A conversation


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The conversation that follows is the work of imagination, but hovering over published material. It is between Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru held over five days – on 14, 15, 16, 17and 18 January 1948 at Birla House, New Delhi. These meetings did take place, but no records of what transpired are known to exist because when those two met, all present withdrew, including the usual note-takers who ‘covered’ other meetings.

The ingredients of this imagined conversation over four sittings can, in the case of Gandhi, be traced to thoughts and views expressed by Gandhi around that time, though not always to Nehru, directly. A set of references is given at the end of this work that will help those interested in tracking the sources of specific paragraphs in Gandhi-related works. The words ascribed to Nehru are not traceable to any published source but accord to his general thought-process. Their presentation here is the work of dramatic license.

A combination, therefore, of ‘real’ words, imagined connectors and plausible utterances, this narrative is not to be taken as literally true. But it is true to the spirit of those two men’s ideas of India’s destiny.

New Delhi, that January, like so many sites in northern and eastern India and Pakistan, is still smoldering from the fires of Partition. On 4 January Gandhi has had a talk with some of Delhi’s Maulanas. ‘We are in a predicament’, they have said to him. ‘We have no other support left besides you’. Pakistan is threatening war on India, Gandhi tells them: Ponder well where your duty lies, he says to them.

From ‘the other side’ as it were, a few days later, a woman worker from Sind, Pakistan, comes to give him harrowing descriptions of the happenings in that region. ‘Instead of coming to me’, he says to her, ‘if someone had given me the news that you had been killed protecting the honour of Sindhi sisters, I would have been happier’.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are sky-high. The issue of Pakistan’s share of the cash balances of undivided India is actively under discussion in the two newly independent nations. Under a decision of the Partition Council, out of a cash balance of rupees 375 crores, 20 crores have been paid by India to Pakistan on the day of the transfer of power. This is a provisional payment subject to the determination of the final amount which in the last week of November 1947 is calculated as rupees 55 crores. But by then the invasion of Kashmir by raiders fully backed and armed by Pakistan is in full swing. Will the 55 crores not become wherewithal in Pakistan’s undeclared war with India? The Government of India defers the payment of the balance.

‘I am in a furnace’, Gandhi writes in a letter. In his prayer meeting on 12 January, he announces a fast ‘without a time limit’. This much is recorded history.

The conversation on 14 January with Prime Minister Nehru that follows is a weave of the imagination the threads of which are drawn from the loom of those transactions.


January 14, 1948

JN: Bapu, I wish you had given us some inkling of your decision to start this fast.

MKG: I had no inkling of it myself.

JN: This is where I am unable quite to follow the workings of your mind. To be honest, they…what shall I say… they… baffle me. They always have. But, for some time now, they have been baffling me more than ever before. I should say I cannot fathom your mind.

MKG: It was not my mind that took the decision.

JN: I know… You have talked of a ‘flash’… The final decision you said ‘flashed upon you’. I must confess I do not understand these flashes…

MKG: And I cannot describe them beyond saying that is what they are! All I know is I experience them. And there is no telling whence they come or how and when. They are as real to me as you are, sitting here in front of me.

JN: Bapu, you are on a fast. I know what fasting does. You must be tired… I should not weary you.

MKG: No, no. This is only the second day… I am not that tired… Istart a fast because of a ‘flash’ but once I do I go about the thing methodically, almost as an adept… I know that on the second day the body is getting adjusted to the absence of nourishment. On the third day it begins to grumble… From the fourth… But let all that be… You were saying…

JN: Bapu… I hate to add to your strain by imposing this conversation on you. But then… I am sure you know… I too am under strain… and no ordinary strain… And so I do need to unburden myself, so to say and say what I feel to someone and who can that be but you…

MKG: Of course you must.

JN: So… I was saying, or rather, I was wanting to say that your thinking or whatever it is that guides you, your inner voice shall we say…

MKG: That is what it is… The inner voice…

JN: Well, your inner voice, then, it manages to disrupt the outer world as nothing else I know does.

(Both break into a laugh, MKG heartily, JN softly, almost embarrassedly).

JN (continuing): I mean this seriously, Bapu. I may be Prime Minister of India and Vallabhbhai Deputy Prime Minister. Shanmukham Chetty is managing our precarious finances. We have Rajaji looking after the Bengal end of things. And we still have Lord Mountbatten helping us. But all said and done it is you who hold the key to our country’s soul. You are the key.

MKG: Very old and rusted now. So much so that no one really wants to touch it.

JN: That is not so, Bapu. Would I be here every day, almost, coming to you to seek your counsel if that were not so? I know what shouldering a responsibility means. I do. I am not the kind to pass on my troubles, let alone my burdens, to others. But then you are what you are. And we do not think of you as ‘Bapu’ for nothing.

MKG: But that is not the same thing as listening to what I say.

JN: This is what I want to talk to you about. Our not listening to you or to everything that you feel, and say. We are facing grim realities.

MKG: Go ahead, bolo… dil khol kar bolo.

JN: I was quite taken aback when I heard of your decision. You gave some reasons for it in your statement. You said something to the effect that as a votary of non-violence you feel sometimes impelled to protest by fasting when you feel society has done something wrong, that you were feeling that impulse very strongly and that you felt a storm within you which was about to burst…

MKG: We are witnessing the destruction of India – Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam. Hinduism and Sikhism have no world outside India. They are dying in India. Islam is dying in both the Indias – India and what was India and is now Pakistan. Thinking of this I felt I was in a furnace. And so the thought came to me in a flash that my fasting and dying would be a glorious deliverance for me. How much better that, rather than that I should be a helpless witness of this simultaneous mutual destruction. And so the decision made itself. God was my sole counsellor.

JN: I have sometimes wished I had the benefit of that privileged counsel. But I know I do not. As Prime Minister I have to take my decisions in the light of such reasoning as I am capable of. It is a lonesome place where I am with my reasoning being my sole companion.

MKG: Your reasoning is pure, Jawahar. Do not doubt that.

JN: Well then, let me come to the point. Whatever be the different facets of the ‘flash’, it is our decision to withhold the payment of the 55 crores to Pakistan that has galled you, am I right?

MKG: When I met Lord Mountbatten on the 6th of this month, I discussed this question with him. He said to me the withholding of the 55 crores would be this government’s – your government’s – ‘first dishonourable act’.

JN: Lord Mountbatten is a friend of India’s. But he is not running the government. Not any longer.

MKG: True enough. He was not questioning the legality of the decision, nor going beyond the strict provinces of your respective functions and prerogatives. He was only expressing his feeling that the cult of expediency does not sit well with a country that has won its independence by non-violent, that is to say, moral means.

JN: But just look at Pakistan. What is the morality there? On top of the murder and rapine on innocent Hindus and Sikhs, there is the brazen invasion of Kashmir… We cannot have all the morality guiding on our side and see the very opposite of that guiding their’s.

MKG: I plead for all absence of argument… My fast is of my making… I am in God’s hands.

JN: But we are in yours. That is the irony of it.

MKG just raises his hands to say ‘Well, there it is…’

JN: We will discuss this in cabinet of course.

MKG: But Jawahar… do not think, please, that my fast is about 55 crore rupees alone. It is about the crores upon crores of our people. And by ‘our people’ I mean the people in both the countries. What is going to happen to them in the years to come? If there is such mistrust between the two communities and between the two governments what is our future going to be? Have we won our freedom – and that too from such a high moral ground – only to see Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs butcher each other? That is what you have to discuss in your cabinet. Not just the 55 crores. Not the cash balance but the trust balance.

By the time Nehru gets into his car to leave, it is dark. Some Sikhs from West Punjab have gathered outside Birla House. They shout ‘Blood for blood’ (Khun ka badla khun se). Nehru hears that in silence. Someone then shouts ‘Let Gandhi die’ (Marne do Gandhi ko). This Nehru cannot take. He gets out of the car and flings himself into the crowd: ‘Who dares say that? Who said ‘Let Gandhi die’? Who? Who? Bolo, bolo, kisne kahaa? Let him who dares, repeat that in my presence! Himmat hai to dobaara ake kahe mere saamne… He will have to kill me first. Mujhe pehle maarnaa paregaa…’ The demonstrators scurry away.

Inside his room, Gandhi hears the ruckus and asks, ‘What are they shouting?’ He is told they are shouting ‘Let Gandhi die’.

‘How many are they?’

‘Not many’.

With a sigh, he begins saying Raamanaama.


January 15

JN: Bapu, I dare not ask how you are feeling.

MKG: Today, yes, I am feeling weaker. I had to be carried out of the bathroom in an arm-chair. Doctors have found acetone bodies in the urine… And my voice you can see is feebler…

JN: Please do not strain to talk to me.

MKG: I learnt about… what happened outside yesterday… what they shouted… what you said. And I felt… I felt a great love for you…

JN: Bapu… Could I have… could anyone in my place have reacted differently?

MKG: And I felt… great concern for you and for the weight you are bearing… And Vallabhbhai is bearing… The two of you must work together to stop the horrors…

JN: You must have heard of the news that on January 13, a train carrying non-Muslim refugees from Bannu was attacked at the Gujrat Station in West Punjab. In spite of the heroic defence put up by the troops escorting the train, hundreds of refugees were killed or maimed and women and girls abducted by the tribesmen. I am telling you of this not to seek a response from you but just to tell you that this is the kind of situation we are facing, having to deal with… And all this while you are fasting… People have simply... Our society has... lost its head…

MKG: What… is society?... Society is…individuals… It is we… that make society. We are asleep and then say that we are helpless because society is such… The same goes for the government… It is we… who are the government.

JN: I do not dispute that, but…

MKG: They tell me… that I am mad and have a habit of going on fast on the slightest pretext. But I am made that way… My fast… let me state, Jawahar, in plain language… is undoubtedly on behalf of the Muslim minority in India and, therefore, it is necessarily on behalf of the Hindu and Sikh minority in Pakistan… I am a very imperfect and weak mortal… I truly confess I am…But… through my fast I want to bring sanity to all those who inhabit both India and Pakistan… It is impossible to save the Muslims in India if the Muslim majority in Pakistan do not behave as decent men and women.


January 16

JN: Bapu, it has been decided. We are giving Pakistan the 55 crore…

MKG: (Thoughtfully ) So, you see Jawahar… without the fast… your cabinet could not have gone beyond what the law permitted… and required them to do… It is never a light matter… for any responsible Cabinet to alter a deliberate settled policy… Yet our Cabinet, responsible in every sense of the term… has with equal deliberation yet promptness… unsettled their settled fact… You and Vallabhbhai and the Maulana and Chetty and the whole cabinet… deserve the warmest thanks from the whole country.

JN: I only hope…

MKG: Do not doubt that… the present gesture on the part of the Government of India is… one of unmixed goodwill... It has put the Pakistan Government on its honour. It ought to lead to an honourable settlement not only of the Kashmir question, but of all the differences between the two Dominions…

JN: You must now terminate the fast…

MKG: Jawahar… The cabinet decision is very gladdening… But you are basically… asking me… to end the fast… because of this great act of the Union Government… I wish I could persuade myself to do so… please… What I seek, what I pray for… is for something more than the matter of 55 crores… it is that friendship should replace the present enmity… Only when there is perfect peace in Delhi there will be peace all over India… I have no wish to live if I cannot see peace established all round me, in India as well as in Pakistan. This is the meaning and purpose… of this fast, this yajna. I cannot end the fast in a hurry.

JN: But, Bapu your prolonging the fast now will go against all reason, against the best medical prognosis.

MKG: I shall fast for as many days as I can… and if it is the will of God that I should die then I shall die.

JN: Bapu, with all respect, that is not fair to us, to our country.

MKG: If I terminate my fast now, it will make my fast a political one… intended only to wrench this decision… a very good… great… decision from your cabinet… But you must see that it is for something much more.


January 18

JN: Bapu, with Rajenbabu’s lead, over a hundred representatives of various groups and organizations in Delhi, including Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Jamiat-ul-Ulema and others with Zaheed Hussain, Pakistan’s High Commissioner, present, wish to announce that it is their 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 they will take the pledge that they shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims and that the incidents which have taken place in Delhi will not happen again.

MKG: I am happy to hear what you have told me…but 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… But if you give me the undertaking that you will take this spirit beyond Delhi… and then if you ask me to break my fast I shall abide by your wish…

And it is only after Gandhi has been persuaded that their intention is that, that he decides to actually break the fast, accepting a glass of lime-juice from Maulana Azad. After breaking the fast, he says: Once I resolve to do something I refuse to accept defeat… 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… What greater folly can there be than to claim that Hindustan is only for Hindus and Pakistan is for Muslims alone?... To set things right in the whole of India and Pakistan is no doubt a Herculean task. But I am an optimist.

MKG learns a little after this from Jawaharlal that he too has been fasting. He is overwhelmed and after Jawaharlal leaves, scribbles a note: Jawahar… ab upavas chhodo... Bahuut varsh jiyo aur Hind ke Jawahar bane raho… (Give up your fast… May you live long and always be the jewel of India…)

The ideas and almost all the words in the above narrative have been drawn from accounts in Pyarelal’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (Navajivan, 1956), Chapter XXIII and from entries in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Publications Division, 1999), volume 98.