The fifteenth of August, 1947, had come and gone. British rule had been withdrawn from India. Independence had become an accomplished fact. A heavy price for it had been paid in the partition of the peninsula and of two of its leading provinces. Now the consequences and the inherent dangers must be faced.

Gandhi had been one of the last of the statement to acquiesce in the settlement; he was now to be in the forefront of the struggle to enable it to function without disaster. He left to the politicians the task of creating the apparatus of government in the new Dominions and of devising and conducting their internal and external policy, including their relationship to one another and to the Indian states. He set himself the task of steadying the psychological reaction of the mass of the people.

It was not surprising that their minds were disturbed. Congress had fought the 1947 elections on the demand for the independence of a united India; it had won independence, but it had to accept partition. The Muslim league had campaigned on the basis of a large Pakistan; it had to accept a restricted area with the partition of Bengal and the Punjab. The Sikhs had stood for a united homeland and for no domination by the Muslims; they had to accept a partition of the Punjab which divided in to two the Sikh people, and a Pakistan in which many of them would be subject to Muslim rule. Owning to the shortness of the interval between the settlement and its implementation, there had been little time to explain the reasons for the compromise and to ‘sell’ it (as the Americans say) to the Indian masses before it had become an accomplished fact.

In these circumstances it is remarkable that over wide areas of the peninsula, even where there was a mixture of the communities, the settlement was accepted without demur and with little or no disturbance. But all eyes were turned upon the two provinces of Bengal and the Punjab, in both of which there had been, during the previous year, scenes of mass murder and outrage. Would these be repeated now on an even greater scale? Unhappily in the Punjab the worst fears were realized. Great numbers of the population were brutally murdered. Homes on a scale unequalled in history. The two governments of India and Pakistan co-operated to deal with this appalling catastrophe and to try to mitigate some of its worst horrors. With the help until the toll of life had run into tens of thousands and the migrants into millions.


In Bengal none of these things happened. The presence of one man prevented them. That man was Mahatma Gandhi. A few days before 15 August he had set out for Noakhali with the intention of making it his headquarters, as he had done in the previous winter. In the course of his journey thither he was met by Suhrawardy, the Muslim ex-premier of Bengal. Suhrawardy impressed on Gandhi that it was Calcutta to which he should go, because it he could establish communal peace there it would set the tone for the whole of Bengal. Gandhi accepted this advice, and he and Suhrawardy went to Calcutta and lived there together in a Muslim house, and from that centre Gandhi carried on his mission of goodwill. His example, the great respect and reverence in which he was held by people of all communities, the memory of his noble pilgrimage of six months previously – all contributed to work a miraculous deliverance from communal disorder. Hindus and Muslims in their thousands began to embrace one another. They began to pass freely through places which had been considered to be points of danger by one party or the other. It was not uncommon to hear both with one voice crying: ‘Jay Hind’ or ‘Hindu-Muslims be One’, On 18 August, Hindus even joined in the Muslim festival of Id.

Critics whispered: ‘It will not last. As soon as the emotional tervour ingeminated by the mahatma has expended itself and the hard realities to life are felt, the situation will be as bad as ever.’ And, indeed, in September riots did break out. Gandhi then resorted to a more drastic remedy. He embarked upon a fast unto death to be broken only it the communal killing stopped in Calcutta. Immediately there was revulsion against rioting and the people of Calcutta gave their pledge, and to this day thousands of Muslims in Calcutta roam the streets in peace and safety, thanks to the miracle wrought by the man of peace. The Muslim league newspaper Morning News, paying tribute to him on behalf of the Calcutta, Muslims, forming 23 per cent of the city’s population, said: And the correspondent of the London Times justly summed up the situation by the remark that Gandhi had achieved more than could have been affected by several divisions of troops.

At the end of September, Gandhi returned to Delhi. He had been accustomed to stay there in the sweepers’ colony; but his usual quarters among them were now occupied by refugees, and he was taken instead to Birla house. At his first prayer-meeting he expressed his regret at the cause of the charge, and at the gloom which prevailed in the city owing to the terrible atrocities which were being committed all around. A few days later he dealt with the matter of the wholesale migrations which taking place both ways across the frontier between India and Pakistan. It was the duty of both governments, he said, to protect their minorities; and he repeated his advice to the Hindus and Sikhs in Rawalpindi that they should all be prepared to die to a man rather than leave their homes. Speaking of himself, he said he wanted to go to all parts of Pakistan under the protection of not escort save god. He would go as the friend of Muslims as of others. His lift would be at their disposal. He would cheerfully die at the hands of anyone who chose to take his life. He would then have done what he was advising all to do.

On 2 October, Gandhi celebrated his seventy-eight birthday. Many friends sent him congratulation. But in acknowledging them he said that there was ‘nothing but agony’ in his heart. He could not live while hatred and killing marred the atmosphere. He, therefore, pleaded with them all to give up the present madness. Turning his attention to the material needs of the refugees, he organized a blanket fund to be used for the most destitute cause. But through all he did not lose his interest in other cases with which he followed with deep attention the struggle of Indian is south agric a to free themselves from the limitations imposed upon them under the law. But the killings and the intimidations were always in the background of his wont, mainly to Hindus and Sikhs, he pleaded with them continuously to bring them to an end.


At last he could bear it no longer. On 12 January 1948, he announced his intention to undertake yet one more fast. After referring to the ‘apparent’ clam that had been brought about by prompt military and policy action, he said that the storm might burst out again any day. It was his vow to ‘do’ which alone kept him from death, ‘the incomparable friend’. The voice within him had been beckoning him for a long time, but he had been shutting his ears to it lest it might be the voice of Satan. Fasting was the last resort of the Satyagrahi in place of the sword. ‘I have no answer’, he went on,’ to the Muslim friends who see me from day to day as to what they should do. My impotence has been gnawing at me of late. It will go immediately the fast is undertaken. I have been brooding over it for the last three days. The final conclusion has flashed upon me and it makes me happy. No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life. I hope and pray that I have the purity in me to justify the step.’

So the fast began on the following day, 13 January, 1948. From all over India messages poured in upon him. Throughout the world intense interest was shown in his progress. Dally he continued to address the crowd gathered at his prayer-meeting. Sometimes he was too weak to be heard, and then a friend read out the words he had written down. The government of India owing to the Kashmir dispute had been withholding from the government of Pakistan certain substantial sums of money which they had previously agreed to hand over to them as part of the division of the assets of the whole of India. As a result of Gandhi’s fast they now decided to pay this money over. This, Gandhi’s said, had put the Pakistan government on its honor and ought to lead to an honorable settlement not only on the Kashmir question, but on all the differences between the two dominions. But news reaches him that a peace committee representative of all communities in Delhi has signed a pact pledging brotherly amity and the protection of the life, property and faith of the Muslim minority. India and the world rejoiced that Gandhi was not to die as a result of his fast, but they little realized how short was to be the reprieve.

Two days later, on 20 January, a warning was given. During the prayer-meeting a bomb was throw by a youth into the Birla house compound. It exploded without anyone being hurt. Referring to the incident next day, Gandhi aid that he had not realized at the time what had happened. Now that he did know, he wanted to say that no one should look down upon the misguided youth. He probably regarded Gandhi as an enemy of Hinduism; the youth should realize that those who differed from him were not necessarily evil. To those who were at the back of the youth he would appeal to desist from such activity. That was not the way to save Hinduism. He had told the inspector-general of police not to harass the youth in any way. They should try to win him over and convert him to right thinking and doing. To his audience he said that he expected them to go on with the prayers in spite of bomb explosions or a shower of bullets.

In his address on 26 January, ‘Independence Day,’ Gandhi asked what in fact were they celebrating? ‘Now’, he said, that we have handled independence we seem to be disillusioned. At least I am, even if you are not.’ But they were entitled to hope that the worst was over and that they were on the road to showing the lowliest of the villagers that it meant his freedom from serfdom. Violence, veiled or unveiled, must be taboo. He deprecated strikes, which meant material loss to the whole community. He knew that he himself had been responsible for many successful strikes in the past. But at that time there was neither independence not the kind of legislation that they had now. He proceeded to descant upon the decontrol of essential commodities which he favored, and upon the growing evil of corruption against which he favored, and upon the growing evil of corruption against which Gandhi begged his hearers to be ever vigilant and active. It was a quiet, gentle, reasonable address which showed the mahatma in full possession of all his mental powers.


On Saturday, 30 January, the fatal blow was struck. Early in the morning he had said to his wan, his personal attendant; for tomorrow I may never be shortly after five o’clock, Gandhi came out into the grounds of Birla house, to attend the prayer meeting. He was leaning on the shoulder of his grandniece. Manu Gandhi. As he was going up the steps to the prayer platform a Hindu youth, a Brahmin from Poona suddenly broke through the congregation and bent as if he started shooting. The first bullet hit Gandhi in the abdomen. He chanted ‘Ram, Ram’ (‘O God, O God’). Two more shorts followed. He fell back, his spectacles dangling and his sandals coming away. Blood gushed from his abdomen and his breast. Gandhi’s hands slipped from Manu’s shoulders and he lifted them, flooded in a gesture of prayer, towards his audience. As he was being carried back to his room in Birla house he lost consciousness. All efforts to save his life failed, and thirty minutes later the silent, anxious crowds waiting outside were told simply: ‘Bapu is dead.’

A great cry of grief went up, thousands of men and women gathered in the compound, weeping and beating their breasts. As the news went round the world, millions in other lands mourned with them. Later the same evening, Pundit Nehru, over the radio, spoke theist poignant words: ‘the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere ….. The father of the nation is no more … The best prayer we can offer him and his memory is to dedicate ourselves to truth and to the cause for which this great countryman of ours lived and for which he died.’


Lord Pethick-Lawrence