Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Strike of Mill Workers’ in Ahmadabad in 1918 and Gandhiji’s Fast.

Mahatma Gandhi and Fasts, Part-3

The many fasts that Gandhiji undertook have been well known and publicised. But it would be interesting to have a first hand account of what transpired within the inner circle of Gandhiji around the time he fasted through Mahadevbhai’s diaries as these diaries bring to light facts which are less known.

It is also important to understand that while Gandhiji was against undertaking fasts as a pressure tactic or for fulfillment of any demands, what were these fasts for? How Gandhiji justified the many fasts he undertook both publicly as well as within his inner circle?

This post covers the fast undertaken by Gandhiji in Ahmadabad during the strike of Mill workers’ in the year 1918 as explained in Mahadevbhai’s diary.

 Mahadevbhai’s Diary- Volume-4 - 13-11-1917 to 17-1-1919.

 Date 27-2-1918: [Mahadevbhai]: ‘During today’s morning prayer while describing the circumstances that had arisen out of the Kheda Satyagraha and worker’s strike [Gandhiji] spoke: “I have been saying that Satyagraha cannot be against the Government alone. Satyagraha can be undertaken under any situation or against anything...In Kheda the Satyagraha is against the Government, in Ahmedabad it is against the rich...the condition in Ahmedabad is also beautiful. I feel like sharing with you what the collector told me yesterday. I have not told this anywhere else. I find it appropriate to tell this in the ashram. He [collector] said that he is seeing for the first time in his life only here, a struggle between the mill owners and laborers with such goodwill. Even I feel that I have not seen such a good relation between the two parties before. You can see that though Ambalalbhai [Sarabhai] belongs to the opposite party, he had come for his food here yesterday and I have told him to take his food here again tomorrow...He understood why I am telling him to take his food here and he immediately agreed. What can be more beautiful than this? ...”

Date:12-3-18: [Mahadevbhai]: ...‘ Today Ambalal Sarabhai’s ‘personal and confidential’ letter arrived. The letter was long. [Gandhiji] Read and tore the letter...There itself a reply was written. I read the reply standing overhead. After which I asked to make a copy of the letter. [Gandhiji] Said that a copy of the letter cannot be made at all. Such things cannot be made public. It cannot stay [be written] in the diary also. I said that I will write whatever I remember and so [Gandhiji] agreed... The gist of Bapu’s letter [to Ambalalbhai Sarabhai] was as follows: “Your [Ambalalbhai’s] letter came which was read and torn off. I have not desired that there should be any pressure on the workers. If you will give more details of those pressurizing the workers than I will surly investigate. I am not concerned if workers join or do not join the work. I have continued to instruct that no worker should be stopped forcefully from going to the mill...You [Ambalalbhai] have assigned to me such work that how can I take the pleasure of staying with you? I greatly desire to meet your children. But how can it be possible right now? That is all in the future.”...

Date:17-3-1918: [Mahadevbhai]: ‘After the morning prayers in the ashram [Gandhiji] spoke of his vow/oath [significance of the pledge of undertaking a fast]’:

[Gandhiji]: “The step that I have taken right now [pledge of fast] is terrible but big thoughts rest behind it.  Terrible because all those who know me in Hindustan will be deeply saddened, they will lament. But along with that I have got an opportunity to explain to those people one beautiful element, and I should not miss that opportunity; with such thoughts I have taken this step [of fasting]. I have been impatient since past two days to explain to you the purpose of such a step [of fasting]...I have come here [to the ashram] in spite of Anasuyaben’s [Sarabhai] great insistence to keep me there... 

“...From the ancient culture of Hindustan, I have got such an element that even if only those of us who are sitting here know of it, then also we can enjoy the empire of the whole world. But before I explain that, I wish to say one thing. Right now there is only one person in Hindustan after whom lakhs of people are crazy, for whom lakhs of people may be ready to give up their lives. That person is Tilak Maharaj. Many times I feel that Tilak Maharaj has this great wealth... He has written on the mystery/significance of the Gita. But I feel that he [Tilak] has not recognized the ancient feeling and soul of Hindustan and so this is the condition of this country today. In his inner most thoughts he [Tilak] feels that we should become like Europeans...he suffered six years of imprisonment but that is to show a kind of European bravery; with such thoughts that let the people who are harassing us right now see how we can live for five years in jail... had Tilakji suffered the pains of jail in a spiritual manner then the condition would be different today and the result of his going to jail also would be different. I want to explain to him this. Many a times I have told him whatever I have wanted to say very humbly. But I have not told or written frankly... But this [element] thing is such that it cannot be explained by speaking or writing. To be able to experience this thing, I need to give a practical example. I have said it many times indirectly but if I get an opportunity like this one to give a clear example, I should not miss it, and this is that kind of an opportunity.

“Similarly, the second such person is Madanmohan Malaviya. Among the leaders of Hindustan he is the purest of all... However I feel that though he is so pure and has the knowledge of the Dharma too, he has not recognized the magnificent soul of Hindustan...This is also an opportunity to show him through practical example. I must show to both of them what the soul of Hindustan is.

“It has been twenty days since I am mingling with ten thousand workers. They took a pledge before me keeping Khuda and Ishwar before them. That time they [workers] took [the pledge] with enthusiasm... they had believed that by adhering to the pledge for twenty days, Khuda will definitely help. But Khuda did not help in that much time and put them to further test and so their faith became weak. They [workers] felt that they trusted this one man [Gandhiji] for so many days and suffered, and yet we did not receive anything. Had we not listened to this man [Gandhiji] and had indulged into Tofan/ mischief then also we would have received more than just 35% [wage] increase within a short time... I cannot tolerate this situation at all. That the pledge taken before me can be broken so easily and the reduction in the faith in God can be said to be the extinction of religion itself.   I cannot live to see the extinction of religion in this way from the work I am involved in. What it means to take a pledge should be explained to the workers by me. What can I do for it should be shown by me to the workers. If I cannot show that then I can be called a Baylo/woman... Therefore I took this step [of fasting] to stop the fall of those ten thousand people [workers]. That is why I took this pledge and it had a lightning effect. I had not expected it at all. Tears rolled down the eyes of the thousands of people who were present there. They recognized their soul, their spirit was awakened, and they got strength to stick to their pledge. I immediately recognized that religion has not disappeared from Hindustan and people can identify the soul. 

If Tilak Maharaj and Malaviyaji can be made to understand this, then a lot of work can be done in Hindustan...”

[Mahadevbhai]... ‘Explaining his fast he [Gandhiji] spoke further’:

 “My pledge [to not consume food] is so that the workers can abide by their vow, it is to make people understand the importance of a pledge ... if ten thousand workers break their pledge than the country will face destruction. It will be impossible to raise the issues of workers ever again. Everywhere an example will be given that for twenty days the workers suffered and they had a leader like Gandhi and yet they did not win. Therefore I had to think of ways to see that the workers remained strong somehow. How can I achieve this without putting myself through pain? ...And so I took this pledge [of fast].  I know that my pledge is impure/polluted. There is a possibility that the mill owners will take pity on me due to this pledge and give 35% increase to the workers. .. My wish is that only if they feel that it is justified then they should give a raise of 35%, and not give anything out of pity. However the natural outcome would be that and so for that reason alone I am ashamed of this pledge. I thought of two things- the pledge of the workers and my shame...I decided to tolerate my shame for the workers...So my pledge [to fast] is not as a threat to the Mill owners at all and I desire that the mill owners understand this clearly...

18-March-1918: [Mahadevbhai]: ‘He [Gandhiji] spoke the following at the time of the prayer:

“Today there is a possibility of a settlement before ten a.m....It is kind of settlement that I will never accept. But this is the problem of my pledge...there is a pressure on the Mill owners of my fast. They will feel this [pressure] no matter how much I say no to the same and the world will not believe it either..."

[Mahadevbahi]: ‘Today [Gandhiji] gave a reply to Devdas...’:

[Gandhiji]: “...Mill owners have not given [wage increase] for the steadfastness of the workers but have given [wage increase] due to my fast is what they believe...I was in a position to ask for more but at that time I accepted what was minimum, that indicates my simplicity, my humbleness and my logic. Had I not undertaken a fast, workers would have fallen. They lasted because of the fast. For such a resolve/vow/pledge, minimum demand alone is appropriate. ..”

 I would like to bring to the notice of readers here that in his autobiography, 'The story of my experiments with truth', Gandhiji writes about his fast as part of this strike as follows:

...“One morning-it was at a mill hands’ meeting-while I was still groping and unable to see my way clearly, the light came to me. Unbidden and all by themselves the words came to my lips: ‘unless the strikers rally,’ I declared to the meeting, ‘and continue the strike till the settlement is reached or till they leave the mills altogether, I will not touch any food.’...

In Mahadevbhai’s diary however, while speaking after the morning prayers in the Sabarmati ashram, Gandhiji explains in great detail the ‘big thoughts’ behind his pledge of fasting during the mill workers’ strike – many of these thoughts are not detailed in Gandhiji’s autobiography.  

Further it is interesting to note that in Gandhiji’s autobiography in the chapters that deal with the workers’ strike in Ahmedabad, he does not mention or disclose the personal and confidential correspondence between himself and the industrialist Ambalalbhai Sarabhai, which he did not wish to make public at the time of the strike.

Mahadevbhai Desai’s diaries therefore detail a history that is certainly less known.