Past Continuous: How Gandhi Sealed His Own Fate With Last Fast

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

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.

Much has been – and would be – written about Mahatma Gandhi’s last fast 70 year ago. Significant essays and commentaries have been written recently and in the past, including on The Wirehere and here. The Mahatma’s last ditch attempt to evoke humanism among people and bolster political moralism in its contestation with realpolitik has also attracted attention of publications known for examining the past, present and foreseeable events from a Hindutva standpoint. Coming as it did barely a fortnight before the first political assassination in independent India – an event that within hours took Jawaharlal Nehru to the studio of All India Radio to inform people of the country that “the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere” – Gandhi’s last fast will eternally remain a preface to a greater tragedy.

The direct correlation between the six-day fast and Gandhi’s assassination is a consequence of Nathuram Godse and Narayan Godse deciding to kill him as the news of Gandhi’s announcement on January 12 was transmitted to their newspaper office on a teleprinter. Godse may have steadfastly clung on to an almost decade-long objective to eliminate Gandhi, but the final trigger came from what eventually turned out to be the last of his 17 fasts. Because much of what motivated Gandhi to fast one more time – denying his withering body much needed supplements – resounds in contemporary times too, it is necessary to precisely understand what enraged Godse and his partner to the extent that they decided to pump in bullets into an unarmed man’s chest.

Nehru provided indication of what may have motivated the duo by declaring in the same speech that “there has been enough of poison spread in this country during the past years and months, and this poison has had an effect on people’s minds.” Seventy years later, this venom remains, effecting various body parts of the polity bit by bit, even as the nation’s political flag bearers remain engrossed in the interplay of elections and political power.

Also read: The Day Gandhi Began His Last Fast

Rationality and consensus building were mostly beyond Gandhi’s patience. He did not take even Nehru and Sardar Patel into confidence before declaring his fast from the next day. Gandhi’s trait exasperated Godse; he told the court trying him for assassination and conspiracy: “He (Gandhi) alone was the judge of everyone and everything; he was the master brain guiding the civil disobedience movement; nobody else knew the technique of that movement; he alone knew when to begin it and when to withdraw it. The movement may succeed or fail; it may bring untold disasters and political reverses but that could make no difference to the Mahatma’s infallibility.”

Gandhi’s admirers loved him despite his sanctimonious ways because they shared common objectives. Moreover, Gandhi by no means ever claimed perfection as his hallmark. Godse never hid having faith in an “ideology or the school which was opposed to that of Gandhiji“. Consequently, his was a decades-long divergence with Gandhi, yet Godse chose the ruse of a “pro-Muslim fast” to justify his “conclusion that the existence of Gandhiji should be brought to an end immediately” at that juncture of history.

For Gandhi, the last fast was no different from tactics he used to extract concessions from British. This time too his ‘demands’ were escalated, for in his pre-fast announcement Gandhi stated he would not eat or drink anything but “water with or without salts and sour limes” till he was “satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all the communities brought about without any outside pressure, but from an awakened sense of duty.” Like always, his fast was not against any particular community but it did not exclude anyone.

Yet, Gandhi unveiled a bigger demand when Nehru and Patel came to talk him out of the fast. The demand, India must pay the Rs 55 crore due to Pakistan as part of the Partition settlement which had been withheld because of its intrusion into Kashmir. Seeking reversal of the stance from a government that assumed office barely five months ago and was largely the fruition of the struggle Gandhi steered, was not just paradoxical but also further blinded Godse, Narayan Apte and others who agreed with their viewpoint and in later years were behind his idolisation and iconisation. But for Gandhi, the government’s decision was an indication that its leaders were being guided more by realpolitik and less by political moralism. He wanted Nehru and Patel to lead others into being guided by morality and less by necessities of state craft, at least on this occasion.

For Godse, this was evidence that Gandhi was more eager to assuage Muslims for being violently targeted while remaining blind to persecution of Hindus in Pakistan. Godse made this fast Gandhi’s ‘last’ because for him, Gandhi had for too long been soothing Muslims while in Godse’s mind, the Hindus were the ones who actually needed a healing touch. The fast 70 years ago was the continuance of “same policy of appeasement”. It is this template of appeasement that is now presented to justify every sectarian pronouncement or horrific act.

Gandhi did not believe in political homeostasis or equilibrium during imperial rule and could not imagine himself to have become an adherer to it after independence especially as the liberated nation was nowhere close to the vision of the country that was implanted in his brain. Gandhi’s first fast in independent India – in September 1947 – was directed against the two rioting communities. He embarked on it in Calcutta with pain at not being able to go back to Noakhali and announced that fasting alone could possibly accomplish what his words could not. Gandhi probably felt people valued his life more than the heeding they gave to his pleadings.

Gandhi leveraged his possible death on his numerous fast-unto-death sittings. He took the customary glass of diluted juice to break the Calcutta fast only when representative of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs signed a declaration stating they would rather sacrifice their lives and not participate in any communal frenzy against other communities. In January 1948, Gandhi was back to favourite strategy of ‘moral coercion’ because in his mind, India was spinning into chaos, love that knitted the country for centuries was fast fading and supplies of sanity it once possessed in abundance were now almost spent.

The hurtle towards madness could be halted, adoration for one another could be rediscovered and India’s social ecosystem once again stabilised by putting a scare among the people, more importantly, within the first government of independent India. He knew his two favourite disciples would respond. And they did: Nehru by joining the fast while remaining at work, and Patel by leading the way to rescinding the cabinet decision to pay back Pakistan for its offensive in Kashmir.

Yet, even after the government’s reversal, Gandhi wanted more. Gandhi did not wish to score a political victory over his protégés in government by concluding his fast and depicting the decision to release payment to Pakistan as victory. He allowed Nehru, Patel and others a moment of fulfilment by terming their turnaround as a “great act”. Gandhi never forgot for a moment that though he must steer the political leaders back on the ethical part, his battle was against a bigger enemy, hate and prejudice of one community against the other. He saw his life as having little meaning if the India of his dreams was shattered.

Also read: ‘Hindus, in Trying to Drive out the Muslims, Are Not Following Hinduism

The political leadership of independent India responded by matching what Gandhi put on stake: On January 17, it was Maulana Azad who listed at a large peace rally the seven conditions Gandhi had laid to end his fast. Typically, the prerequisites Gandhi now spelt out were also ‘insertions’ in his ‘charter’ of demand. He finally ended his fast on January 18 only after a pledge drafted and signed by over one hundred leaders was submitted to Gandhi. He was to describe the fast to Mirabehn as his “greatest”. Godse’s anger perhaps swelled because when Gandhi had begun fasting, Delhi had turned its back on the worst phase of communal frenzy and did not warrant intervention like previous fasts in 1922 and 1924 when more macabre levels of communal violence prompted Gandhi to fast.

The RSS and Hindu Mahasabha were signatories to the pledge submitted to Gandhi but the latter disassociated itself from it, adding that the fast weakened the position of Hindus. Godse was organisationally inconsequential and there was no need for him to pay even lip-service of the Mahasabha variety. In two days, Gandhi would be targeted in the botched assassination attempt on January 20. As a posse of policemen led Madan Lal Pahwa delighted they had caught the man who tried to kill the Mahatma, he snapped at them: “Phir ayega” or they will come again.

Slapdash investigations into leads emerging from Pahwa’s interrogation prevented smashing the die Godse cast after hearing of the last fast. Gandhi sealed his own fate with the last fast. With it, much of the fate of Gandhi’s India was also settled for the worse.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.