Reading this book on the Mahatma’s last days is like re-living a painful period of Indian history. And Sheshrao Chavan has done justice to his theme. But the question may well be asked: how does anyone define anyone’s “last days”? The Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in the early evening of January 30, 1948. India was then hardly five months old as an independent country. Should those five months be counted exclusively as the Mahatma’s “last days”? Or should we go back five long years to August 9, 1942 when the Congress passed its “Quit India” resolution and all leading Congressman were promptly arrested? Gandhiji was released on May 6, 1944, suffering from the after-effects of malaria and amoebic infections.
The British, by then, had come to realise that the Allies were having the upper hand in the Second World War. In a sense the Quit India Movement had turned out to be a failure. Gandhiji had to re-set his own thinking. He began to get in touch with MA Jinnah. The Viceroy was in touch with the Congress Working Committee. A British Cabinet Mission arrived in India to negotiate with the Congress on India’s future. Partition of the country was very much in the air. Jinnah, during the war years had emerged as a political power. His Muslim League observed a day in August 1946 as Direct Action Day. It resulted in communal rioting and bloodshed never seen before in Indian history. Rightly we may say that this was the beginning of Gandhiji’s “Last Days”, leading to his personal anguish and, as Chavan, rightly records, “disillusion, agency, wilderness as, humiliation and helplessness”. He was slowly being sidelined by the very party he once gloriously led. His talks with Jinnah took him nowhere.
A proposal had been put forward by the Cabinet Mission to the Congress Working Committee which was acceptable to it, but not to Gandhiji. He was invited to a meeting of the Committee. Chavan records what he told its members: “I admit defeat. You are not bound to act upon my unsupported suspicion… I shall now leave with your permission….” “In that hour of decision” Gandhiji’s secretary, Pyarelal, was to record, “they had no use for Bapu¬”. They decided to drop the pilot. Gandhiji returned to his residence after the briefest Congress Working Committee meeting he ever addressed. Writes Chavan: “Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and others accepted the plan of partition of our country over the head of Gandhiji… Gandhiji’s voice was lost in the wilderness. Nobody who mattered listened to him. He was treated as a saintly man of God who did not understand political realities… Pakistan was thrust on the country…”
On his 78th birthday Gandhiji said-and Chavan quotes him: “There is nothing but anguish in my heart. Today mine is a lone voice. I have been told that I have no place in the New Order… I have no desire to live”. And this from a man who said in August 1942 that he wants to live for 125 years. History was moving on a fast lane. Aware that Independence was coming, he sketched a draft constitution for the Congress that called for the dissolution of the party and the promotion of a new party to be called Lok Sevak Sangh. Violence was spreading. There were communal riots in Calcutta. This was followed in October 1946 by wholesale murder of Hindus and the perpetration of other atrocities in the Muslim-majority Bengal district of Noakhali. Gandhiji rushed there to stop the holocaust.
He returned to Delhi on September 9, in an atmosphere of tension made worse by the new government declining to immediately pay Pakistan what was due to it, a sum of Rs 55 crore. Gandhiji went on his fast-his last one and Congress had to relent. Even Pakistanis were appreciative of his act and wished him long life. But Gandhiji had come to realise that he had not long to live, that someone would kill him. He had a strong premonition. He told his niece Manu on January 30, 1948, before he went for his prayer meeting: “Who knows what is going to happen before nightfall? Or even whether I shall be alive?”
This book records those last days when India was undergoing historical changes in thorough appraisal. Life had been cruel to the Mahatma. The man who reminded everyone that “let it not be said that Gandhiji was party to India’s vivisection” and hoped that he would not be alive to witness it was killed because he was misunderstood. He died, shot in his chest, ¬¬with ‘Hey Ram’ on his lips. As one distinguished foreign admirer was to put it, the Mahatma’s death only proved the danger of being too good. He was on line with Sri Krishna, died full of-age and honours by the arrow of an obscure hunter; Socrates died of poison, victim of hatred, Jesus died on the cross. The Mahatma was in good company.
(Shri Ankushrao Kadam, Secy. Mahatma Gandhi Mission, N-6, CID Co, Aurangabad-431 003)