In the winter of 2014, Sumi Akhter saw her dreams crumbling to dust.
A resident of Nagmud village in Bangladesh's Lakshmipur district, Akhter was the second of four children in an impoverished family. Despite the crushing poverty — her father Sirajul Haque, a construction labourer, was the sole earning member — Akhter was determined to study and become a teacher. She was 15, a student of Class 10, and had a few months to go before graduating and heading to the city for higher studies.
That was not to be. In December 2014, Haque arranged her wedding and Akhter missed her school-leaving examinations. She was also barred from going out, meeting her friends and telling anyone her real age. There seemed no way out. However, a neighbour informed members of the Gandhi Ashram Trust, in the neighbouring Noakhali district, and the activists got in touch with local administration. Akhter went back to school, and now supports herself through college. "She is confident that she will become a good school primary school teacher," said Ashim Kumar Bakshi, an officer at the ashram.
Housed in the mansion of a local businessman who played host to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for a night during his epic four-month peace mission in 1946, the Gandhi Ashram Trust (GAT) is located at the southern tip of the Bangladesh peninsula in Noakhali district. During his visit to Noakhali, Gandhi spent a night at the house of barrister Hemanta Kumar Ghosh in Jayag village on January 29, 1946. Inspired by Gandhi, Ghosh donated the house and many of his belongings to set up the ashram, and Gandhi left his trusted aide, Charu Chowdhury, in charge with the promise that he would be back. But six months later, Noakhali was allotted to Pakistan in the Partition and a year to his visit in Jayag, Gandhi was gunned down in Delhi. "As riots broke out, most of Gandhi's disciples returned to India. Only three or four were left," said Naba Kumar Raha, director of GAT.
With around 80 workers, the GAT works in four districts in southern Bangladesh, runs schools, a museum and a medical centre, and is the only institution espousing Gandhian principles in the country. "We are the only people keeping the legacy of Gandhi alive here," said Raha, adding that they intervened in Akhter's case owing to Gandhi's lifelong commitment to women's education.
In 1971 — the year Bangladesh became independent — GAT got a new coat of paint, new volunteers and a building. In 2016, Indian high commissioner Harsh Shringla inaugurated a new Gandhi institute on the premises. "The way of peace shown by Gandhi is more important than ever in Bangladesh, and it is evident because in the 47 villages Gandhi visited, there have been no riots since 1946 even though neighbouring districts have burnt," said Raha.
Gandhi in Noakhali
Gandhi was 77 when he set out for Muslim-majority Noakhali from what was then Calcutta on November 6, 1946. Communal violence had broken out on October 10, 1946, and rapidly swept the district. Reports poured in of poor Hindu families slaughtered, women raped and murdered and forcible conversions. The state ministry, under the Muslim League at the time, was accused of doing nothing as perpetrators rampaged across the delta and flatlands. The violence was seen to be a continuation of conflagrations in Calcutta in August that year — where a large section of victims were Muslims — after Direct Action Day was announced by the league to cement support for the creation of Pakistan.
"Noakhali presented for Gandhi the first field demonstration of this [two-nation] theory in its intense and most frightening form. Gandhi's visit to Noakhali, therefore, had a combating element to it as he tried to counter the ideological underpinnings of the riot," Rakesh Batabyal wrote in the 1997 book, Communalisin, the Noakhali riot and Gandhi.
Gandhi spent four months in Noakhali, choosing to stay in the half-burnt hut of a weaver and conducting peace marches and prayer meetings through villages. He walked barefoot, halved his already frugal food intake and walked at least 10 kilometres each day. His associates describe his mind in turmoil as he tried to devise a remedy to the communal riots, even as the rest of India hurtled rapidly towards independence.
"What was important in Noakhali was not only the aggression on women but also the consideration of women as repositories of the honour of the community and its traditions. Conversion and forcible marriages together meant that the entire religious complex of a population was sought to be forcibly changed," Batabyal wrote.
Gandhi's peace missions had three broad aims: To stop the violence, stem the deluge of Hindus fleeing to Calcutta and stitch back the social fabric. By most accounts, large parts of his mission failed. His associate Ashoka Gupta chronicles in the 1999 book, Noakhali: Durjoger Dine (Noakhali: Days of Calamity) that in spite of their best efforts, the victims did not feel secure and refused to return home. "We went from home to home and spoke to the women of the injured families and distributed saris and baby food to them. Yet we could never win over their hearts," Gupta wrote.
By January 1947, local resentment against Gandhi was mounting. Dirt was thrown on the road before his marches, local Muslim league leaders wanted him to leave and many boycotted his prayer meetings. On more than one occasion, violence broke out after the meeting. "All our efforts in Noakhali came to naught. It broke our hearts," Gupta wrote.
The effect on ground
Scholars remain divided on why Gandhi chose Noakhali, despite calls to go to Bihar, where Muslims were being attacked, and why his mission was not as successful as previous movements.
Prasanta Ray, an emeritus professor at Kolkata's Presidency University, contests that the mission failed, asserting that Gandhi's presence tamped down on the violence. "When he was talking in Noakhali, he was talking to people all over India. His speeches were not directed only to Noakhali residents, but to all of India at a time of communal violence," he said.
Suparna Gooptu, director of Gandhian Studies Centre in Kolkata, rejects the classification of the mission in terms of success and failure as un-Gandhian. She argued that Gandhi's unique methods to resist violence — walking barefoot among the people, prayer meetings — were taken to a climactic point in Noakhali.
"He wanted to go deep in the psyche of the people, make them see that each individual is accountable for violence. This discourse of accountability was ingrained in satyagraha. He was trying to uphold satyagraha not only as failure or success but as a tool to show other alternatives to healing intolerance," she added.
There are two broad arguments explaining the problems with the Noakhali peace mission. The first deals with caste.
An overwhelming majority of the victims from the Hindu population in Noakhali comprised the Namashudra community, who now form a bulk of the scheduled castes in West Bengal. Kolkata-based author and academic Jaydeep Sarangi argues that Gandhi refused to see this caste dynamic or engage with the tallest leader of the Namashudra community, Jogendranath Mandal, and therefore could never win their trust.
Many Namashudras were organised into the Matua cult, which has its distinct rituals that stem from an aversion to caste practices. This is different from Hindu faith, and had no representation in Gandhi's interfaith prayers. "Matua was unfamiliar to Gandhi but the most important local faith. He could never penetrate into the masses because of the strong hold of Matuas," Sarangi said.
The second argument deals with the nature of Gandhi's intervention, which did not appear to have the full backing of the Congress machinery. "The problem Gandhi faced was that the communal divide and hatred had gone to an extent that it was impossible for one person to stop it. He did have a miraculous impact, but when he left, violence erupted again," said Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, director of the New Zealand India Research Institute and Bengal scholar.
Some leaders of the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha, who did relief work, focused on the upper-caste Bhadralok, Bandyopadhyay argued, even though many Namashudras were part of Gandhi's prayer meetings.
In the seven decades since the Noakhali riots, historical understanding has evolved on what led to the violence. Many scholars now refuse to blame only the Muslim League. The violence scarred the Namashudras, who were ambivalent about Partition before but backed India en masse after the riots. On the other hand, the violence appeared to convince Mandal that he had to go to Pakistan to safeguard the interest of the Namashudra and other lower castes. He believed Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a secular person, said Sarangi, and that he would support the scheduled caste.
That faith would be soon belied. After Jinnah's death in September 1948, Pakistan lurched towards Islamic orthodoxy and Dalits faced mounting attacks. Mandal, the first law minister of Pakistan, resigned in 1950 and returned to India a broken man.
On March 2, 1947, Gandhi reluctantly left Noakhali for Bihar with the promise that he would be back soon, but that was not to be. Communal riots, first in Calcutta and then in Delhi, kept him busy. He would practice his Bengali every day, and tell his closest associate that he wished to return to the ashram in Noakhali the moment the affairs of state were done. On January 30, 1948, his last words in Bengali were, "Bhairab's home is in Naihati. Shail is his eldest daughter. Today, Shail is getting married to Kailash."