Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Noakhali Peace Mission and the Miracle of Calcutta

Gandhi in Noakhali

Often the so called Hindu champions accuse Gandhi that he didn't do enough for safeguarding the Hindu interests during partition riots or that he favored muslims.Both the communities had suffered during the riots.In muslim majority Bengal and Punjab provinces,Hindus and sikhs were at the receiving end, whereas in Bihar Muslims suffered the most. Madness prevailed in riot hit areas.The then Indian government had little expertise or sources to control the wide spread riots fueled by large scale migration and eviction. Gandhi did the best he could by undertaking peace missions to riot hit areas in order 'to put a pot of water over the raging fire that was burning'.He was successful in establishing peace at Calcutta and later in Delhi.

He walked barefooted village after village in Noakhali district of East Bengal, in a hostile atmosphere created by riots and made the people to take a pledge not to kill others. Where were those champions of Hindus who wanted them to retaliate? In Noakhali muslim peasants constituted about 80% of the population?What would retaliation result in any such case?What if more madness and chain of reactions in other regions culminated in a civil war like situation at the very onset of Indian independence?

Madhu Dandwate touched up on this aspect of Gandhi’s life in his “Gandhi’s Human touch”

There were 'brave men' in India who from house tops were saying: "Hindus are being butchered, they are subjected to atrocities in Noakhali and we must save them." But, there was only one Gandhi and his peace mission went to Noakhali. The Noakhali episode and Gandhi's peace March brings out his courage as well as compassion. I will give some of the instances which I gathered from no less a person than Sucheta Kripalani, who had accompanied Gandhi on his peace mission to Noakhali. Gandhi went from village to village. He carried holy books with him. He went to every village. He appealed to all the men and women, Hindus as well as Muslims, to ensure peace. They offered prayers and Gandhi made them take a pledge that they will not kill each other. But he waited for a few days in every village to see that whatever pledges that were given were implemented. There was a moving incident at one village. Gandhi visited that village. He asked the Hindus and Muslims to come out of their hutments for a common prayer and a common pledge for peace. No elderly person turned up. He waited for half an hour, not even one Hindu or Muslim turned up. Gandhi was very ingenious. He had carried a ball with him and then addressing children from the village he said: "Small kids from this village, your parents are frightened of each other but what fright you can have? Elderly Hindus and Muslims might be frightened of one another. But children are innocent. You are children of God. I am inviting you to play the game of ball." The Hindu and Muslim children started moving towards the dais where Gandhi was sitting. Gandhi threw the ball at them. Boys and girls threw it back. He played for half an hour and then he told the villagers: "You have no courage but if you want that courage, induct it from your children.

A child belonging to the Muslim community is not afraid of the child belonging to the Hindu community and so also, a Hindu child is not frightened of a Muslim child. They have come together, they were playing with me for half an hour. Please learn something from them. If you have no inner courage, try to emulate it from your children." And one after another elders - both Hindus and Muslims - started coming. A big gathering assembled. He made them take a pledge that they will not kill each other. He stayed there for sometime. Then he went from village to village and brought peace to Noakhali. What type of human experience he had? Horace Alexander, an eminent journalist of those days, gave a story to one of the leaders. He said that when Gandhi's prayer was going on in one village, all of a sudden a Muslim person pounced on him. He caught his throat. Gandhi almost collapsed. While falling down Gandhi recited a beautiful quotation from the Quran. Hearing the words of Quran, the Muslim, instead of throttling Gandhi, touched his feet and with a feeling of guilt he said: "I am sorry. I was committing a sin. I am prepared to remain with you to protect you. Give me any work, entrust to me any task, tell me what work I should do?" Gandhi had a sense of humour and compassion. He said: "Do only one thing. When you go back home, do not tell anyone what you tried to do with me. Otherwise there will be Hindu-Muslim riots. Forget me and forget yourself." That man went away with a feeling of repentance.


Phillips Talbot, South Asia correspondent of the Chicago Daily at that time, traveled to Noakhali when Gandhi was on his peace mission.He accounted his encounter with Gandhi to his friends in a letter.Read his account in the following links.

From the above:

Gandhi :
'The night is dark and I am far from home; Lead Thou Me on.' I have never experienced such darkness in my life before. The nights seem to be pretty long. The only consolation is that I feel neither baffled nor disappointed. I am prepared for any eventuality. 'Do or die' has to be put to test here. 'Do' here means Hindus and Mussalmans should learn to live together in peace and amity. Otherwise, I should die in the attempt. It is really a difficult task. God's will be done."

To the relief of one Noakhali village Gandhi sent a Muslim member of his ashram, Miss Amtus Salam. She found the local Muslims still acting aggressively toward their neighbors. In the Gandhian tradition she decided not to eat until Muslims returned a sacrificial sword, which during the October upheaval had been looted, from a Hindu home. Now, a fast concentrates very heavy social pressure on its objects, as Indians have long since learned. The sword was never found. Possibly it had been dropped into a pond. Whatever had happened, the nervous Muslim residents were almost ready to agree to anything when Gandhi arrived in that village on the 25th day of Miss Salam's fast. Her doctor reported that life was ebbing. After hours of discussion (which reporters said Gandhi took as seriously as the Cabinet Delegation negotiations) Gandhi persuaded the village leaders to sign a written promise that they would never molest Hindus again.


Later in Aug-Sep 1947 Gandhi stayed in riot hit Calcutta. He refused to take part in the Independence Day celebrations at Delhi when Bengal was burning.His stay in Calcutta was well documented by people like Nirmal Kumar Bose,Manubehn who were witness to the turn of events. His fast to establish communal peace and its influence on local population was termed as a miracle by many.Bengali poet Sudhindranath Datta, who witnessed the transformation in the city over the period of his fast remarked ‘ this perhaps is the only miracle I have seen in my life'

Quoting Madhu Danadwate again:

Many of you must have seen the famous Attenborough's film Gandhi.When I saw the film my immediate reaction was that if I were to produce that film, I would have begun it in a different way. Those of you who have seen the film must have noted that it began with the scene of assassination of Gandhi. I am sure, from the point of historicity as well as excellence and aesthetics of art, there could have been a better beginning. I would have projected a flash back of two extreme events of 1947. One scene would have been the darkness of Calcutta, where Gandhi was giving the healing touch to the society that was torn by Hindu-Muslim riots. And the second flash back would have been the glittering lights of Delhi on the midnight of 14th August 1947, awaiting the dawn of freedom on 15th August 1947. Glittering lights, loud slogans and a poetic assertion of Late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who said: "At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps India will awake to life and freedom and a soul of a nation long suppressed will find utterance." I remember the darkness of Calcutta. I remember the agony of Gandhi. A few weeks prior to Independence Day of 1947, an emissary of Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel was sent to Gandhi at Calcutta, who was working for peace and harmony among the Hindus and Muslims. The emissary reached at midnight. He said: "I have brought an important letter for you from Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel." "Have you taken your food?", asked Gandhi. When the emissary said " No", Gandhi served him food. And after food, Gandhi opened the letter from Nehru and Patel. They had written: "Bapu you are the father of the nation. 15th August 1947, will be the first Independence Day and we want you to come to Delhi to give us the blessings."

Gandhi said: " How stupid!. When Bengal is burning, Hindus and Muslims are killing each other and I hear the cries of their agony in the darkness of Calcutta, how can I go to Delhi with the glittering lights?" These were the heart-rending words of Gandhi. He said "I have to live here for the establishment of peace in Bengal and if need be, I have to give up my life for ensuring that there is harmony and peace." The emissary started for his return journey in the morning. It was a moving sight, full of human touch. Gandhi gave the emissary a sendoff. He was standing below a tree. A dry leaf fell from the tree. Gandhi picked it up and put it on his palm and said: " My friend, you are going back to Delhi. What gift can Gandhi give to Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel? I am a man without power and wealth. Give this dry leaf to Nehru and Patel, as my first Independence day gift." And when he was saying this, tears came from the eyes of the emissary. And with a sense of humour Gandhi said: " How great is God? He did not want Gandhi to send that dry leaf. He made it wet. It is glistening with laughter. Carry this leaf as a gift full of your tears." That was Gandhi's human touch.


All through this period Manubehn accompanied Gandhi and she maintained a daily record which was later published by Navjivan publication house under the title “The Miracle of Calcutta”

From publisher’s note:

In December 1946 Manubehn joined Gandhiji and lived with him till the end of his life. How very crucial these days were in the life of the Nation and of Gandhiji, needs no description. Often, during these days, Manubehn was his only companion. She used to keep a daily record of this period. As a part of her education, Gandhiji had asked her to do it, and would look through it every day. Undoubtedly therefore, this diary is a rare and most authentic record of Gandhiji's daily routine, his activities and of his inner struggles. Portions of the diary have already appeared in a few periodicals. Our publication, Bapu, My Mother also covers some incidents.

From Noakhali Gandhiji went to Kashmir. From there he wanted to go back straight to Noakhali.This return journey begins from 1st August '47, where from this book also begins.On reaching Calcutta, Gandhiji found that the city was in the grip of communal frenzy. Murder, arson and loot were the order of the day. He therefore, postponed his going to Noakhali. And in acouple of days only, thank God, he could restore peace in the city.On the 15th August, the 1st day of our Independence, there were mixed processions of Hindus and Muslims and scenes of the fraternization could be seen throughout the city. But this proved to be a nine day's wonder only. For there was fresh outbreak of violence and on a larger scale. Gandhiji, then, in obedience to the call within, resorted to fast?his supreme and unfailing weapon.

In the words of Shri Pyarelal, "Then the miracle happened. As the leaden hours crept by and slowly life ebbed out of the frail little man on the fasting bed, it caused a deep heart-churning in all concerned, bringing the hidden life to the surface. People came and confessed to him what they would have confided to no mortal ear.

Hindus and Muslims combined in an all-out effort to save the precious life that was being offered as ransom for disrupted peace against brother and brother. Mixed processions consisting of all communities paraded through the affected parts of the city to restore communal harmony." The reader will find all this description in the course of these pages.

'A miracle in Calcutta' by Horace Alexander

'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 Muslims'


Bapu in Beliaghata

As Nirmal Kumar Bose recalls, Gandhi's message to Bengal after the riots was that "it was not consolation that will save us, but courage." There is a moving account of Gandhi's work in restoring communal peace in Calcutta during August/ September 1947. Several times during his talk Bose says: "I bore witness to that." He did, indeed. For, Bose was with Gandhi during what might have been the most heroic months of a very heroic life. With his skill as a scholar and writer — and, as this tape shows, speaker — he recorded them, with great sensitivity and insight, for the benefit of posterity.


Mountbatten later described it as follows 'while 55,000 man boundary force in Punjab was swamped by riots the one-man boundary force brought peace to Bengal'

This period of his life starting from his visit to Noakhali to his last fast in Delhi was the greatest part of his entire life.Even after getting disenchanted with the turn of events leading to partition and bloody riots,he put his whole self and even staked his life to set things in order.

The idea behind this post is not to exaggerate anything but to touch the human aspect of Gandhi.Unfortunately, few people don't understand him in the right sense.How lame can one be to argue that he worked against the interests of Hindus?


Noakhali Genocide said...

For for information on Noakhali genocide please visit

Tangy said...

Emotional atyachaar at it's worst.