This is my personal interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi’s response to the Partition based on the consideration of his words and deeds at different times.
Gandhi had earlier said that India could be partitioned only over his dead body. The Partition occurred but Gandhi remained alive. When skeptics taunted Gandhi about this his former secretary and biographer, Peareylal, recorded that Gandhi would angrily lash out at his critics and say should he kill himself just to satisfy others? Even Gandhi’s most trenchant critics cannot deny his courage. He was not afraid of death. Then why did he not redeem his pledge?
For Gandhi the fight to keep India and Pakistan united was not ended. He was still struggling for his goal. He was following that old adage: Those who fight and run away, live to fight another day!
This view is reinforced by earlier events. When the Congress Working Committee (CWC) was to pass its formal resolution to accept Partition on June 3, 1947 Gandhi observed his day of silence. Why?
Gandhi had realized that he had been outsmarted by the British. They had successfully isolated him from Nehru and Patel. Only young firebrands Jayaprakash Narain and Ram Manohar Lohia supported Gandhi’s view in the CWC. To retain the option of opposing the CWC resolution later Gandhi refrained from any personal endorsement of the resolution. He did this by observing a day of silence.
On June 2, one day before the Partition resolution was to be passed by the CWC, Lord Mountbatten visited Gandhi to seek reassurance that Gandhi would not create hurdles. “Mr Gandhi,” Lord Mountbatten asked. “I hope you will not oppose my (Mountbatten Plan to partition India ) plan?” Gandhi on his day of silence wrote on a scrap of paper: “Have I ever opposed you?”
As a lawyer Gandhi chose his words with care. He did not write that he would not oppose Mountbatten. He put the counter question whether he had ever opposed Mountbatten.
After the Partition Gandhi’s actions revealed his resolve to keep trying for total Indo-Pakistan reconciliation. He went on a fast to compel the Indian government to pay Pakistan adequate compensation. This strengthened his credibility with Pakistan . It pleased Mountbatten. But Gandhi’s subsequent actions could not have pleased British authorities.
Gandhi wrote to Jinnah seeking permission to settle down in Pakistan in order to work for Indo-Pakistan unity. Jinnah concurred. He invited Gandhi to Karachi . Gandhi sought permission to settle down in Lahore with 50 Punjabi refugee families then settled in Delhi ’s Purana Quila camp. One member of the Punjabi families that had volunteered to accompany Gandhi in his march to Lahore was historian KK Khullar, then 16 years old. The plan to start the march on February 14, 1948 was finalized. On January 30th Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi.
There are several unanswered questions about Gandhi’s murder. Godse traveled from Bombay to Delhi to kill Gandhi. In Bombay he stayed in a house under strict surveillance of the Intelligence Bureau because its occupant was known to possess illegal firearms. There had been five attempts on Gandhi’s life before Godse killed him. Yet Godse was not apprehended. Was he manipulated as, some theorists claim, was President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, decades later? That aspect deserves a separate article. But suffice to say that after Gandhi’s murder Jayaprakash Narain accused the Home Ministry of criminal negligence, hinting at complicity, in the murder of Gandhi.
Did Gandhi have premonition of his death? Writing his last will and testament by which he sought the dissolution of the Congress as a political party on the very day of his assassination was a striking coincidence.
It may be seen that Gandhi might have erred in his tactics. His realization about Mountbatten’s intentions came too late. Mountbatten arrived in February 1947. By March tension had been created in the Punjab by riots that killed 1000 people. That was seized by the CWC to partition the Punjab assembly between West and East Punjab in March itself. This was even before the Congress had consented in June to Partition the country! It should have alerted Gandhi to what was about to happen.
Gandhi’s judgment may be questioned. His integrity was unimpeachable. He never wavered in his commitment to the agenda of uniting Hindus and Muslims even after Pakistan had been formed. In the end he was defeated. The forces arraigned against him were too powerful. But has his agenda been defeated? This scribe believes that history’s final verdict on that is still not out.