Understanding Gandhi

Vagraj Badarayan*

Noakhali was the last big experiment of Gandhi’s life. He put his principles of non-violence on test in the villages of Noakhali which were burning in the fire of communal riots towards the end of 1946 and beginning of 1947. Gandhi spent almost four months in Noakhali trying to make practical application of his principle of Ahimsa. It is a fascinating story even after 75 years. It not only provides a deep insight into the complex mind of Mahatma Gandhi but also indicates possible ways to build an effective resistance to the rising wave of communal hatred and bigotry in India.

In the course of the riots, thousands of Hindus fled their homes in Noakhali as rape, murder, arson and forcible conversion became rampant in the area. Fuelled by the terrible incidents taking place in Calcutta and Bihar involving atrocities against Muslims, Gandhi faced a big challenge in establishing peace through his message of religious harmony and non-violence in Noakhali. Indeed for Gandhi the riots in Bihar and Calcutta were no less painful than what was happening in Noakhali. He wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru on November 5, 1946 that if ‘in Bihar and other provinces slaughter is not stopped, I must end my life by fasting.’ (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume-86, page 78). In Noakhali too, Gandhi had to regularly answer the query as to why he did not go to Bihar and instead came to Noakhali.

 Looking at the historic stay of Gandhi in Noakhali, we get to see his insistence on a key element of his political strategy- ‘Abhay’. In all his struggles throughout his life Gandhi sought to instill a sense of – Abhay– among people. Abhay, loosely translated as ‘fearlessness’ actually means lack of fear. This was one of the 11 vows that Gandhi had formulated for all those who wanted to stay in the Ashram. Having read about different religions he came to the conclusion that all religions had some principles common to them and he formulated eleven of those, which came to be called ‘Ekadha Vrata’ by Vinoba Bhave later and became popular by this name. Satya, Ahimsa, Brahmacharya, aasteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-possession) are the five principles which are known as महाव्रत or ‘great vows’ in ancient scriptures. Jain religion calls them ‘panch mahavrat’ and Buddhism calls them Panchsheel (the five great vows or virtues). In 1930 while he was in Yerwada jail, he decided to write in detail about each one of them for the residents of Ashram. But without abhay, Gandhi felt no other vow could be followed. “One who wants to be truthful (satya parayana), he should have no fear of caste, government, thief, poverty or even death,” Gandhi illustrated abhay thus.

It was ‘abhay’ that lay at the core of his concept of Satyagraha. He went to the extent of saying that Ahimsa was the weapon of the brave and violence was preferable to cowardice. In Noakhali too, he told the Hindus of the area to be fearless and stand against the rioters for their honour and dignity rather than flee their homes. Speaking at the prayer meeting in Delhi on October 29, on the day he boarded the train to Calcutta to go to Noakhali, Gandhi declared, ‘According to the teaching of the Gita, the first requisite for spiritual conduct was fearlessness…without fearlessness all other virtues were turned into dust. Attainment of truth or non-violence was impossible without fearlessness.’ (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume-86, page 36). Indeed instilling abhay in the mind and heart of people is an essential element of any struggle against an oppressive system past or present.

Gandhi told Hindus of Noakhali to be fearless and not leave their homes even if it meant certain death. Speaking at Goalundo on 6th November 1946 he said, ‘fight violence with non-violence if you can and if you can’t do that, fight violence by any other means, even if it means your utter extinction. But in no case should you leave your hearths and homes to be looted and burnt.’ (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume-86, page 86).

Gandhi was deeply anguished by incidents in Bihar where Muslims were killed in large numbers by Hindus. While still in Calcutta on way to Noakhali, speaking to relief workers in Chandpur on 1st December 1946 Gandhi said, ‘Biharis have behaved as cowards. Use your arms well, if you must. Do not ill use them…..if the Biharis wanted to retaliate, they could have gone to Noakhali and died to a man…..the best succour that Bihar could have given to the Hindus of East Bengal would have been to guarantee with their own lives the absolute safety to the Muslim population living in their midst.’ (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume-86, 92-93).

It gives an insight into Gandhi’s deeply nuanced understanding of the question of violence and non-violence. Indeed, his understanding of the principle of non-violence was not a mechanical formula to be used everywhere. The question of violence and non-violence for Gandhi was deeply contextual and premised on several prerequisites including the need to be fearless and brave for non-violence to be really effective.

There were several instances when Gandhi permitted violence, even advocated for it, when the situation demanded. The story of a calf suffering in acute pain in his Ashram is well known where he asked the veterinary doctor to inject it with poison to end its suffering. Another incident that needs recalling is his advice to kill stray dogs in Mysore municipality. Writing from train on October 29, 1946, while going to Calcutta on way to Noakhali Gandhi refuted the allegation that he advocated impounding and torturing dogs. He wrote that ‘humanitarian instinct demands destruction of such animals in an instantaneous and painless manner as these pariah dogs become a menace to the neighbouring population.’ (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume-86, page 57)

Gandhi believed in the power of the individual who acts with conviction and fearlessness as a follower of the principles of truth and non-violence. For him the numbers did not matter as much as the moral strength of the person standing for his values. In Noakhali too, he deputed people who had accompanied him, one person each in riot torn villages with a promise to stand up to protect the Hindus till their last breath. He declared that he needed one Hindu and one Muslim in each village who was ready to sacrifice his life if a Hindu was harmed in any other way.

Interconnected with Gandhi’s idea of non-violence was his understanding of Hindu religion. Gandhi did not believe in any fixed, cast in stone notion of Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma. He was acutely aware of the dark aspects of the religion against which he put all his energy to fight. At Srirampur in Noakhali on November 20, 1946 Gandhi talked about two aspects of Hinduism, ‘ …there are two aspects of Hinduism. There is, on the one hand, historical Hinduism with its untouchability, superstitious worship of stocks and stones, animal sacrifice and so on. On the other hand, we have the Hinduism of the Gita, the Upanishads and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which is the acme of Ahimsa and oneness of all creation, pure worship of one immanent, formless imperishable God.’ (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume-86, page 134).

It needs to be understood why Gandhi was effective and is still considered a big enemy by those who wish to weaponize Hinduism to achieve their political objectives. Gandhi worked as a ‘radical insider’ whose vision and understanding did not shy away from pointing out the weaknesses of the religion while upholding its integrative and universal principles like truth and non-violence. Those who castigate this understanding as ‘soft-Hindutva’ perhaps don’t realise that transformation of any social and political order requires us first to belong to it, to be organically connected to it. Gandhi, as a Hindu struggled to project a Hinduism which was syncretic, open-minded, confident to be self-critical and hence self-correcting. Gandhi’s Hinduism did not require a false enemy in Muslims or any other religion for its survival. For Gandhi, claiming his roots in the culture and religion was key to attempt a radical transformation of the same.

Like many of the radical Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and educationist Paulo Freire, Gandhi understood the importance of being organically linked to his culture and society. Ignoring the culture as a sight of struggle for hegemony and dominance in the social and political sphere has cost the progressive sections of India a heavy price.

Gandhi never over-emphasised the importance of politics in contrast to the social and cultural dimensions. He had no hesitation in withdrawing big political movements and starting movements against untouchability, consumption of liquor or constructive work like Charkha in their place. For him, the division between the social and political was a flawed idea as they constituted only two aspects of the same reality. In practical terms Gandhi agreed with radical thinkers like Paulo Freire that culture was the sight of struggle that both reflected and deployed power. It was intimately related to power and influenced it greatly. It is a crucial element for the people to acquire the ‘willingness to fight for dignity, social justice and freedom’.

It is now this domain of culture, of which religion is a crucial part, where the struggle for the soul of India will be fought. With all its distortions of understanding and vision for India, RSS got it right in terms of sticking to its cultural agenda and slowly working its way up through its political organs. It is now the time for all those who wish to save India from going into the black-hole of a majoritarian political system powered by a communal consciousness of the people, to think about the domain of culture and society. It may be a long battle, but the location of the struggle is cut out for everyone to see.

It is the time that political parties like Congress go back to the grassroots and brace up for a long struggle to recapture the imagination of the people by linking with them organically through culture and social work. The last will and testament of Gandhi, written a day before his death, set out an organisational model for the Congress to adopt after dissolving itself as a party. Perhaps the long struggle ahead requires that this model of work at the grassroots level with courage of conviction be explored once again.


*Vagraj Badarayan is a freelance writer and keen observer of the social-political-cultural changes in India. He considers writing as a tool to understand the process of change better through exchange of ideas between the author and the reader.

Banner Image – Gandhi Memorial Museum, Noakhali – Picture contributed by a friend.


  1. Quite profound.
    However, the author, at the very end, tries to bring in “parties like Congress”. But then it turns into Congress, none else. Why Congress? Does he see this party a torch-bearer of Indian culture or collective conscience? Does he feel, Congress has the potential to lead the country?
    I doubt, though I may sound cynical.

  2. Enlightening, profound article. The crucial take away is that if you want to set right the narrative, you have to belong to its ethos. Being clinically aloof, or worst, simply derisive, will be counter productive. Our intelligentsia did it and left the space for the crooked and the maniacs.

    We need Gandhi’s empathy and Abhay to counter the darkness of our times.


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