Gandhi and the Trial of Noakhali

Gandhi’s famous sojourn in Noakhali was the ultimate test for the idea and practice of non-violence. It failed.

Gandhi speaking to Muslims in Noakhali. Credit: Twitter

Gandhi speaking to Muslims in Noakhali. Credit: Photo Division, Government of India

The riots in Bengal’s Noakhali district occurred exactly seventy years ago, between October-November 1946, just before Independence. H.S. Suhrawardy, Bengal’s interim chief minister at the time and a member of the Muslim League, was accused of allowing riots against the region’s Hindu minority to support his party’s demand for partition. It behoves us to remember and pay attention to what was at stake and what was compromised in Noakhali during that month of communal carnage. One way to grapple with the event is following Gandhi’s famous sojourn in Noakhali during the riots, when his idea and practice of non-violence faced its ultimate test. Gandhi knew that the large scale violence in Noakhali was meant to help the Muslim League’s case for Partition. The communal riots presented a serious challenge not only to the idea of a unified Indian nation, but also to Gandhi’s lifelong efforts to establish communal harmony.

Dying a beautiful death 

When news of the Noakhali riots reached New Delhi, Gandhi was already considering the possibility of dying there. He wrote in a letter: “There is an art of dying… As it is, all die, but one has to learn by practice how to die a beautiful death. The matter will not be settled even if everybody went to Noakhali and got killed.” Gandhi added that his “technique of non-violence was on trial” in Noakhali and it “remained to be seen how it would answer in the face of the present crisis.” If this technique of non-violence “had no validity,” Gandhi reiterated, “it were better that he himself should declare his insolvency.” Gandhi’s aesthetic of death involved an idea of praxis: risking death in order to calm the atmosphere of violence. In order to die beautifully, one had to perfect a certain mode of living. Gandhi seemed to imply the mere event of people dying in Noakhali wasn’t enough, the people had to die in a particular way for it to be meaningful.

Gandhi’s pilgrimage to Noakhali was summed up well by Nirmal Kumar Bose. He recounts how in a speech on January 4, Gandhi said, “he had not come to talk to the people of politics, nor to weaken the influence of the Muslim League and increase that of the Congress, but in order to talk to them of the little things in their daily life. Ever since he had come to India thirty years ago, he had been telling people of these common, little things which, if properly attended to, would change the face of this land.” This idea of the everyday in Gandhi is what Ajay Skaria has drawn our attention to, by distinguishing between itihaas and history.

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi contrasted the dominant idea of history with another notion of history, based on the “force of love” and “the force of the soul or truth”. This other history, Gandhi wrote, was captured by the Gujarati phrase: “It so happened”. Gandhi draws out a distinction between the historicity of history on the one hand and itihaas on the other, by using the historicity of Satyagraha (or truth) as a point of departure. With Gandhi, Skaria notes, “(e)veryday, or ordinary life can now legitimately take on the centrality that it does in modern politics.” Since Satyagraha was based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, a new mode of politics was introduced into this counter historical movement. It was a political movement based on what Gandhi called the “force of love” and “the force of the soul or truth. This alone could counter, in Gandhi’s conception, the dominant historical politics of mistrust, fear and violence. There was a desire to create an alternative to the politics of fear. The politics of Satyagraha that Gandhi meant to practice in Noakhali was meant to confront, under risks, this politics of fear.

There were other problems related to the prospect of dying non-violently in Noakhali. In Srirampur, when thanked by Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, the president of the Bengal Hindu Mahasabha, for taking up “the case of Bengal”, Gandhi replied, “it was no kindness; and if it was, it was kindness to himself.” As quoted by Nirmal Kumar Bose, Gandhi further said, “My own doctrine was failing. I don’t want to die a failure but as a successful man.” At another occasion, also in Srirampur, Gandhi said during an interview, that “he was seeking for a non-violent solution for his own sake alone. For the time being, he had given up searching for a non-violent remedy applicable to the masses. He had yet to see if non-violence would be successful in the present crisis or not.” The Noakhali sojourn, which Gandhi suspected would severely put his non-violent method to test, was thus a retreat into himself. It was as if the whole non-violent movement depended on Gandhi’s personal success or failure in the matter. People increasingly turned to violence as it became clear that Gandhi’s talks with Jinnah had failed and so had the Rajaji formula which was a compromise between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress. Though one wonders why exactly Gandhi held on to the Rajaji formula as the only possible blueprint for establishing peace.

While in Srirampur, Gandhi declared, “I am not going to be a willing party to Pakistan. Even if I fail to prevent it and all Hindus go away, I shall still remain here; and shall not make a single change in my religious practice.” It was clear, Gandhi would not abandon his practices, whether he succeeded or failed. But the question of death and failure in Noakhali haunted Gandhi right from the beginning. In Sodepur, Gandhi said to a Muslim friend: “If necessary I will die here. But I will not acquiesce to failure.” In this regard, Gandhi made an important clarification in a letter he wrote from Srirampur: “I am certain that the principle of truth and non-violence can never be wrong or defective; but this case (of Noakhali) may show up the deficiency of its exponent and avowed representative, i.e., myself. If that be so, I only hope that God will be merciful enough to call me back to Him and get His work done through a worthier soul.” If non-violence failed as a technique, it was the technician’s fault. And the technician would prefer death to failure. In Gandhi’s understanding, the success of non-violence was considered a scientific triumph, while its failure was moral. Gandhi had a scientific expectation from non-violence. After all, Gandhi had called Satyagraha not only “a method of securing rights by personal suffering”, but also “a science in the making”. 

Gandhi wrote about his “experiments with truth” in his autobiography. Gandhi wrote, “I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them.” So the realisation of truth was a kind of scientific activity, where the process of trial-by-error constituted a major part of the enterprise.

Despite being aware of the Bengal government’s involvement in allowing the riots to take place, Gandhi nevertheless gave the state government a chance to redeem itself. In Srirampur, he declared, “I have not come to East Bengal to hold an enquiry.” When a Hindu political worker referred to Bengal’s police superintendent, Abdullah Sahib as a “man without conscience”, Gandhi immediately responded, “I have yet to see a police superintendent who has a conscience.” Gandhi firmly maintained that he was not interested in getting the state’s  police substituted by the military or the Muslim police by the Hindu police. “They are broken reeds”, he said. It was an exceptional gesture by Gandhi to insist on preserving trust between Hindus and Muslims even in the face of political mischief by Bengal’s administration. But when chief minister Suhrawardy tried to evade a murder charge levied against his government, Gandhi lost his temper and charged Suhrawardy, “Yes, you are responsible not only for that murder but for every life lost in Bengal, whether Hindu or Muslim.” This was a rare public outburst by Gandhi, evoked by the politics of gross untruth. He employed moral pressure on the state’s administration to quell the communal mayhem. But by then, communal politics had dug its venomous roots deep into India’s political soil.

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Restoring trust 
Gandhi arrived in Bengal without a thought of engaging in politics, but nevertheless wanted to assess the state of politics. For Gandhi, the state of politics meant an abysmal condition where communal politics had managed to replace trust with fear and violence in the everyday life of people.  To his horror and dismay, he found that the only kind politics he was capable of launching, the politics of truth or satyagraha, was extremely difficult under the circumstances. Despite the odds weighing more than just a heavily against him, Gandhi took steps to situate himself in the centre of the muck. He supported the Bengal government’s initiative to form a peace committee. When the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Manoranjan Chaudhuri, suggested arrests (as) a condition precedent to the formation of the peace committee, Gandhi told him “it would be wise to place trust” in the appeal for peace by the ministry. In his speech at a prayer meeting in Chandipur, Gandhi told the largely Hindu audience that though the state government had deceived them with its assurances, it was “beneath one’s dignity to distrust a man’s word without sufficient reason. If all Muslims were liars, Islam could not have been a true religion.” In this way, Gandhi tried to reason with people by distinguishing between the politics of statecraft and the values that dictated Bengali society. It was Gandhi’s earnest attempt to elevate the discourse of ‘public reason’ which, for John Rawls, governs the “political relations” between citizens.

Gandhi also tried to distance the central questions of daily life from the sphere of topics concerning political representatives. He suggested that “both Hindus and Musssalmans … not look to the Muslim League or the Congress or the Hindu Mahasabha for solutions of their daily problems of life … The political institutions might be left to deal with specifically political questions but how much did they know about the daily needs of individuals?” Thus, Gandhi sought to prevent communally-oriented political organisations from interfering in the everyday relations between Hindus and Muslims, which were shaped by shared social concerns and not political issues. It was a sincere political gesture to restore trust.

When the politics of religion enters the realm of daily relations between communities, it contributes to the total communalisation of the social sphere. As Gandhi said, “[The] government would only act through force while the common citizen would act through persuasion and agreement. Through the establishment of good human relations, citizens should try to tide over the disasters which might overwhelm the social body.” It is an argument against governmentality, where the government (or state politics) intrudes upon every sphere of social life. Gandhi made a distinction between social and political life, which in turn would help establish distance between political power and the possibility of mass violence in the social sphere.

Here Gandhi seemed to distinguish between social and political life, which in turn contributed to the distance between political power and the possibility of mass violence in the social sphere.

But Gandhi was also the man, who in the words of his niece, Manu, “knitted India into a nation.” In a public meeting at Haimchar, Gandhi added the idea of “selfless service” to a line that started from the individual, then ran through his community, his district, his province and finally, “the whole country”. According to Gandhi, diving India into “specifically religious zones” would be “an artificial scheme.” For Gandhi, only a nation based on religion was artificial, unlike Tagore, for whom all nations were constructed on false and inhuman grounds. Nations are neither natural nor ethical but political products of history. No wonder, Gandhi’s non-violent project could not overcome the violent contradictions of the nation, as it came into being in light of the worst genocides in modern history. Gandhi’s failure to stop the violence that led to Partition is a haunting reminder that certain failures are far more valuable for upholding the principles of a civilised society than the violent, unethical birth of nations.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. He has most recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin India, 2016). He is currently an adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.