- The question examines the role played by Mahatma Gandhi’s in Noakhali, where widespread communal riots had broken out after Partition.
- In the introduction, first, explain what the Noakhali incident was.
- Communal violence had broken out on October 10, 1946, and rapidly swept the district of Noakhali; poor Hindu families slaughtered, women raped and murdered and forcible conversions.
- Then explain in what way Noakhali presented for Gandhi the first field demonstration of two-nation theory in its intense and most frightening form.
- Brief on the role played by Gandhi to resolve the situation.
- Conclude with the significance of the outcome of the Noakhali incidence in the history of modern India even as of today.
The Noakhali riots were a series of semi-organized massacres, rapes, abductions and forced conversions of Hindus to Muslim and looting and arson of Hindu properties organized by the All India Muslim League and perpetrated by the Muslim community in the districts of Noakhali in the Chittagong Division of Bengal (now in Bangladesh) in October–November 1946.
Role of Gandhi in diffusing the Noakhali riots:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Views of scholars:
- 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.
- Gandhi’s pilgrimage to Noakhali was summed up well by Nirmal Kumar Bose.
- He recounts how in a speech on January 4, Gandhi said, “he had not come to talk to the people of politics, nor to weaken the influence of the Muslim League and increase that of the Congress, but in order to talk to them of the little things in their daily life.
- According to Rakesh Batabyal wrote in the 1997 book, ‘Communalism, the Noakhali riot and Gandhi’, Noakhali presented for Gandhi the first field demonstration of 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.
Causes for shortcomings and resumption of violence:
- 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.
- 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 the 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 stronghold of Matuas.
- Some leaders of the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha, who did relief work, focused on the upper-caste Bhadralok even though many Namashudras were part of Gandhi’s prayer meetings.
- 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 the extent that it was impossible for one person to stop it.
The riots put Gandhiji’s idea and practice of non-violence to its ultimate test. Gandhi knew that the large scale violence in Noakhali was meant to help the Muslim League’s case for Partition. The communal riots presented a serious challenge not only to the idea of a unified Indian nation but also to Gandhi’s lifelong efforts to establish communal harmony.