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The Mahatma’s Bengal connection

Bengalis have a complicated response to MK Gandhi. Some hold him responsible for the Partition; others question his treatment of Subhas Chandra Bose.

The Mahatma’s Bengal connection
Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan in February 1940.(National Gandhi Museum)

MK Gandhi chose, because he strongly disapproved of Independence that came with Partition, to stay away from the celebrations in Delhi on August 15, 1947. That day he was staying in a poor Muslim suburb of Calcutta where all sections of the population converged — Hindu and Muslim innocents, Hindu and Muslim bigots — to see and to hear him. Gandhi declared the day to be one for fasting and prayer. Yet it is undeniable that there are large numbers of Bengalis who intensely dislike Gandhi.His relationship with Bengal and Bengalis was, and is, a fraught one. But he once famously said, “I am not able to leave Bengal and Bengal will not let me go.” Through their dislike of him, Bengal and Bengalis cling to Gandhi.

This paradox is rooted in history or readings of historical events. One is the firm belief among Bengalis, especially those who were the victims of Partition in 1947 and thus lost everything, that Gandhi was responsible for it. The other is the way Gandhi treated Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938-39. Bose is a revered icon of Bengal and the belief is that Gandhi acted unfairly towards him.

Both these allegations demand scrutiny. The first one is clearly a perception that is not based on facts. If there was one individual in India who steadfastly stood against the division of the country, it was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. India was a united country in which people belonging to different faiths, including Hindus and Muslims, lived side by side — these were crucial elements of Gandhi’s creed and beliefs. He refused to compromise on them just as he refused to surrender the principle of ahimsa (non violence). Much to his dismay, he discovered that in 1946-47, his chosen lieutenants and disciples were willing to negotiate a transfer of power the terms of which included the partition of India. He saw this as a betrayal of all that he held dear and thereafter withdrew from all deliberations. He decided to spend his time among the common people of eastern India who had been devastated by communal violence. It is unfortunate that Bengalis see the one man who stood against Partition to be responsible for Partition.

A variant of this argument is the belief that Gandhi, given his pre-eminent position, could have, had he so wanted, prevented Partition by launching a movement against it. The fact of the matter is that by the beginning of 1947, Gandhi knew that his voice against Partition was akin to a cry in the wilderness. Every single important Congress leader — with the exception of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — had accepted Partition almost as a fait accompli. Gandhi was an astute organiser of mass mobilisation and he knew that he by himself could not start and sustain a movement. He needed an organisation and he needed able leaders to assist him. Those Congress leaders who had previously worked with him in the Non Cooperation and the Civil Disobedience movements — Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Govind Ballabh Pant and others — were now eager participants in a negotiated transfer of power that pivoted on Partition. Gandhi knew his own isolation. He described himself in 1947 as a “back number”. This argument in attacking Gandhi actually ascribes to him an even greater importance and role than he actually enjoyed.

The other charge — the one regarding Bose — has more substance. Gandhi did not want Bose to have a second term as Congress president and when Bose won against Gandhi’s chosen candidate, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Gandhi refused to cooperate with Bose in forming a working committee. This refusal to even meet Bose to discuss matters happened in spite of repeated requests from Nehru that Gandhi should sort out his differences with Bose. This situation forced Bose to resign as president and eventually leave the Congress to form his own political party. This entire episode, even admirers of Gandhi will admit, showed Gandhi in the worst possible light — as a back-room politician serving sectional interests and working perhaps at the behest of Patel, who had no love lost for Bose.

This reading of the Gandhi-Bose relationship needs to be tempered by later developments which devotees of Bose tend to ignore. In Southeast Asia while raising the Indian National Army and preparing to invade British India, Bose recalled the contribution that Gandhi had made to the freedom struggle, hailed him as the Father of the Nation, and named one of the regiments of the INA the Gandhi brigade. Gandhi, in turn, recognised Bose as a great patriot and called him his lost son. The breach between the two was not as wide as and irreconcilable as Bengalis make it to be when they typecast Bose as a hero (which he was) and Gandhi as a scheming villain (which he was not).

What is most ironic in the deep antipathy that some Bengalis harbour towards Gandhi is that one of the finest moments in the latter’s life took place in Bengal. In 1947, while his lieutenants parleyed with the British regarding a truncated independence, Gandhi spent his time among the common people of Bengal, in riot-torn Noakhali in East Bengal and the violence-scarred city of Calcutta, trying to heal the wounds of religious violence and restoring communal harmony. In Calcutta in August 1947, he fearlessly faced an armed Hindu mob; he fasted to persuade goondas of both communities to lay down their arms and to work for peace. His courage produced a miracle and communal violence ceased in the city.

On the last day of his life, Gandhi practised writing Bengali. For him, Bengali was not just one more script. It was the language in which Ekla cholo (Rabindranath Tagore’s song) was written. The words and the spirit of this song sustained Gandhi in the last months of his life during which in Noakhali, in Calcutta and elsewhere he remembered Partition’s hapless victims, and he sped, alone and in isolation, into the embrace of death.

In remembering this fraught relationship on his 150th birth anniversary, it is worth recalling what the greatest Bengali (arguably the greatest Indian in modern India) wrote of Gandhi: “Great as he is as a politician, as an organiser, as a leader of men, as a moral reformer, he is greater than all these as a man, because none of these aspects and activities limits his humanity. They are rather inspired and sustained by it.” The words are from the pen of none other than Rabindranath Tagore. Bengal and Bengalis, India and Indians should remember Gandhi in these terms. He was a Mahatma.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is Chancellor of Ashoka University. A distinguished historian and author, his books include ‘The Penguin Gandhi Reader’ and ‘Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives’.

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