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Mahatma Gandhi The Final Phase - A Historical Assessment
Mahatma Gandhi The Final Phase

A Historical Assessment

As we bid farewell to the 20th century, I wish to make a historical assessment of the last phase in the life of greatest man of the century -- Mahatma Gandhi. When we look at the 55 years of Mahatma Gandhi's public life we will see three distinct phases in it -- the first 22 years, the South African Phase, the next 30 years, the struggle for India's freedom and for building up India as a united and strong nation and the last phase beginning with his release from the Aga Khan Palace Jail in May 1944 and ending in his martyrdom on 30 January 1948. This last phase of three and half years was the most crucial period in the Mahatma's life. For him it was a period of intense mental struggle, confrontations, conflicts and disappointments and triumphs and tragedies. It is this last phase that I have chosen for my talk to you this morning.

The two years the Mahatma spent in the Aga Khan Palace jail were very sad years in his personal life. Within a few days of his imprisonment in the Aga Khan palace, his most loyal and faithful secretary who was more a son to him than a secretary, Mahadeo Desai, passed away causing him intense personal sorrow. Then another tragedy strikes him in the jail, the demise of his life companion Kasturba. He went through intense introspection on his own philosophy and mission in life in the midst of these personal tragedies.

When he came out of the jail in 1944, he found that the India he saw then was quite different from the one he had left behind when he entered the jail in 1942. In that short span between August 1942 and May 1944, Indian politics had changed so much that Gandhiji felt that he was in a new political environment altogether.

Jinnah's Weapon of Hatred

After the arrest of the top Congress leaders and their removal to different jails to undergo their sentence of imprisonment, Jinn had a free field all for himself. Till 1942 his Muslim League had not succeeded in making any great impact on the Indian political scene. In 1940 when the Pakistan a resolution was passed by the Muslim League at its session in Lahore, nobody had taken Jinnah or the Muslim League resolution seriously. But with the very short period between 1942 and 44 when the entire political arena was available for Jinnah's manipulations, the politics of India underwent a very serious transformation.

Jinnah had by now introduced a new weapon in Indian politics, the weapon of hatred. Hatred as a force in politics is a subject on which many thesis have been written. In the past there have been serious differences between political parties and religious communities. There have been differences between Muslims and Hindus, between the Muslim League and the Congress, between the Hindu Maha Sabha and the Congress, but hatred between two communities or between two parties was never known. It was a new weapon which Jinnah forged taking full advantage of the absence of national leaders from the political scene. He went about preaching from all platforms available to him that Hindus and Muslims were two entirely different nations with irreconcilable interest and outlook and that they could never coexist as citizens of one state. He created animosity and bitterness in the minds of the Muslims against the Hindu and used these factors very cleverly in the elections which were held in 1946. In these elections all the 30 seats, reserved for Muslims in the Central Assembly, were won by the Muslim League. Further 427 out of the 507 Assembly seats in various states were also won by the League. This gave Jinnah the courage to go to the next stage and that was to use the weapon of hatred, which he had forged into a powerful political weapon for his battle for a new state for the Muslims on the spurious theory that Muslims constituted a separate nation. And he had no hesitation whatsoever to use violence and terror to achieve his objective. On 16 August 1946 when he gave the call for 'direct action', Jinnah was launching a veritable war for the creation of Pakistan. In Bengal where the League was in power, the direct action mounted under government leadership led to merciless killings of hundred of innocent people. In Calcutta alone about 4000 people died and over 11,000 suffered serious injuries.

A historic blunder of that period was the formation of an Interim Government where the Muslim league and the Congress shared power at the Center, Jinnah used this opportunity to formant the fire of communal possibility of a united national government in India. In fact there were two parallel governments at the center at that time, working at cross-purposes. Eventually the people were convinced that it was impossible to keep even a semblance of a united government for India and partition became the only option for those who wanted to live in peace.

The Partition

The partition of India proved to be a much greater catastrophe than what was expected by most people. For Gandhiji there were two central principles in his life on which he never wished to make any compromise. One was the unity of mother land and the other was commitment to truth. In May 1944 when he was released from the Aga Khan : Palace, Gandhiji found that both these principles were under severe attack. The greatest challenge that confronted Gandhiji was how to remain steadfast in his commitment to these basic principles of his life.

On the issue of partition I have described how large sections of the people of India weree getting mentally prepared to accept partition as the price they might have to pay for freedom and peace. Even some of the top leaders of the Indian National Congress including Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel appeared to be reconciled to the idea that India may have to be partitioned in order to win freedom and establish peace. This change in their thinking came out clearly when they publicly declared, without any consultation with Gandhiji that they were in favour of partitioning the province of Punjab on the basis of the religion of the people living in a district or taluka. For these leaders, it was a sort of a challenge they threw back to Jinnah telling him that if he demanded partition of the country into a Hindu majority state and a Muslim majority state, that logic should be applied to districts and talukas of the Punjab as well. This challenge had no doubt logic behind it, but it became a tacit acceptance of the doctrine of two nations based on religious identity which Jinnah had been advocating since 1940 and the ball started rolling in the direction of the eventual partition of the country. When Gandhiji came to know that two of his closet and most trusted colleagues had accepted the possibility of partition into Hindu Punjab and Muslim Punjab, he was totally shaken. Gandhiji then got the message loud and clear that it would no longer be possible for him to prevent the division of the country. He concluded that if Punjab had to be divided on grounds of religion, Bengal and Assam would also have to be divided and partition of India into a Hindu Majority State and a Muslim majority state had become inescapable. Nevertheless Gandhiji tried his best to protect the unity and integrity of the nation and to prevent the vivisection of the motherland, he made a last boiled bid by declaring that he was willing to accept Jinnah as the Prime Minister of United India.

Older people in this hall today will recall the public reaction to Gandhiji's statement that Jinnah would be acceptable to him as the prime minister of United India and that he would ask the congress to withdraw its claim to govern despite being the majority party. First people were shocked and then they realised that it could never happen and started to treat it as a personal whim of Gandhiji. Gandhiji without consulting the congress leaders, had approached the Viceroy directly and made the astounding suggestions that he should nominate Jinnah as the Prime Minister of India. The Viceroy also did not take the suggestion seriously, as could be seen from the correspondence between him and Gandhiji on this issue. Thus neither the congress nor the British took serious note of this suggestion of Gandhiji. This was Gandhiji's last effort to save the unity of India, but he failed.

Ultimately, partition became inevitable. It resulted in the killings of over 600,000 people and injuries to a much larger number. Millions of rupees worth of property was destroyed and 15 million people had to flee from their homes and make a new place unknown to them till then as their new home. Very few wars in history had seen so much bitterness, suffering and destruction as India's partition had brought about. I consider the arrangements made by the British Government for partition of the country as the clumsiest and most inept in the long history of British administration in India. When the British rulers found that ultimately the country had to be partitioned, and that this would involve violence of very great magnitude, they certainly should have taken the basic precautions to reduce the impact of mass violence. History can never pardon Lord Mountbatten for this great lapse on his part in bungling the whole operation of partition.

Finally Gandhi was defeated on the issue of partition. I have no doubt that this was the worst defeat he had faced in his 55 years of public life. He had no other alternative and we see him quietly accepting the turn of events over which he had lost control. A question arises why he did not try the weapon he had often used with great success against his adversaries and sometimes against his own fellow countrymen, the weapon of fast -- to prevent partition. Why did he not say to his colleagues in the Working Committee and the people of India that he would fast unto death unless they accepted his position on the unity of India? Researchers on this subject have brought out Gandhiji's own words in explanation of this. Pyarelal in his final chapter on Gandhi has very clearly brought out the truth and I quote: "Gandhiji could not resort to non-cooperation with his own colleagues. They continued to be his best friends though for the time being he had lost his hold on them". According to Pyarelal, if Gandhiji was to start a fast unto death it would have been a weapon to be applied on his own colleagues. Jinnah would have gladly let him die but it would have created a greater crisis for his own colleagues without being able to give a satisfactory alternative. As it happened, Gandhiji did not use that ultimate weapon. Gandhiji himself had told some visitors who asked the question why he did not fast unto death. He said: "Wouldn't I do it? If only I had the time. I haven't the time left to build an alternative leadership and it would be wrong to weaken the present leadership under the circumstances."

At the age of 78 at that time, he thought that there was no time left for him to build another cadre of leadership with men of the caliber of Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel or Rajgopalachari and that it would be wrong to weaken the existing political leadership under those circumstances.

Again he understood the reality of the sistuation then. He ways with great mental anguish, "who would listen to me? You (the Hindus) do not listen to me. The Muslims have given me up. Nor can I fully convince the Congress of my point of view". In other words on the issue of partition he accepted failure. With absolute transparency he admitted that there was nothing that he could do to prevent the partition.

There was another side to the Mahatma's thinking about undertaking a fast in order to prevent the partition of the country. On June 5, 1947 he had said, "I feel as if I was thrown into firepot and my heart is burning. But to die by self-immolation in order to prove that I alone was right would be mad". He knew what the ultimate result would be and what should happen if he went on a fast unto death. He would not stop once he had started the fast unless it had led to a real change of heart of the people concerned. That is why he said that to die by self-immolation in order to prove that he alone was right would be madness. He says with great anguish "With every breath I pray to God to give me the strength to quench the flames or remove me from this earth". He wrote to Rajgopalachari that he saw no place for himself in what was happening around him. He said, "You know I have given up the hope for living for 125 years. I might last a year or two more". Bitterly disappointed at what was happening he poured his anguish into words: "I who staked my life to gain independence do not wish to be a living witness to this destruction".

Commitment to truth

Now I come to the second great article of faith for Mahatma and that is commitment to truth. Duroing the three last years of his life when the fire of violence was raging all over the country and hatred governed the thoughts and acts of the people, he remained firm in his resolved to stand up for truth under my circumstances and without making any compromise. For him truth, that is love, compassion, absence of hatred and enmity, admitted no concession or compromise. On the issue of averting partition, Gandhi tried his best, even to the point of isolating himself from his most trusted colleagues, but eventually he was defeated and he accepted defeat though with great anguish and disappointment. However, on the issue of truth, which at that time for him meant duty to protect the Muslims and preserve communal harmony and peace even while Hindus were being subjected to severe attacks in the newly formed state of Pakistan, Gandhiji stood firm and he would not accept any compromise, let alone a defeat.

In spite of the hatred and bitterness unleashed by the Muslim League in Pakistan he had the moral strength to tell his fellow Indians that they should continue to treat Muslims as their own brothers and consider it their solemn duty to protect the lives and properties of the Muslims in India. It was courage of an extraordinary nature that Gandhiji displayed in this hour of darkness and distrust and here we find the strength of his commitment to truth and love. He was willing to take any risk and even to make the supreme sacrifice of his life in defense of what he believed to be true and this was what he did ultimately. He was ready to stand alone if it was necessary in his fight for communal harmony and peace irrespective of the antagonism and deep anger his stand had generated among most people of India. He had absolutely no doubt in his mind that even if the whole of India was seething with feelings of revenge and retaliation against Pakistan, he would make no compromise on truth and if necessary die in that process. On partition, he stopped at a particular line but on truth he would not draw any line. That indeed was the most shining hour of Gandhiji's five and half decades of public life.

When people of my generation recall the poignant scene of that frail old man of 78 in his lion cloth, walking the muddy lanes of Noakhali without wearing even sandals and without any one to protect him from attacks and insults except a few helpless females of his small camp, we cannot help tears swelling in our eyes. He had given up wearing sandals as a penance against the misdeeds of his own people, thus inviting greater pain on his tortured body. There is no parallel in human history of one individual staking his own life for upholding what he believed to be true and trying to fight hatred with love and compassion in his heart. The only parallel I see is that of Jesus of Nazareth who while being nailed to the cross by those maddened by anger and hatred, cruelty and hypocrisy prayed from the cross: "Father forgive them because they do not know what they are doing". In the history of humanity this is the second person who was utterly devoid of bitterness or enmity even against those who were perpetrating mayhem and murder.

At no time in his life Gandhi was so great as he was in those difficult months of 1946-47. He talked politely but fearlessly to those who came to him with revenge and hatred in their hearts. He had the moral strength to tell the angry Hindus who had suffered at the hands of the fanatics in Pakistan to do the right thing according to their own religion without ill-will against those who had committed violence and destruction because they would not otherwise be true to their own religion. In Bihar when he was told that some congressmen themselves were leading gangs of people to attack the Muslims he had no hesitation to condemn their action in the strongest language. He told those congressmen of Bihar on 19 March 1947: "Is it or isn't it a fact that quite a large number of congressmen took part in the disturbances. I will not rest nor let others rest. I will wander all over on foot, and ask the skeletons lying about how all this had happened. If I find that my comrades are deceiving me, I will be furious and I shall walk bare foot on and on through hail and storm". These were not the words of a politician who wanted to impress the public by his eloquence or rhetoric or of a poet or journalist who wanted to leave behind a quotable quote. These were words pouring out from the heart of a man for whom truth was God.

When the Hindus complained to him about the killings by the Muslims he told them that a good human being is one who does good for evil. How does one get the courage to say like that? When some Hindus went to him to narrate the sordid stories of killings of their friends and family members by the Muslims in Pakistan, he told them "If you do exactly what those Muslims have done to the Hindus in Pakistan, you are no better than those who do good for good and evil for evil. A true human being is one who does good for evil". The Hindus considered him as one biased with pro-Muslim sentiments but only a true Hindu, a hundred percent Hindu, could have said these words. When some Hindus angrily told him "We have lost our brothers and sisters and you sit here and tell us to forgive and forget. Why don't you go to the Himalayas and leave this country", his reaction was utterly noble and totally free from anger. He said in great humility "We should accept curses from a sorrow laden heart like that as the voice of God." What better examp0le of love and forgiveness there can be than this simple sentence?

Finally I should remind you that we are in no position to do a proper assessment of Mahatma Gandhi at this stage of history. I have given my assessment based on my reading and research. But I do not want you to accept my assessment as correct, because I have also learnt from history, that half a century is too short a period to make an assessment of such a great soul. You can make an assessment of other political leaders of Gandhiji's time, say of Jawaharlal Nehru or Maulana Azad or Sardar Patel, but for making a proper assessment of Gandhiji's life and mission, probably we have to wait for a few more half centuries or centuries. It is only from a fair distance of time that future historians will be able to make a correct assessment of the depth of Gandhiji's commitment to truth and love. Take again the life and mission of Jesus. All these great books, commentaries, explanations, annotations, theories, theologies about Jesus Christ came a few centuries after his death, because only from a distance of time could people discover fully the greatness of his life. In the case of Gandhiji also I believe that we may have to wait for a long time to be able to make a full assessment.

On May 22, 1947, in reply to a question Gandhiji said "I shall consider myself brave only if when I am killed by an assassin I have God's name on my lips and I pray for my assassin to be forgiven". He felt particularly weak and feeble on that fateful day of 30 January 1948 when he fell victim to the assassin's bullets, but died with the name of God on his lips and a prayer of forgiveness in his heart.

It is difficult for most people to comprehend this type of moral strength in an ordinary mortal. My request to those who deride him or insult his memory and belittle his contributions is that they should try to cultivate the will, patience and humility to understand this great soul properly before they rush in with their carping comments and criticism.


-From the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial lecture delivered by Dr. P.C. Alexander, Governor of Maharashtra, at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Wardha, on 11 December 1998.