This article was originally published on February 10, 2018. It is being republished on August 5, 2020.
It would take anybody by surprise to know that Mahatma Gandhi, who was inspired to ceaselessly strive for Ram Rajya throughout his life, visited Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama, just twice. However, through the messages he communicated on both occasions, he underlined the enormous significance of those visits.
The news of Gandhiji’s first visit to Ayodhya, on February 10, 1921, sent an unparalleled wave of excitement through the twin cities of Ayodhya and Faizabad, say those who have kept track of local history. Hours before his train arrived, huge crowds had lined the roads, and terraces, all the way from the railway station to the meeting ground where he was to speak. Everybody had but one desire – to be blessed by a mere glimpse of him. The historic clock-tower gracing the magnificent Faizabad chowk was resonating with the strains of shehnai. The words on everybody’s lips were these: Gandhiji is coming to set us free.
The venue of the meeting was a maidan located to the west of the Jalpa nallah which lies between Ayodhya and Faizabad. In 1918, the British had celebrated their World War One victory at this maidan, and the Congress had chosen the venue precisely for that reason — to show the British the difference between them and Gandhiji’s way.
As the train trundled into the station, two local Congress leaders, Acharya Narendra Dev and Mahashay Kedarnath, holding the Congress flag aloft, made their way to Gandhiji’s compartment. They were totally unprepared for the scene that met their eyes. It turned out that as soon as the train had entered Faizabad district, Gandhiji had asked for all the windows in and around his train compartment to be shuttered. Moreover, he had refused to meet or speak to anyone. He was upset about the fact that the farmers’ movement in Awadh, attuned more to the battle cry of aggression than to ideals and principles, had turned violent. Those in the movement did not see much value in ahimsa. The farmers of Faizabad in particular were on the warpath – in Bidahar, events had taken a violent turn, with the farmers setting fire to and looting the houses of talukdars and zamindars.
The situation was intolerable to Gandhiji but he eventually gave in to entreaties that he should address the meeting even if it was to make his displeasure known. He was accompanied by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and also the Khilafat leader Maulana Shaukat Ali. The latter, following the Lucknow Congress resolution of Hindu-Muslim unity as well as the coming together of the Non-cooperation Movement and the Khilafat Movement, had set out on a joint tour with Gandhiji.
However, as Gandhiji sat in the car and the procession started moving, he came face to face with a group of Khilafat supporters waiting to welcome him, naked swords in hand. He decided there and then that he was not going to mince words in reprimanding the violent farmers as well as the men with swords in their hands, in his speech.
At sundown, the crowds surged to the maidan which was neither well-lit nor had an efficient public address system. His first message to them was that instead of taking to the path of violence they should learn to bear the hardships of struggle. Then, in severe words brooking no ambiguity, he condemned the farmers’ violence as well as the procession of sword-bearers, saying that violence was an attribute not of bravery but cowardice and that the sword was a coward’s weapon.
It is worth noting that Gandhiji chose to deliver these two mantras to his fellow Indians in Ayodhya – the Ayodhya of King Rama, whose rajya remained an ideal for him throughout his life. His stay had been arranged in such a manner that allowed him to take rest and made it possible for an unending procession of people to file into the room for his darshan and file out – in silence.
That night, thousands of farmers, with tears of repentance in their eyes, made a silent plea to their liberator for forgiveness. The following morning, after bathing in the Sarayu river, Gandhiji set out for his next halt. But the pain caused by the farmers’ violence, which had not only dealt a blow to the movement but was cause for shame, refused to leave him. He urged Jawaharlal Nehru to guide the farmers who had wandered off the right path.
Some days later, Nehru addressed a gathering of the rebellious farmers and got them to publicly accept collective blame for their misdeeds. So much so that many of them who admitted to their wrong-doing said they were prepared to give themselves up and serve long jail terms as well.
This episode tells us something about the force of conviction that propelled Gandhiji’s advocacy of a freedom struggle based on the moral and principled yardsticks of satya and ahimsa. The manner in which he suspended the entire non-cooperation movement in the wake of the Chauri-Chaura incident is well known.
It is noteworthy that by the time Bapu visited Ayodhya for the first time, Tilak, the leader who gave the resounding slogan ‘Freedom is our birthright’, was no more. The mantle of steering the freedom struggle, giving it a new momentum, now rested on Gandhiji.
On February 10, 1921 when he reached Faizabad station – he was returning from Varanasi after having performed the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Kashi Vidyapeeth – one of the aims of his visit was to meet the sadhus of Ayodhya and persuade them to join the freedom movement. Gandhiji’s decision to meet them was significant considering that his attempt to turn the Khilafat Movement into an opportunity to promote Hindu-Muslim unity had started bearing fruit. (The Khilafat movement was started to influence the British prime minister to refrain from abolishing the Turkish caliphate, a move seen as a threat to Islam and hence to the religious freedom of Muslims under British rule.)
At the time Gandhiji was not only engaged in moulding the Khilafat movement in accordance with his principles; he was also trying to remove the obstacles the British were placing in the way of Hindu-Muslim unity. The biggest obstacle was the issue of cow slaughter which the British were busy giving a communal colour. It was only natural that he would want to speak frankly on this issue in Ayodhya. The way he put the British government in the dock on this issue and made Hindu-Muslim unity an imperative for cow-protection, only he could have accomplished it.
It was telling that Gandhiji who did not take his eyes off other concerns of the freedom struggle while focusing on this issue, did not take any cognizance whatsoever of the so-called Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. No matter that this was his first visit to the birthplace and kingdom of his Rama (in 1915, while travelling from Calcutta to Haridwar for the Kumbha mela he had passed Ayodhya).
Physically exhausted by the previous evening’s long meeting, when Gandhiji reached the Sarayu ghat the following morning to attend a meeting of sadhus being headed by Pandit Chandiram, he found it difficult to speak standing. He began by asking the gathered sadhus to forgive him for his physical weakness which forced him to be seated as he addressed them. Then he proceeded to hold up a mirror to them: “It is said there are 56 lakh sadhus in India. If all 56 lakh of them are ready to sacrifice their lives, then I am confident that with the power of their tapasya and prayer they can liberate India. But they have strayed from their path. So have the maulvis. If at all the sadhus and maulvis have achieved anything it is to make the Hindus and Muslims fight with one another. I say this to both…even in circumstances where you are rendered devoid of your faith, become heretics or obliterate your religion, there is no such command of god that permits you to create enmity between two individuals who have committed no wrong against one another.”
Gandhi did not stop there. He continued: “I said to the sadhus of Haridwar that if they want to protect the cow, they should be ready to give their lives up for the Muslims. Had the British been our neighbours, I would have advised you to request them that although their religion does not prohibit them from slaughtering cows and consuming their meat, they should consider stopping the practice for our sake…. But they raise their hand [against us] and say they are the rulers and that their rule is like Ram Rajya for us. My appeal to the sadhus is that if you want to protect the cow, give your lives up for Khilafat….Those who kill Muslims for slaughtering cows should abdicate their religion. There are no such directives given to Hindus anywhere.”
Gandhiji continued to give advice in this vein. He said: “These days the Hindus want the municipality to put an end to cow slaughter. I call it stupidity. On this issue, some Marwari friends in Calcutta were misled by thoughtless advisors into asking me to save 200 cows from being slaughtered by butchers. I told them point-blank I would not save a single cow until such time as the butchers were not told which other occupation to adopt because they do not do the work they do to hurt the sentiments of the Hindus….What happened in Bombay? The butchers had hundreds of cows but no Hindu approached them. The members of the Khilafat committee went to them and said what they were doing was not right; they should let the cows go and buy goats instead. The butchers gave up all the cows….This is called protecting the cow.”
He clarified that the object of cow protection was not animal protection: “The concern was for the protection of the weak and the helpless — only by doing this do we get the right to pray to god for our protection. Praying to god for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak….We need to learn to love the way Rama loved Sita. As long as we do not observe our dharma conscientiously and with utmost faith and steadfastness, we shall not be able to destroy this demonic government. Neither shall we attain swaraj nor will the rule of our dharma prevail. It is beyond the power of Hindus to bring back Ram Rajya.”
He concluded his address by saying this: “I do not want to say too much. I see students of Sanskrit here. I urge them to sacrifice their lives for Muslim brothers….Every student who is desirous of obtaining knowledge for a livelihood should realise that acquiring knowledge from the British is akin to drinking from a poisoned cup. Do not drink from the poisoned cup. Come back to the right path….There is an idol here, which receives offerings of foreign cloth. If you do not want foreign cloth for yourself, then you must end this practice. Adopt swadeshi. Use the thread spun by your brothers and sisters. I am hoping that the sadhus will give me a part of what they have….Sadhus are considered to be pious; let them give within their means. It will come in useful in the struggle for swaraj.”
The English translation of this speech is preserved in the Uttar Pradesh state archives in Lucknow. It was placed in the category of confidential documents at the time. The previous evening, too, after throwing light on his South Africa satyagraha, he had given a call to the people to engage in peaceful non-cooperation against the British government, boycott government-aided schools, give up wearing foreign cloth and spin yarn on the charkha instead. He refrained from giving the same call in his Ayodhya meeting saying he did not want to merely repeat what he had said the previous evening.
In 1929, Gandhiji came to his Rama’s capital Ayodhya for the second time to seek contributions for his Harijan Fund. In a meeting held in Faizabad’s Motibagh locality he was given a silver ring for the fund. He decided to auction it there and then.
To provide an incentive for high bids, he announced that he would personally put the ring on the finger of the individual who bid the highest. One gentleman bid fifty rupees and the auction ended with him. Gandhiji kept his word and put the ring on his finger. The gentleman had a hundred rupee note with him. Offering it, he stood there to get fifty rupees back. Gandhiji left him speechless with a comment that he was a baniya after all; a baniya never parted with the money that came his way — all the more so if it was a donation. The gathering burst into laughter and the gentleman made his way back in a happy frame of mind.
During this visit, Gandhiji visited the first Gandhi ashram in the country, which had been established in Akbarpur by Dhirendra bhai Majumdar. It was on that occasion that he delivered his famous message ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’, exemplifying his statement by staying in the house of an English priest called Sweetman. In the ashram meeting, he urged the people gathered there to get organised, give up wearing foreign cloth, spin the charkha, confront the oppression of zamindars with non-violent resistance, dedicate themselves to the cause of liquor prohibition, and boycott government schools.
Thereafter, even Awadh’s rebellious farmers gave up the path of violence. Not just that, by facing police atrocities and excesses resolutely, they no longer provided an excuse for the British government to unleash its army’s oppressive force on them on the grounds that it was justified.
Krishna Pratap Singh is a senior journalist based in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan