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Mohandas Gandhi

The Final Years

"Constructive Work" and World War II

Conclusion

The three years after his wife's death were a time of struggle against what Gandhi saw as an impending catastrophe–the partition of India. As World War II wound to an end, Jinnah was pushing for an independent Muslim state, a "Pakistan," an idea that Gandhi found utterly unacceptable. The Muslim population was concentrated in the northwest and extreme east of India, but there was no clear line of demarcation, and Hindus and Muslims lived side by side in most regions. In a series of long, impassioned exchanges with Jinnah in 1944 and '45, both in person and by letter, Gandhi argued that partition would inevitably lead to violence and forced migration. But Jinnah held firm.

In 1945 Churchill lost the British elections and the left-wing Labour party came to power, determined to push Indian independence through and rid themselves of a subcontinent that had become ungovernable. Meanwhile, new elections were held in India for the provincial legislatures, appointing Muslim League representatives from Muslim-heavy districts, and Congress Party representatives everywhere else. The political debate was increasingly polarized, and to Gandhi's despair the gulf was not between British and Indians anymore, but between Indians. Amid the wrangling, the British pushed ahead: a Cabinet Mission was appointed, and in May 1946 it published its proposal for an Indian state. Taking into account the Muslim League's demands, it nevertheless advised against partition, which would leave large minorities on either side of any boundary. Instead, it proposed a federal system in which any vote on a religious issue would require a majority of both Hindus and Muslims. To the Englishmen who wrote it, it seemed a sensible compromise.

Gandhi was uncertain about the Cabinet Mission's report, but events were now unfolding too rapidly for him to control. A provisional government was being formed to pave the way for a transition to independence, but Jinnah and the Muslim League would have no part in it, and when Nehru became the provisional government's leader, the Muslims treated his inauguration as an occasion for mourning. Religious riots broke out in Calcutta; arriving there by train, Gandhi used Calcutta as his point of departure for what would be his last walk through rural villages, preaching compassion and brotherhood to a largely Muslim population. People came by the thousands to hear him speak–but even as he made this pilgrimage, political events were outpacing him. The Labour government was eager to get India off its hands, and it dispatched Lord Mountbatten, a skillful diplomat, as the last Viceroy of India. Arriving in March of 1947 and charged with the task of bringing about independence within a year, Mountbatten summoned Gandhi away from his peasant mission to meet with Jinnah in Delhi.

The meeting was fruitless. Jinnah was obdurate, and the Congress leaders, led by Nehru, accepted partition as the price of independence. Mountbatten turned down Jinnah's more extreme demands, and under his mediation a Pakistani-Indian border was established that would cut right through western and eastern India, leaving the Punjab (present-day Pakistan) and Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) as East and West Pakistan. Gandhi was heartbroken, but India was independent–a fact that became official on August 15, 1947.

Disaster followed. Violence swept the country as Hindus and Muslims killed one another in terrible numbers, or fled across the newly created borders, seeking safety in India or Pakistan, depending upon their religion. The numbers of dead will never be known exactly–thousands died, certainly, and perhaps even millions, while nearly fifteen million people were forced from their homes. It was torment for Gandhi, who felt that no one had listened to him, that India had learned nothing from all the years he had spent teaching nonviolence and brotherhood.

His influence was still great: his Independence-Day pledge to fast until violence in Calcutta ceased brought an end to the riots in three days. But he could not sway an entire nation gone mad with violence. He tried, going first to Delhi, then to the Punjab, and back to Delhi, where on January 13, he began another fast "unto death," or until there was peace in Delhi. This fast lasted five days, until Muslim and Hindu leaders promised to make peace, and afterward Gandhi spent his time recuperating, hoping to return to the Punjab before long. It was not to be–on the evening of Friday, January 30, he was in his garden when a Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Vinayuk Godse came up to him, and, after receiving a blessing from the Mahatma, shot him dead.

Godse had hoped that Gandhi's death would lead to war between India and Pakistan and the elimination of the Muslim state. Instead, it led to peace, as Hindus and Muslims alike joined in mourning for the slain Mahatma. Indeed, the entire world mourned: flags were lowered to half-mast, and kings, popes, and presidents sent condolences to India. Nehru, speaking on the radio that night with tears choking his voice, declared, "the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere." Gandhi was gone, a martyr, as he would have wished, to the cause of peace.

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