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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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."
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
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
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"
"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
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
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),
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.