India became independent on August 15, 1947. On the same day, five years previously, a great patriot died in prison. His name was Mahadev Desai, and he is known to history as ‘Gandhi’s secretary’, a description that scarcely does justice to his contributions to the making of the Mahatma or to the movement for freedom from British rule.
Desai was a lawyer by training and a scholar by temperament. In August 1917, shortly before he joined the Ashram, Gandhi told Desai that ‘I have found in you just the type of young man for whom I have been searching for the last two years.’ He had discovered ‘three outstanding qualities’ in him, these being ‘regularity, fidelity and intelligence’. ‘I have got in you the man I wanted’, Gandhi said to Desai: ‘The man to whom I can entrust all my work some day and be at ease, and to whom I can rely with confidence’.
Nine months later, Gandhi wrote to Desai: ‘You have made yourself indispensable to me. … It is for your efficiency and character that I have chosen you to help me in my political work and you have not disappointed me. Add to this the fact that you can cook khichdi for me, with so much love.’ Then, in February 1919, Gandhi told his nephew Maganlal that Desai ‘has come to be my hands and feet, and my brain as well, so that without him I feel like one who has lost the use of legs and speech. The more I know him, the more I see his virtues. And he is as learned as [he is] virtuous.’
For 25 years, Desai was Gandhi’s closest associate and confidant. Through this period, Desai meant more to Gandhi than Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel (a fact that Nehru and Patel knew and acknowledged). Apart from transcribing Gandhi’s words and drafting his letters, Desai also served as his interpreter, travel manager, interlocutor, fellow jailbird, and, when necessary, cook. Far more learned than his master, he tutored him on sociology, literature, and history, and much else besides. Desai often disputed with Gandhi on matters of principle and politics, and sometimes even got him to change his mind.
Desai and Gandhi were both arrested in Bombay on August 9, 1942, shortly after the passing of the ‘Quit India’ resolution. They were interned in the Aga Khan’s house in Poona, where, six days later, Desai died of a heart attack. He was only 50.
The news of Desai’s passing took some time to seep out of jail. But, as it did, a wave of condolences came in from across the country. A file in the archives has more than 300 letters/telegrams on Desai’s death, addressed to his wife Durga, their son Narayan, or to Gandhi. These were written in Gujarati, Hindi, English, and Marathi, with a couple even in Tamil. They came from, among other places, the Gujarati Mitra Mandali, Secunderabad; the district boards of Madura, Nellore, Chidambaram, Jalgaon, Thana, and Andheri; the staff and students of the Bombay University School of Sociology and Economics (calling Desai ‘one of the most devoted workers in the country’s cause’); the Co-operative Banks of Dhulia and Bulsar; the Ahmedabad Bar Association (noting that Desai was a former member); the Sahitya Sabha of Surat (for Desai was an accomplished and widely published litterateur as well); the Poona Journalists Association (which noted that apart from his services to Gandhi and the nation, ‘as a journalist Shri Desai distinguished himself as an outstanding champion of the freedom of the Press’); and the propaganda secretary of the Punjab Students’ Federation (a Communist front, in theory opposed to the Congress), who wrote to Narayan that ‘your father’s loss is an irreparable loss to the nation. India is today intellectually poorer than it was four days back’ (and so it was).
Perhaps the most poignant of all the letters came from the wife of a Congressman in Delhi in whose house Desai had often stayed. The hostess remembered the affection and intelligence of a man she had come to regard as a brother. ‘Hum kya saara bharat unké liyé rotaa hai’, she said: Why only me, the whole of India weeps for him today, before adding: ‘jab tak Hindusthan aur Mahatma ji ka nam rahega tab tak Mahadev bhai bhi jinda hain’-Till such time as India and the name of Mahatma Gandhi are known, the memory of Mahadev will be alive too. Seventy-five years on, India is independent and democratic, Gandhi is much memorialised (and much criticised), but the role of Mahadev Desai in our freedom struggle is mostly forgotten.
In this age of manufactured patriotism, when politicians (and television anchors) loudly trumpet their love for the country, to recall Desai may seem an anachronism. For one reason he is so little remembered today is that, in addition to all the qualities I have described, he was remarkably self-effacing. But Gandhi himself knew what Desai meant to him and his movement. In September 1938, when Desai came close to a breakdown because of over-work and his refusal to take a holiday, Gandhi wrote to him: ‘Shall we say you have a mania for work? Don’t you know if you were to be disabled, I would be a bird without wings? If you became bed-ridden, I would have to wind up three-fourths of my activities’.
Perhaps no finer or more truthful tribute has ever been paid by a famous politician to a mere ‘secretary’. For Gandhi, more than anyone else, made India; and Mahadev Desai, more than anyone else, made Gandhi.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India Twitter: @Ram_Guha The views expressed are personal