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Before the stroke of the midnight hour

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India’s independence was celebrated without Gandhi. At that time he was in Bengal trying to stop the Hindu-Muslim riots whose ghosts continue to tear India apart. Madhu Dandawate recalled some incidents from that time in a speech decades later:

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.”

Phillip Talbot, a journalist for the Chicago Daily travelled to Noakhali to meet Gandhi and wrote a long article on the events unfolding there. In that article he quotes a letter by Gandhi:

My present mission is the most complicated and difficult one of my life. I can sing with cent per cent truth: ‘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.

India’s independence struggle was not just a political movement to rid the country of an imperial power: the Congress before Gandhi failed to make any headway on this. Gandhi transformed the call for independence into a mass movement for equal rights and opportunities to all the people of India. According to Gandhi, independence was just a way station to the larger goal. Until this unfinished revolution becomes a simple fact of life, one has to revisit and re-examine historical circumstances in order to understand and sharpen the non-violent political tools that underly it.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 14, 2011 at 3:35 am

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