Einstein wrote: The Mahatma I saw
Artist Pyotr Pavlensky sits on the wall enclosing the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry after he cut off a part of his earlobe during his protest action titled “Segregation” in Moscow October 19, 2014. Pavlensky protested against the usage of forensic psychiatry for politically motivated purposes. He cut off his earlobe to demonstrate how authorities could “cut off” an unwanted individual from society by using psychiatric and medical diagnosis to forcefully send a person to a penitentiary hospital, according to Pavlensky.
Pranab Boro, an activist of Krisak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) self-immolates in a protest demanding land rights for local people in various regions of eastern Assam state, in front of the Assam Secretariat in Guwahati on February 24, 2014. Boro died after hospitalisation with burns covering over 90 percent of his bod
Einstein wrote about Mahatma Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one, ever in flesh and blood, walked upon this Earth.” I belong to a now-vanishing generation which saw Gandhiji in flesh and blood. As a college student in Patna, I had read D.F. Karaka’s biography of the Mahatma, Out of Dust. It brought out how the Mahatma raised us out of dust. He transformed us from being subjects of a colonial power to proud citizens of an independent country.
I once attended a public meeting of thousands addressed by him in Patna. After he left the venue, I saw many pick up the dust from the ground over which he had walked and apply it to their foreheads. I had just entered my teens and I felt his address had touched my soul. I was told that he received hundreds of letters regularly from all over the world and a reply was sent promptly to each. This encouraged me to write to him for his autograph. His secretary immediately replied asking me to send Rs 10 for the Harijan Fund for his autograph. I couldn’t afford it.
During the Quit India Movement, on August 10, 1942, a procession of a few thousand students had gone to hoist the Congress flag over the Patna Secretariat. I was in the rear of the procession. British troops opened fire and seven students were killed. The procession dispersed. Virtual martial law was imposed in Patna that evening. My father was posted in Purnea at that time. Along with many students, I crossed the river in a steamer to catch a train to Purnea. We found rail-way tracks and railway stations ransacked so we decided to trek to our destinations. En route, I saw atrocities committed by British troops.
By March 1943, all was quiet. Schools and colleges reopened. Congress leaders were locked in prison. The movement seemed to have fizzled out. Despite being an ardent admirer of the Mahatma, who had called upon people to boycott the war effort, I decided to join the Army. We used to hear Subhas Chandra Bose’s radio broadcasts from Singapore and of the formation of the Indian National Army. I felt non-violence could not get us Independence. Britain’s military might had to be weakened from within. I applied for a commission in the Army, got selected and was asked to report at the Officers Training School, Belgaum.
From Patna one had to go to Belgaum via Pune, spending a whole day in Pune to catch the train connection to Belgaum. The Mahatma was then imprisoned in Aga Khan Palace, guarded by British troops. Passing the palace gates in a tonga, I offered obeisance from outside, seeking his forgiveness for joining the Army despite his call to not to do so.
Only once did I see the Mahatma from close quarters. During the first India-Pakistan War in Kashmir, on October 22, 1947, thousands of Pakistani forces comprising both tribesmen and Pakistan Army personnel in civilian clothes led by Maj. Gen. Akbar Khan, invaded Kashmir. By October 25, they reached Baramulla, engaged in rapine and plunder of the city.
The Maharaja fled from Srinagar to Jammu. He signed the Instrument of Accession on the afternoon of October 26, acceding to India. We had only six Dakotas available on the first day and on that day could send only 300 troops by air from Safdarjung airport to the grass landing ground at Srinagar. The enemy was 10,000 strong in Baramulla. After we made contact with the enemy, our meagre forces had to withdraw in stages to Shelatang, on the outskirts of Srinagar. By November 7, our build-up was complete and we launched our counter-offensive.
In the ensuing battle, the enemy was routed and he fled leaving 369 dead bodies on the battlefield. I was then a major in General Staff (Operations), on the staff of Lt. Gen. Sir Dudley Russell, the Army Commander. He had chosen me as his liaison officer to report to him about the ongoing operations in Kashmir. For obvious reasons, British officers serving in the Indian or Pakistan Army were banned from going to the Kashmir theatre. Gen. Russell directed me to be his eyes and ears for operations in Kashmir. The day after the battle I returned to Delhi to brief him. I found Maj. Gen. Cariappa, then serving at Army Headquarters, was also present at this meeting.
After the briefing, Cariappa said he had to brief the Mahatma about this battle and wanted me to accompany him. We went to Harijan Colony where he was staying. I won-dered how the apostle of non-violence would react to our briefing. He was sitting on a wooden platform, resting his back on a big white pillow. Cariappa briefed him and was heard with great attention. It was his day of silence. He wrote on a slate, “I am proud of our Army. Non-violence is the weapon of the strong and not the coward.” That was the one and only occasion I saw the Mahatma from close quarters.
In January 1948, Cariappa was now our Army commander while I was still in the appointment I held under his predecessor. Our headquarters was then in the hutments near South Block in Delhi where Sena Bhavan now stands. On January 31, 1948, as I was winding up my office when it was getting dark, my peon rushed to me saying the Mahatma had been shot. I was stunned. Cariappa had left his office only a little while earlier. Within minutes he rushed back to his office and asked me to order immediate deployment of troops from Delhi Cantt. to all sensitive areas in Delhi, particularly in the old part of the city.
Additional troops were also being brought to Delhi from Meerut. Although AIR was constantly announcing Lord Mountbatten’s statement that the assassin was a Hindu, we feared large-scale communal violence would engulf the city. I spent the night in our Operations Room. Lakhs of people were pouring into the city from neighbouring areas and aircraft from all over the country were bringing VIPs to Safdarjung airport. All roads in Delhi were choked with great masses of people. Next morning I waded through crowds to cover a couple of kilometres to Maulana Azad Road Officers’ Hostel at the junction of that road with Janpath. From the hostel terrace, I clearly saw the Mahatma’s cortege go past. His body was placed on a platform on top of an Army truck with Nehru and Patel sitting grief-stricken at his feet. At that moment the Mahatma was still with us in flesh but not blood.