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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

Legacy of Anti-Communal Struggle: Gandhiji and Nehru

Saturday 31 January 2015

by Mridula Mukherjee

As we again approach two historic dates of our history, January 26 and January 30, our thoughts go back to those tumultuous years of the birth of the new nation. Independence in August 1947 was accompanied by widespread civil strife and violence culminating in the irreparable loss caused by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, a votary of HinduRashtra who had been associated with the RSS-Hindu Mahasabha strand of politics, just five months later on January 30, 1948. The future seemed dark and grim. And yet, in less than 24 months from that date, on January 26, 1950 a new Constitution with a secular character was adopted. The Fundamental Rights it guaranteed included prohibition of discrimi-nation on grounds of religion and right to freedom of religion including freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, cultural and educational rights including protection of the interests of minorities and their right to establish and administer educational institutions. In another two years, general elections held under the new Constitution with full adult franchise delivered a resounding defeat to the communal forces. All the communal parties put together—the Hindu Mahasabha, the newly formed Jana Sangh, and the Ram Rajya Parishad—between them could garner only 10 Lok Sabha seats in a House of 489, and polled less than six per cent of the votes.1 The virtual war against the communa-lists following Gandhiji’s assassi-nation, in which an ideological onslaught was accom-panied by effective use of state power, combined with the widespread disgust even among their supporters at this ghastly murder, had stopped the communalists in their tracks and made communalism a dirty word.2

However, to fully understand how this became possible, it is necessary to turn back the pages of history a little more, to the year before independence, when communal forces first took on the ominous shape of a monster. We will take up two examples from this period, Noakhali and Bihar, which show how Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, along with other secular nationalist leaders and political activists, responded to the emerging threat and tried to evolve effective answers.

The colonial state had promoted the communal ideology and patronised politics based on it as part of the divide-and-rule policy. Communal organisations and ideologues continued their work under the benign, if not benevolent, colonial umbrella. Their opponents, the secular nationalists, had no such advantage. They had to carry on their ideological struggle in the face of the active hostility of the state. The colonial state, which used brutal repression to suppress non-violent civil disobedience, often turned a blind eye to communal violence.3 The situation changed with the intimations of independence. The Congress could wield at least partial state power at the Centre when it joined the Interim Government in September 1946 with Jawaharlal Nehru as its head.

The call for ‘Direct Action’ by Jinnah and the Muslim League in August 1946 had inaugurated a new stage in communal politics. The resultant ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ placed a new challenge before the Congress leadership. The Interim Government had not yet been formed in August, and by the time it was set up in September, the situation was already growing worse. In early October, violence erupted in Noakhali, a remote district of East Bengal, with a majority Muslim population. The Muslim League Government led by Suhrawardy in Bengal failing to take strong action, the situation deteriorated rapidly.

 The Mahatma had, with unerring instinct, sensed that the battle for India’s soul would be fought and won not in the in the broad avenues of New Delhi but in the by-lanes and winding paths of Noakhali, Bihar, Calcutta, Delhi, and Punjab, that is, wherever the communal monster surfaced, and that his place was there, as always, with his people. The ideals for which so many had sacrificed their all seemed to be slipping out of reach at the very moment of victory. Struggling to find an answer, Gandhiji embarked on what was to be his most amazing, awe-inspiring heroic experiment with India’s civilisational truth.

There are few tales more worth recounting than that of the Master at work on his experiment. Torn with doubt and wracked by despair that his methods of non-violence and love rather than violence and hate had failed, he threw everything he had into the balance. “Do I represent this ahimsa in my person? If I do, then deceit and hatred that poison the atmosphere should dissolve.” Elsewhere he said: “It is to demonstrate the efficacy of that way I have come here. If Noakhali is lost, India is lost.” With his small band of devoted comrades, he went into the villages of Noakhali, not for a visit, not for a tour, not for an on-the-spot survey, as leaders are wont to do, but to stay as long as it was necessary. He stayed from November 6, 1946 till March 4, 1947, almost four months, in this remote corner of India. It is difficult even today to comprehend how the most revered leader of a vast country in the throes of difficult negotiations, charting out its path to independence from a colonial power, could spend such a long time almost out of reach of his own movement.

Gandhiji looked upon Noakhali as he had thought of Champaran and Bardoli, a laboratory, “an ideal situation for testing whether ahimsa (non-violence) could effectively be used by a small number of people against an almost sullen, if not hostile majority all round”.4 He spent the first two weeks visiting the villages and towns in the affected area and meeting large numbers of people. He then settled down in a village named Srirampur and spent the next 43 days there. He soon sent off all his associates except two, Parasuram, his typist, and Nirmal Kumar Bose, his interpreter, thus depriving himself of even basic care and small comforts. As if this was not enough, he followed it up with a padayatra in which he did not sleep for more than one night in any one village. The satyagrahi was trying, by his own suffering, to melt the heart of the opponent and win him over. He was also sharing, through the crucifixion of his flesh, the pain of the victims and expressing the torture of his own soul. Thus, when broken glass and excreta were thrown in his path to dissuade him, his answer was to remove even his simple sandals and walk barefoot. ‘Ekla cholore’, Tagore’s apt song, was often on his lips as it seemed to have been written for him.

His message to the terrorised Hindus was: Shed your fear. Go back to your homes. To the women, who were afraid to wear sindur and bangles in public, as these were markers of their religious status, he said, assert the right to your culture. Since the focus of the oppression was on obliteration of religious symbols, the resistance too had to take the form of assertion. Forced conversions, forced marriages had been among the chief forms adopted by the communalists. Gandhiji repeatedly said that he had come not to offer consolation but to give courage. He refused to accept the Hindu Mahasabha demand that Hindus live in separate areas. This would lead to ghettos, and defeat the whole purpose of his work. He was also not in favour of cases against perpetrators of violence being dropped, as the guilty must accept punishment.

He was particularly disheartened at the role played by religious figures in the whole affair, encouraging the violence and the forced conversions and marriages. As a believer, religion for him represented the highest moral and ethical values, and its use to justify violence and forced conversions and the like was abhorrent to him. He openly questioned the belief that Islam sanctioned this kind of inhuman behaviour. He appealed to the Muslims to provide assurances of security to enable their Hindu neighbours to return to their homes.

Gandhiji’s satyagaraha in Noakhali provides a wealth of extremely valuable material for analysing and learning secular practice at the grassroots, in the most hostile of situations. We also need to understand why, despite the brave and heroic deeds of Gandhiji and his co-workers, success was limited. Few Hindu refugees returned, the feeling of insecurity was still there to a very great extent, Muslims were sullen, and their presence in the daily prayer meetings conducted by Gandhiji was reported to have fallen towards the latter part of his stay.

One major reason for this perhaps was that the power of the state was ranged against him or at the best of times neutral, and was certainly not on his side. Providing a sense of security to Hindus when the state authorities including the police were guilty of conniving with the perpetrators of the carnage was an almost impossible task. For the Muslims, too, perhaps the cost of listening to the voice of sanity and humanity was too high when it was ranged against the might of the state and of religion.

In contrast, Nehru as head of the Interim Government and the provincial Congress Government which was in power in Bihar were able to effectively control the large-scale communal violence that broke out in October 1946.5 The situation in Bihar had started to deteriorate with the spread of the news regarding the Biharis killed in Calcutta in August and later on the Noakhali happenings. The observance of Noakhali Day on October 25 acted as a trigger and soon the conflagration enveloped the rural areas of three large districts: Patna, Gaya and Monghyr. Horrific news was received of entire villages of Muslims being wiped out at the hands of bands of Hindu peasants. Nehru got the news in Calcutta where he had gone to take stock of the situation in Noakhali. He instantly rushed to Bihar and backed to the hilt the provincial Congress Government in its efforts to suppress the violence and restore normalcy. From November 4 to 9, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Acharya Kripalani, Jaya Parakash Narayan, Anugraha Narain Singh and other Congress leaders toured the countryside, holding big and small meetings, meeting people, giving succour to the victims, warning the perpetrators to give up their madness.

Nehru was unequivocal in his stand: ”I will stand in the way of Hindu-Muslim riots. Members of both the communities will have to tread over my dead body before they can strike at each other.”6 Nor did he hesitate when it came to the need to use force against those indulging in violence, despite his strong faith in non-violence, and democracy and civil liberties. The conviction that the danger posed by communalism, which he regarded as a form of fascism, was very grave, helped him overcome his instinctive reservations about the use of coercion.

He warned the people that “Machine guns, bombs and all the force of the government will be put in motion to stop bloodshed”. “Lawless-ness can never be tolerated....mob rule cannot be allowed.”7 “If required to control fresh recru-descence of communal trouble the government will not hesitate to employ mighty military forces to suppress such hooliganism.”8

Congress workers were asked to “go round the villages and bring round everyone to sanity. I do not want to hear from Congress workers that they cannot control people. If they cannot control they must sacrifice their lives in the attempt.”9 Students were urged to suspend their studies and “go round the rural areas for bringing the people back to their senses and restoring peace and sanity. Even if a few of you die in such an end-eavour, it will be worth it, and I shall personally congratulate you for such acts of sacrifice.”10 Peasants were asked “to take a pledge, with arms upraised, not to indulge in any mis-behaviour”.11

By November 8, Nehru was writing: “the chances of any major incident or any large scale military action are now very little. This is due to many reasons—Gandhiji’s announcement that he might fast, the personal appeals and visits of a number of Congress leaders, the good work done by some very earnest Congress workers in the cities and villages, and finally, the fear of the military.”12

The Bihar example demonstrates that the winning combination was when the power of the state and the ideological weapons were on the same side. Threats and actual use of force against communal violence created the space in which appeals to peace and amity could be heard. Force stopped the people in their tracks and then they had the chance to pause and think and give an ear to those who were telling them that they were on the wrong path.

In Noakhali, with the power of the state ranged against him, and the majority community hostile, Gandhiji’s non-violence had to be equal to the task of first creating that civic and political space in which a dialogue could begin. This was Gandhiji’s challenge. That is why he was so tortured. There were no easy answers.

And yet, through non-violent heroism of an extraordinary kind, he and his band of warriors did succeed in carving out enough space to begin the process of dialogue. They demonstrated the possibility of political action when none seemed possible.


1. Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence, Penguin, 2008, Chapter 11.

2. See Mridula Mukherjee, “Communal Threat and Secular Resistance: From Noakhali to Gujarat“, Presidential Address (Modern India), Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 2011 and “Jawaharlal Nehru’s Finest Hour: The Struggle for a Secular India”, Studies in People’s History, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2014.

3. For the study of communalism in the colonial period, the classic works are K.B. Krishna, The Problem of Minorities, London, 1939 and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis, London, 1946. Bipan Chandra returned the focus to the study of communalism with his seminal work, Communalism in Modern India, Vikas, New Delhi, 1984, revised edition, Har-Anand, New Delhi, 2008. Also see Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India, From Marx to Gandhi, Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2012. The Sage Series in Modern Indian History, edited by Bipan Chandra, Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee, has also published a number of excellent monographs which deal with various aspects of the subject. Special mention may be made of Sucheta Mahajan, Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India, Sage, New Delhi, 2000; Rakesh Batabyal, Communalism in Bengal: From Famine to Noakhali, Sage, New Delhi, 2005; Salil Mishra, A Narrative of Communal Politics: Uttar Pradesh, 1937-39, Sage, New Delhi, 2001. Also see Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project, Sage, New Delhi, 2008.

4. Gandhiji in an interview in Nabagram, February 1, 1947, cited in Rakesh Batabyal, Communalism in Bengal, p. 349.

5. For a thorough and detailed treatment of the Bihar situation, see Sucheta Mahajan, Independence and Partition, Chapters 9 and 10

6. Speech at Biharsharif, November 4, 1946, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (hereafter SWJN), Series 2, Vol.1, 1984, p. 57.

7. Speech at Biharsharif, November 4, 1946, ibid., p. 57.

8. Speech at a public meeting at Taregna, November 5, 1946, ibid., p. 60.

9. Speech at Biharsharif, November 4, 1946, ibid., p. 57.

10. Speech at a public meeting at Patna, November 6, 1946, ibid., p. 68.

11. Note by Jawaharlal Nehru on Recent Events and Disturbances in Bihar, written in Patna on November 6, 1946, ibid., p. 76.

12. Third Note by Jawaharlal Nehru on the Bihar Disturbances, November 8, 1946, SWJN, Series 2, Vol.1, pp. 85-6.

The author is a Professor of Modern Indian History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: mriduladitya[at]

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