Another time, another mosque: Gandhi in 1948

Dilip Simeon

This article is based on a lecture I prepared for university students, named Mahatma Gandhi’s Legacy. It includes the text of the Delhi Declaration on communal harmony, January 18, 1948. ‘Volume’ citations are from Gandhi’s Collected Works.

Gandhi’s Last Fast: January 13-18, 1948

From September 1947, the communal situation in north India became grievous. Massacres were taking place in Punjab and Sindh, sparking off the migration of over ten million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. In September, hundreds of Muslims of Delhi had been killed in Karol Bagh, Subzi Mandi and Paharganj. Tens of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Punjab were crammed into Diwan Hall, Chandni Chowk and Kingsway Camp; while thousands of Muslims, including Meos from Alwar and Bharatpur, camped in fear in Jamia Millia, Puran Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. The life of Dr Zakir Husain, VC of Jamia Millia and president of the Hindustani Talimi Sangh, was saved by a Sikh army captain and a Hindu railway official. Upon arrival in Delhi on September 9, Gandhi was asked to stay not in the sweepers colony (his prefered residence in the city), but in Birla House. Gandhi plunged into the turmoil around him, travelling to nearby places, talking to refugees and cadres of social organisations. On December 22, he made this announcement at his prayer meeting:

“Some eight or ten miles from here, at Mehrauli, there is a shrine of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Chisti. Esteemed as second only to the shrine at Ajmer, it is visited every year not only by Muslims but by thousands of non-Muslims too. Last September this shrine was subjected to the wrath of Hindu mobs. The Muslims living in the vicinity of the shrine for the last 800 years had to leave their  homes. I mention this sad episode to tell you that, though Muslims love the shrine, today no Muslim can be found anywhere near it. It is the duty of the Hindus, Sikhs, the officials and the Government to open the shrine again and wash off this stain on us. The same applies to other shrines and religious places of Muslims in and around Delhi. The time has come when both India and Pakistan must unequivocally declare to the majorities in each country that they will not tolerate desecration of religious places, be they small or big. They should also undertake to repair the places damaged during riots.” (vol 98, p 98-99).

This was the background to his last protest. There was also the matter of the Government’s decision to withhold payment of Pakistan’s share of undivided India’s sterling balance. We may take it that the fast was undertaken both to restore the mosque and to convey to the public his feelings about ongoing events. It began on January 13, 1948 and was announced at his prayer meeting that evening. He said: “Now that I have started my fast many people cannot understand what I am doing, who are the offenders – Hindus or Sikhs or Muslims. How long will the fast last? I say I do not blame anyone. Who am I to accuse others? I have said that we have all sinned.”

He continued: “I shall terminate the fast only when peace has returned to Delhi. If peace is restored to Delhi it will have effect not only on the whole of India but also on Pakistan and when that happens, a Muslim can walk around in the city all by himself. I shall then terminate the fast. Delhi is the capital of India. It has always been the capital of India. So long as things do not return to normal in Delhi, they will not be normal either in India or in Pakistan. Today I cannot bring Suhrawardy here because I fear someone may insult him. Today he cannot walk about in the streets of Delhi. If he did he would be assaulted. What I want is that he should be able to move about here even in the dark. It is true that he made efforts in Calcutta only when Muslims became involved. Still, he could have made the situation worse, if he had wanted, but he did not want to make things worse. He made the Muslims evacuate the places they had forcibly occupied and said that he being the Premier could do so. Although the places occupied by the Muslims belonged to Hindus and Sikhs he did his duty. Even if it takes a whole month to have real peace established in Delhi it does not matter. People should not do anything merely to have me terminate the fast. So my wish is that Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Muslims who are in India should continue to live in India and India should become a country where everyone’s life and property are safe. Only then will India progress.”

The People’s Reaction

Delhi was visibly affected by Gandhi’s fast. Addressing a gathering of three hundred thousand people on January 17, Maulana Azad announced seven tests given him by Gandhi to be fulfilled and guaranteed by responsible people. They included freedom of worship to Muslims at the tomb of Khwaja Bakhtiar Chishti, non-interference with the Urs festival due to be held there; the voluntary evacuation by non-Muslims of all mosques in Delhi that were being used as houses or which had been converted into temples; free movement of Muslims in areas where they used to stay; complete safety to Muslims while travelling by train; no economic boycott of Muslims; and freedom to Muslim evacuees to return to Delhi.” That evening a procession of citizens walked to Birla House where Jawaharlal Nehru addressed them. Gandhi’s speech was read out at the prayer meeting, attended by some four thousand people. Among other things, he said:

“My fast should not be considered a political move in any sense of the term. It is in obedience to the peremptory call of conscience and duty. It comes out of felt agony. I call to witness all my numerous Muslim friends in Delhi. Their representatives meet me almost every day to report the day’s events. Neither Rajas and Maharajas nor Hindus and Sikhs or any others would serve themselves or India as a whole, if at this, what is to me a sacred juncture, they mislead me with a view to terminating my fast” (vol 98:248).

On January 18, Gandhi ended his fast. Over a hundred representatives of various groups and organizations including the Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Jamiat-ul-Ulema who had assembled at Rajendra Prasad’s residence, called on Gandhiji at 11.30 a.m. Those present included Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, INA General Shah Nawaz Khan, Hifzur Rahman and Zaheed Hussain, Pakistan’s High Commissioner. Dr. Rajendra Prasad reported that even those who had some doubts on the previous night were confident that they could ask Gandhiji with a full sense of responsibility to break the fast. As the President of the Congress, Rajendra Prasad said that he had signed the document in view of the guarantee which they had all jointly and severally given. Khurshid, the Chief Commissioner and Randhawa, Deputy Commissioner of Delhi, had signed the document on behalf of the administration. It had been decided to set up a number of committees to implement the pledge. Rajendra Prasad hoped that Gandhiji would now terminate his fast. Deshbandhu Gupta described scenes of fraternization between Hindus and Muslims which he had witnessed when a procession of Muslims was taken out that morning in Subzimandi and was received with ovation and offered fruit and refreshments by the Hindu inhabitants. A seven-point declaration in Hindi was read out solemnly affirming the people’s desire for communal harmony and civic peace. This read as follows:

SEVEN-POINT DELHI DECLARATION OF JANUARY 18, 1948

“We wish to announce that it is our heart-felt desire that the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and members of the other communities should once again live in Delhi like brothers and in perfect amity and we take the pledge that we shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and that the incidents which have taken place in Delhi will not happen again.

“We want to assure Gandhiji that the annual fair at Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Mazar will be held this year as in the previous years.

“Muslims will be able to move about in Subzimandi, Karol Bagh, Paharganj and other localities just as they could in the past.

“The mosques which have been left by Muslims and which now are in the possession of Hindus and Sikhs will be returned. The areas which have been set apart for Muslims will not be forcibly occupied.

“We shall not object to the return to Delhi of the Muslims who have migrated from here if they choose to come back and Muslims shall be able to carry on their business as before.

“We assure that all these things will be done by our personal effort and not with the help of the police or military.

“We request Mahatmaji to believe us and to give up his fast and continue to lead us as he has done hitherto.” .” (vol 98, p 249, 253).

Gandhi’s Speech on the Delhi Declaration

In his reply, Gandhi said: “I am happy to hear what you have told me, but if you have overlooked one point all this will be worth nothing. If this declaration means that you will safeguard Delhi and whatever happens outside Delhi will be no concern of yours, you will be committing a grave error and it will be sheer foolishness on my part to break my fast. You must have seen the Press reports of the happenings in Allahabad, if not, look them up. I understand that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha are among the signatories to this declaration. It will amount to breach of faith on their part if they hold themselves responsible for peace in Delhi, but not in other places. I have been observing that this sort of deception is being practised in the country these days on a large scale. Delhi is the heart – the capital of India. The leaders from the whole of India have assembled here. Men had become beasts. But if those who have assembled here, who constitute the cream among men cannot make the whole of India understand that  Hindus, Muslims and followers of other religions are like brothers, it bodes ill for both the Dominions. What will be the fate of India if we continue to quarrel with one another?… Let us take no step that may become a cause for repentance later on. The situation demands courage of the highest order from us. We have to consider whether or not we can accomplish what we are going to promise. If you are not confident of fulfilling your pledge, do not ask me to give up my fast. It is for you and the whole of India to translate it into reality. It may not be possible to realize it in a day. I do not possess the requisite strength for it. But I can assure you that till today our face was turned  towards Satan, we have now resolved to turn towards God. If what I have told you fails to find an echo in your hearts or if you are convinced that it is beyond you, tell me so frankly.

What greater folly can there be than to claim that Hindustan is only for Hindus and Pakistan is for Muslims alone? The refugees here should realize that things in Pakistan will be set right by the example set in Delhi. I am not one to be afraid of fasting. Time and again I have gone on fasts and if occasion arises I may again do so. Whatever therefore you do, do after careful thought and consideration. The Muslim friends frequently meet me and assure me that peaceful atmosphere has been restored in Delhi and Hindus and Muslims can live in amity here. If these friends have any misgivings in their hearts and feel that today they have perforce to stay here – as they have nowhere else to go to – but ultimately they will have to part company, let them admit it to me frankly. To set things right in the whole of India and Pakistan is no doubt a Herculean task. But I am an optimist. Once I resolve to do something I refuse to accept defeat. Today you assure me that Hindus and Muslims have become one but if Hindus continue to regard Muslims as Yavans and asuras, incapable of realizing God, and Muslims regard Hindus likewise, it will be the worst kind of blasphemy. A Muslim friend presented me with a book in Patna. Its author is an eminent Muslim. The book says: “God ordains that a kafir – and a Hindu is a kafir – is worse than a poisonous creature. He should be exterminated. It is one’s duty to be treacherous to him. Why should one treat him with any courtesy?” If Muslims still harbouring such thoughts assure Hindus about their good behaviour, they will only be deceiving Hindus. If you betray one you betray all. If I truly worship a stone image I deceive no one. For me God resides in that stone image. I feel that if the hearts of both Hindus and Muslims are full of deceipt and treachery, why need I  continue to live?

“..After listening to all that I have said, if you still ask me to end my fast I shall end it. Afterwards you have to release me. I had taken the vow to do or die in Delhi and now if I am able to achieve success here I shall go to Pakistan and try to make Muslims understand their folly. Whatever happens in other places, people in Delhi should maintain peace. The refugees here should realize that they have to welcome as brothers the Muslims returning from Pakistan to Delhi. The Muslim refugees in Pakistan are suffering acute hardships and so are the Hindu refugees here. Hindus have not learnt all the crafts of Muslim craftsmen. Therefore they had better return to India. There are good men as well as bad men in all the communities. Taking into consideration all these implications, if you ask me to break my fast I shall abide by your wish. India will virtually become a prison if the present conditions continue. It may be better that you allow me to continue my fast and if God wills it He will call me.” (vol 98, p 254-257)

Maulana Azad said that the remarks about non-Muslims to which Gandhiji had referred were abhorrent to Islam. They were symptoms of the insanity that had seized some sections of the people. Maulana Hifzur Rahman insisted that Muslims wanted to remain in India as citizens with self-respect and honour. He welcomed the changed atmosphere in the city as a result of Gandhi’s fast and appealed to Gandhi to break the fast. On behalf of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, Ganesh Datt reiterated the appeal. Pakistan’s High Commisioner Zaheed Hussain addressed a few words to Gandhiji. He said he was there to convey the deep concern of the Pakistani people about him and the anxious inquiries they made every day about his health. It was their hearts’ desire that circumstances might soon enable him to break the fast. If there was anything that he could do towards that end he was ready and so were the people of Pakistan. Zaheed Hussain was followed by Khurshid and Randhawa who on behalf of the administration reiterated the assurance that all the conditions mentioned in the citizens’ pledge would be implemented, and no effort would be spared to restore the Indian capital to its traditional harmony and peace. Sardar Harbans Singh endorsed the appeal on behalf of the Sikhs. When Rajendra Prasad said: “I have signed on behalf of the people, please break your fast,” Gandhi replied: “I shall break my fast. Let God’s will prevail. You all be witness today.”

Twelve days later, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was murdered at his daily prayer meeting.