During 1946-47, while the political settlement was keeping our leaders fe­verishly busy, the situation on the ground was anything but good. Communal strife resulting from the Muslim League's attitude had become the order of the day.

League's Direct Action

In pursuance of its resolution passed on July 29, the Muslim League had fixed August 16 as 'Direct Action Day', to be observed by Muslims all over the country. Demonstrations were organized on a large scale, and in Bengal, the day was declared a public holiday by the League Ministry in spite of protests from all classes outside the League. The day opened in Calcutta with rioting, loot, murder and arson, which lasted for several days causing immense loss of life and property. Communal rioting broke out in several other places also. The riots in Calcutta were followed shortly afterwards by a very serious outbreak in East Bengal, in the district of Noakhali, which spread to the adjoining districts of Comilla, Chittagong, Dacca, etc. The Hindus suffered terribly. The news of the atrocities committed in Calcutta and in Noakhali reached Bihar from where large numbers used to go to Bengal for employment and there was very serious rioting in Bihar, and in some parts of the U.P. Some time later, the riots started in the North West Frontier Province and the Punjab where the Hindus and the Sikhs were subjected to tremendous loss of life and property.

Gandhiji in Noakhali

In November, 1946, reports of large scale disturbances in Noakhali shook Gandhiji as he rushed from Delhi to Calcutta on his way to Naokhali. In Calcutta, he heard about the disturbances in Bihar. Gandhiji's threat to fast unto death and the energetic efforts of the Interim Government did bring about a quick end to riots in Bihar. In Naokhali, Gandhiji went about staying in Muslim houses, trekking from place to place. In the special batch of his chosen companions and workers there were several young women, Sushila Nair, his granddaughter and daughter-in-law, Sucheta and a Muslim lady, Bhen Amtul Salam.

Dr. Pattabhi describes the role of Gandhiji in Noakhali as follows:

"In all this harrowing tale of woe, of families wiped out, villages burnt, women raped, abducted and forcibly married, in this tragedy which has outdone the tragedies of history, the notorious Armenian massacres of old, the Black and Tan pogroms of Ireland, and the more recent slaughter of Jews in Germany, there remains but one bright spot, one shining light, one solitary individual, marching alone and unfriended, melancholy and slow throughout the marshes of East Bengal, witnessing forborne houses by the thousand and forsaken families by the million, carrying however with him the torch of hope and peace, exhorting people to shed fear and learn to believe, dwelling upon the essential good in human nature and the ultimate triumph of love over hatred, holding aloft the torch of Truth in the midst of untruth, of light in the midst of darkness and of life in the midst of death."

Riots Spread

But while Gandhiji's work at Noakhali was having a sobering effect in Bengal, Bihar and U.P. it was considered by the League as a sabotage of its doctrine of hatred and two nations. On the day Direct Action had been inaugurated by the League at Delhi, Mr. Feroz Khan Noon and Mr. Ghazanfar Ali prophesied happenings that would put the memory of Changiz and Qatlu Khan into shade. These prophecies were soon realised in the districts of Rawalpindi and Multan. These districts had been the recruiting ground of the British Indian army, with most backward, fanatical and ignorant people. Many of these ex-servicemen had arms and the war had brutalised them even more. Across the border were the backward frontier districts, ever ready for loot and rapine. The minority communities, Sikhs and Hindus were either in the towns or in isolated small pockets and had lived peacefully for generations with their neighbours. Then suddenly these villages found themselves surrounded by thousands of armed gangs of marauders. The villages were looted, and burnt; men, women and children maimed and killed, women abducted and dishonoured. Many women jumped into wells or burnt themselves and men shot their own families to save them from torture and dishonour. Changiz and Qatlu Khan would blush in their graves if their names were associated with such doings as were enacted at Rawalpindi and Multan. These things went on with Impunity and photographs published later in the press, taken from air, showed columns of armed with rifles, some with camels and horses carrying their booty swarming ­the countryside below. Military aid reached the surviving villages but later. The tales of horror, that were carried by those who escaped, kindled a fire that was later to blaze into a conflagration.

These ghastly happenings were taking place when the League had already joined the Interim Government at the Centre. The League was playing a double role. While on the one hand it openly preached violence and jehad against non-Muslim's, at the same time it held office in the provinces and at the centre controlling police and justice. On being asked his opinion about this, Gandhiji had condemned this grave anomaly. "It is so bad that it cannot last long", he had said.

Congress Accepts Mountbatten Plan

In fact it was the horror of this fratricidal war and the failure of the experiment of a composite Government at the centre that ultimately induced the Congress leaders to accept the Mountbatten Plan with severing of some parts, but lesser parts than Jinnah's original demand. Similar earlier offer by Rajaji's formula had been turned down by Jinnah as a "truncated and moth-eaten" Pakistan.

Gandhiji had taken up a stand against vivisection, but recognised that alternative was revolution, or a civil war on one side and a new fight with the British who supported the League demand. The ever ­increasing and ever-deepening chain of communal disturbances involving mass murder, arson or loot accompanied by unthinkable atrocities and horrors obliged the Congress Working Committee to consider the entire communal and political situation afresh. The only way out of the difficulty appeared to be the partitioning of India. Jawaharlal Nehru referred to this fact in these words on 3rd of June, 1947: "There has been violence, shameful, degrading and revolting violence in various parts of the country. This must end." The country, its press and leaders of all schools were taken by surprise and in the majority expressed disapproval and dismay at the acceptance by the Congress of a scheme of division. In the A.I.C.C. meeting, however, there was scarcely any opposition excepting by the valiant fight put up by Sri Purshotam Das Tandon. Nehruji had explained that the alternative was murder. It was not a question of being afraid of being killed, but the killing on both sides was of your own people. Sardar Patel said that it was decided to amputate a limb rather than allow the poison to affect the whole body. The A.I.C.C. members including Rajendra Babu expressed their conviction that the decision would restore goodwill and that with it and the force of economic and other factors there would be a reunion at an early date. The Congress was not happy about the partitioning of India as it had consistently fought for the liberation of a united India. The following words of Jawaharlal Nehru give an Idea of the working of his inner mind: "For generations we have dreamt and struggled for a free and independent united India. The proposal to allow certain parts to secede, if they so will, is painful for any of us to contemplate."

The poison, it would seem, had become too deep and widespread that the acceptance of Pakistan, instead of having a sobering effect and bringing peace, unleashed the forces that League had been rearing and a fast-developing story of bloodshed, hatred and lawlessness overshadowed the parts that were feeling the glow of the coming Pakistan.

It would also seem that the evil star of India had not ceased to have its baneful influence even while it was setting. The then Punjab Government had the worst type of die-hard civilian officers. They must have found it hard to reconcile themselves to their throwing away of the Empire. Some of the Governors like Khizar Hayat Khan tried to tip the balance in favour of the League. The Muslim police and officers had a free hand inspite of various protests of the minority community. The hidden official hand in spreading of riots was clearly discernable and the worst affected areas were those with European District Officers.

With the opening of the Boundary Commission, these communal riots reached another phase. Hopes were held to some communities of more justice being done, on the basis of the ‘Other Factors' clause but these were sadly belied in the Boundary award. The patience of these communities was completely exhausted. This started a train of incidents of increasing ferocity and magnitude till these merged into an all-out war of one community against the other. Some unspeakable horrors were committed against women by both sides. The Boundary Commission seem to have added to the strife by taking sides.

Crisis in India's Soul

Thus on the threshold of our freedom, a mounting crisis of frenzy and madness was spreading devastation in the Punjab and for the Sikh and Hindu population of N.W.F.P., Baluchistan and Sindh. Loot and arson, abduction and forcible conversions were going on a mass scale. Soon began, a two-way trek of miserable, terror-stricken men and women from one part of the country to the other. Many dropped on the roadside out of hunger and exhaustion. Many were killed or abducted on the way. In long straggling trails of pedestrians, cattle, bullock-carts dragging its weary course, uprooted from their ancestral homes, bereft of lands, houses and all belongings, living in momentary terror of marauding bands, people began to move from the two directions to establish Mr. Jinnah's dream of two nations. Many million people were thus forced to leave their homes, mostly with bare clothes on their backs, to seek shelter in refugee camps that were by then springing up, and live on such charity as was available.

This 'Crisis in India's Soul' as Nehru put it, had almost synchronised with August 15th, though the peak was to come a few days later. Thus we came to live the most humiliating chapter in India's long history on the eve of her greatest glory.

This 'human earthquake', as Nehru called it, had affected not only those who were its victims directly, but had shaken all our cherished ideals and the structure of our national life to its foundations.

"One Bright Flame"

Recalling the happenings, Pandit Nehru said:

"Freedom came to us and it came with minimum of violence. But immediately after, we had to wade though oceans of blood and tears. Worse than the blood and tears was the shame and disgrace that accompanied them. Where were our values and standards then, where was our old culture, our humanism and spirituality and all that India had stood for in the past? Suddenly darkness descended upon this land and madness seized the people".

"Fear and hatred blinded our minds and all the restraints which civilization imposes were swept away. Horror piled on horror and a sudden emptiness seized us at the brute savagery of human beings. The lights seemed all to go out; not all, for a few still flickered in the raging tempest. We sorrowed for the dead and the dying and for those whose suffering was greater than that of death. We sorrowed even more for India, our common mother, for whose freedom we had laboured these long years".

"The lights seemed to go out but one bright flame continued to burn and shed its light on the surrounding gloom and, looking at that pure flame, strength and hope returned to us and we felt that whatever momentary disaster might overwhelm our people, there was the spirit of India strong and unsullied, rising above the turmoil of the present and not caring for the petty exigencies of the day".

"How many of you realise what it has meant to India to have the presence of Mahatma Gandhi during these months? We all know of his magnificent services to India and to freedom during the past half-­century and more. But no service could have been greater than what he has performed during the past four months when, in a dissolving world, he has been like a rock of purpose and a lighthouse of truth, and his firm, low voice has risen above the clamours of the multitude, pointing out the path of rightful endeavour."