Gandhi’s incredible work in South Africa and his leadership of various agitations against the British Raj are well known, remembered and commemorated. His ashram in Wardha continues to be active, the ashram in Ahmedabad is well preserved and so are the places of his death and cremation in Delhi. All of these are important considering how much he means for India and the world.
But, in my view, Gandhi’s greatest – and his most forgotten – moment was at India’s independence. He had walked hundreds of miles since 1946 when riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Noakhali, in Bangladesh today. Well into his seventies, Gandhi walked in the harsh terrain for hundreds of miles, day after day with the quest of peace. How his body bore all this is beyond my understanding – but what is even more baffling is how he retained his sanity, meeting victims of riots day after day after day and reasoning with the perpetrators to live in peace and harmony. Each day they moved into a new village and met with new stories of atrocities and this went on for over 150 days before he returned to Calcutta at the dawn of independence.
East India was torn by riots for a long time before the partition was achieved, and Gandhi decided to fast for peace in Calcutta. In a bold move, he invited the Chief Minister of the state, who was widely considered by Hindus to be the architect of violence, to fast with him to appeal for calm from both communities and they fasted at Hyderi Mansion, located in an area that was devastated by riot. They lived without protection and he was almost killed by a mob during his stay. He persisted with his fast and that created the impetus for peace. While the Western part of India was protected by over one lakh soldiers, the East was left to Gandhi’s peacekeeping, prompting Mountbatten to call him the “one man boundary force”.
While violence continued in the West despite the army’s presence, sanity prevailed in the East within days of the partition, with Gandhi playing the paramount role. This incredible history is rarely taught to us and I had to discover it in the 13th volume of a massive biography. This neglect is also reflected in the fact that the place is forgotten by Calcutta. Most of my friends from the city had not heard of the place, and even taxi drivers had no clue how to locate it. I finally made it to the monument of neglect earlier this year in what turned out to be a bittersweet trip.
I am not sure what I was most sad about. Is it that the place was dusty? Is it that some unthoughtful people reconstructed the place with no eye for history, covering it with tiles like any house would be today? Or that a place that could teach us so much was bare of any lessons of history barring a few pictures from those days? There were so many things to feel sad about, I know not where to begin.
My greatest hero in life is mainly an object of ridicule in India today. Dalits take objection to his commitment to the varna system and Ambedkar’s scathing critique of Gandhi is increasingly read today. There is much substance to this critique. Ambedkar opened my eyes to that side of Gandhi, and in a painful moment it came home to me when I visited his Ashram in Ahmedabad, where a plaque announces the preservation of the varna system as one of the founding principles of that association. There is also a lot that is said of Gandhi’s conservative approach to women’s freedoms. I believe that there is foundation to that too. Not to mention the Hindu right’s constant undermining of Gandhi, which has been a decades long project.
I do not have a problem with all these critiques – especially those with reason behind them. I accept my heros with many a flaw. What I find unfortunate is that amidst this critique we are forgetting many a great thing about him. He subscribed to the preservation of the varna system, but he played a role in the transformation of untouchability. He has a conservative side with women, but he also trusted his young women associates to travel alone to riot torn villages with hostile populations to bring peace. In an age when we are helplessly confronted by divisive politics, he was able to bring peace with astounding tenacity, courage and imagination. The neglected, forgotten Hyderi Mansion symbolises our approach to him in so many ways.
I read an account of his work in Noakhali and Calcutta in 2000 and dreamt of visiting the place where Gandhi was at the stroke of independence. It took me 14 years and a lot of searching to finally get there but only to realize that little was left of his memory and nothing was left of his spirit in that sad lonely building.
If you are interested in reading an account of these events, I strongly recommend the last volume of “Gandhi, A biography” by Pyarelal and Sushila Nair. It is by far the best book I have ever read owing solely to the power of the story behind it. Like many a book series, it may make sense if you read a few of the volumes before.