Dr. Farooq's Study Resource Page


Fast in Calcutta

Courtesy: The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of His Life and Writings
Edited by Homer A. Jack
AMS Press, New York, 1956; pp. 442-450


Although Calcutta was apparently in an ecstasy of communal amity, Gandhiji's mind, uncannily sensitive to the hidden lie in the soul, was anything but restful. After some hesitation he decided to go to Noakhali in spite of the alarming news which continued to pour from the Punjab. "Shall I start tomorrow morning or the day after tomorrow?" he asked those around him and the latter day was fixed for departure. That evening, He who keeps watch when humanity's vision fails, gave the warning signal. "My resolve to go to Noakhali has collapsed after this evening's happenings," he said that night. "I cannot go to Noakhali or for that matter anywhere when Calcutta is in flames. Today's incident to me is a sign and a warning from God. Tell the people of Noakhali that if my colleagues for any reason cannot be there, they will find me, surely, in their midst."

And then casually he hinted that if the conflagration spread, he would have no alternative but to fast. "Have I not often said that there is yet another fast in store for me?" The next day was his day of silence. Ugly news continued to pour in. Several deputations waited on him in the course of the day to consult him as to what they should do to quench the fire. "Go in the midst of the rioters and prevent them from indulging in madness or get killed in the attempt. But do not come back alive to report failure. The situation calls for sacrifice on the part of top rankers.

So far the unknown, nameless rank and file alone have been the victims of the holocaust with the one exception of the late Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi.27 That is not enough."

Even as he uttered these words, he was cogitating within himself, as to where he came into the picture which he was presenting to them. For he added, "Of course, I cannot do today what I have told them to do. I will not be permitted to. I saw that yesterday. Everybody will protect me from harm if I went in the midst of the maddened crowd. I may drop down from sheer physical exhaustion-that is nothing. It won't do for a soldier to be exhausted in the midst of battle." But inaction in a crisis is not in Gandhiji's nature. When a dear old friend saw him that night his mind was already made up. "You don't expect me to approve of your proposed step," remarked the friend with his usual affectionate banter as he perused Gandhiji's statement setting forth his reasons for going on a fast which the latter had kept ready against his arrival. Together they took stock of the situation thrashing out the question in the minutest detail.

"Can you fast against the goondas?" argued the friend.

"The conflagration has been caused not by the goondas but by those who have become goondas. It is we who make goondas. Without our sympathy and passive support, the goondas would have no legs to stand upon. I want to touch the hearts of those who are behind the goondas."

"But must you launch your fast at this stage?" finally argued the friend. "Why not wait and watch a little?"

To this Gandhiji's reply was that the fast had to be now or never. "It would be too late afterwards. The minority Muslims cannot be left in a perilous state. My fast has to be preventive if it is to be any good."

"I know I shall be able to tackle the Punjab too if I can control Calcutta," he continued. "But if I falter now, the conflagration may spread, and soon, I can see clearly, two or three Powers will be upon us and thus will end our short-lived dream of independence.

"But supposing you die, the conflagration would be worse," argued the friend.

 "At least I won't be there to witness it. I shall have done my bit. More is not given a man to do," replied Gandhiji.

The friend capitulated. ...

This was on Monday night. Two days later a prominent member of the Calcutta Muslim League waited on him to plead with him to give up the fast. "Your very presence in our midst is an asset to us. It is the guarantee of our safety. Do not deprive us of it," he added.

"My presence did not check the rowdies the other day. My word seemed to have lost all efficacy so far as they were concerned. My fast will now be broken only when the conflagration ends and the pristine peace of the last fifteen days returns. If the Muslims really love me and regard me as an asset, they can demonstrate their faith by refusing to give way to the instinct of revenge and retaliation even if the whole of Calcutta goes mad. In the meantime, my ordeal must continue."

The friend retired with a heavy heart. Added Gandhiji after he had left, "Let the evil-doers desist from evil, not to save my life, but as a result of a true heart change. Let all understand that a make-believe peace cannot satisfy me. I do not want a temporary lull to be followed by a worse conflagration. In that event I shall have to go on an unconditional fast unto death."

Then the miracle happened. As the leaden hours crept by and drop by drop strength ebbed out of the frail little man on the fasting bed, it caused a deep churning up in the hearts of all concerned, bringing the hidden lie to the surface. People came to Gandhiji and confessed to him what they would not have uttered to any living ear. Hindus and Muslims combined in an all-out effort to save the precious life that was being offered as ransom for disrupted peace between brother and brother. Mixed processions, consisting of all communities, issued forth and paraded through the affected parts of the city to restore communal harmony. A group of about fifty people, credited with the power to control the turbulent elements in the city, saw Gandhiji on the fourth instant and gave an undertaking that they would immediately bring the troublemakers under check. They told Gandhiji that they had already traced and put under restraint the ringleaders who had organized the rowdyism in his camp on Sunday last, including the person who had hurled the stick that had narrowly missed hitting him. They would all surrender themselves to him and take whatever punishment might be meted out to them. Would not Gandhiji on the strength of that assurance now break his fast, so that they might be able to go to work unburdened by the oppression of the fast? they asked. If not, what was his condition for breaking the fast? In reply Gandhiji told them that he would break his fast only when they could assure him that there would never again be recrudescence of communal madness in the city even though the whole of West Bengal and, for that matter, India might go forth into a blaze and the Muslims themselves would come and tell him that they now felt safe and secure and, therefore, he need not further prolong his fast. He did not expect, he proceeded to explain, to be able to control all the goondas in the city, though he would love to, as he had not the requisite degree of purity, detachment and steadfastness of mind. But if he could not even make them purge themselves of the communal virus, he would feel that life was not worth living and he would not care to prolong it. They had referred to the oppression of his fast. He could not understand that. Why should they have a feeling of oppression if what they had told him came right from their hearts? If a single step is taken under pressure of the fast, not from conviction, it would cause oppression, but there should be no oppression if there was complete cooperation between the head and the heart. "The function of my fast is to purify, to release our energies by overcoming our inertia and mental sluggishness, not to paralyze us or to render us inactive."

"My fast isolates the forces of evil; the moment they are isolated they die, for evil by itself has no legs to stand upon. I expect you therefore," he concluded, "to work with even greater vigor under the instigation of my fast, not to feel its oppression."

The deputation went back realizing that it was not fair to ask him to give up his fast unless they could deliver the goods. Later in the afternoon a number of those who had led the disturbances in his camp on Sunday night came to him and made their surrender with what to all intents appeared to be genuine contrition.

That evening, another deputation of prominent citizens of Calcutta representing all communities, including Shaheed Saheb, Shri N. C. Chatterjee28 and Sardar Niranjan Singh Talib,29 waited on him. They told him that they had been to all the affected parts of the city and there was quiet everywhere. They had every reason to hope that there would be no recrudescence of trouble which was not communal really but was the work of the goondas. They requested him to break his fast. Gandhiji mildly rebuked them for the habit of taking refuge behind moral alibis by blaming it all on the goondas. ...

Taking up next their request to break his fast, he asked them two  straight questions. Could they in all sincerity assure him that there would never be any more recrudescence of communal madness in Calcutta? Could they say that there was a genuine change of heart among the citizens of Calcutta so that they would no longer foster or tolerate communal frenzy? They should let him continue his fast if they could not give him that guarantee for, in the event of the present communal outbreak being followed by another, he would have to undertake an irrevocable fast unto death. "But supposing there is another communal outbreak in spite of your assurances, since you are not omniscient," he resumed, "would you give your word of honor that you would in that event suffer to the uttermost before a hair of the minority community is injured, that you would die in the attempt to put out the conflagration but not return alive to report failure? And I want this from you in writing." If they could give that guarantee, he would break his fast. "But mind you," he added, "my blood will be upon your head if you say one thing and mean another; rather than thoughtlessly hurry, let me prolong my fast a little longer. It will not hurt me. When a man fasts it is not the galIons of water he drinks that sustains him, but God."

He spoke with deep passion. A pin-drop silence followed. Shaheed Saheb broke the ice. Gandhiji had said that he would break! the fast when Calcutta would return to sanity. That condition had been fulfilled. Was he not imposing fresh conditions by asking them to sign that declaration? To this "legal argument" Gandhiji replied that there was no fresh condition imposed. All that was already implied in the original terms of the fast. "What I have spoken now is only a home truth to make you know what is what. If there is complete accord between your conviction and feeling, there should be no difficulty in signing that declaration. It is the acid test of your sincerity and courage of conviction. If, however, you sign it merely to keep me alive, you will be encompassing my death."

Everybody realized the solemnity of the warning. Rajaji and Acharya Kripalani, who had arrived during the latter part of the discussion, proposed that they might leave Gandhiji alone a lite while and retire to the adjoining room to confer together. Shaheed Saheb endorsed the suggestion. They were about to retire when an appeal signed by about 40 representatives of the Hindus and Mussalmans, residents of Narkel Danga, Sitlatala, Manicktola, and Kankirgathi areas30 was brought in. In their appeal, the signatories swore that they would not allow any untoward event or incident in that locality which was the worst affected during the previous riots and earnestly prayed to Gandhiji to break his fast. "It may also be reported," continued the  signatories, "that no incident occurred in this mixed area since 4th of August 1947." "So our effort has not been in vain," remarked Shaheed Saheb, as he read out the appeal. "Yes, the leaven is at work," Gandhiji added.

Shaheed Saheb resumed, "Now that even the Muslims have joined in the appeal, won't you break your fast? This shows that they have fully accepted your peace mission although they are the aggrieved party in the present riots. It is all the more strange because at one time they looked upon you as their arch enemy.

But their hearts have been so touched by the services you have rendered them that today they acclaim you as their friend and helper ."

It was a graceful thing, gracefully uttered. Rajaji, not to be beaten in a tournament of chivalry, quickly added, "If I may vary the language, I would say that he is safer today in the hands of the Muslims than in those of the Hindus."

Gandhiji followed with interest this contest of chivalry and picked out for his comments only the portion of Shaheed Saheb's remarks in which he had referred to the Muslims as the aggrieved party .He did not like the "aggrieved party" language.

"Do not think of Muslims as the aggrieved party," he remarked. "The essence of our present peace mission is that we are to forget the past. I do not want the Muslims to feel that in West Bengal they are the underdog. Unless we can forget the distinction, we will not have done solid work."

They then all retired to the next room and Gandhiji who had an attack of weakness and nausea during the latter part of the talk was left alone to rest.

In the deliberations that took place in the adjoining room Shaheed Saheb was cautious and circumspect, which only showed his sincerity and sense of responsibility .Acharya Kripalani was cynical and full of sardonic humor as ever; Rajaji, tactful and persuasive and full of practical wisdom, concealing his emotion under a mask of ratiocination. The discussion was brief but unhurried. Rajaji dictated the draft of the pledge which was signed by Shri N. C. Chatterjee first, then by Shri Deven Mukerjee31 followed by Shaheed Saheb Suhrawardy, Shri R. K. Jaidka,32 and Sardar Niranjan Singh Talib to be followed later by others. A car load of hand grenades and arms had in the meantime arrived to be surrendered to Gandhiji as a token of repentance on the part of those who had taken part in the savagery of reprisals and counter-reprisals. 

Without any loss of time the signatories then returned to Gandhiji with the document.

"But sir, is it any good my signing this document?" remarked Shaheed Saheb to Gandhiji. "I may any time be called to pakistan and then what happens to my pledge?"

"You must in that event have confidence that those whom you leave behind will deliver the goods," replied Gandhiji. "Moreover, you can come back."

"I have no desire to hoodwink you and I never will do so deliberately," remarked Shaheed Saheb in reply, explaining his extreme cautiousness, which Gandhiji greatly appreciated.

"Well, I will break this fast now," said Gandhiji at last, "and leave for the Punjab tomorrow. I shall now go there with far greater strength and confidence than I could have three days back."

Shaheed Saheb interposed, "You cannot leave tomorrow. Your presence is necessary here at least for a couple of days yet to consolidate the peace." Others supported him. They did not tell him what was uppermost in their minds besides, that they were deeply concerned at his undertaking a railway journey in his present state of health. The unruly crowds in Bihar and all along the line would tear him to pieces in their blind adoration.

So. Saturday was provisionally fixed for his departure.

Dr. Dinshah Mehta33 had in the meantime hurried away to get orange juice ready. Before breaking the fast Gandhiji according to his usual practice. had prayer recited.

"When life is dry and parched up.
Descend Thou in a shower of mercy. ..."

followed by Ramadhun34 filled the air.

*Written in Calcutta and Dacca, September 5-6, 1947. Reprinted with permission from Harijan, September 4, 1947. Also in M. K. Gandhi, Communal Unity (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1949), pp. 742-50.

27. A Congress worker who lost his life in an attempt to prevent Hindu. Moslem riots at Kanpur.
28. A Bengal leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, an orthodox Hindu party.
29. A Sikh leader.
30. Suburbs of Calcutta.
31. A Hindu Mahasabha leader.
32. A Calcutta businessman.
33. One of Gandhi's physicians, a nature-cure expert, who had a clinic in Poona.
34. Chanting God's name.


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Gandhi Gandhi Hindu-Muslim Unity Islam Gandhi Non-violence India Muslims Hindu-Muslim Unity
Gandhi Gandhi Hindu-Muslim Unity Islam Gandhi Non-violence India Muslims Hindu-Muslim Unity
Gandhi Gandhi Hindu-Muslim Unity Islam Gandhi Non-violence India Muslims Hindu-Muslim Unity
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