Gandhi’s Life – Part 12
|November 24, 2003||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
The harried British had to relent. They had neither enough jails to hold all of India nor enough functionaries to keep the country operating while the rebellion was on. Gandhi and other Congress leaders were freed, and on February 17, 1931, Gandhi met with the Viceroy. A Conservative member of Parliament named Winston Churchill announced it was “nauseating” to see Gandhi negotiating “on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” He argued that “Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will have to be … crushed.”
But Gandhi was far from crushed. After many discussions he agreed to cancel the civil disobedience campaign while the British agreed to permit Indians on the coast to make their own salt, to release political prisoners, and to arrange a conference in London to resolve the central issue of Indian independence.
In the autumn of 1931, with several aides, a goat to provide his milk, and a collapsible spinning wheel, Gandhi attended the London conference. In his declaration to the customs officer he said, “I am a poor mendicant. My earthly possessions consist of six spinning wheels, prison dishes, a can of goat’s milk, six home-spun loincloths and towels, and my reputation which cannot be worth much.”
He traveled widely in England, calling for an “honorable partnership” for the two nations. His compassion, warmth, and wit won the hearts of the poor, the young, and the press, who reported with glee such remarks about his loincloth as, “You wear plus-fours; I prefer minus-fours.” Invited to tea with the King and Queen he wore only his loincloth and a shawl. When someone asked if he had enough on he replied, “The King had enough on for both of us.”
Though Gandhi made many friends during his stay in England, the conference was a failure. Most of the delegates the Viceroy had sent to represent India were there to preserve or extend the rights and privileges of specific minorities. By the end of the meeting India seemed more divided than ever and independence more remote.
Gandhi spent some time on the continent before returning to India. When he finally arrived in December, a new and harsher cabinet was in power in London. A number of Congress leaders, including Nehru, were again under arrest; in one area where a civil disobedience campaign was underway all civil liberties had been suspended.
Gandhi tried to negotiate with the country whose King had sipped tea with him several months earlier; it reacted by arresting him on January 4, 1932. By February, twenty thousand political prisoners were again in custody.
Meanwhile, the British were constructing a new constitution for India. In addition to providing that Hindus vote only for Hindus and Moslems for Moslems in the provincial legislatures, it was decided that untouchables could vote only for untouchables. Gandhi had always striven to make untouchables acceptable to Hindus; he knew that separate electorates would only drive the two groups further apart.
On September 13 Gandhi announced that “to sting Hindu conscience” and end the separate electorates he would “fast unto death,” beginning on September 20. The British, who always feared that his death would signal a bloody revolt, announced that if the Hindus and untouchables reached a more satisfactory electoral agreement they would accept it.
At 11:30 A.M. on September 20, still in prison, Gandhi drank lemon juice and honey in hot water and began his fast. His close friend, the poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “A shadow is darkening today over India…”
India watched the shadow with dread. Millions fasted along with Gandhi the first twenty-four hours, while politicians worked feverishly to reach a compromise. Gandhi was a living god, and no one wanted to bear the guilt for his crucifixion.
Although Gandhi usually fasted as easily as other persons ate, this ordeal was especially agonizing. By the fourth day doctors feared he was dying. At last a compromise was reached. Hindus and untouchables would vote together, and a certain number of seats would be set aside for untouchables to guarantee them representation.
It took six days for the plan to be approved by everyone, including the British and Gandhi. Then he broke his fast with a sip of orange juice. He had forced Hindus to accept untouchables not only as citizens with equal rights but as human beings. For as he lay dying, homes and temples were opened to the untouchables for the first time in three thousand years.
In May of 1933 Gandhi fasted twenty-one days for personal reasons. The British, still nervous about his dying in their custody, released him from prison. On August 1, however, he was rearrested for a civil disobedience act. He was released three days later, rearrested for disobeying a court order, and finally freed again when he began another fast.
For the next six years Gandhi stayed out of jail and out of politics, though his influence with the Congress party was so great that it did nothing without his approval and all the members religiously wore homespun.
He was in his late sixties now, slender, toothless, half-naked, with a toothbrush moustache, large round spectacles, jutting ears, and a shaved head. He once protested that a cartoonist had made his ears too big, then admitted he didn’t know how big they were because he no longer looked at himself in a mirror. Still seeking to purify India, Gandhi toured the country tirelessly, denouncing untouchability and trying to restore the peasants’ faith in themselves. He objected to extremes of wealth and poverty and wanted to make every village self-sufficient, producing its own food and clothing its own people. The peasants came to him for his blessings and his advice on food, health, and sex. When he passed, they kissed the roads he trod upon.
But as Gandhi’s shadow glided gently over the dusty paths of India a more brutal image seized the world’s attention. Adolf Hitler was igniting the second great war. Still Gandhi preached ahimsa, or nonviolence. He would rather be killed than kill, he declared.
When the Nazis began to exterminate the Jews, Gandhi advised nonviolence and voluntary sacrifice. “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators,” he said. For reasons that had nothing to do with Gandhi but were graven in their own heritage most Jews did respond nonviolently. Not hundreds or thousands were murdered, but six million, and the slaughter ceased only when the Nazis were destroyed. If Gandhi had earlier proved that nonviolence is sometimes an effective weapon, the Nazis proved it is effective only against a civilized opponent.
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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