Mahadev Desai

Indian independence activist, writer and Mahatma Gandhi's personal secretary

Mahadev Desai (1 January 1892 – 15 August 1942) was an Indian independence activist and writer best remembered as Mahatma Gandhi's personal secretary. He has variously been described as "Gandhi's Boswell, a Plato to Gandhi's Socrates, as well as an Ananda to Gandhi's Buddha".

Mahadev Desai (left) reading out a letter to Gandhi from the viceroy at Birla House in 1939


  • A sturdy old Muslim villager of Multan cam in, rushing and jostling his way through the impeding volunteers, shook hand with Gandhiji and sat down. He was in the highest spirits, but then Maulana Mohammad Ali told him, "Do you know he is on a roza (fast) of 21 days-because Muslims and Hindus do not stop fighting?" THe old man grew pale and began to grumble, "Somebody incites badmashes of both the communities and so all these brawls. But none of us there is quarrelling" and with these words he too began to urge, "Take but a quarter pound of milk daily. Eat very sparingly, say, even on alternate days, but please do some such thing; for, in the case of a person like you, every act is a prayer to God whether you sit or stand, eat or drink." Highly pleased Gandhiji said, "And can this also not be a prayer? This abstinence from eating-this roza?" The question puzzled the simple old man, "But do listen to the earnest entreaty of such a nobody like myself; and eat." And then as he left, he said, "I will come again after ten or twenty days." "Do come," said Bapu, "after twenty days."
  • Bapu asked me:
    'Do you see the meaning of my fast on account of the Bombay and Chauri Chaura incidents?'
    'Yes', said I.
    'Then why can you not see the meaning of this fast?'
    'There you fasted by way of penance for what you thought was a crime committed by you. There is no such thing here. There is not the semblance of an offence that may be attributed to you.'
    'What a misconception! In Chauri Chaura the culprits were those who had never seen me, never know me. Today the culprits are those who know me and even profess to love me!'
    'Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali', I said, 'are trying their best to quench the conflagration. But it is beyond them. Some men may be beyond their reach, even your reach. What can they do? What can you do? The situation will take time to improve.'
    'That is another story', he answered, 'Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali are pure gold. They are trying their best, I know. But the situation is out of our hands today. It was in our hands six months ago. I know my fast will upset them. Indirectly it might have an effect on their minds, but it was not meant to prude an effect on any one's mind.'
    'That's all right I replied. 'But you have yet to tell me where your error lay for which you are doing penacne.'
    'My error! Why, I may be charged with having committed a breach of faith with the Hindus. I asked them to befriend Muslims. I asked them to lay their lives and their property at the disposal of the Mussulmans for the protection of their Holy Places. Even today I am asking them to practise Ahimsa, to settle quarrels by dying, bot not by killing. And what do I find to be the result? How many temples have been desecrated? How many sisters come to me with complaints? As I was saying to Hakimji yesterday, Hindu women are in mortal fear of Mussulman goondas. In many places they fear to go out alone. I had a letter from... ...How can I bear the way in which his little children were molested? How can I ask Hindus to put up with everything patiently? I gave the assurance that the friendship of Mussulmans was bound to bear good fruit. I asked them to befriend them, regardless of the result. It is not in my power today to make good that assurance, neither it is in the power of Mohammad Ali or Shaukat Ali. Who listents to me? And yet I must ask the Hindus even today to die and not to kill. I can only do so by laying down my own life. I can teach them the way to die my own example. There is no other way... ...I launched non-co-operation. Today I find that the people are non-co-operating against one another, without any regard for non-violence. What is the reason? Only this, that I am not completely non-violent. If I were practising non-violence to perfection, I should not have seen the violence I see around me today. My fast is therefore a penance. I blame no one. I blame only myself. I have lost the power wherewith to appeal to people. Defeated and helpless I must submit my petition in His Court. Only He will listen, no one else.'
    It was a torrent that I could hardly catch, much less reproduce. I asked at the end: 'But, Bapu, Should the penance take only this shape, and no other? Is fasting prescribed by our religion?' ' Certainly,' said he, 'What did the Rishis of old do? It is unthinkable that they ate anything during their penances-insome cases, gone through in caves, and for hundreds of years. Parvati who did penance to win Shiva would not touch even the leaves of trees, much less fruit or food. Hinduism is full of penance and prayer. I have decided on this fast with deeper deliberation than I gave to any of my previous fast. I had such a fast in mind even when I conceived and launched non-co-operation. At that time, I said to myself, 'I am placing this terrible weapon in the hands of the people. If it is abused, I must pay the price by laying down my life.' That moment seems to have arrived today. The object of the previous fast was limited. The object of this is unlimited and there is boundless love at the back of it. I am today bathing in that ocean of love.'
  • Maulana Shaukat Ali came the next day. Maulana Mohammad Ali had built much on his coming, for he had fondly hoped tha the would probably shake Gandhiji's resolve. Indeed Gandhiji had promised him that he would give up the vow if Shaukat or he convinced him that he fast was morally or in any other way wrong. The long talk with him was,, however, of no avail, as far as the continuance of the fast was concerned, but it threw even more light on the inner meaning. 'What have we done, Mahatmaji, to remedy the situation?' he exclaimed. 'Almost nothing! you have been preaching through your paper, but you have yet undertaken no long journey. Pray, travel through the affected areas and purify the atmosphere. This fast is hardly the way to fight the wrong.'
    Gandhiji replied: 'It is for me a pure matter of religion. I looked around me, and questioned myself, and found that I was powerless. What could I effect even by means of long tour? The masses suspect us today. Pray, do not believe that the Hindus in Delhi fully trust me. They were not unanimous in asking me to arbitrate. And naturally, there have been murders. How can I hope to be heard by those who have suffered? I would ask them to forgive those who have murdered their dearest ones. Who would listen to me? The Anjuman (a Muslim organisation) refuses to listen to Hakimji. When we were in the midst of negotiation abou ttheir arbitration, I heard of Kohat (the place where communal fury burst out wildly). I asked myself, 'What are you going to do now?' I am an irrepressible optimist, but you at times base yours on sands. No one will listen to you today. In Visnagar in Gujarat, they gave a cold shoulder to Mr. Abbas Tyabji and Mahadeo. In Ahmedabad
    'Fight I do not mind if it be fair, honourable, brave fighting between the two communities. But today it is all a story of unmitigated cowardice. They would throw stones and run away, murder and run away, go to court, put up false witnesses and cite false evidence. What a woeful record? How am I to make them brave? You are trying your best. But I should also try my best. I must recover the power to react on them.' 'No', rejoined Shaukat Ali. 'You have not failed. They listened to you. They were listening to you . In your absence they had other advisers. They listened to their advice and took to evil ways. They will still see the folly of their ways, I am sure. You have done much to reduce the poison in the popular mind. I would not bother about these disturbances at all. I would simply go and tell them, "Devils, play this game to your hear's content. God is still there. You may kill one another. You cannot kill Him.' Do not, Sir, come in the way of the lord. You are wrestling Him. Let Him have His way'.
  • A Polish student brought a photograph to Gandhiji and got it autographed by him. “There is,” he said, “a school conducted by Catholic Fathers. I shall help the school from the proceeds of the sale of this photograph.” Gandhiji took back the photograph from the student and said, “Ah, that is a different story. You do not expect me to support the Fathers in their mission of conversion? You know what they do?” The Harijan of June 27, 1936 which relates this incident, continues, “And with this he told him… the story of the so-called conversions in the vicinity of Tiruchengodu, the desecration and demolition of the Hindu temple, how he had been requested by the International Fellowship of Faiths to forbear writing about the episode as they were trying to intervene, how ultimately even the intervention of that body composed mainly of Christians had failed, and how he was permitted to write about it in the Harijan. He, however, had deliberately refrained from writing in order not to exacerbate feelings on the matter.”
    • DISCUSSION WITH A POLISH STUDENT .[On or before June 12, 1936] Harijan, 27-6-1936. Diary of Mahadev Desai. in Gandhi Coll Works, Volume 63. p 47-48. also quoted in Goel: HISTORY OF HINDU-CHRISTIAN ENCOUNTERS and also in Shourie, Arun (1994). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi : Rupa & Co, 1994, p 16-17.
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