Gandhi’s final fast (January 13-18, 1948): On the 70th anniversary to mark this historic protest, The Wire recalls the politics and ideals Gandhi represented and sacrificed his life for.
Last month, winter came knocking on the doors of Delhi’s residents and it was pleasant to sit in the sun. I spent one such afternoon in the company of three young men. To say they were Indian would not suffice; they were Muslims. And, although it was an awkward question for a first meeting, I nevertheless asked them, “What is the biggest worry for the Muslim youth of India?”
There was a short pause before the reply came. “Security,” they said. It was not as though their reply came as a surprise to me, but even so it gave me a jolt. I was aware that if they had been Hindu youths, this question would not have fetched the response it did. Then they would have said educational opportunities, jobs. Had they been Dalit youths, the reply would have been equality, dignity. For Muslim youths, however, these concerns are secondary. Protection and security are their prime concerns.
To elucidate this point, one of the youngsters recounted the experience of his train journey from Mumbai to Delhi. The Gujarat elections were over and the results had just been announced. As is typical of Indian train journeys, a heated discussion on the election results was going on in the railway compartment where the Muslim youth was seated. “There were many occasions when I too had a great desire to jump into the debate, but I restrained myself,” he said. The reason: “I felt expressing my opinion would not be safe.”
In the 70th year of India’s independence, the three youngsters were still mulling over whether there was any place for them in the life of the nation. To survive in India as a Muslim today has become a matter of sheer chance. What’s more, the sentiments of these three young men in Delhi were being echoed by virtually illiterate Muslim labourers from West Bengal who had migrated to Rajsamand, Rajasthan.
When Afrazul left Bengal for the far destination of Rajsamand to find work, he did so in the belief that every citizen of India is free to move or live anywhere in the country. However, about a month ago when Shambulal Regar lured him with an offer of work only to kill him, the remaining migrant Muslim labourers suffered a loss of confidence and trust. They returned to their people. Rajasthan, Rajsamand or a Hindu neighbourhood – no place was safe for them anymore.
September 18, 1947. Gandhiji has come to Delhi’s Daryaganj area, where houses and shops are shrouded in desolation. Many have been looted. Walking through deserted lanes, Gandhi reaches Asaf Ali’s residence. About 100 Muslims are gathered there. They all speak in one refrain: “We want to stay on in India as loyal citizens. But we want a guarantee that we shall be safe.”
In response, Gandhi states that all Muslims must announce that under no circumstances will they flee their homes, and that they have left everything to god, their keeper. As for himself, Gandhi says he will not rest until such time as every Muslim who wants to stay on in India does not return to his home, enabled by a feeling of security and peace.
Gandhi further states that he is, in fact, bound for West Punjab in Pakistan where he hopes to bring about an atmosphere that would enable the Hindu and Sikh families who have been forced to leave their homes to return. But he has had to halt in Delhi. He will not proceed from Delhi until peace is restored and every Muslim feels safe.
Gandhi’s mind was made up on the very day he reached Delhi – September 9, 1947. He was coming from Calcutta and intended to go to West Punjab, in Pakistan. At the Shahdara station he was received by Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and several others. There was a subdued expression on Sardar’s face; his usual smile was missing. Delhi had a funereal air about it.
Gandhi did in Delhi exactly what he did in Noakhali and Calcutta. He went from place to place – Sabzi Mandi, Jamia Millia Islamia, Old Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Diwan Hall Refugee Camp, Wavell Canteen Camp, Kingsway Camp, Jama Masjid, the Ridge, Eidgah and Motia Khan. The old man, touching 80, was going from camp to camp daily to witness new instances of inhuman atrocities and see new wounds being inflicted upon his soul.
In his prayer discourse of September 14, 1947, Gandhi spoke about his visit to the refugee camps in Eidgah and Motia Khan. He mentioned meeting an old man, a bag of bones really, whose body bore the gashes of several knife stabs. The woman next to him was lying wounded in a similar state. Gandhi’s head was lowered in shame.
Elsewhere, Hindu and Sikh refugees who had fled Pakistan were bubbling with anger. Gandhi’s statement that Muslims in India were entitled to a life of safety and dignity was beyond their comprehension. In Pakistan, the Dawn newspaper was irked by Gandhi’s constant questioning of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan about their promise to protect Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. The newspaper advised Gandhi and his associates to worry about protecting the Muslims of India who were not safe at all.
In response, Gandhi remarked that he was only reminding Jinnah and Khan of the promise they had made, for as far as Pakistan’s officials were concerned, they had completely failed in their duty to protect Hindus and Sikhs, who were in a minority there. In contrast, he could say this much about the government of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel that whatever they could do to ensure the safety of Muslims, they were doing with integrity.
It rained that night. In his prayer discourse the following day, on September 15, 1947, Gandhi said: “Last night when I heard the sound of raindrops, which in other circumstances would have been pleasing and life-affirming, my mind turned towards the thousands of refugees staying in the open air camps….In some places they must have been in knee-deep water.”
Then Gandhi asked, “Was this inevitable?” and proceeded to give the reply himself: “No.”
His reasoning: Certainly Pakistan ought to be questioned, but with what face can we do so? Seeing what the Hindus and Sikhs are doing to the Muslims here makes the task of seeking justice from Pakistan that much more difficult. Those who want justice will have to do justice. If the Hindus and Sikhs can take the step of asking the Muslims who have been driven out of their homes to return, it will be a brave act. The only fitting reply to the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan would be that the Muslims do not flee from here in distress.
In the midst of all that anger and hatred, grasping the essence of Gandhi’s reasoning seemed a difficult task. The frenzy of violence was showing no signs of abating. The slogan ‘Gandhi murdabad’ could be heard here and there on the roads. Idols had been placed in a mosque in Connaught Place and the dargah (shrine) in Mehrauli had been occupied.
Untouched by rancour, Zakir Hussain recounted a near-fatal assault on his life, adding that had it not been for a Sikh and a Hindu, he would not have survived.
Objections were raised to the recitation of Quranic verses at Gandhi’s prayer meetings and he stopped the prayer. How could he force a spiritual message on someone?
“Do or die.” Gandhi had made up his mind as soon as he had reached Delhi. That which had to be done – could it be accomplished? But Gandhi’s sincere call for humanity went unheard.
Gandhi withdrew deep into himself to hear the inner voice which had been beckoning him for a long time. He had shut his ears to it for fear it might be the voice of Satan.
January 12, 1948. In his daily prayer meeting that evening, he announced that he would sit on a fast unto death from the following morning. He had made up his mind. His own people had stopped listening to him. His efforts to reason with them had been a failure.
Nevertheless, did he have to feel so powerless and resourceless? For one who lives by the principle of ahimsa, his body takes the place of the sword. Seeing his efforts come to a naught, Gandhi made up his mind to put his body – his life – at stake.
The news of Gandhi’s fast created a sensation. His closest associates too were caught unaware by his decision.
Striking a note of disagreement, Gandhi’s son Devdas wrote to his father that although he [Gandhi] himself advised everyone to persevere and exercise patience, in this instance he seemed to have undertaken the fast in haste. By remaining alive he had saved the lives of countless Muslims until then. If he continued to live, hundreds of thousands of Muslims would be saved. If, however, he did not survive the fast, what would happen to his mission?
Calling his son a well-wisher, Gandhi maintained that his fast had not been undertaken in haste. The decision may have appeared to be hasty but it had come out of four days of deep reflection and brooding.
For those who were concerned for his life but showed no concern for the safety of Muslims in India, Gandhi had but one message: death was preferable to life if staying alive meant witnessing the destruction of the Hindu and Sikh faiths as well as Islam in India. His fast would end only when he was convinced that Hindus and Sikhs had instilled confidence among Muslims that they could continue to live in Delhi safely with the respect due to them.
Would people heed Gandhi? Would the fast have the desired result?
Gandhi was of the view that “A pure fast, like duty, is its own reward.” The decision to go on a fast unto death gave him instant relief, showing a way out of the fierce churn that had been going on in his mind since September. He explained to his son that it was god who had prompted him to undertake the fast and only He could bring it to an end if and when He wanted to. Gandhi had only one thing to ask of his son – pray that the desire to live did not weaken his resolve and cause him to end the fast mid-way.
Gandhi commenced his fast unto death on January 13, 1948, in the afternoon. Before that he completed his daily chores. He also had a long discussion with Nehru, Patel and Azad. Some people had gathered in the lawns of Birla House. Alongside ‘Vaishnava jan’, the bhajan so dear to him, the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ was sung, after which verses from the Quran and the Guru Granth Sahib were recited.
The fast unto death that started so would prove to be the last fast of Gandhi’s life.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.