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PAST & PRESENT

Bapu in Beliaghata

BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA

In August-September 1947, Gandhiji spent 25 days at the Haidari Mansion, Beliaghata, Calcutta. Those were among the most intensely heroic days of his life.

PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Working a miracle: Gandhiji in Calcutta.

FIFTY-NINE years ago this week, Mahatma Gandhi moved into a house in Calcutta called the "Haidari Mansion". Despite its name, in August 1947 the place was very run down indeed. As one of Gandhi's companions recalled, it was "a very shabby house without any sort of facility. It was open on all sides — thus being easy of access to outsiders. The doors and windows were broken. There was only one latrine which was used by hundreds of people, including a number of volunteers, policemen and visitors. Every inch of the place was covered with dust. In addition, the rain had made the passages muddy".

Alarming situation

The house was cleaned up, and made somewhat habitable for Gandhi to stay in. He lived there for a little under a month, from August 13 until September 7, 1947. The Haidari Mansion was located in Beliaghata, a locality where Hindus and Muslims had lived cheek-by-jowl in the past, and where they had been butchering each other in the present. For, in the weeks and months leading up to Independence — and Partition — Calcutta had witnessed the most horrific religious rioting. It was to try and stem the bloodshed that Gandhi had come to Beliaghata.

Gandhi's move stopped the violence, temporarily, and both Muslims and Hindus celebrated Independence Day together. After two weeks of peace, the trouble started up again. On August 31, Gandhi began a fast-unto-death. His act shocked and shamed the people of the city, who came around, slowly. On September 4, a group of representative Hindus and Muslims met him with a written promise "that peace and quiet have been restored in Calcutta once again". The undertaking added: "We shall never again allow communal strife in the city. And shall strive unto death to prevent it". The Mahatma called off his fast, and two days later left for Delhi, hoping to restore peace and quiet in that likewise very divided city.

Tranquil ambience

Late last month the present writer visited the Haidari Mansion for the first time. The house was closed, owing to the death earlier that day of the veteran Gandhian Phulrenu Guha. Still, from what I saw, it was clear that the building was very different from what it was when Gandhi first saw it. The windows were intact, the doors new and made up of some rather ornate wood. There were, however, some trees in the compound that must have been there 59 years ago. The place had a tranquil quality about it, as if the spirit of the saint who once briefly lived there still hung around it. (I have experienced this feeling only once before — at the Ashram at Tiruvannamalai, the long-time home of another sage.) There has, I am told, been talk of converting the Haidari Mansion into a proper memorial to Gandhi. It would be a most appropriate location for a centre devoted to inter-faith harmony.

Two great men meet

I had driven to Beliaghata immediately after listening to a rare recording of a speech on Gandhi, delivered in Madison in 1958 by the anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose, who, as it happened, had visited Gandhi often at the Haidari Mansion, and written about his fast in Harijan. The Bose recording I had heard at the city's Raj Bhavan, which meant that the route I was now taking had once been taken by the first Indian occupant of that home. This was C. Rajagopalachari. Rajaji shared much with Gandhi — the least of which was four grandchildren. On the 16th, he drove from Raj Bhavan to Beliaghata, to see, speak to, consult, and console with Gandhi. They spent 90 minutes together, discussing matters serious and still more serious. But, as Rajaji's biographer reports, there was also one brilliant flash of humour. The two agreed that it would not do for the Mahatma to stay at Raj Bhavan. An onlooker commented that this was because Gandhi liked to live among ordinary folk. Rajaji answered: "That is why he was put up in the Aga Khan Palace" (where he spent two years in confinement after the Quit India Movement).

Moving account

The 25 days that Gandhi spent in Beliaghata were among the most intensely heroic of his life. They are chronicled, more-or-less faithfully, in the biographies, but have been treated more analytically, and with much insight, in Denis Dalton's Gandhi: Non-Violence in Action. There is also a moving eyewitness account in his grandniece Manu Gandhi's book The Miracle of Calcutta. I shall end with a fragment from this book, which recounts a visit to the Mahatma by the new Ministers of the Bengal Government on Independence Day, August 15. When they sought his blessings, Gandhi told them:

"Today, you have worn on your heads a crown of thorns. The seat of power is a nasty thing. You have to remain ever wakeful on that seat. You have to be more truthful, more non-violent, more humble and more forbearing. You had been put to test during the British regime. But in a way it was no test at all. But now there will be no end to your being tested. Do not fall a prey to the lure of wealth. May God help you! You are there to serve the villages and the poor".

ramguha@vsnl.com

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