An Unpublished Report

Mahadev Desai on Communal Riots

Ramachandra Guha

In April 1941, communal riots broke out in Ahmedabad. The violence raged for three whole days, during which many people were killed, many more injured, and hundreds of homes razed to the ground. Mosques and temples were also desecrated. What happened in Ahmedabad in 1941 was a product of a countrywide polarisation of religious communities. The Muslim League was growing in strength, challenging the Congress’s claim to represent all Indians. Jinnah and the League had charged the Congress provincial governments that held office between 1937 and 1939 of following anti-Muslim policies. The Congress governments resigned when the Second World War broke out, but the polarisation persisted. In March 1940, the Muslim League passed its so-called ‘Pakistan Resolution’, demanding a separate nation for Muslims. On the other side, Hindu extremist groups such as the Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were priming themselves for action.

The outbreak of rioting in a town he had once called home deeply distressed Gandhi. The Mahatma had lived in Ahmedabad from 1915 to 1930. However, in 1941, he was based in his new ashram in Sevagram, near the central Indian town of Wardha. He immediately dispatched his secretary and confidant, Mahadev Desai, a native Gujarati speaker, to Ahmedabad. Mahadev Desai spent several weeks in the town, talking to a cross section of people. He wrote a long report on the riots, which remains unpublished. This report was recently discovered in the archives, and rehabilitated here, for it is both very moving and speaks directly to the communal situation in India today.

As a long-time follower of the Mahatma, Mahadev Desai was profoundly disturbed by the destruction of tombs, temples and mosques. He called them “acts of cowardly [and] cruel desecration”. Mahadev wrote that “whatever the Mussalmans may have done – and they were, I am sure, instruments in the hands of conspirators who have set the ball of religious hate and destruction rolling in the land – I would, if it was in my power, perform penance by restoring the mosques and the tombs… It would surely pave the way for concord and mutual understanding.”

In Mahadev Desai’s opinion, “there could be no real communal unity without a mutual expression of contrition translated into concrete acts…”

He thought the lead should come from civil society. For, as he pointed out, the “Government is impotent to bring this [unity] about even as it proved itself impotent to check the acts of wanton destruction and brutality. The Muslim may do certain things with impunity today, and the Government may look on; from tomorrow if the Hindu acts likewise, it is quite likely that the Government will similarly look on.” Rather than seeking to stem or stop the violence, noted Mahadev, the government “would do anything to oblige themselves”. The perpetuation of British rule rather than the nurturing of social harmony was the government’s objective in 1941. Mahadev believed that “lasting peace can therefore come only through mutual understanding” between Hindus and Muslims.

Mahadev Desai turned next to what he called the “rehabilitation of the sense of citizenship”. There would always be bad eggs in society; it would thus be “difficult to eliminate the goonda”. Yet, the goonda, Gandhi’s secretary pointed out, “does not act on his own. He has the support of the cowardly and the exploiting element in society”. It was they who had employed the goonda; it was they who “engaged youngsters for the ignoble crimes of arson and murder”. By using misguided or hot-headed young boys to promote violence, sectarians on both sides had, remarked Mahadev, “done them incalculable and irretrievable harm and poisoned citizenship at its fountain-source”. Mahadev Desai then poignantly asked: “And why must the Hindu look upon the Mussalman as his enemy and vice versa? When the barriers between nations and races are breaking down – in spite of the infernal war in Europe – should there be unbreakable barriers between these two communities? Is it not possible to re-examine dispassionately the cases of both?”

For Mahadev Desai, as for Gandhi himself, political freedom had no meaning unless it was accompanied by Hindu-Muslim harmony. Gandhi and Desai had not abandoned their potentially lucrative legal careers; they had not willingly spent such long periods in jail, to finally win a nation in theory independent but in practice riven by discord. In the quarter of a century he had been with Gandhi, Mahadev had never before felt so despondent. “The fight for Swaraj,” he wrote now, “is long and arduous. But it has never looked so long and arduous as it does today.” That said, it was not in Mahadev Desai’s nature to give up. “Those who have dedicated themselves” to the fight for swaraj, he continued, “have to carry it on with faith in their mission and their principles”. For, as he pointed out, “it is not the ideal or the principles that have been found wanting. It is we who have been found wanting. If we bestir ourselves and begin building anew, the communal strifes that we are having today will not have been lost upon us.”

Mahadev Desai himself died a little more than a year after he wrote his report. Had he been alive in 1946 and 1947, he would have been with Gandhi, dousing the flames of communal strife in Bengal, Bihar and Delhi. While other Indians were found wanting, in these months and years, Gandhi worked heroically to rebuild bridges and restore trust between Hindus and Muslims. It was Gandhi’s peace mission and martyrdom, along with the Nehru government’s firm commitment not to wreak vengeance on Indian Muslims in return for Pakistan’s persecution of Hindus and Sikhs, that allowed the new nation to leave behind the poisonous residues of Partition and craft a democratic and plural political order.

The first decade-and-a-half of independent India was relatively free of religious strife. However, from the early 1960s, the country has been peppered with inter-religious violence, with large-scale episodes of rioting breaking out from time to time. Now, with the nation in its seventieth year, lasting communal peace remains elusive. Of the points that Mahadev Desai made in 1941, two in particular remain pertinent today. The first is that one cannot look to governments alone to maintain social peace. A few politicians and ministers seek to promote communal harmony; they are outnumbered by the politicians and ministers who create and profit from communal tension. Thus, while Nehru did strive to stop the persecution of minorities, the government led by his own grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, encouraged the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. Likewise, in Maharashtra in 1992-93, in Gujarat in 2002, in UP in 2013 – to pick only three of many such cases – state governments have looked on and even abetted violence against Muslims. And in Kashmir in 1989-90, so-called ‘freedom fighters’ savagely purged the Pandits from the Valley.

The second and still depressingly relevant point made by Mahadev Desai back in 1941 has to do with the instrumental use of impressionable, dissatisfied, young men for narrow, and often hateful, political ends. There are many political organisations active in India today which engage “youngsters for the ignoble crimes of arson and murder”. They include Hindu fundamentalist groups, such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which are particularly influential in the north and west of the country; Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Lashkar and the Hizbul, currently active in Kashmir; chauvinistic organisations such as the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena; and Maoist revolutionaries in central and eastern India. These groups constitute what Mahadev called “the cowardly and the exploiting element in society” which, by mobilising men to their variously malign causes, do the youth of India “incalculable and irretrievable harm” and thus poison “citizenship at its fountain-source”.

Mahadev Desai’s report of 1941 was intended as a wake-up call to the Congress Party. Back then, the Congress might have had some credibility; now, seventy-six years later, it is corrupt and corroded beyond redemption. Nor can one expect a Central government run by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to think and act on the lines of those other (and greater) Gujaratis, Gandhi and Mahadev Desai. It is for civil society organisations untainted by sectarian prejudice to take forward their ideas of tolerance, pluralism, mutual understanding and mutual respect to those Indians still willing to listen and to learn.

[Courtesy: The Telegraph]

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 21, Nov 20 - 26, 2022