By Nandini Oza*
Manuben Gandhi was an important woman political activist who is less known in spite of being a central observer of many of the momentous events surrounding India’s freedom struggle, partition and subsequently, events that lead to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Manuben joined Gandhi as his aide and caretaker at the young age of 17 during one of the most crucial periods that India was going through. Manuben maintained extensive diaries, from the time she joined Gandhi just before India attained freedom, through the period of partition till his assassination in 1948.
What is important is that Manuben’s diaries are autobiographical accounts that not only contain her own life as a young woman political activist and aide of Gandhi but also cover major events, places, politics, and the social and cultural landscape at that crucial juncture in India’s history.
Unfortunately, such an important figure as Manuben, who has otherwise been prominently photographed by Gandhi’s side, remains less known, as do her writings. One primary reason for this is that women often do not find a place of significance in the pages of history. Besides, she worked in the shadow of a towering figure, Gandhi, the Mahatma himself, and so was easily eclipsed. Also, in the case of Manuben, the interest in her has mainly been in the context of Gandhi’s experiments with Bramacharya (celibacy), which he undertook with the young Manuben as a participant.
Ultimately, Manuben is mostly known as Mahatma Gandhi’s caretaker, and while this was extremely important, the rest of her identity has been overshadowed by this. Last but not the least, Manuben wrote her diaries in Gujarati, limiting their reach significantly.
However, one important thing is that select pages of Manuben’s diaries have been published (in the original Gujarati in which they were written) by Navjivan in different books. One of them titled, “Biharni Komi Aagma”, covers the period of communal violence in Bihar just before India’s freedom and partition.
I bring to readers some excerpts from this book/diary translated by me for wider readership. The excerpts here are about the peace mission Gandhi and his team had undertaken in 1947 to the riot torn areas of Bihar that had erupted at the time of India’s independence and partition.
Select excerpts translated from Gujarati:
5-3-47, Wednesday, in the train from Calcutta to Patna
…Eighteen miles from Patna, at 5.30 am, our train stopped at Fatwa station. At the station, Bihar’s Prime Minister Shrikrushna Sinha, Development Minister Dr. Saiyad Ahmed, Finance Minister Anugrahanarayan Sinha, Abdul Bari Saheb, Congress workers, volunteers, and many others were present to welcome Bapuji [Gandhi]… To avoid crowds at the Patna station, it was decided to disembark at the small station of Fatwa. Mridulaben [Sarabhai, a leading freedom fighter, daughter of industrialist Ambalal Sarabhai and sister of scientist Vikram Sarabhai] and I disembarked along with Bapuji while Nirmalda [Nirmal Kumar Bose], Devbhai, Hunarbhai, etc. left for Patna station… Photographers had arrived here as well! Although utmost care was taken to not disclose Bapuji’s place of residence in the city, in the words of Bapuji, ‘Even God cannot restrain photographers and journalists!’ This statement turned out to be absolutely true and they encircled us. We reached the home of Dr. Sayed Mohammad in Krishnababuji’s car at 6:30 where again there was a small crowd of people that had assembled along with volunteers. Soon after refreshments and after we had met every one, Rajendrababu as well as the group of ministers arrived. The prevailing situation and the work to be undertaken was discussed with them… Bapuji told me to meet and befriend Begum Saheba and her daughters… As Doctor Saheb’s son Habibbhai had stayed at Sevagram ashram, I knew him well and he escorted me to meet his mother and sisters…This is how Bapuji is so practical and wants that we should mix well with our hosts even if they may be new to us… The family observes parda and so they can meet Bapuji only when he is alone… I met Begum Saheba and had snacks with her after which I got on with my work.
…Mridulaben was of great help while Bapuji travelled with Prabhavatiben [Prabhavati Devi, a freedom fighter, wife of Jayprakash Narayan and daughter of freedom fighter Brijkishore Prasad]… Prabhavatiben talked about the ongoing welfare work at Noakhali [another region severely affected by riots in the neighbouring region of Bengal] …Bapuji heavily stressed upon the appointment of a commission in Bihar [to look into the damage to life and property during the riots]…
There is severe water problem here and all our unwashed clothes during our journey had to be washed outside… After returning, giving mudpack to Bapuji [Gandhi practiced naturopathy and mudpacks prepared by Manu were a part of his daily routine], while I was going for my supper that I saw newspaper journalists loitering here and there. They were happy in Noakhali as they could live in the tents. But this is a private home so where can they stay? …Journalists of API requested me for some arrangements to be made for them. I sought Bapuji’s opinion who said:
‘Convey to the manager that I have no use of the press or photographers. If they remain away from me, I will consider God has showered his blessings upon me. Communicate to them that further burden on Doctor Saheb because of Bapuji cannot be tolerated and they should take care of themselves…’
…Mridulaben has taken up 75 percent of Bapuji’s work regarding political concerns here. She will be arranging all the appointments and meetings after coordinating with me the timings of Bapuji’s bath, rest and food. This will make things easy and will provide Bapuji great relief…
…Mudpack was removed at 4:30; Bapu then took some grapes, half an apple and eight ounces of milk. It is extremely hot here and Bapuji’s appetite has already reduced to half…
…Rajendrababu arrived and discussed the situation in Delhi and the situation here in Bihar… at seven in the evening, a prayer meeting at Bankipura ground was organised. Due to multitudes of people, we started by car. People had assembled in lakhs and we were thoroughly exhausted reaching the venue. On one side slogans of ‘Gandhiji Ki Jai’ and ‘Jai Hind’ were reverberating, deafening our ears. On the other side, people were desperate to touch Bapuji’s feet and thinking it would purify them, simply wished to touch him. And on the third side, unruly crowds were pushing forward to have a glimpse of Bapuji. After the peaceful life at Noakhali, it is difficult to train oneself for such experiences. It is clear that the people of Bihar are absolutely devoted to Bapuji and this is why all this is happening. We reached the prayer podium with great difficulty. Initially Bapuji asked me to begin with Ram Dhun [Ram, a Hindu God and Dhun means lines musically sung repeatedly as a devotional prayer which is then repeated by people present]. This was followed by prayers during which time there was complete silence which was totally unexpected. Bapuji’s today’s speech was poignant utterances from deep down his heart. His voice was filled with agonizing pain and utmost gravity. Speaking about significance of prayers, Bapuji said:
‘…Sincere prayers have an impact… Hindus pray in temples, Christians in church and Muslims in mosque. This is good but can there be anything better if all can pray together? The secret of all [religions] is common, only names are different…’
Clarifying the purpose of his visit to Bihar, he said:
‘Bihar has shamed the name of Hindustan. It is important to learn not to imitate the barbaric acts at Noakhali… to face death and barbarism humanitarianly is the true revenge of Noakhali. If you truly desire India’s freedom, then discard the practice of imitating barbarism. Those who are taking refuge in such barbarous acts must understand that they are delaying India’s freedom. To shout, ‘Jai Hind’, but actions are to finish Hind! This will never lead to India’s victory… I have come to Bihar after several years. To tell you the truth, I came to be known well only because of Bihar as I lived in Africa for 20 years before coming here. It was since I entered Champaran, the whole of Hindustan was awakened… That is why I have come here. Muslims are in a minority here. The deeds being done to them it is believed have never been done before in history… Since I have arrived only today, I don’t have all the details. Mostly I will get the details by tomorrow…’
…Bapuji preferred to walk back as it was suffocating in the car. I was on one side of Bapuji and Prabhavatiben on his other. But the crowd surged to touch Bapuji’s feet and in the process the cordon was broken. I fell and was pressed to the ground. Bapuji had a narrow escape as the police cordon also broke down. The boots of police hurt so much that my skin came off. I lost my footwear. The condition of poor Prabhavatiben was worse than me. The road to home from Bankipura ground is just two minutes but it took us half an hour to cross through the crowds. Poor police personnel were all drenched in sweat.
On returning, I washed Bapuji’s feet… Bapuji took some curdled milk… At 10:30, Bapuji took a stroll before going to bed. Begum Saheba, her two daughters and Doctor Saheb came for a visit. Bapuji went to bed at 11. I massaged his feet, oiled his head and after tucking his mosquito net, I came to sleep here at the place which is a little away from the house. I arranged Bapuji’s papers, arranged the sitting area, and completed writing the diary. It is half past midnight now and my eyes are filled with sleep. Today, the first day in Patna, has ended in a lot of work…
6-3-1947, Thursday, Patna
…From two in the afternoon, meetings commenced. The meeting with the [Muslim] League brothers, Jafar Imam, Mazar Imam, Yunas Saheb, along with the Hindus of Chapara lasted till four. I found the talk of the League brothers a bit of an exaggeration. But Bapuji here too said that he will give his opinion only after touring the villages… In the evening payers Bapuji said:
‘…There was a time when the Hindus and the Muslims, during festivals, at the time of sad events or happy occasions, helped each other and were compassionate towards each other. Today even if this feeling is not there anymore, there should not be any animosity at all. What I used to hear from the Hindus in Noakhali and Tripura, I hear from Muslims here and I am greatly ashamed… Can’t Muslims live in Bihar? … I have been told that even now, Muslim women are captive in Hindu homes. If this is true, I plead to return the women to their respective homes…’
As per the daily routine, I washed Bapuji’s feet on returning from the prayer meet. In the meantime Krushnababu and Anugrahababu arrived. After the meeting with them, corrections in the prayer discourse were carried out. At 8:30, Rajendrababu arrived to take leave as he is going to Delhi. From today, Bapuji has started collecting funds for Muslim relief work and while he was talking with Walten Saheb, I counted the funds that amounted to Rs. 396-4-8. We took a stroll at 10:10 while chatting with Shailenbhai. It was as late as 11:30 that Bapuji went to bed. I oiled Bapuji, massaged his feet and went off to sleep immediately.
7-3-1947 Friday, Patna
…Mridulaben is working extremely hard here and her work is very systematic. She comes to seek Bapuji’s guidance only when it is utmost necessary. Otherwise she executes everything on her own. She takes care of me like her little sister… After returning from prayers, Shailenbhai gave us news that Amritsar has been set on fire and riots have erupted in Punjab. We received some news about Cripps and Khan Saheb. Khan Saheb, the Frontier Gandhi, is likely to come here.
…Begum Saheba and family had come to meet us. This is a very nice place on the banks of the Ganga to take a stroll and stay… After aiding Bapuji to bed at ten, I began counting the relief fund. I had to count it thrice as it would be terrible if there were to be a mistake of even one paisa. After me, it was counted by Harunbhai and there was a mistake of four annas. It was 12:30 by then. After this, I made sitting arrangements for Bapuji’s morning meetings, copied the letters, copied Bapuji’s two days’ diary, wrote my diary and it is at the stroke of one now that I go to bed.
11-3-1947, Tuesday, Patna
…With the purpose that the sermons delivered at prayer meetings by Bapuji reach the interior villages, these will now be published in leaflets titled, ‘Bihar Samachar’, and the leaflets will be air-dropped across the villages of Bihar by the Bihar Government. This decision was taken by Shri Babu and the work will be undertaken from tomorrow itself. Our tour also is to start from tomorrow. In the beginning, we will visit the villages that are nearby and return back home here every night. Later on we will be travelling to far off villages. Today evening prayers took place at the Bankipura grounds as per the scheduled time where Bapuji said:
‘Today it is my last prayer here as from tomorrow onwards I will be going to the interior villages…but I hope you will continue to contribute to the Muslim relief fund…Yesterday’s donation/collection was Rs. 2,000. Women donated their jewellery. I know how fond women are of ornaments and yet they are helping so much by donating their ornaments…’
…Today at the prayer meeting, the speech lasted for an hour… after which we began collecting donations… Bapuji took only milk and an apple and checked the speech, and while he was meeting the ministers, I served food to Khan Saheb [Abdul Ghaffar Khan]… When Bapuji went to bed at 9:30, I massaged his feet, applied oil and sat down to count the funds collected … from the kind of contributions received today, it seems contributions have been from poor people as there was only one note of 50, the rest was all pai, anna, two anna [coins/currency no longer in use now]… In ornaments collected, there were silver anklets and bracelets, gold nose rings, a pair of minakari earrings, rings… It is at the stroke of one that I complete all my work and go to bed now…
12-3-1947, Wednesday, Patna
…Bapuji was resting but I massaged his feet after which I served food to Khan Saheb, and sitting next to him, I wrote my diary. No sooner did Khan Saheb finish his lunch that Bapuji woke up. I served him warm water and prepared his spinning wheel and then cleaned utensils. I rested for half an hour, then gave mudpack to Bapuji, after which I cooked gud-papdi [a jaggery based Gujarati snack carried while travelling as it lasts long]… We started out at 4:30. Among the ministers, Anugrahababu was with us. Mridulaben, Khan Saheb, Bapuji and I were in the rear seat… Mridulaben said:
‘I am reminded of the Dandi March of 1930 [Salt Satyagraha]…’
…Khan Saheb is an epitome of humility and his language is so sweet that one wants to keep listening to him. He is so simple. It is indeed my privilege to be in the midst of the two Mahatmas [great souls]! On the way, there was the house of Muhammad Mustafakhan. It was completely demolished. Doors and windows were looted and taken away. We saw a burnt down mosque. There was a huge crowd at the prayer meeting. There were many Muslim women too… After the prayers Bapu spoke in agonizing voice:
‘A flourishing family and their home have been completely ruined. You all know that the British are about to leave [India]. At such a time and juncture, it is necessary to think what should our duties be … Do we wish to remain enslaved forever? Do we wish to have Hindustan, Pakistan, Brahministan [land of only Brahmins], Untouchablistan [land of only the “untouchables”] and cut our mother [country] into pieces? … My heart is deeply wounded on seeing the ruins on my way here. Please think of what we are indulging into just when we are about to get independence…’
…After Bapuji’s speech, I began collecting funds. Women were catching hold of me and giving donations. Many poor women were donating their silver ornaments. There was a lot of disorganisation but the funds collected were substantial…. Bapuji is extremely tired and the road is bumpy. Khan Saheb is also very tired…
13-3-1947, Thursday, Patna
…We saw burnt down homes in village Parsa. Pukka houses were in ruins…
14-3-1947, Friday, Patna
…On our way to the place of the meeting at Khushrupur we halted at the villages of Jatly and Shafipur. In Shafipur we saw two burnt houses and in a well, we saw blood stained clothes of women, floating. This sight was deeply saddening…
26 -3-1947, Jahanabad
…We received a telegram from Sardar Saheb [Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel] and the Viceroy [Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India]. We may have to go to Delhi… Khan Saheb may go to Peshawar while Bapuji and I will go to Delhi. Mridulaben, Devenbhai and Harunbhai will work here as the representative of Bapuji. Mridulaben will be the chief coordinator…
1-4-1947, Bhangi Colony, New Delhi
…At night we received a call from Mridulaben telling us about the outbreak of riots in Ranchi. Bapu told her to go to Ranchi. Talking about Mridulaben, Bapuji said,
‘That girl [Mridulaben] is so fearless that she will at the risk of her own life go there [to the riot torn areas] and so there was no point in telling her to refrain from going there. I will not be saddened if a fearless girl like her perishes in the riots. I believe, with that, peace will be restored sooner…’
…Bapu left at nine to meet the Viceroy… Bhai Saheb and I reached there at ten. From the car park, once the minister was informed of our arrival by the peon, we were escorted to the sitting room. We crossed one luxurious room after other to reach the grounds. Mountbatten Saheb and Bapuji were seated in the garden on green colour cane chairs. It was cloudy and cool breeze was blowing. The expanse of green grass looked as if a beautiful green carpet was spread across. The garden was full of colourful flowers and on a tree a cuckoo was singing. There were so many other birds in midst of nature here and were chirping as if to convey their opinion about the future of India! The gardener had exhibited his skill by cutting the mehndi shrubs in forms of different birds. Water fountains were on, on all four sides…instead of the beautiful furniture inside, the two of them [Gandhi and Mountbatten] were sitting in the lap of nature… It was an incredible sight. I wished I had brought a camera. No sooner did we reach, Mountbatten Saheb got up and shook hands with us. After introducing Bhai Saheb, Bapuji introduced me. Mountbatten Saheb said to me:
‘After seeing your photographs in Noakhali and with Gandhiji, my daughter was telling me that you are so lucky! I am very pleased to meet you. I want to send my daughter to listen to your prayers…’
Bapuji asked Viceroy Saheb if we could take a stroll in the gardens while he had his lunch… Viceroy Saheb looked at me and said:
‘Yes, of course, what objection can I have? All this now belongs to you. I am now merely a trustee. We have come only to hand over all this to you…’
…In the prayer meeting, no sooner did I start the prayer in Urdu, “A’udhu billahi”, a verse from the Kuran Sharif, that the boys from the Hindu Mahasabha created an uproar that they will not allow this to be sung as there was a Hindu temple located in the premises! Many tried to push the boys away. Bapuji did not like that… In the end there was so much of a commotion that the boy was forcibly removed… Bapuji is in deep thoughts after today’s incident and told me:
‘My non-violence will be tested here. But the prayer meet is being conducted by you. The more you will recite the prayers with a pure heart that it will have a greater impact on the public and they will learn a new lesson. Your responsibility is no less. If you will pray from the bottom of your heart, then Lord Ram will see that good senses prevail among the people. I have no doubt about it…’
13-5-1947, Khadi Pratishthan, (Calcutta-Shodpur)
…My aunt told Bapuji that she is jealous of me! Bapuji told her:
‘It is true. Many girls have come to me and I have brought up many girls. But I do not recall if any girl has learnt so much from me at such a young age as Manu. She was brave enough to come to Noakhali, and I had thought, she will not last in my sacrificial rites at Noakhali at all. I have put her through toughest of tests… She had arrived at Agakhan Palace at the age of 13 or 14 in jail to serve Ba [Kasturba Gandhi was ill when she was jailed in the Agakhan Palace in Pune, where she breathed her last in confinement in 1944]… Since then I had the desire to train Manu…I do not know when I will be out of this volcano and I have told Manu from the beginning that she will be able to go and meet her family only upon my death. Till then, she will not be able to meet or call her father or sister to meet her here… I must also admit that I may be taking work from her beyond her capacity and she is falling ill frequently. Even today she has 103 degree fever and yet, she has completed all my work…’
*Well-known social activist-researcher, formerly with Narmada Bachao Andolan
This article was first published in https://nandinikoza.blogspot.com