On January 11, 1948, a group of Delhi’s Muslims met Gandhi asking him to help them in their “passage to England”. They had decided not to go to Pakistan but it was impossible for them to stay in India. Gandhi felt defeated. “We are steadily losing hold on Delhi,” Gandhi wrote to a friend. “If it goes, India goes and with it goes the last hope of world peace.” Describing Gandhi’s state of mind in what were to be his last days, his biographer D.G. Tendulkar says that it was intolerable to Gandhi that Zakir Hussain or even Shaheed Suharawardy could not walk on the streets of Delhi with as much safety and assurance as himself.
Gandhi struggled within himself to find a way. As had happened earlier, he turned to his inner voice which had been beckoning for a long time: He had to fast again. “The fast begins from the first meal tomorrow (Tuesday, January 13)… it will end when I am satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities brought about without any outside pressure, but from an awakened sense of duty.”
The decision of a 79-year-old man to undertake a fast for an indeterminate period stunned his friends and family. Devdas Gandhi reprimanded his father for having surrendered to “impatience, whereas the mission that you had undertaken is essentially one of infinite patience”. His patient labour had saved lakhs of lives and could still save many, but “your patience seems to have suddenly snapped”. Gandhi wrote back to his son, calling him a “high-minded friend”, but rejected the charge of being hasty: “Behind the lightning quickness was my four days’ heart-searching and prayer.”
Gandhi explained his decision in his prayer discourse: “I never liked to feel resourceless, a Satyagrahi never should. Fasting is his last resort in place of a sword — his or others’. I have no answer for Mussalman friends… No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life.”
As a votary of ahimsa, he had no other way of registering his protest against the wrong done by his people. He blamed no one, but if the “Hindus and Sikhs insisted on turning out Muslims from Delhi, they would be betraying India and their own faith”.
Gandhi, before camping in Delhi, had wandered barefoot in Noakhali, telling Muslims what he was now asking the Hindus and Sikhs to do. There too he was unwelcome but he had walked from village to village, telling Muslims that by killing and driving out Hindus, they were acting against their faith.
Delhi was not to be his destination. He wanted to go to Punjab, in the newly-created Pakistan, taking with him the Hindus and Sikhs who had to flee their land and bring back with him the Muslims who had fled from India. It was true that two new nations were created, but how could neighbourhoods be broken? It was the grief-stricken face of the usually jovial Sardar Patel and the gloom in Delhi which made his decision. He had to be in Delhi and “do or die”.
Very few Gandhians have noted the recurrence of his famous slogan “do or die”. Gandhi had laboured hard from September 1947 to January 1948 to persuade Hindus and Sikhs that revenge from the Muslims of Delhi for what was done to them in Pakistan was wrong. He demanded the same from the leaders of Pakistan, constantly asking what happened to their commitment to safeguarding minorities.
Hindus were a majority in India. But on the strength of their numbers alone, they could not make Muslims secondary in the new national project. Hindus must understand that they were neither big brother nor patron to Muslims, and Muslims were not to live as vassals of Hindus in India. The Hindu way of life was not to be taken as the only Indian way of life. Gandhi firmly rejected the suggestion by Rajendra Prasad to legally ban cow slaughter and beef eating.
The “do” part seemed to be over and the time had to come to die for the cause dearest to his heart. Like Maulana Azad, a free India without equality for all religious communities was unacceptable to Gandhi: “Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than that I be a helpless witness to the destruction of India, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam.”
The streets of Delhi were milling with angry Hindu and Sikh refugees who had lost everything. Slogans wishing death to Gandhi were not uncommon. Gandhi shared their pain, but never wavered from telling them that they were playing in the hands of Satan by occupying mosques, capturing Muslim houses and driving the khadims out of the Dargah of Mehrauli. Gandhi had fasted many times. But would his body, frail and exhausted from his relentless wandering, and his soul, worn out from the violence it sought to confront, be able to survive this time?
Gandhi was attacked for fasting on behalf of Muslims. His response was unambiguous, “My fast… is undoubtedly on behalf of the Muslim minority in the Indian Union and, therefore, it is necessarily against the Hindus and Sikhs of the Union and the Muslims of Pakistan. It is also on behalf of the minorities in Pakistan.”
Gandhi was not for balancing between communalisms. He told the world that the bedrock of Indian democracy is the protection of and respect for minority rights. He said that he had equal claim to India and Pakistan. Pakistan failed him by not standing by its minorities. Exactly 70 years after the commencement of Gandhi’s last fast, can we say that India stands by its minorities with the resolve Gandhi expected?