22. THE FAST
For the first two
weeks the mill-hands exhibited great courage and self-restraint, and daily
held monster meetings. On these occasions I used to remind them of their
pledge, and they would shout back to me the assurance that they would rather
die than break their word.
But at last they began
to show signs of flagging. Just as physical weakness in men manifests itself
in irascibility, their attitude towards the blacklegs became more and more
menacing as the strike seemed to weaken, and I began to fear an outbreak
of rowdyism on their part. The attendance at their daily meetings began
to dwindle by degrees, and despondency and despair were writ large on the
faces of those who did attend. Finally the information was brought to me
that the strikers had begun to totter. I felt deeply troubled, and set
to thinking furiously as to what my duty was in the circumstances. I had
had experience of a gigantic strike in South Africa, but the situation
that confronted me here was different. The mill-hands had taken the pledge
at my suggestion. They had repeated it before me day after day, and the
very idea that they might now go back upon it was to me inconceivable.
Was it pride or was it my love for the labourers and my passionate regard
for truth that was at the back of this feeling--who can say?
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 a settlement is reached, or till they leave the mills altogether,
I will not touch any food.'
The labourers were thunderstruck.
Tears began to course down Anasuyabehn's cheeks. The labourers broke out,
'Not you but we shall fast. It would be monstrous if you were to fast.
Please forgive us for our lapse, we will now remain faithful to our pledge
to the end.'
'There is no need for you to
fast,' I replied. 'It would be enough if you could remain true to your
pledge. As you know, we are without funds, and we do not want to continue
our strike by living on public charity. You should therefore try to eke
out a bare existence by some kind of labour, so that you may be able to
remain unconcerned, no matter how long the strike may continue. As for
my fast, it will be broken only after the strike is settled.'
In the meantime Vallabhbhai
was trying to find some employment for the strikers under the Municipality,
but there was not much hope of success there. Maganlal Gandhi suggested
that, as we needed sand for filling the foundation of our weaving school
in the Ashram, a number of them might be employed for that purpose. The
labourers welcomed the proposal. Anasuyabehn led the way with a basket
on her head, and soon an endless stream of labourers carrying baskets of
sand on their heads could be seen issuing out of the hollow of the river-bed.
It was a sight worth seeing. The labourers felt themselves infused with
a new strength, and it became difficult to cope with the task of paying
out wages to them.
My fast was not free from
a grave defect. For as I have already mentioned in a previous chapter,
I enjoyed very close and cordial relations with the mill-owners, and my
fast could not but affect their decision. As a Satyagrahi I knew that I
might not fast against them, but ought to leave them free to be influenced
by the mill-hands' strike alone. My fast was undertaken not on account
of [a] lapse of the mill-owners, but on account of that of the labourers,
in which, as their representative, I felt I had a share. With the mill-owners,
I could only plead; to fast against them would amount to coercion. Yet
in spite of my knowledge that my fast was bound to put pressure upon them,
as in fact it did, I felt I could not help it. The duty to undertake it
seemed to me to be clear.
I tried to set the mill-owners
at ease. 'There is not the slightest necessity for you to withdraw from
your position,' I said to them. But they received my words coldly and even
flung keen, delicate bits of sarcasm at me, as indeed they had a perfect
right to do.
The principal man at the back
of the mill-owners' unbending attitude towards the strike was Sheth Ambalal.
His resolute will and transparent sincerity were wonderful, and captured
my heart. It was a pleasure to be pitched against him. The strain produced
by my fast upon the opposition, of which he was the head, cut me, therefore,
to the quick. And then, Saraladevi, his wife, was attached to me with the
affection of a blood-sister, and I could not bear to see her anguish on
account of my action.
Anasuyabehn and a number of
other friends and labourers shared the fast with me on the first day. But
after some difficulty I was able to dissuade them from continuing it further.
The net result of it was that
an atmosphere of good-will was created all round. The hearts of the mill-owners
were touched, and they set about discovering some means for a settlement.
Anasuyabehn's house became the venue of their discussions. Sjt. Anandshankar
Dhruva intervened, and was in the end appointed arbitrator, and the strike
was called off after I had fasted only for three days. The mill-owners
commemorated the event by distributing sweets among the labourers, and
thus a settlement was reached after 21 days' strike.
At the meeting held to celebrate
the settlement, both the mill-owners and the Commissioner were present.
The advice which the latter gave to the mill-hands on this occasion was:
'You should always act as Mr. Gandhi advises you.' Almost immediately after
these events I had to engage in a tussle with this very gentleman. But
circumstances were changed, and he had changed the circumstances. He then
set about warning the Patidars of Kheda against following my advice!
I must not close this chapter
without noting here an incident, as amusing as it was pathetic. It happened
in connection with the distribution of sweets. The mill-owners had ordered
a very large quantity, and it was a problem how to distribute it among
the thousands of labourers. It was decided that it would be the fittest
thing to distribute it in the open, beneath the very tree under which the
pledge had been taken, especially as it would have been extremely inconvenient
to assemble them all together in any other place.
I had taken it for granted that
the men who had observed strict discipline for [a] full 21 days would without
any difficulty be able to remain standing in an orderly manner while the
sweets were being distributed, and not make an impatient scramble for them.
But when it came to the test, all the methods that were tried for making
the distribution failed. Again and again their ranks would break into confusion
after the distribution had proceeded for a couple of minutes. The leaders
of the mill-hands tried their best to restore order, but in vain. The confusion,
the crush, and the scramble at last became so great that quite a number
of the sweets were spoiled by being trampled under foot, and the attempt
to distribute them in the open had finally to be given up. With difficulty
we succeeded in taking the remaining sweets to Sheth Ambalal's bungalow
in Mirzapur. Sweets were distributed comfortably the next day within the
compound of that bungalow.
The comic side of this incident
is obvious, but the pathetic side bears mention. Subsequent inquiry revealed
the fact that the beggar population of Ahmedabad, having got scent of the
fact that sweets were to be distributed under the Ek-Tek tree, had
gone there in large numbers, and it was their hungry scramble for the sweets
that had created all the confusion and disorder.
The grinding poverty and starvation
with which our country is afflicted is such that it drives more and more
men every year into the ranks of the beggars, whose desperate struggle
for bread renders them insensible to all feelings of decency and self-respect.
And our philanthropists, instead of providing work for them and insisting
on their working for bread, give them alms.