The tragedy in Delhi

Attending Mohandas K Gandhi's funeral

Taken from The New Statesman 7 February 1948

The editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, was visiting newly independent India when the nation’s spiritual leader Mohandas K Gandhi was assassinated by Hindu fanatics on 30 January 1948. He attended Gandhi’s funeral and, in this vivid despatch, assessed the Mahatma’s impact on peace and reconciliation during the five months of communal butchery between Muslims and Hindus that had followed Partition the previous August.

Selected by Robert Taylor

It is too soon yet to assess the political effects of the assassination the Mahatma. As I write, all that is clear about his murderer is that he was a member of the R.S.S- an activist off-shoot of the Hindu Mahasabha—whose national membership and leadership are semi-secret. Gandhi himself was well aware that his life was in danger and that there was a plot to remove him and perhaps other political leaders who are striving for communal peace. Two days before his death he told one of his intimate friends that, if he were assassinated, it would probably be at his daily prayer meeting.

The immediate effect of the murder is naturally a revulsion of feeling against the R.S.S. and the Mahasabha. Nehru, who has insisted that India must be built as a democracy which gives freedom to minorities, condemned these extremist bodies the other day, naming the R.S.S. among others. But Sardar Patel, the powerful figure who controls the Congress machine, has spoken tenderly about the R.S.S. It is improbable that he approves of all its activities, and he would presumably repudiate some of its doctrines. I have in front of me an article from a newspaper, The Organiser, which might have been written by Rosenberg. It describes this uniformed organisation, built on military lines, in mystic terms. It is, of course, to be Hindu and racially pure, and is to extol the “heroic days of the ancestors.” Knowledge of its doctrine is only to be obtained by absorption in its spirit; “the minds of millions are attuned to this one pitch,” and its members are to learn discipline and to develop “righteous heroism.” The fanatics were roused to fury by Gandhi’s recent fast directed towards communal peace, and his assassination was the result.

This fanaticism is loathsome to the great mass of Indians since Gandhi’s death. Now is the moment to discredit and disband the R.S.S., while popular feeling is roused against it. Much depends on the attitude of Patel, who shares to a large degree the communal outlook of the Mahasabha but who may now regard the R.S.S. as a dangerous and uncontrollable force— even if one which might at some later stage serve his purpose. Another figure whose reactions to Gandhi’s murder may be important is Baldev Singh, the Sikh Minister of Defence. He is regarded by many Sikhs as suspiciously moderate; but he controls the army, and the army dislikes the indiscipline and violence of the R.S.S.

The removal of the unique and beneficent personality of the Mahatma from Indian politics is likely in the long run to weaken the forces of peace and moderation. Nehru is even more isolated than before in a Cabinet which represents chiefly Indian Big Business. The Socialist Party, led by that attractive and impressive personality Jai Prakash Narain, is expected to leave Congress at its Conference in Bombay next month. The Communist Party, probably the best organised in India, is, of course, an open enemy of Congress, and is in head-on collision with the Socialist leaders. The Communists still insist in their propaganda that British imperialism dominates India, and in particular they are now attacking, as reactionary, the remarkably speedy settlement that Patel is making with the Princes. ‘Like the Socialists, but more effectively, they appeal to the workers to unite on an economic basis, and to think in class, not communal, terms. To them, the political significance of Gandhi’s death will be that it will now be much easier to analyse and align the social forces of India in Marxist terms, Gandhi represented an incalculable and personal factor, sometimes exerted on the side of social progress, and sometimes, as in the case of the recent decontrol of some essential commodities, on the side of Big Business and reaction.

In Delhi to-day one is conscious mainly of the staggering fact that Gandhi is dead. The crowd at his funeral was probably as great as any that has ever gathered together in human history. In the middle of the turmoil the bier arrived. I had seen it start from Birla House in the morning, with Nehru and Baldev Singh sitting by the body. It was piled high amidst flowers and garlands on an army truck and pulled by hundreds of willing hands. It was a strange and moving sight to see the body placed on the sandal-wood faggots with incense, while the women who had worked most closely with Gandhiji keened and chanted around his body. His calm and familiar face was uncovered except where rose petals fell upon it. The crowd did not show the religious emotion I had expected, but it was good-natured and gentle. Its mood was hard to define. People had scarcely realised the significance of Gandhi’s death until they saw his body on the pyre.

I had myself talked to the Mahatma a few days before. All string and bone, he looked wonderfully fit after his fast. Indeed he seemed scarcely to have changed since I first met him at the Round Table Conference in what now seems a previous incarnation. We talked of Ahimsa, and he explained that his doctrine had never changed, but that he had discovered to his sorrow that passive resistance designed to dislodge the British from India had been merely the weapon of the weak, and not the genuine Ahimsa which relies only on truth, love and sacrifice. I asked him how Ahimsa, which was clearly powerful when used to influence an Occupying Power, could be employed by the Government which took its place. He replied that he believed it to be possible for the Government to use Ahimsa, and quoted Tolstoy’s story Ivan the Fool. He held that Sheikh Abdullah could have used Ahimsa in Kashmir if he had believed in it. He himself guaranteed that he could have used Ahimsa successfully against the tribesmen. Then, characteristically, he left doctrine aside. Since governments did not believe in Ahimsa, he was prepared to give political advice. This had always been his method. He would state a moral principle, and refuse to embark on a discussion of possible compromises in which the principle might be lost sight of. But if obstacles to a direct application of his moral principle were insuperable, he would turn away at right angles, as it were, and begin the discussion again on a matter-of-fact plane. Not having lost his bearings by tacking his sails, he could always start again on the true course.

The Mahatma exercised influence of two kinds. He was the Guru, adviser and consoler, not only of Nehru but of many politicians of different political views. All of them speak of him in terms of reverence, and few important political decisions have been made in recent years in India that have not borne the stamp of his astute and experienced advice. The second type of power which he exerted was upon the masses of India. It was most spectacularly demonstrated in his fifteen fasts. These were of various types—some for limited periods and limited objectives, and some “to the death.” In some, he drank citrus juice which would enable him to live longer, and in some, as in the last case, he refused even this. Sometimes, as in his fast designed to persuade Ambedkar and the Untouchables, his fast amounted to a highly effective form of coercion, since the result of refusing to be persuaded would have been disastrous for the recalcitrant. One can usually find some material factor that worked on his side. But that is irrelevant, since without the fast the result would not have been attained.

Probably his most remarkable success was in August—the fast which ended communal rioting in Bengal. This he could fairly claim as a genuine victory for Ahimsa. His recent Delhi fast was successful, but less miraculous in its effect. By fasting he persuaded the Government of India to pay fifty-five crores of rupees which were admittedly owed to Pakistan and withheld because Patel and others thought it absurd to hand over money to a Power which would use it to make war against India. Gandhi gave up this fast when he was satisfied with the promises of the leaders of all parties that they would seek communal peace and, in particular, when they had agreed to certain conditions for achieving communal peace in Delhi. One of these was that the great annual communal Muslim pilgrimage to the sacred tomb at Mehrauli should take place in conditions of security for the Muslims. I went to Mehrauli on the first day of these celebrations to see how far this condition was obeyed. The roads were policed with armed guards. Lorries were provided for the Muslims. At first only scouting parties arrived to test the degree of security. One Muslim, who was clearly suffering from shock and had lost relatives in a massacre, showed me the damage that had been done to the tomb and its surroundings by Hindus. He declared that, in protecting this Muslim celebration, the Government was merely putting on a propaganda act to help their case over Kashmir. On the first day only a few hundred Muslims arrived; but on the next morning, when Gandhi himself came to hold a prayer meeting at the tomb, some four thousand Muslims were present. This was at least a measure of success for Ahimsa. Muslims now dare to walk about alone in Delhi—at least in daylight.

Gandhi had planned to go shortly to Pakistan. He would not claim that his Delhi fast had more than temporarily improved the atmosphere in which the situation in Kashmir is being discussed. On this issue, dominant and most menacing for this sub-continent, the Mahatma’s influence in his lifetime might still have been decisive. There must be millions to-day who wonder whether his spirit, now that he is dead, will be as potent for peace as it was during his lifetime. My own guess is that his murderers have strengthened the cause of peace for the moment, but sadly weakened it in the longer run. My most enduring memory of Gandhi will not be the sight of his body on the funeral pyre, macabre and unforgettable though that was, but rather the picture of the living Gandhi I saw at Mehrauli, seated on the platform with an audience of eager and reverent Muslims before him, listening while he quietly explained that the India of the future must contain no communal strife, and that his life and if necessary his death were offered as a sacrifice to the cause of communal friendship.

Kingsley Martin (1897-1969) was editor of the New Statesman from 1930 to 1960.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?