Mahadev Desai: More than the Mahatma’s shadow


Mahadev Desai : Mahatma’s shadow

August 15, celebrated as the Independence Day, also happens to be the death anniversary of Mahadevbhai Desai, who was Mahatma Gandhi’s private secretary and chronicler of his day-to-day life for 25 years.

Mahadevbhai died on August 15, 1942 in Aga Khan palace, Pune, where he along with Gandhiji, Kasturba, Sushila Nayar and Miraben were kept under detention following the ‘Quit India’ ultimatum to the British. The ominous possibility of Gandhiji embarking on a fast-unto-death had weighed heavily on the mind of Mahadevbhai, which, according to Dr Sushila Nayar, might have led to hypertension and caused the cardiac arrest.

Mahadevbhai was more than a shadow to Mahatma Gandhi who had described him as his heir within a few years of the former joining him as his secretary. Mahadevbhai, the son of a poor primary school teacher, joined Gandhiji in November 1917 at the  age of 25 and remained with him till his untimely death in 1942. He was only 50 at the time.

Day-to-day with Gandhi

Mahadevbhai’s life-long desire was to write Mahatma Gandhi’s biography, a desire he could not fulfil because of his untimely death at the age of 50 while under imprisonment in Aga Khan Palace. He began writing his diary on November 11, 1917, a week after he joined Gandhiji as his secretary, and continued writing till August 14, 1942, a day before he died.

In his diary Mahadevbhai had meticulously recorded letters, speeches, conversations and even inner-most thoughts of Gandhiji during his 25-year-long association with Gandhiji as his secretary. So authentic were the reports of Gandhiji’s speeches, delivered extempore mostly in Gujarati and Hindustani that ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ too has largely relied on Mahadevbhai’s diary.

Mahadevbhai’s diary, which is aptly called ‘Day-to-day with Gandhi’, has recorded history as it was happening in the run up to India’s independence through  the epic non-violent freedom struggle led by the father of the nation.

As Mahatma Gandhi’s aide and confidant, who always accompanied him like a shadow, Mahadevbhai had the unique advantage of observing the unfolding events of national and international importance from the perspective of Gandhiji who master-minded and lead the war of independence through the non-violent means of Satyagraha.

Journalist who chronicled history

Besides writing a diary, Mahadevbhai also wrote a newsletter under his initials M.D. in Gandhiji’s weeklies, Young India, Navajivan and Harijan. He also contributed to various newspapers like The Hindustan Times, Bombay Chronicle, Free Press, Amrita Bazar Patrika, The Hindu and The Illustrated Weekly of India.

After Gandhiji was arrested, Mahadevbhai took over the editorship of Young India and Navajivan weeklies and later when the weekly Harijan was started, he became its editor, a responsibility he held till his death. Mahadevbhai’s contribution to these weeklies runs into thousands of pages.

Mahadevbhai had covered a vast range of subjects – from all major events of the freedom struggle to profiles of leading actors in them; from the ruin of the Indian economy under the British Raj to economics of khadi and village industries; from profiles of  national leaders to pen sketches of unknown village constructive worker; from in-depth coverage of the Congress party’s sessions to analysis of national and international affairs; from literary criticism to commentary on media reports; from travelogues to human interest stories. Mahadevbhai was chronicling history as it was happening between 1917 and 1942.

Hand-written Independent 

Mahadevbhai’s services were sought by Pandit Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal Nehru to shoulder the responsibility of the editor of their daily newspaper The Independent from Allahabad. Mahadevbhai created history on December 22, 1921 when he brought out a hand-written manuscript of the newspaper The Independent after the government forfeited its security deposit of Rs.3,000.

Mahadevbhai joined The Independent as the deputy editor under George Joseph on July 3, 1921 and took over as the editor on December 7 following the latter’s arrest. Immediately, the government demanded a security of Rs 3,000 from publishers of The Independent. However, on December 20, the security was forfeited.

Mahadevbhai decided to issue hand-written copies of the newspaper. Both Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru were already in jail and the other directors of the newspaper did not allow Mahadevbhai to operate from the office of The Independent fearing police action. Mahadevbhai decided to bring out the newspaper from Anand Bhavan, the residence of the Nehrus. He was able to bring out ten copies of the hand-written newspaper with the help of copying paper, working from 5 in the evening of December 21 to 5 in the morning of the next day.

Sentenced to prison

Being a novelty it became popular and fancy prices were paid for it. “I change, but I cannot die” was the tagline over the masthead. The six-page hand-written newspaper carried editorial on its front page with the title ‘Ourselves’.

Mahadevbhai was sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment on December 24, 1921 as the Editor of The Independent and sent to the Naini Jail near Allahabad. In the jail, he was treated like a common criminal and kept in solitary confinement. This was his first experience of going to jail. He silently submitted to the prison’s hardship and unhygienic living conditions. He was greatly pained to witness the torture of his fellow prisoners by the jail officials.

Mahadevbhai got the opportunity of writing down a comprehensive report on the inhuman conditions in prison. He managed to hand over this report to Devdas Gandhi, who had come along with Mahadevbhai’s wife Durgaben to see him. This was in violation of the prison rules. Yet, Gandhiji published the report in both Navajivan and Young India.

The expose of the inhuman conditions in jail compelled the government to bring in some measures of reforms in the prisons in the country.

When Mahadevbhai died all of a sudden, Gandhiji felt the loss of not just a loyal assistant but a son. It was Gandhiji who applied sandalwood paste on the body and lit the pyre. Till he was released from prison, Gandhiji prayed every day before the memorial of Mahadevbhai inside the campus of  Aga Khan Palace.



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