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
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…