She said: Recounting being the Mahatma’s dandi at 15 years

Urmila Rau Lal
The spirit of ‘Quit India’, that came soon after Gandhiji’s Satyagraha movement, enthused many children to fight for the country’s freedom. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

The year was 1931, a very crucial year for Indian politics, with Mahatma Gandhi and others at the helm of the freedom struggle. Caroline Miller, a teacher at Allahabad’s Crosswaithe College, and Ramchandar Lakshman Rau, a journalist with The Hindu newspaper in Allahabad (now Prayagraj), decided to tie the knot and take part in India’s struggle for freedom.

Since she was a Christian and he a Hindu Brahmin, it had to be a court marriage. Two weeks before the wedding, the couple had to give a notice to the court registrar. The wedding took place in Allahabad on February 2, 1931. This was the first inter-religious and first inter-caste marriage of the year. The registrar, a Mr Mumford, after whom Mumfordganj in Allahabad is named, issued a certificate. The wedding had two witnesses — the then principal of Crosswaithe College, C R Powiah, and a trustee of the college’s board. However, the main witness was not present as he was observing ‘maun vrat (fast of silence)’.

It was Mahatma Gandhi.

After the ceremony, the newly married couple went to Anand Bhavan to request Gandhiji to sign the certificate. Gandhiji had known the couple since the early days of the freedom struggle. After signing the document, he turned it over and wrote, “May you both live long to serve the nation”. The certificate now lies at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, among R L Rau’s other documents.

For those wondering about this preamble, I happen to be the daughter of this illustrious couple.

My first encounter with Gandhiji, which was also perhaps my last, was spurred by the colossal turn of events that took place before his assassination on January 30, 1948. It all began when I joined the 1942 Quit India movement spearheaded by him. I was nine years old. The movement had taken shape after the failure of talks between the British and our national leaders. We saw our parents, relatives and friends join the revolt. Leaders such as Sucheta Kriplani, Acharya J B Kripalani, Maulana Azad, Lakshmi Sahgal, Dr Krishnabai Nimbkar, and Aruna Asaf Ali plunged headlong into the movement.

The spirit of ‘Quit India’, that came soon after Gandhiji’s Satyagraha movement, enthused many children to fight for the country’s freedom. About a hundred of us left school, much to the chagrin of our teachers, and took to the streets of New Delhi shouting “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Bharat Chhodo” slogans. We were bundled off in police vans and sent to Delhi’s Central Jail (now Tihar Jail). The British soldiers at the jail welcomed us with chocolates. We didn’t give in to the temptation. We kept a fast and did not even drink water. We were released after a day.

On August 14, 1947, the British gave up and we achieved freedom the next day. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister of India. It was one of the most poignant moments. I was 13, and understood the meaning of the freedom struggle and the reason for my parents’ participation in it better. I could soak and absorb the contents much more.

On August 14, 1947, around 11 pm, my parents and I went to the Central Hall of Parliament. With bated breath we awaited the stroke of midnight. When the moment came, the air rent with cries of ‘Jai Bharat’ and ‘Jai Hind’. Like Nehru said, “...When the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

The next day, August 15, 1947, was a day of reckoning and joy for every Indian. We reached the Red Fort before sun break. At 7 am, Nehru arrived, dressed in a simple kurta-pyjama and the famous ‘Nehru jacket’, and unfurled the Tricolour to the rendition of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ at exactly 7 am. It was a proud moment. We breathed free in a free nation.

As mentioned earlier, my most memorable encounter with Gandhiji was on the penultimate day of his assassination. On January 28, 1948, my friend and classmate at New Delhi’s Modern High School, Tara Bhattacharya (née Gandhi), Gandhiji’s grand-daughter, asked me to accompany her to Birla House, where Gandhiji held his prayer meetings. She told me we would be his ‘dandis (sticks)’ — he would place his hands on our shoulders and be escorted to the prayer platform. It was a great honour for me to have the Father of the Nation bless me with his hands on my shoulders. We escorted him to the Prarthana Manch, from where he sat and addressed a large gathering of people.

During the course of the prayer meeting, an explosion occurred on the grounds of Birla House. It was not clear if it was linked to Nathuram Godse, but perhaps it was a sign of the events to come.

After the address, I touched Gandhiji’s feet, and asked him to bless me. He said, “Ab toh hum chale, tumhare kandhon aur hathon mein iss desh ko saunp kar. Tum phoolo aur phalo. Is desh ki tarakki ke bhavishya bano. Bhagwan tumhe bhala aur surakshit rakhe (We are leaving now, handing over this country to you. May you flower and grow. Become the future of the nation’s success. May God keep you healthy and safe).”

(This article first appeared in the October 20 print edition under the title ‘She said: Being the Mahatma’s dandi at 15 years’. Lal is a former DRDO scientist. National Editor Shalini Langer curates the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column