• Gandhi’s Last Fast

    Kumkum Sangari

    January 30, 2019

    “Who knows, what is going to happen before nightfall or even whether I shall be alive?” Gandhi said, mere hours before he was shot to death by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.​ Every year this day is observed as Martyr's Day to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi. Today, Gandhi is one of the oft invoked and appropriated figures by the ruling Right-wing government.

    Seeking to ensure peace in the nation, Gandhi's last two fasts unto death were for communal harmony. This made him a much disliked figure in the eyes of the RSS and other hindu fanatics. When Gandhi sat on what would be his last fast, he demanded the settlement of Pakistan's share of the cash balances of undivided India, amounting to Rupees 55 crore. He also dictated his seven point charter of demands to Maulana Azad. His demands were as follows:

    Complete freedom of worship to Muslims at the tomb of Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtiar and non-interference with the celebration of the Urs which was due to be held there within a week; Voluntary evacuation by non-Muslims of all the mosques in the city which were being used for residential purposes or which had been converted into temples; Free movement of Muslims in areas where they used to stay before the disturbances; Full safety to Muslims while travelling by train; No economic boycott of Muslims; Full discretion to Muslims to invite non-Muslims to live in areas occupied by them, and Freedom to Muslim evacuees to come back to Delhi if they so desired.

    He broke his fast on the January 18, 1948, only after all his demands were agreed to from various quarters, including the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. 12 days later he was shot dead by Nathuram Godse, a hindu fanatic and a member of RSS . In today's climate of intolerance, the relevance of Gandhi's last fast and his demands is ever increasing. He firmly believed that violence destroyed religion from the inside and his message of communal harmony should not be forgotten.

    The following are excerpts from Kumkum Sangari's article entitled "A narrative of restoration: Gandhi’s last years and Nehruvian secularism", first published in 2002 in the Social Scientist (March – April, 2002), in the wake of the Gujarat riots.

    On 13 January 1948 Gandhi began his last fast unto death in Delhi wagering his life for communal harmony, protection of minorities and their democratic rights in both India and Pakistan. Communal violence was overwhelming the subcontinent, the communal problem seemed insurmountable, the present and future of democracy were at stake. And he had no desire to outlive the India of his dreams.1

    In those first two weeks of January, with India refusing to implement the financial settlement with Pakistan, skirmishes in the conflict over Kashmir and disputed villages on the Bengal border, there was tension between the two countries. Both, however, were trying to handle the massive problem of refugee relief and rehabilitation. The traffic of refugees to and fro continued (the last special refugee train left Delhi on 14th January) and large numbers of people were waiting to leave in both countries. Although both governments were trying to ensure the safety of evacuees and those waiting to leave, Muslims in several places including Delhi were being attacked, killed and looted at railway stations while a train carrying non-Muslim refugees was attacked in Gujarat in west Punjab. Serious riots broke out in Bhawalpur and Karachi.2 In Sind, Hindu traders and factory owners were being harassed, intensifying impending migration. But after the Karachi riots the Sind government was trying to prevent underselling and wrongful, forcible possession of Hindu homes and shops.3

    In Delhi, especially in the area in and around the walled city, Hindu refugees who had lost everything in Pakistan were pushing Muslims out of their homes, looting Muslim shops, forcibly occupying vacant property, vandalizing and occupying mosques and dargahs, and converting some of them into temples under the auspices of the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha.4 Muslims were being ostracised, ghettoised and rendered homeless; thousands were spending that winter huddles in Purana Quila.5 Partition and the accompanying violence were changing patterns of landownership, acting as mechanisms for the redistribution of resources, altering access to and uses of public spaces by minorities, disrupting the texture of daily civic life, and in some places exposing the corruption of the state machinery. Conflicts were often multipronged. Though Muslims were the main target in Delhi, tension was also brewing between Hindu and Sikh refugees, and between refugees from west Punjab and those from North West Frontier Province.6 In Ferozepur, Jat refugees from Lahore were reported to have forcibly occupied land to the detriment of harijans and some harijans were killed.7 In both countries organised communal mercenary elements were encashing the emotional bitterness and economic vulnerability of refugees. The RSS had both incited and participated in riot violence and was now a virulent public presence engrossed in anti-Muslim propaganda and anti-Gandhi sloganeering.

    Another contentious issue was the dissolution of communal organisation; the Muslim League; RSS and Hindu Mahasabha were being contested from a number of positions.8 Patel at times epitomised that tendency within the Indian government and the Congress which advocated tit-for-tat policies and justified violence in terms of retaliation. Yet even Patel emphasized in a speech in Calcutta on 3 January 1947 that there could be no serious talk of a Hindu state.9 There was widespread public anxiety about and condemnation of the incremental levels of rationalisation building around violence as retaliation. The desire to disperse this was not confined to Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. Even before Gandhi’s fast, the communication Minister of Pakistan, Sardar Abdur-rab-Nishtar, had declared that “private retaliation was un-Islamic” and stated that Pakistan must protect its minorities, regardless of what happened to Muslims in India.10

    While both the political leadership and the state apparatus had been communalised to some extent,11 there were at the same time genuine attempts in both countries to resolve questions of refugee rehabilitation, destruction and forcible occupation of religious sites as well as to end the cycle of retaliation.12 At both official and popular levels, despite many countervailing tendencies, there was still a strong common recognition that new nations could not be built on the principle of revenge. The devastation of partition and suffering of Hindu refugees was palpable and massive enough, and yet there seems to have been a widespread sense in this country that both Hindus and Muslims had been guilty, and therefore a new start needed to be made.

    Gandhi set out in his last fast, not to end a particular riot as in the Calcutta fast, but to restore human relations on the understanding that the fabric of civil society had to be remade both through the initiative of the state and through popular initiatives, and indeed had to be constantly and vigilantly maintained by people. He criticised government corruption but functioned primarily from the understanding that precisely as communalism was constantly reproduced, so the fabric of a secular civil society had to be constantly remade. He wanted not an artificial calm restored by the military and police but “a change of heart” and civic initiative, since only that could beat the cycle of retaliation;13 he deplored the habit of blaming goondas as a “moral alibi” since they were only empowered by “the cowardice or passive sympathy of the average citizen”14 he said he would be “satisfied if Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of Delhi bring about a union which not even a conflagration around them in all other parts of India and Pakistan will be strong enough to break.”15 On this issue too he had counterparts in Pakistan. H.S.Suhrawardy was separately pleading in Karachi for the formation of non-official committees composed of the majority community to look after the welfare of minorities in both India and Pakistan.16

    Across the subcontinent, there was a tremendous response to Gandhi's fast and his seven-point peace pledge demanding voluntary evacuation of mosques occupied or converted into temples, restoration of the vandalised dargah of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar by the people of Delhi in time for Urs, free movement, full safety and freedom to return to their residences for Muslims, and a lifting of the economic boycott on them.17 All over India there were innumerable peace processions, signature campaigns, street corner and prayer meetings calling for restoration of peace spearheaded by individuals, community groups, political parties, trade unions, rulers of princely states, students and teachers, commercial and merchant organisations, police and postal organisations, and women's organisations.18 Of the ten thousand women who took out a  procession in Delhi, many were Muslim women in purdah.19 Even Patel in his statement supporting Gandhi tried to water down his tit-for-tat views.20 The two incidents of violence against Muslims in Delhi on the 13th and 14th as well as the small crowds trying to disrupt prayer meetings by shouting anti-Gandhi slogans outside Birla House, were swamped by the massive anti-communal upsurge triggered by the fast.21 All the key groups in Delhi came forward to support and sign the pledge: refugees (from Punjab, Sind and N.W.F.P.), residents of affected localities, the Congress, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.22 The High
    Commissioner of Pakistan, Zahid Hussain was also present and called for an end to the fast.23

    Gandhi broke his fast on the 19th, but only after leaders of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha — Lala Harichand, Lala Hansraj Gupta, R.B. Narain Das, Ganesh Datt, Basant Lal, Narain Dutt — had signed the pledge.24 Eleven days later he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse who had RSS antecedents and Hindu Mahasabha affiliations.


    Gandhi was a threat to the RSS, which he had characterized as fascist and totalitarian,25 for other reasons too. He presented himself as a devout Hindu and was now arguing for a separation of “religion and politics by all nationalists" on the ground that religion was “a private matter" and "they were Indians first and last,”26 pushing against his own earlier insistence on the fusion of (the spirit of ) religion and politics. He had instituted readings from religious texts – the Bible, Koran and Ramayana – at his daily prayer meetings despite opposition.27 He had defended the prayer meetings and the reading of a verse from the Koran against Muslim objections on several grounds – there was only one god; prayers with the same meaning could be found in the Yajurveda and Upanishads and thus the Koranic verse would be “recited in a temple”; the right to praise god in whatever language he chose comprised genuine freedom of worship; the prayer had an inclusive character and rested on universal essences; and non-sectarianism was politically necessary to oppose communalism.28 He was pained by and condemned as narrow-minded the claim that it was wrong for a non-Muslim to recite anything from the Koran or to couple Rama and Krishna with Rahim and Karim.29 Objections to his recitation of the Koran also came from Hindus.


    He continued to assert that Hinduism freed from its malpractices and “excrescences” was monotheist and had the same “fundamentals” as Islam, told both Hindus and Muslims that the kalma and gayatri were one in essence and asked both to read each other’s scriptures as their own.30 He altogether refused to let infringements of morality destroy the quasi-theoretical multireligious space he sought to create.

    Further he also tried to maintain those convergent, composite traditions of popular worship which carried rather than dissolved the discrete identity of each religion and yet rejected both islamicisation and hinduisation. In his peace plan, Gandhi chose to restore Urs, as a festival shared by several religious groups – then artificially reduce by communal tension into becoming a solely Muslim affair – and went personally as a pilgrim to Mehrauli to celebrate it just two days before his death.31 He specified in his prayer meetings that like Ajmer, the Mehrauli dargah was "visited not only by Muslims but by thousands of Hindus and other non-Muslims in equal veneration."32 At the level of popular worship, Urs had been a site of syncretism, mixed practices and beliefs in several regions while the sufi dargah represented numerous similar shared sites and shrines that were locally sacred, and cutting across religions, belonged to regionally unified networks of pilgrimage and patronage. Such popular composite and syncretic traditions had been censured from the nineteenth century by Hindu and Muslim reformists, and in the preceding decades organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and Muslim League had actively tried to erase them as signs of the ‘corruption’ of Hinduism and Islam.


    Gandhi’s position on minorities was unambiguous, so too his answers to accusations of being pro-Muslim: nationalist Muslims were as patriotic and loyal as nationalist Hindus; loss of self-confidence on the part of any section weakened a nation-state;33 his fast was on behalf of Muslim minority here and Hindu and Sikh minorities in Pakistan;34 his fast was directed at Muslims who also would have to work as hard as Hindus and Sikhs to restore mutual trust;35 finally in a remark directed at Patel, he said for all nationalists enmity towards Muslims amounted to enmity to India.36 Unlike votaries of a Hindu rashtra such as the Hindu Mahasabha, Gandhi believed that persecution of minorities would destroy Hindusm, Sikhism and Islam; but whereas Islam would die only in India and Pakistan since it had other arenas for ethical existence in the world, Hinduism and Sikhism had “no world outside India” and the destruction of their ethical core would spell the complete demise of both religions.37 Gandhi’s championship of the rights of minorities went against the grain of the RSS, which believed that recognition of the rights or equality of minorities would promote their coherence and strength and hinder their “assimilation.”38 Again, unlike the Hindu Mahasabha, Gandhi saw the relations between different communities as those of close knit economic interdependence; with partition India had lost her artisans while Pakistan had suffered equally grave losses.39 This view too was shared; for instance, the Sind government publicly said that migration of Hindus had ruined the economy.40

    It is important to stress that the pledge was instantly implemented, by the residents of communally tense areas who welcomed Muslims back, by the Central Peace Committee under the leadership of Rajendra Prasad and by the government which took steps to ease political tension between India and Pakistan while stepping up its efforts towards material welfare of refugees as the best long term guarantee for defusing communal tension.41 And these too were signs of a public consent that were as threatening for the Hindu right-wing as was Gandhi himself.


    1 Hn 8 June and 12 October 1947, 18 January 1948; speech, 14 January 1948 CW vol.90, p.424.
    2 Hindustan Times, 5, 7,9, 13 and 15 January 1948 [hereafter HT].
    3 HT 7 and 9 January 1948.
    4 HT 7 and 12 January 1948.
    5 Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom (1959, rpt Delhi: Orient Longman, 1984), p.215. Gandhi himself spoke of the attacks on refugee trains, food-shortages and mob rule, the plight of Muslims, forcible possession of Muslim homes, the plight of Sikhs in Sind, the  destruction of mosques as well as their conversion into temples (Hn 21 and 28 September 1947,18 and  25 January 1948, 1 February 1948; 19, 21, 25 and 30 November 1947 in CW vol.90, pp.72-3, 79, 106 and 144).
    6 HT 11 and 12 January 1948.
    7 HT 3 January 1948.
    8 The Muslim League was under heavy attack. Vallabhbhai Patel, Azad, and other Muslim and Congress leaders were calling for the dissolution of Muslim communal organisations and asking Muslims to join the mainstream (HT 12 January 1948). The real danger for them was the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. The RSS in U.P. at this time combined mass rallies with murder, loot, arson and dacoity: some members had been charge sheeted by the state government on such grounds. But it was facing mass opposition and being contested not only by Congress volunteer Sewa Dals, the government-organised Prantiya Raksha Dal which had a Kisan Mazdur Praja Party leaning but also by the embryonic Socialist Sena. As a result of their efforts, Muslims were returning to their homes in the villages of western U.P. Patel adopted a hard line towards Muslims, warning them in a speech at Lucknow on 6th January that they could not "ride two horses" but must be loyal to India alone. He asked the Hindu Mahasabha to merge with the Congress since it had no monopoly on Hindu culture and religion, while the RSS was requested
    to proceed more cautiously, give up the knife and danda, and also to join the Congress. The U.P. government was advised by him to win over the RSS instead of using force against it (HT 7 January 1948; speech, 13 January 1948 in CW vol.90, p.416)
    9 Speech, 13 January 1948 in CW vol.90, p.416. I owe this point to Sumit Sarkar.
    10 HT 13 January 1948. In fact both governments had pledged to safeguard the interests of all citizens and their civic rights and liberties regardless of religion, caste or sex. This was reiterated on independence by Rajendra Prasad who guaranteed just treatment of minorities; and by Mohammed Ali Jinnah who promised to work for the welfare of all the communities in Pakistan and claimed tolerance and respect towards non-Muslims to be an integral principle of Islam (The Statesman 15 August 1947).
    11 Azad, India, p.216.
    12 HT 5 and 6 January 1948.
    13 HT 13 and 20 January 1948; Hn 18 January 1948. Gandhi repeatedly critiqued dependence on police, military and British troops for maintaining peace (Hn 11 and 28 July 1946, 8 September 1946, 18 May 1947).
    14 Hn 14 September 1947.
    15 HT 17 January 1948; Hn 18 January 1948; Hn 25 January 1948 in vol.90, p.437.
    16 HT 11 January 1948. The degree of the success of such efforts can be gauged from the decade or so of relative quiet that followed the partition.
    17 Azad, India, p. 219; HT 18 January 1948. The Mehrauli dargah had been desecrated during the rioting and subsequently locked (22 December 1947 in CW vol.90, p.282).
    18 HT 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19 January 1948.
    19 In addition to the groups listed above, a joint rally of students, kisans and mazdoors was organised by Socialists in Delhi while programmes and processions were organised by the Hotel Worker's Union, the Tramway Workers Union and the Thela Workers Union (HT 16,17,18 and 19 January
    20 HT 17 January 1948.
    21 HT 15 January 1948.
    22 HT 16, 17, 18 and 19 January 1948.
    23 HT 19 January 1948; Azad, India, p.220; Hn 25 January 1948 in CW vol. 90, p.447.
    24 HT 19 January 1948; Hn 25 January 1948.
    25 See Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: the last phase, p.440.
    26 HT 11 and 12 January 1948.
    27 Azad, India, p.221; Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, (Delhi, 1983 p.381.)
    28 Hn 27 April, 11 and 18 May, 5 October and 9 November 1947.
    29 Hn 23 February 1947
    30Hn 7 September 1947 in HD p.251; Hn 9 November 1947 and 25 January 1948.
    31 HT 27 and 28 January 1948; speech, 27 January 1948 in CW vol. 90, pp.501-02.
    32 Hn 4 January and 8 February 1948; speeches, 25 and 27 January 1948 in CW vol.90, pp.493 and 507.
    33 HT 16 January 1948; Hn 18 and 25 January 1948.
    34 HT 14 January 1948; Hn 18 January 1948. See also Hn 21 and 28 September 1947
    35 HT 14 January 1948; Hn 18 January 1948.
    36 HT 21 January 1948; speech 20 January 1948 in CW vol.90, p.464.
    37 Hn 18 January 1948 in CW vol.90, p.410; HT 13 January 1948; January 1948; see also Hn 28 September 1947. Since Islam Hinduism ahimsa, violence would neither help the cause of religion not save it (Hn 6 October 1946, 28 July 1946 and 6 April 1947): If Ahimsa disappears, Hindu dharma disappears (Hn 24 November 1946); The Hindus and Sikhs…by killing and loot and arson are destroying their own religions (Hn 21 September 1947).
    Every faith is on trial in India (Hn 17 August 1947).
    38 Golwalkar, We and Our Nationhood, pp.48-49.
    39 Speech, 20 December 1947 and Hn 25 January 1948 in CW vol.90, pp.267 and 447; Hn 18 January 1948 -ch cw.
    40 HT 18 January 1948.
    41 Of the 381 mosques and dargahs occupied by refugees, all but 15 were vacated  restored by September 1948; in keeping with Gandhi’s desire for a voluntary vacation of occupied mosques, Patel said he was trying to the temple emblems removed with the cooperation of people rather than by the police in the remaining mosques before 2 October 1948. The RSS was banned on 4 February 1948.

    Read more:
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    Kumkum Sangari is currently the Vilas Professor of English and the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

    Excerpted from the original article with permission from the author.

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