I am a general who has been defeated by his own soldiers”

Mahatma Gandhi

I first saw Mahatma Gandhiji, a small man, from the shoulders of my eldest brother. I was around ten years old at that time. He was driven in a car on a visit to Lahore where I lived. My brothers had gone to welcome Gandhi and took me along. I became an instant fan of Mahatma Gandhi as all my elders had told me with one voice that Mahatma Gandhi was fighting for the freedom of India and he will win it for us from the British. I learned more about Gandhi as I grew up and retained my total faith in his ability to solve the problems of India. My faith in Gandhi was never shattered even during the darkest days of partition when my refugee senior relatives told me with great conviction that Gandhi had become partial to Muslims and ignored Hindu interests. He could do no harm to anyone not even to his enemies – I thought. But, during the days of partition and the bloodshed that followed, most Indians, especially young, looked at political issues with coloured glasses - suspecting Mahatma Gandhi of appeasing Muslims to win their loyalty.

Joining journalism as a reporter made me even more interested in Gandhi. I traced him wherever he went. After Pakistan was conceded, lakhs of innocent Hindus were ousted from East Bengal. In Calcutta Muslims became the target of Hindu wrath. Gandhi came to Calcutta trying to keep peace and regenerate trust between the two warring communities.

He managed to bring about peace and sanity among the two communities by going on a fast unto death. The announcement of the fast by Mahatma Gandhi electrified Calcutta. Hindus were shamed, Muslims moved. Even the hooligans could not bear the thought of having the blood of Gandhi on their conscience. Truckloads of arms were voluntarily surrendered before the authorities. Signatures were collected from a million people. The leaders of the two communities pledged peace and approached Gandhiji to break his fast. Calcutta was totally peaceful. Gandhi relented with the warning that if promises were not kept, he would again go on an indefinite and irrevocable fast.

Calcutta danced with joy on receiving the news of Gandhiji ending his fast. The newspapers described it as the magic of the man in a loin cloth. The London Times wrote - “Gandhi did what several divisions of the British Army could not have done.”

After some respite, Gandhi decided to move on to Punjab and then to Pakistan to create an environment in favour of sending Hindu and Sikh refugees back to their homes in Pakistan - an uphill task, I imagined.

Gandhi left Calcutta in the first week of September with the objective of reaching East Punjab to establish peace there and plead with the people to forget and forgive the past . But en route, Delhi was burning. An endless stream of refugees had parked themselves in Delhi, creating a law and order problem.

Gandhiji decided to re-educate the people of Delhi. He believed that peace could not be imposed by the Government. It had to come from the hearts of the people. He decided to stop by in the capital to establish and began his daily prayer meetings in Birla House where he generally stayed. Gandhi's presence in Delhi suddenly energized the citizens. He and his volunteers moved from one camp to another, consoling people for loss of their dear and near ones; urging them to clean up their environments and not to get provoked by rumours. One act of violence leads to another and there is no end to them, they preached to the people.

As Gandhi started his daily prayers in the evening at Birla House, I was one of the regular reporters. I had told the Management of my paper that I will report on Gandhiji's movement during the day as well as in the evening from his prayer meetings. I knew that Gandhiji was making history.

I found Gandhi terribly upset by the situation in Delhi and apprehended that he may have to use his only weapon - a fast unto death to restrain his countrymen.

I worried about the personal safety of Mahatma Gandhiji as I heard rumours of some extremist Hindus wanting to eliminate him. Gandhi never allowed security to stay close to him or to scrutinise his visitors or to do body searches.

In this chapter, I have based my narration of the events on the basis of my old articles/reports written after October 1947 with some inputs from other contemporary sources. The scenes vividly come before my eyes as I write about those crucial days.

On the first day of the fast, Gandhiji walked by himself to address the evening prayer. He looked happy and composed and told his audience that he will break his fast only when Delhi became peaceful in the 'real sense of the term.'

On the second day, he was looking weaker but on that day, he received thousands of messages from all over the world, even from the Pakistan government, expressing anxiety for his safety and wanting to know what they could do to help. His fast, Gandhi declared, was for self -purification and he expected the message of self-purification to spread in both the Dominions. Violence had no place in his scheme of things.

Gandhi did not want to be examined by doctors – as “I have thrown myself to God”, he declared and persisted.

But his doctors (Dr Gilder, the heart specialist from Mumbai and Dr Sushila Nair, his personal physician) wanted to issue a daily bulletin on his health and they could not tell the truth without examining him. Gandhi saw the logic and agreed to be examined.

He could not drink water – as it caused him nausea. He refused to add drops of citrus juice and honey. His kidneys were not functioning normally. He was losing two pounds of weight each day.

On the third day, Gandhi submitted to a high colonic irrigation. At 2.30 in the morning, he woke up and wanted a hot bath. In the bathtub, he dictated to his secretary Pearey Lal, a letter to the Indian Union Government to pay Pakistan Rs. 55 crore. This was Pakistan’s share of the pre-partition Indian assets which India had been withholding much to the annoyance of Pakistan. After dictating the letter, Gandhi felt dizzy. Pearey Lal, took him out of water and sat him on a chair.

The Indian Union paid out money immediately.

Next day Gandhi lay on a cot in the porch of the Birla House. Most of the time he lay in a crouched position – his knees pulled towards his chest. His eyes were closed and he looked half conscious. A large number of people, Indians and foreigners, passed by him with folded hands from a respectable distance of ten metres. Some women were weeping while some murmuring prayers. Perhaps, Gandhi was in pain.

However, at prayer time at 5 PM on the third day, he was totally alert. He could not walk to the podium of the prayer meeting. Arrangements were made so that Gandhi could speak to the audience from his bed. All India Radio was also hooked to what he wanted to say to the nation. His message was heard all over India through radio loud and clear. Gandhi told millions of Indians who were listening to him all over India.

“Do not bother about what others are doing or saying. Turn your searchlight inside you and purify yourself. You will help India move forward and shorten the period of my fast.”

A journalist asked in a written question, “Why have you undertaken a fast when there is no disturbance anywhere in the Indian Dominion?” His reply was, “What was it when determined efforts were made to drive Muslims out of their homeland? ... Would you like me to wait till the last Muslim had been driven out of the capital?” A charge was also made that Gandhi was fasting against the anti-Muslim attitude of the Home Minister, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. Gandhi denied this and said that the charge was a subtle attempt to create a misunderstanding between them.

Fourth Day – Gandhi's pulse was irregular. He allowed his doctor to take an electro-cardiogram and give him another irrigation. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad came in and pleaded with Gandhi to drink some water with citrus juice. He was passing no urine. The physician, too, warned him that even if he survived the fast, he may have permanent injury. But, Gandhi left himself to God. “If God had some use of my frail body, he will protect me. I am in his hands”, he said.

He insisted on addressing the prayer meeting though able to speak for only two minutes on the microphone. This was followed by a statement which he had dictated earlier. Government of India had paid Pakistan Rs. 55 crore. This, Gandhi hoped would lead to an honourable settlement on Kashmir. Friendship should replace enmity, he added. Hundreds of telegrams came in the evening from all parts of India and Pakistan. Nehru came and cried. The fast, Mahatma Gandhi claimed, had brought him great happiness.

Gandhi sent Peary Lal to ascertain whether Delhi had become safe for the return of the Muslims.

Since the start of the fast on January 13, different social, religious and political organizations and groups had been meeting at the house of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the Congress President, in an effort to bring about real peace among divergent groups in Delhi. Although all of them were unanimous in their resolve to bring about peace, they had to prove to Mahatma Gandhi a real change of heart. Gandhi had his own ways of ascertaining facts.

That time came on the morning of January 18, 1948 – when over one hundred delegates left from Dr. Rajendra Prasad's home for Birla House to meet Gandhi. Nehru and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad also came. The Chief of Delhi Police and his deputies were present. There were representatives of Hindu Maha Sabha and the Rashtrya Swaym Sewak Sangh – who were the extreme rightists among the Hindu groups. Pakistan’s High Commissioner, Zahed Hussain, was present. Rajendra Prasad opened the conference explaining the pledge that the citizen of Delhi were taking to bring about peace and harmony. He also detailed how it was to be implemented.

“We take the pledge that we shall protect the life, property and faith of the Muslims – the incidents that have taken place earlier will not happen again.”

Gandhi nodded.

“... that annual fair at Khwaja Qutab-u-Din's Mazar will be held this year as before ...”

Gandhi was pleased.

“...Muslims will be able to move about freely in Sabzi Mandi, Karol Bagh, Paharganj localities – just as they used to before.”

“Mosques which had been vacated by Muslims and occupied by Hindus and Sikhs refugees will be vacated .... The areas which have been set apart for Muslims will not be intruded ...”

“...Muslims who fled, could return and do their business.”

These things, the community leaders assured Gandhi, will be done by us voluntarily and not with the help of police or army...”

Rajendra Prasad, therefore, appealed to Mahatma to break his fast.

A Hindu representative, then described the scene of fraternisation in Sabzimandi locality where earlier riots had taken place and this morning Hindu residents had feted the Muslims of the locality.

Gandhi addressed the group before him. “I am moved by your words”, he said, “But your guarantees will be meaningless if I have to restart my fast as madness breaks again.” Overcome with emotion, Gandhi broke down, tears appeared on his hollowed cheeks. Some people too sobbed. When he resumed his speech, he was too weak to be heard.

He whispered his questions to Sushila Nair.

Were they merely trying to save his life? Have they guaranteed peace in Delhi so that he could go to Pakistan and plead for peace? Pakistan's High Commissioner also spoke some nice words on behalf of his country. Gandhiji sat on his cot for a few moments, quiet and in a pensive mood. Everyone waited for his decision.

Finally, he announced that he would break the fast.

After the reading of the scriptures of other religions, the Vedic Verse was chanted in Sanskrit. It said:

Lead me from untruth to truth,

From Darkness to Light,

From death to immortality.

Thereafter, Maulana Abulkalam Azad offered a glass of orange juice to the Mahatma which he drank slowly.

After the fast, the tide of communal violence showed a definite sign of decline. Gandhi felt freer to make his plans to go to Pakistan. He had promised the Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan that he would not rest till he had rehabilitated them in their own homes. He was also planning some constructive programs to improve the economic welfare of the people of India.

But he was destined never to reach Pakistan nor undertake any constructive programmes in free India.

The day that Gandhi ended his fast, Nehru had decided early in the morning to fast until evening in sympathy with Gandhi. But, the Prime Minister was called to Birla House to watch the proceedings of the meeting where the citizens of Delhi were giving a pledge to Gandhi that they would guarantee peace in Delhi. Nehru was pleased to see Bapu sip the fruit juice from a glass and said in a mock censure, “Look, Bapu, I have been fasting since morning and now this will force me to break my fast prematurely.”

Gandhi smiled!

The fast had its impact on Pakistan. It punctured the subtle veil of propaganda put out by the Muslim League for over a decade that Mahatma Gandhi was the enemy of Islam and the Muslims. The news of payment of Rupees fifty-five crore to Pakistan by India made the impact sweeter. Sir Mohammad Zaffar Allah Khan, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, informed the UN Security Council that “a new and tremendous wave of feeling and desire for friendship between the two Dominions is sweeping across the subcontinent in response to the fast.”

The day after ending the fast, Gandhi was still weak and had to be carried in a chair to the prayer meeting. He was told that RSS- the Hindu rightist body in Delhi had now repudiated its Delhi pledge. Mahatma Gandhi expressed his regret.

On the second day January 20, 1948, he had again to be carried on a chair but answered a few questions from the audience.

On January 21, 1948, as Mahatma Gandhi was speaking, an explosion took place not far from the venue of the prayer meeting.

“What is it?” Gandhi asked.

“We do not know”...the audience replied.

“Do not worry about it ... ” . Gandhi calmed the audience and himself remained unruffled.

It seemed a bomb had exploded in Birla House, not many feet away from where Mahatma Gandhi was speaking. The next day, taking no notice of the attempt to kill him, he referred to hundreds of congratulatory telegrams received by him for remaining calm and unruffled. “I could deserve it”, he said “if I fall as a result of such an explosion and yet retain a smile on my face and no malice against the assailant”

Gandhi commended the unlettered sister who had grappled with the grenade thrower till police came in. He advised the Inspector General of Police not to maltreat the grenade thrower and try to convert the assailant to right thinking. The young man who threw the bomb was a refugee, Madan Lal by name. He was a Hindu refugee from West Punjab who had sought shelter in one of the empty mosques of Delhi and then was evicted when the Police tried to free the mosques from intruders. The Police suspected that Madan Lal was part of a gang of conspirators. The local authorities increased vigilance. Gandhi, however, did not permit the Police to search those who came to attend his prayer meetings.

“If I have to die”, he told the Police, “I should die at the prayer meeting. You are wrong in believing that you can protect me from harm. God is my protector.” Simultaneously, a fellow conspirator, a young man from Pune and editor of a Marathi magazine was already in Delhi surveying the situation outside the Birla House after Madan Lal failed to kill Gandhi.

Nathuram Godse, the killer-to-be, hovered around Birla House where Gandhi stayed and held his prayer meetings daily at the appointed time.

On the evening of January 30, Gandhi left his room in Birla house for the prayer ground which was only two minutes walk from his room. He was a little late as he was closeted with Sardar Patel. Leaning on the shoulders of his two grand nieces, Ava and Manu – his walking sticks as he used to call them, Gandhi walked briskly. As he approached the prayer ground, some five hundred people were waiting for him in the meeting. They all stood as a mark of respect, bowed low before him in reverence. The crowd made way for him. Gandhi folded his hands and told them that he was sorry to be late.

Nathuram Godse edged forward through the crowd. He bowed low as if to prostrate at his feet. Suddenly he whipped out his pistol and fired three shots in quick succession. Gandhi fell down on the floor instantly. He uttered the words 'Hey Ram' and there was a smile on his face.

This is what he had wished a few days earlier in response to Madan Lal’s attack. There was strange irony - this man of non-violence should meet a violent death. Hate seemed to have won.

The bullets which passed through Gandhi’s chest reverberated in millions of hearts. The very wickedness of crime exposed as if in a flash the futility of communal strife. The millions of Indian people and the world leaders watched on the banks of Yamuna, the flames of fire which reduced the Mahatma's body into ashes. It was the evening of January 31, 1948 when cremation took place.

The conspirators had planned that with Gandhi's death, they would drive the Muslims out of India. They failed and the madness abated. Muslim migration from India out of fear virtually came to a halt and today there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.

The new Congress Government tried to unite the Hindus and Muslims by its non-discriminatory and fair policies – giving equal voting rights to all Indians irrespective of their caste, religion, education or economic status. Muslims got a stake in the progress and stability of the Indian Union. The country was declared as a secular, democratic Republic where the rights to freedom, equality and liberty were enshrined in the Indian Constitution introduced from January 26, 1950.

Before his death, Gandhi did another great service to India. He had the feeling that the new inexperienced Government at the centre needed greater harmony and focus. The Government depended on the unity of its two top leaders – Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the Prime Minister and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister. They did not appear to see eye to eye in all matters. Gandhi loved both. Gandhi wanted them to work together. Government, he imagined, will be a loser if it lost any one of them.

He came to the conclusion that they must hold and work together. He wrote to Nehru a day before his death that he and Sardar Patel must work in a united way for the betterment of India. He summoned Sardar Patel on the January 30, 1948 to give him the same message. That is how he was slightly delayed for the prayer meeting and apologised to the audience.

A minute later Gandhi was no more.

Thanks to Gandhi's advice to Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sardar Patel before his death, both 'held together' till Sardar Patel passed away in 1953. But, during this period, Sardar Patel gave us the gift of united India with more than 560 Indian States integrated within the Union of India.

Not many of our readers will know that the present day India has more area than it had under British India including what was given to Pakistan. Integration of the Indian States made India as large as it is today.