The fasting Mahatma


Hardly anybody ever fasted as long and as many times for as varied reasons as did Mohandas Gandhi. The avowed aims were penance, inner compulsions, physiological experiments, to be in a state of heavenly peace and whatnot.
His last six-day fast was undertaken to stop the massacre of Muslims at the hands of Hindus and Sikhs in Delhi, in January 1948. On the third day, he woke up at 2:30 am to take a hot bath. It was from his bathtub that he dictated a statement to his secretary, Pyarelal, directing the Nehru government to pay Pakistan Rs 550,000,000/- ($125,000,000) as its share of cash from the divided assets of pre-partitioned India. Earlier on, the Indian Cabinet had refused to give this amount and Sardar Patel “the iron man of the Congress” had argued with Gandhi against the defrayment for an hour and a half. In reply, the debilitating Gandhi, losing two pounds a day, sharply retorted, “Sardar, you are no longer the Sardar I knew” and then burst into tears. The political blackmail worked to perfection: the Cabinet flattened under the ‘light weight’ of the ‘little Mahatma’ and paid the sum.
Almost four months ago, when the communal frenzy had hit Calcutta and an angry mob had even assailed Gandhi with bricks and sticks, he started “an irrevocable fast” that he broke after seventy-three hours, when representatives of all the communities assured him in writing that they would refrain from carnage. Such was the power of his personality that even Mountbatten had to admit that Gandhi “has achieved by moral persuasion what four divisions would have been hard pressed to have accomplished by force.” In effect, Mountbatten’s praise was more of flattery because the Calcutta killings had exposed the total failure of the Indian administration to defend the helpless Muslim minority, over which he also presided as the last viceroy and the first governor general.
Though few dared to admit, the fact of matter is that these fasts had little effect in pacifying the communal animosity. Gandhi had tried this tactic without much success, earlier on, in 1924, as well, when he undertook a twenty-one day fast at the residence of Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar, in the aftermath of the communal riots in Kohat. When a concerned Motilal Nehru begged him to break it, lest it took his life, Gandhi had assured that he had no intention of dying and if he reached the point of death, he would definitely break it. While the people worried over his deteriorating condition, two Muslim doctors constantly attended to him as he regularly drank water and orange juice and had his body massaged.
These fasts were more like a cat and mouse game that he relished to play, to regain the centre stage of politics. One such opportunity arose in September 1932, when he went on a six-day ‘epic fast’ to protest against the awarding of the right of separate electorate to the Untouchable Hindus by the British government because in his view it was a colonial move to divide the Hindus. This right would have given these most miserable people of India, a voice in the legislative councils. Therefore, Ambedkar, their leader, termed this fast as a ‘political stunt’ whereas to the British it was nothing more than a devious political manoeuvre to infuse new life in the failing civil disobedience movement and to reassert his political authority.
Gandhi, which literally means grocer, belonged to the trading caste. In an ignoble defence of the Hindu orthodoxy, he wrote on October 6, 1921, in ‘Young India’, “Prohibition against intermarriage and inter dining is essential for the rapid evolution of the soul,” and a year earlier, while basking in the glory of ‘Mahatmahood’, he had shamelessly defended the caste system: “I consider the four divisions to be fundamental, natural and essential.” Probably, this was Mahatma Gandhi at his worst, however, within a decade, he took a somersault on the issue by publicly declaring on November 4, 1932, that “restriction on inter caste dining and inter caste marriage is no part of the Hindu religion. Today, these two prohibitions are weakening Hindu society.”
What was ‘good’ to his Hindu religion in 1921 became ‘evil’ in 1932? Why? What was the cause of this metamorphosis? The change may have come due to his peculiar habits of contemplation such as observing two silent days per week or getting up in the dark hours before dawn, when silence is at its most profound. Either his thinking towards the caste system evolved during these moments of reflection or because of a personal experience in 1927, when his youngest son Devdas fell in love with Lakshmi, the daughter of the top Congress leader Rajagopalachari, a Brahman, whereas the Gandhis belonged to the Vaishya caste. Gandhi resisted the love marriage because of his opposition to the inter caste marriages but eventually gave in. To the horror of the orthodox Hindus, he first encouraged inter caste, and subsequently, caste- outcaste marriages with his personal blessing, and went a step further by announcing that no couple could be married at his Sevagram Ashram unless one of the parties was Untouchable.
During the 1930s, he fasted twice in vain to make the civil disobedience movement a success. The big test came in August 1942, when the Congress launched the ‘Quit India’ movement on his instigation. The British imprisoned him for instigating the violence but Gandhi insisted that he was falsely accused, and thus decided to ‘crucify’ his flesh by a three week fast in penance.
Although his close comrades such as Nehru and Patel saw no rationale behind these fasts except as a ploy to morally hoodwink adversaries, Gandhi remained unmindful to criticism because throughout his life, he had acted upon intuition to pursue his maverick ideas, just like that character of Rabindranath Tagore that sang: “If no one responds to your call, walk alone, walk alone.”

The writer is an academic and a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]