Jan. 12, 2022

Gandhi's Last Fast

Gandhi's Last Fast

January 12, 1948. In an attempt to stop the violence engulfing New Delhi and the broader subcontinent, Gandhi begins his final fast.

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Cold Open


It’s September 7th, 1947 in the center of Delhi, the new capital of India.

A mob of angry Hindu men rampage through the streets.

They loot Muslim-owned shops attacking the owners as well as innocent bystanders. In the midst of the chaos, a terrified young Muslim boy named Mohammed clings to his mother; his younger sister by his side. Mohammed and his mother and sister are trying to get to the train station where they plan to catch a train out of the country.

The violence scene is the consequence of events known as the partition. Recently, Great Britain’s parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, dividing British India into two self-governing dominions: India, a Hindu-majority nation, and Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation. This diverse region is composed of many people of different religious faiths: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and others. And prior to the partition, these groups largely co-existed in peace. But afterward, there was violence. Among the many innocent victims are Muslims who live in India, people like Mohammed.

Today, as he fights through the crowd, Mohammed prays that he and his family will be able to make it to the train station, so they can escape India and flee to Pakistan.

Just then, several of the Hindu rioters spot Mohammed and his family and start to advance on them threateningly. Mohammed and his mother and sister run but the Hindu men give chase. An empty alleyway allows Mohammad and his family to evade their pursuers before making their way finally to the train station.

When they arrive, the train is packed with refugees desperate to get to Pakistan. As they board, Mohammad knows they are lucky to be alive. But he also knows they will not be safe until their train arrives at its destination.

Mohammed has heard stories of “blood trains” filled with the bodies of murdered refugees. The path to Pakistan is a long, dangerous journey, but Mohammed and his family have no choice. There is nothing left for them in Delhi.

The violence resulting from the partition will ultimately claim hundreds of thousands of lives. As many as 15 million people will flee their home in one of the largest refugee crises in human history.

But in the midst of the violence, one Hindu man will try to restore peace, and protect the Muslim community in India. He is a widely revered lawyer, politician, and thinker named Mohandas Gandhi, but he is widely known as Mahatma, meaning “the great-souled one”. To bring about this peace, Gandhi will not use violence or intimidation. He will use a tactic that he’s employed many times before to bring about change. On January 12, 1948, Gandhi announces that he will not eat until the violence against his Muslim brethren stops.



From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 12th: Gandhi’s Last Fast.

Act One: Gandhi’s Second Do or Die


It’s January 12th, 1948. Several months after Mohammad and his family fled the riots in Delhi. 

Gandhi sits in front of a large crowd. They are gathered here at the Birla House, Gandhi’s home in Delhi, to pray with Gandhi and hear him speak.

Gandhi was one of the leaders of the independence movement in India. He supported India being free from British rule. But he opposed the partition. Gandhi had a vision that all the religions in India would unite behind one free and independent nation. He felt that the partition undermined that vision. Still, Gandhi hoped that, despite the partition, Hindus, Muslims, and other religious groups would find their way to peace. But the recent outbreak of violence has dashed that hope. So today, in an attempt to secure peace, Gandhi plans to announce to the crowd his intention to fast.

For Gandhi, fasting is a non-violent way of refusing to participate in evil and appeal to the moral conscience of all human beings. Over the years, Gandhi has fasted many times to demonstrate civil disobedience and protest violence. His most recent fast was only a few months in prior, in September 1947 when anti-Muslim riots were destroying the city of Calcutta. So for four days, Gandhi starved himself until leaders from all faiths came to him, begging him to eat, and promising to end the violence. In so doing, he achieved a temporary peace in Calcutta, but now, the same type of sectarian violence is tearing Delhi apart. 

Countless Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others have been murdered, injured, and displaced by angry mobs and power-hungry militias. He knows women in particular have suffered. In addition to the violence, thousands of women are being raped and kidnapped. He knows he has to do something to quell the horror.

As part of his spiritual practice, Gandhi abstains from talking one day a week. So today, one of Gandhi’s associates announces that Gandhi will fast once again. He reads Gandhi’s words to the crowd: “I will terminate the fast only when peace has returned to Delhi.”

His supporters cry out, fearful for their spiritual leader. Gandhi turned 78 in October. At his age, they worry he’ll die before peace is achieved. His son is worried too. After learning of his father’s plan, Gandhi’s son writes to his father: “What you can achieve while living, you cannot achieve by dying.” But Gandhi is stubborn. He lays out a series of demands that must be met for him to end his fast. Through these demands, Gandhi expresses his desire for Muslims to be safe in India. He wants them to be able to live, travel, do business, and pray in peace.

But, while many of his followers urge Gandhi to end his fast, many of his enemies react to the fast with contempt. And soon, Gandhi is even confronted with the threat of violence.


It’s January 15th, three days into Gandhi’s fast.

In the courtyard of the Birla House, Gandhi sits on the ground and holds another nightly prayer meeting in front of a crowd of supporters. He is growing weak, but his spirit is strong.

But the prayer meeting is interrupted by angry shouting coming from the streets. The voices belong to Hindu extremists marching outside. They don’t share Gandhi’s concern for the Muslim population. In their minds, India belongs to the Hindus, not the Muslims.

Gandhi calls out to them. He urges them to seek peace with their Muslim brethren. But this only infuriates them more.

Earlier today, India’s Prime Minister authorized the transfer of 550 million rupees to Pakistan. It was Gandhi who convinced the Prime Minister to pay the money, which was owed to Pakistan. In Gandhi’s view, a man always pays a debt to his neighbor. The Hindu extremists though couldn’t disagree more.

They cry out “Let Gandhi Die! Let Gandhi Die!”

But Gandhi remains calm and composed and merely continues his speech. He repeats his sorrow over the treatment of Muslims in Delhi. He makes it clear that he is ready to starve and, if necessary, die to prove his point. 

In the end, Gandhi’s influence is greater than the Hindu extremists’ resistance. On January 18th, a group of religious and community leaders sign a statement agreeing to Gandhi’s demands. The leaders commit to work together to ensure Muslims are protected. And when Gandhi finally breaks his fast by drinking lime juice, his supporters breathe a sigh of relief. But the moment of peace will not last long. Gandhi has survived his fast, but he is still very much in danger.

Act Two: Gandhi’s Last Days


It’s January 30th, 1948 at the Birla House. Another nightly prayer meeting is about to begin.

The usual crowd has gathered. But Gandhi is running late. He’s been at a meeting with leaders in the Indian government to talk about ways to bring an end to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. Gandhi desires peace, but this goal will not be easy to achieve. He knows firsthand just how angry many people are.

Gandhi’s fast helped bring local leaders to the negotiating table to work toward peace, but it also angered many of his fellow countrymen, including Hindu extremists. Ten days ago, a group of them tried to take Gandhi’s life. They detonated a bomb during one of his nightly prayer meetings. The plot failed and Gandhi survived the attack, but many of Gandhi’s supporters and the police urged Gandhi to take action to protect himself; to restrict access to his daily prayer meetings. But the man they call the “Father of the Nation” refused.

Tonight, as Gandhi arrives at the Birla house, he makes his way to the front of the congregation eager to talk about the promise of the future. As he walks through the crowd, he leans on his granddaughter Abha and grandniece Manu for support.

Shortly after Gandhi arrives, a stocky man with a serious look approaches. Man presses his palms together in a sign of reverence. As he bows to touch Gandhi’s feet, the man says, “You are late today for the prayer.”

Gandhi replies, “yes, I am.”

The man stands up from his bow, but in the same hands that were just pressed together in a sign of respect, he now holds a semiautomatic pistol and fires three shots. 

Gandhi collapses. His granddaughter and grandniece rush him inside to his bedroom.

Later that night, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, addresses his nascent nation by radio to deliver the tragic news. Nehru tells them, “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere. I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it.”

Gandhi is dead. Condolences pour in from all around the world, including Pakistan. Pakistan’s leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, writes that the world has lost “one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community… The loss to the Dominion of India is irreparable.”

As word spreads of Gandhi’s death, large crowds gather at the Birla House. That night, Prime Minister Nehru speaks to them, his voice heavy with grief, “The great light is extinguished. Darkness of sorrow and distress surrounds us all.” As he speaks, he breaks down into tears. And the thousands who have gathered weep with him.

The next day, Gandhi’s body is placed on a modified army train. The floor is raised so spectators can see his body in the open coffin. The train is pulled by two hundred men of the Indian Armed Forces, holding four strong ropes. They are joined by over a million individuals, as they collectively carry Gandhi’s body from the Birla House where he died to his final resting place. Another million people come out to watch the procession, and say their goodbye to “the Father of the Nation.”

Word of Gandhi’s death causes mourning throughout the region and the world. Shops and government offices close in India and Pakistan. In India, Indian Prime Minister Nehru will use Gandhi’s death as an opportunity to bring order to his fragile country and crack down on Hindu extremism.

Gandhi’s assassin was a Hindu nationalist who believed Gandhi favored Muslim interests over the interests of his own people. When he heard about Gandhi’s fast on January 12th, he and a group of co-conspirators resolved to murder him. The assassin succeeded in taking Gandhi’s life, but he did not destroy his legacy. 

Act Three: Gandhi’s Funeral


It’s February 12th, 1948 on the banks of the Ganges river, a sacred place in Hindu tradition.

Gandhi’s youngest son, Devdas Gandhi, holds a copper urn in his hands. After Gandhi’s cremation and 13 days of mourning, Gandhi’s ashes have arrived at their final resting place, the river. Devdas fights back tears as he prepares to say goodbye to his father. A huge crowd of curious and grief-stricken faces watches as Gandhi’s son carries the urn to the sacred waters where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet.

As Devdas steps into the water, members of the crowd weep and cry out: “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!”, “Long live Mahatma Gandhi!”

Gandhi’s death sparks immediate and widespread mourning and brings an end to the riots, murders, and violence happening throughout the new nation of India, for a time. Tensions between India and Pakistan, and between Hindus and other religious groups inside India, remain to this day.

Still, Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence indisputably had a lasting impact. He was the architect of a form of nonviolent civil disobedience that inspired activists including Nelson Mandela and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ten years after Gandhi’s death, Dr. King wrote “Mahatma Gandhi has done more than any other person of history to reveal that social problems can be solved without resorting to primitive methods of violence.” And one of Gandhi's last demonstrations of effective nonviolence, fighting for peace in his homeland, was his last fast, announced on January 12th, 1948.



Next on History Daily. January 13th, 1968. American Singer and Songwriter Johnny Cash records his best-selling live album in front of an audience of convicts.

From Noiser and Airship, this isHistory Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.