I spent India's day of independence with Mahatma Gandhi in Calcutta—and watched him broker a miraculous peace between the city's warring Hindus and Muslimsby Horace Alexander / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Where was Mahatma Gandhi on Indian independence day? I was with him on that day, so I can tell the story—and it is worth telling. For on that day Gandhi brought peace to the city of Calcutta, and to the whole of Bengal, where Hindus and Muslims had been killing one another almost daily for over a year.
Having been a teacher at a Quaker college in England, in the mid-1920s I spent a sabbatical year in India, where I received many introductions from a remarkable Englishman named CF Andrews, who had gone from India to South Africa to help Gandhi in his struggle to assert the rights of the Indian. My visit ended with a week at Gandhi’s ashram. Two years later, Gandhi came to London to take part in a conference on the future government of India, and I spent two days a week trying to be useful to him and his colleagues.
In 1942 I travelled to India with a section of the Friend’s Ambulance Unit to help Calcutta and other cities prepare for possible Japanese air raids. Happily, there were few, but a disastrous famine struck Bengal, and there was plenty of work to do. At the end of the war, the new secretary of state for India, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, made it easy for me to return to India, and to help convince the Indian leaders that the British government was determined to leave India as soon as terms could be worked out. Gandhi and other Indian leaders welcomed us and made our work easy.
We knew that the day of Indian freedom was to be 15th August 1947. A few weeks earlier, Gandhi had written asking me when I was coming to India. I replied that I should like to be with him on independence day, wherever he was. He said he expected to be in Bihar until a few days before the 15th, after when he was planning to go to East Bengal. He hoped that I would join him in Bihar, and then travel with him.
Gandhi wanted to be in these places during independence because of the severe communal strife that had overtaken these areas in recent months. East Bengal—later Bangladesh—was home to more Muslims than Hindus, and was to be partitioned as the eastern wing of Pakistan.
I joined Gandhi in Bihar, and we travelled together to Calcutta, where he was staying for a couple of nights in the ashram of one of his fellow workers. I went to my Indian home, promising to meet Gandhi and his “family” on the 14th, in time to go on to East Bengal. But a few hours later, news came that our plans were changed. Leading Calcutta Muslims had begged Gandhi to stay in the city to help bring peace. They argued that peace in Calcutta would mean peace throughout Bengal, both in the west which was still part of India, and in the east, now to be part of Pakistan.
Gandhi was not easily convinced. He had pledged to stand by the Hindus of East Bengal on the day of partition. He could not go back on that promise unless he had full assurance that the Muslim leaders in East Bengal would protect the Hindus. But Gandhi knew the names of the men who could give this assurance, and with time very short they did so, meaning we could stay in Calcutta.
In an attempt to reconcile Calcutta’s Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi invited Shaheed Suhrawardy, a Calcutta Muslim leader, to join him. Suhrawardy had been chief minister of Bengal, and a sharp critic of Gandhi, whom he had described as “that old fraud.”
A deserted Muslim house was found for the two men in a section of the city called Belighat. On the afternoon of 13th August, I was driven there by an Indian friend, but when we arrived we were met by a crowd of shouting young Hindu men. When we tried to pacify them by explaining that I was a friend of Gandhi, they shouted: “Gandhi go back.” Finally, some of the men came into the house and began to talk with Gandhi. The details of such a talk can be imagined. The young Hindus had been preparing for this day, when they might have a purely Hindu India and when the Muslims would go to Pakistan. An eager young Hindu Congressman had assured me a few days before that he thought it likely that there would be heavy slaughter of Muslims and Hindus immediately after freedom. But Gandhi hoped for something better. He told the young men that this was no way to start India on her life of independence. They should see that India was a land of tolerance and generosity. He sent them home to think it all over.
Eventually the men offered to support him in his efforts for peace so long as he remained in Calcutta. The next evening, many assembled for Gandhi’s regular prayers. Towards the end of the prayer time, some of the young Hindu men realised that Suhrawardy was not present, and assumed, rightly, that he was in the house. So they came shouting for his blood. The prayers ended, and Gandhi went to the windows, threw open the shutters and began talking in a low voice to the young men outside. He upbraided them for showing hostility to Suhrawardy. Whatever they thought of his past, he had now agreed to join the effort to bring peace. Then he brought Suhrawardy forward, and stood with one hand over his shoulder. The critical moment came when a young man shouted at Suhrawardy:
“Do you accept the blame for the great Calcutta killing of last year?” [In August 1946, Calcutta had erupted into communal rioting that left at least 4,000 dead, mainly Hindus.]
“Yes,” replied Suhrawardy.” I do accept that responsibility. I am ashamed of it.”
“That,” said Gandhi to me a few minutes later, “was the critical moment. There is nothing more effective than public confession for clearing the atmosphere. In that moment he won them over.”
While Suhrawardy was speaking, a policeman came with news that in another part of the city, Muslims had joined Hindus across one of the invisible but potent barriers to put up the Indian national flag. The crowd outside Gandhi’s house cheered this announcement.
Earlier in the day Gandhi had told me how he intended to spend independence day. He said nothing about the division of the country into India and Pakistan. Nor did he suggest that the independence was unreal. But he was concerned that the people of India should not turn the day into mere jollification. Those who were with him at that moment would join him in prayer and fasting. At every decisive moment in national life, the appropriate thing was to turn first to God, and to pray for the courage and wisdom to continue in the paths of justice and right action. Fasting was also appropriate, as a reminder that the “semi-starved millions” in the villages could not celebrate by eating more food on that day. Fasting was a reminder that the primary purpose of freedom from foreign rule was to overcome India’s vast poverty.
The next morning we started prayers punctually, at 3am. Some local schoolgirls came to greet the Mahatma with songs of freedom composed by their great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore. When they found that we were chanting prayers they joined us, then took a blessing from the Mahatma, and departed. Later, we all sang to the dawn of freedom. Then we all settled to our various jobs, as if it was any other day, and we wondered what was happening in the city. Were the young Hindus out slaughtering the Muslims? Or were they all fraternising together?
I suppose it was about 3 o’clock when some of my friends from the Service Unit called me. “You must not sit here all day. Come and see.” They took me, and I saw that the miracle had happened. After a year of darkness, suddenly the sun was shining again. The whole city was intoxicated. With joy, it was Calcutta on the 15th of August, 1947.
Thirty-five years later, as I think of that day, I am ready to shed tears of joy and wonder. Everyone spoke of the “miracle of Calcutta,” and the East Bengal leaders had done their part too. All Bengal celebrated in peace. Harmony prevailed.
Gandhi insisted that there had been no miracle. He knew that not all the political groupings active in Bengal had been involved. The absent ones might yet be heard from. For a week or so, peace prevailed. Then the blows struck. Dissatisfied young members of the Hindu nationalist group Mahasabha manufactured an incident, and some of them attacked Gandhi’s camp. Gandhi began a fast; the leaders of the Mahasabha took a strong line against their young members; and the Hindu public gave no support to the violence. This time, all the important party leaders met together, and resolved that they would act together to see that the goodwill that Gandhi’s presence in Bengal had brought should remain.
Whether it is right to speak of the change that came upon Calcutta on the morning of 15th August 1947 as a miracle is a moot point. It was certainly an unforgettable event to those who experienced it. There can also be varying opinions about the extent to which it was due to Gandhi. But it is difficult to believe that the year of mutual hatred and distrust between the two great religious communities of Calcutta would so suddenly have turned to goodwill and trust without the example of the extraordinary pact of friendship made by Mahatma Gandhi with his bitter critic Shaheed Suhrawardy.