Those days in Noakhali…

ASHOKA GUPTA

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Ashoka Gupta, now 88 years old, was engaged in intensive relief work in riot-scarred Noakhali in 1946. She and many others like Sucheta Kripalini, Renuka Roy and Sneharani Kanjilal took instructions from Mahatma Gandhi and tried their utmost to help the persecuted and ravaged minority community. In 1999, Ashoka Gupta recalled her Noakhali days in the monograph Noakhali Durjoger Dine. Excerpted below are some recollections.

 

(Individuals mentioned:

Rahman Sahib – a young government officer who helped the volunteers.

Sneharani Kanjilal – a dedicated social worker who responded to the call of Gandhiji and plunged into relief work in Noakhali.

Thakkar Bapa – A.V. Thakkar Bapa, General Secretary of Harijan Sevak Sangh. Member of Gandhiji’s team in Noakhali.

Prabhat – He was only 18-19 years old when he joined the relief team at Tumchar camp in Noakhali. Migrated to Assam after Partition.

Nellie Sengupta – British born wife of the famous patriot Deshapriya Jatindramohan Sengupta. A dedicated freedom fighter herself, she opted to stay in East Pakistan (Chattogram) after Partition. Migrated to Calcutta in 1970 and died in 1973.

Kasturi – daughter of Ashoka Gupta.)

 

AT last we reached Tumchar. I requested Rahman Sahib to stay on at the camp and also dine with us. He seemed embarrassed. Sneha and I patiently explained to him that as he was forced to stay back, he might as well share a meal with us. We were carrying a lot of cash and it was unsafe for us to travel at night. We would hand over the money to the proper people in the morning. I have thought many times about this extremely polite and modest young man. He must have stayed back in the newly formed Pakistan. His embarrassment that night at putting us to inconvenience by his presence still moves me.

The villagers were still wary about the ‘relief’ we were providing. They were suspicious too of the real intentions behind the relief provided by the government. The president of the Union Board was all-powerful. He had the power to grant or take away relief. This happened in the case of a young widow. He said, ‘Why does she need any aid? She will be looked after by her husband’s brothers.’ Yet her room had been burnt down, her cow slaughtered and the meat forced down the throats of people to prove that they were no longer Hindus. She was not childless too. She had a married daughter somewhere.

We had protested against this decision. The woman’s rights could not ultimately be denied and she was sanctioned some aid. Burnt tin, some new sheets of tin, some bamboo – these were all the material with which fresh huts were being built for the scheduled castes. All were worried, however, as to whether they would finally be able to stay back. Thakkar Bapa had written about these people when he had come here. These low caste Hindus were hardworking, peace loving and God-fearing. They were mentally ruined when their women were molested and were forced to change their religion. Those who stayed behind would tell us about the tortures inflicted upon them in soft voices. They did not dare to go to the police station to complain.

The Tumchar survey made a deep impression on me. We had been instructed to visit these scheduled caste villages by Gandhiji himself. He had also ordered us to follow the instructions of Thakkar Bapa. We had selected Tumchar as the base because the other target villages of Charmandal and Charuhita were only a few miles away. After that there were no other human settlements till the sea.

It will be better if I quote here from the memoirs of Thakkar Bapa. Of the two villages, Charmandal was the larger one. Many of the homes at these places were first plundered and then burnt down. Maybe 50-52 houses were not burnt down, but they had been looted. The loss of 301 houses in Charmandal and 57 houses in Charuhita would add up to about Rs 33,700. These were the homes of prosperous farmers. The poorer people had lost about Rs 1000 worth of their possessions. The total loss would add up to Rs 5,46,503, i.e. an average loss of Rs 1,745 per person.

Here at least 2000 Hindus were forced to change their religion, six were forced to marry by force and one was murdered. Even six weeks after the riots Thakkar Bapa had seen people keen to leave their homes and settle elsewhere. If they went to the local police station to complain, the policemen would harass them on some pretext or the other.

When I went to the camp to report to Thakkar Bapa, he smiled gently. ‘What is the Judge Sahib’s wife doing here?’ I complained to him that certain scheduled caste parties, who owed allegiance to the Muslim League, were trying to whip up mob frenzy in the wrong direction. I had enough evidence of their wrongdoing with me.

I had the same experience everywhere. Crossing by ferry, people would whisper to me and point out persons with prominent Red Cross badges on their armbands who had led the riots in certain villages. People were frightened. Once I took a couple to a police station to lodge a formal complaint. The woman was heavily veiled and spoke softly. Even two months after the riots, she was being taken away each night from her home by some men and returned at dawn.

These were common occurrences and none of them dared to protest. I gave them a lot of courage and brought them over to the Lakhshmipur police station to lodge their complaint. They were too frightened to speak. The officer-in-charge wanted them to give a written complaint duly signed. The woman could not stop weeping. If she gave her or her husbands’ name she would be cut up into pieces immediately. ‘Let us leave this land,’ she sobbed. Later, that family really left their home. I did not have the power to punish the guilty or protect the injured. We remained helpless spectators.

Thakkar Bapa stressed the fact that we must ensure the return not only of law and order, but also the self-confidence and the feeling of security in these people. That was what the government had to do. The then government had failed to do this. Inspite of the peace efforts of Gandhiji and thousands of his volunteers, this was not done. Those of us who were ordinary volunteers, tried to work with all classes of people and religious sects. We would pay the majority community well to carry the relief material to these poor people so that we could arouse a sense of fellow feeling and belonging in them. 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.

In those villages which had been attacked, the Hindu inhabitants had not slept or eaten well for the last two months. They were also tremendously insecure about their future in this country. Going from door to door asking for relief, for work, these people had become thin and feeble. In an open competition for jobs, they invariably lost out because the capacity for hard work had deserted their bodies. I have seen with my own eyes that where a Hindu farmer could not lift up a sack of grain even after trying many times, a Muslim farmer could lift the same sack easily and carry it to its destination.

When people were being employed by the government to dig roads, Hindu farmers could not be employed because they could hardly work. They were weak and starved and had lost their digging implements too. Those who could use their hands were busy repairing their own huts so that they could have a roof over their heads. They were tense and worried and always sifting the burnt waste of their homes to see if they could find some item of value. They were busy too, trying to send their womenfolk to the camp at Lakhshmipur to ensure their safety. This was reality. Man could not trust his fellow man. He could not depend on his neighbours any more. This picture was so real that all our words of love and amity between Hindus and Muslims fell on deaf ears.

We would start working early at the camps and visited the places as instructed to survey the situation. We visited all homes – of all castes and creeds and all religions. We spoke mainly to the womenfolk and tried to find out about each member of the family and their state of physical and mental health. We tried to make friends with the babies, little boys and girls and the old people. In the Hindu families, we found only the menfolk and the aged. The women and youngsters had already been moved to the safe zone of the Lakhshmipur relief camp.

The old people of the Muslim families would joke with us. ‘We are poor too. But you don’t give us any relief.’ We used to explain, ‘They have been robbed, let us first give them some relief. But we are here for all of you. We shall certainly help if you need us.’ Many used to take our help too. The Muslim men, however, would not give us any help. The Hindu men were different. When we refused to drink the water from the green coconuts proffered by them for fear that they might need it more, they used to smile sadly. ‘Have the drink sister. These coconuts will anyway be stolen.’

They did not have even the bare necessities in their homes. And they were too poor to offer us the traditional offering of betel leaves and nuts, a must in all Indian homes. Those who lived in homes which had not been burnt did not have any utensils. They had aly`been stolen. They had made some makeshift plates out of the base of the betel trees. Their reed mats had been taken away too. When we returned to the camp, we spent some time looking after our own children and then sent off the people to carry medicines and carpenters and other helping hands to rebuild homes and bridges and treat the ill.

My duty was to prepare a proper report of our activities each day and contact the Union Board for the rehabilitation of people. Sneha’s job was to keep track of all those who came to call on us and sanction relief as was required, to the best of our ability. In the evenings, the camp would be crowded by the family members of people who had suffered during the riots. The leaders of majority communities would come too but after a few days their presence gradually diminished.

At this time, women and children who had no guardians were a source of worry. I tried to arrange safe transport for them to the camp at Lakhshmipur, the Kasturba Trust Ashram at Comilla or the Prabartak Sangha at Chattogram. Prabhat was the volunteer who most often took on this responsibility. If the group were large, I too would accompany them to safety.

Once, when we had gone to Parvatinagar for survey work, we found two abandoned babies. These two children were being brought up by a maternal uncle after their mother’s death. When their uncle’s house was raided, they had protested at being forced to change their religion. The incensed mob not only set their house on fire but put both their uncle and his wife into the fire.

The village people had in the meantime informed the Lakhshmipur police station and the then district magistrate, Mr. Mackeenarnee (ICS), had himself come with his team to examine the situation. A nephew and some other relatives led the magistrate to their burnt relatives. The bodies were severely burnt but they could still speak. Their last words were, ‘Please look after the two orphans.’ The DM then ordered that the two babies should be brought to me. The nephew brought the two children over. Of the two, while the boy could be taken on by Prabartak Ashram, I had to send the girl to Comilla. This gave me a lot of confidence. I had at last found a way to help the orphans and women who had no one else to look after them, to begin a new life.

When in Tumchar, travelling towards Lakhshmipur bazaar one day, I found a young lad near a bridge with a large brass bowl and a brass pitcher. I was a bit surprised. ‘What are you doing here with these huge brass vessels?’

‘My mother has told me to sell these at any price. We want to sell off all our things. We want to leave this place.’

‘But you still have things like these in your home. You were not robbed. Why will you leave?’

‘My father disappeared on the day of the riot. People say that he has been murdered and his body buried. These things were on a high shelf and escaped the eyes of the robbers.’

I went home with the boy. All his relatives had left. The boy had a younger brother. Their elder sister was married and lived elsewhere. I spoke to the mother. ‘What do you want to do?’

The woman was intelligent. ‘If I could put my two boys in an ashram so that they could continue with their studies, I can find some shelter for myself.’

Afflicted people were constantly moving from Chaumohani to Calcutta. All the districts had the same story to tell. My reach extended only up to Kasturba Trust or Abhay Ashram or as far as Prabartak Sangha. I asked the woman whether she would be able to stay in Chattogram in the care of Nellie Sengupta. She readily agreed.

I visited Chattogram with a couple of others in the middle of March. All these days I had not gone home because I had promised Gandhiji not to do so. I had to hand these people over to the AIWC. I decided that I would not go home but return by the night train. Sneha Kanjilal was amused. ‘Will your children let you off?’ I decided to go to Nellie Sengupta and put Kasturi in her care. Then nobody would be able to stop me from returning to the camp. That is what I didÉ

We knew that Gandhiji was dead against the partition of India. He had promised to return to Noakhali after taking care of the unrest in Bihar. He was confident that he would be able to establish amity between Hindus and Muslims here by his presence. When he left for Bihar on the first of March, he was happy at the work going on in Noakhali although he was disturbed by the incidents of forceful religious conversions, looting and riots. He went to Bihar to ensure that the minority Muslims there were not being treated like the minority Hindus in Noakhali. He was really hopeful that good sense would prevail among all.

At that time the work in Noakhali to rehabilitate hundreds of families had gained momentum and was in full swing. This had pleased Gandhiji. But it is one thing to work in his presence and another to work without him. It needed a lot of courage. Yet when he told us to keep up the good work, we were encouraged to carry on. We believed that normalcy and peace would return to this world one day.

When the riots in Bihar were controlled, fresh trouble broke out in Punjab. Gandhiji had to rush to Delhi. In the daily prayer meetings, his words of peace failed to draw takers. He began to realise how futile it all was. He was a lonely man, in deep pain and helpless. There was simply no hope of a change of heart among the people. Amid this empty loneliness, one day it was decided that India would be divided.

All our efforts in Noakhali came to naught. It broke our hearts. If the land was to be divided, then who belonged to whom and where? Who would listen to our words of unity and peaceful cohabitation? The hot and rash words of Suhrawardy uttered on 16 August 1946 started a chain reaction in Noakhali, Bihar and Punjab. The words of peace remained confined to Gandhiji and a handful of his followers.

The Exodus in the Bible describing the Jews leaving their motherland comes to mind. Yet I do not know whether anything as terrible as the partition of India has ever taken place in this world. Punjab was broken into two, the East and the West; Bengal too. People travelled in droves from East to West and from West to East. Nobody knows how many were involved, the figures could not be counted. Nobody knows of the people who went missing, the whereabouts of little daughters, sisters, wives.

We had lived together for years, side by side, yet we had not really known each other. I still don’t understand where the difference lies. If this had been an economic divide or a political one (like Germany) then maybe this could have been solved. Did Gandhiji know where the roots of the problem lay? I still hear his words of distress. ‘This is a bad dream. If we do not all work together, our motherland will be tortured indeed.’

He was unable to return to Noakhali. On the 30th of January 1948, he was forever silenced by the bullet of an assassin.

(Translated by Kumkum Chakravarti)

 

* We are grateful to Ashoka Gupta for permission to translate the above portion of her recollection of Noakhali which forms a part of her monograph, ‘Noakhalite – Durjoger Smriti’ (Naya Udyog, 1999).

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