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'I was told not to accept money from Gandhiji'

Last updated on: October 02, 2023 11:46 IST

'Even though Gandhiji did not know me well, Sardar knew and remembered me working with him till the Congress was banned.'

Glimpses from the fascinating memoirs of Chakkedath Sankarankutty Menon, the stenographer who worked for Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel during the freedom struggle.

The second of a multi-part series:

Photograph: Getty Images from the Rediff Archives

One day I happened to meet Dr Choitram Gidwani, a respected Congress leader from Sind and a very close friend and associate of Jairamdas Doulatram, who too was expecting the heavy and ruthless hand of the police upon him at any moment, and told him of my difficulties.

He told me not to worry and directed me to meet Bhulabhai Desai who, he said, was enquiring about me.

I believe that, anticipating arrest and long detention at any time, Sardar Patel had spoken to Bhulabhai Desai to take care of me, if it became necessary.

It is in this way that I came in contact with Bhulabhai Desai (who is affectionately called Bhai by members of the family and close friends) and this association continued in one way or another till today. I have every reason to remember him with gratitude and great respect.

My subsequent career hovered around Bhai and after him, his son Dhirubhai Desai was a benefactor to me. He too had a premature end while working as India's ambassador in Switzerland in 1951 by which time I joined Atul Products Ltd, a firm started by Dhirubhai.

By the end of January 1932, as directed by Dr Gidwani I met Bhulabhai at his residence at 89, Warden Road (now Bhulabhai Desai Road) in Bombay.

Bhai enquired everything about me and said that since the civil disobedience was on in full swing, advised me to continue to work for the civil disobedience movement. When the movement ended and normalcy returned, he and Dhirubhai would be practicing in court at which time I would be employed in their service.

All my monetary requirements, while working in the Congress movement, would be met by him.

This arrangement gave me confidence and consolation.

At that time, of all the Congress leaders of Bombay, Bhai was perhaps the one Congress leader of high standing not arrested by the police. Most of the other leaders has been arrested and detained by the police.

I then came in contact with Jayaprakash Narayan, who had gone underground. When the civil disobedience started he was leading the all India movement from Bombay.

Bhai and Jayaprakash used to meet often in different places. I used to arrange these meetings. It was Bhai's specific instruction that I and I alone of anybody in the Congress circle could meet him at any time at his residence, his office or even in court for any matter concerning the Congress.

I used to carry bags of money from him often to JP at his secret hideouts (which he used to change quite often) for expenses of the movement in Bombay and even for outside Bombay. I had to do a lot of go between.

IMAGE: The Mahatma signs autographs in return for donations to the Harijan Fund. This happy picture of Gandhi was taken at Juhu in Bombay. Photograph: Photodivision

All along I had some clues to suspect that the police and CID knew me well. I believe they spared me only to be followed so as to enable them to trace the hiding places of the underground leaders.

This went on till the end of July/August 1932 when the police finally arrested Bhai and took him to Nasik jail. He was subsequently produced before the magistrate who sentenced him to be jailed for a period of one year.

Thus, one more powerful leader was removed by the police in Bombay leaving JP and, if I am correct, Achyut Patwardhan who used to move from one city/province to another all over India.

I used to visit Nasik often to enquire about Bhai's health, sometimes along with Dhirubhai to know Bhai's requirements. I could not see him in jail, but used to pass work through the jail authorities.

In early April 1933, word came from Mahatmaji from Poona jail asking Dhirubhai (in the absence of Bhai who was in Nasik jail) to send me to Poona to work with him as, by then, the government had permitted him to have a stenographer to help him.

I believe Gandhiji sent for me at the instance of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In jail, both of them stayed together and even though Gandhiji did not know me well enough, Sardar knew and remembered me working with him till the Congress was banned by the government.

Sardar had asked Bhai to look after me during his absence.

IMAGE: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhhai Patel, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Kasturba Gandhi photographed during the Haripura Congress session in 1939. Photograph: Photodivision

On receipt of the communication from Gandhiji by Dhirubhai, on the same night I proceeded to Poona with a typewriter and other typing materials.

Before leaving for Poona, Dhirubhai strictly instructed me not to accept any payment from Gandhiji.

I had only to send a postcard to Dhirubhai for him to send a money order within 4-5 days. This procedure continued for all the time -- about 10 months -- I worked with Gandhiji.

I returned to Bombay in early 1934 by which time Bhai, after the expiry of his jail term and after his release, went to England for some rest and treatment. He returned to Bombay and resumed his practice in the Bombay high court along with Dhirubhai and I continued to work with them.

On reaching the gate at the Poona central prison at about 9 in the morning I sent word inside, through the jail authorities, of my arrival to Gandhiji who asked the warden to bring me inside to him. The warden took me to Gandhiji who was sitting in a courtyard with walls around on the left side.

It was behind this courtyard that he used to spend the night. Only during the day would Gandhiji come to the courtyard where he worked.

When I met Gandhiji he was sitting under a mango tree.

This was my first meeting with Gandhiji by myself and I do not remember what my feeling was then.

Translated from the Malayalam by Pottayil Aravindakshan Nair.