the disturbances the Capital was going through. Gandhi immediately made up his mind: “I had to be in Delhi, and ‘do or die.’

Gandhi started visiting refugee camps, receiving and listening to the grieving, angry Hindus and Sikhs driven out of their homes from what was now Pakistan. Even while sharing their grief,Gandhi did not budge from his principles. He was very firm with them: occupying  Muslim properties, capturing mosques and dargahs was unacceptable.

Many of the Hindus and Sikhs were very angry with him. His prayer meetings were interrupted, he was asked not to read from the Quran. Gandhi did not waver. India had to be a land of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. Hindus have to understand that Muslims cannot be made to live in india like their vassals, he said.

‘Let Gandhi die.’ Gandhi could hear this slogan raised on the streets of Delhi. Death was very much on his mind when his 78th birthday arrived. His famous wish to live for 125 years had gone. D.G. Tendulkar records Gandhi’s anguish in the final volume of his monumental work MAHATMA in these words: “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 had lost all desire to live long, let alone 125 years.”

Gandhi’s birthday was celebrated even when everything seemed to be in ruins. Nehru and other leaders addressed a public meeting in Delhi. Nehru, the true disciple of Gandhi – despised by many, including Gandhians but who, Gandhi knew, was to speak his language after he was not there – admonished the masses in his characteristic style: “They had to make up their minds as to which path they were going to follow… They could not shout “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” and pursue a policy of hatred towards their own brethren.”

In response to the birthday wishes, Gandhi pleaded with Hindus and Muslims to pause and consider the evil consequences of what they were doing to each other in India and Pakistan. Gandhi’s dejection was palpable. He sounded distraught. A well-wisher wrote: “…may I suggest that the present situation should not depress you?”

Gandhi responded by saying that his was not a state of depression. What he was saying was a plain fact. He was perhaps not the fittest instrument to carry out the divine purpose. Perhaps a more courageous, more far-seeing man was wanted for the final purpose. He wrote: “If I had the impertinence to declare my wish to live 125 years, I must have the humility, under changed circumstances, openly to shed that wish. I have done no more, no less. This has not been done in a spirit of depression. The more apt term, perhaps, is helplessness.”

“…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…” And yet he cried, “Not my will but thine alone shall prevail.” It is interesting to see Gandhi going intuitively to Christian sources in his most trying moments.

A day later, on October 4, Gandhi spoke about  the birthday wishes he had been receiving.  A Frenchman had tried to persuade him to live for 125 years so that he might finish his work.  He was to live if God wanted him to do further work. But he firmly believed that his words had ceased carrying weight and he was not able to render more service.

On October 3, 1947 Gandhi  published in his paper, Harijan a piece titled ‘APT LINES’. Tendulakar quotes the lines which were on Gandhi’s mind on what was to be his last birthday:

It is by my fetters that I can fly;
It is by my sorrows that I can soar;
It is by my reverses that I can run;
It is by my tears that I can travel;
It is by my cross that I can climb
into the heart of humanity;
Let me magnify my cross, O God.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University


    You seem to fail to understand that how ever great a person is, he should not be hero worshiped and it is fair to critique his methods and question them.

    People like you spread the message that Gandhi, Nehru are supreme icons above criticism. Sorry, India is a nation where FOE is given by constitution so long as it does not provoke violence. It is decades since Gandhi and Nehru died and no harm in criticizing some aspects or beliefs of them. MK Gandhi himself urged his followers not to hero worship and these critics are his real followers not the false worshippers who yell anything and everything at the RSS or Hindu conservatives.

    • qwerty

      Of course one needn’t hero worship them. But, apart from other reasons, they stood, unambiguously and clearly for communal harmony. Thats why they are appreciated (not worshipped), and thats why they will be an eyesore for the supremacists.

      • Anjan Basu

        Well said!