Human greatness is not muscular strength, but the greatness of character. – Chinmaya
Once, in Europe, a man came to Swami Vivekananda and, ridiculing his ochre robe, said, “Why can’t you dress up like a gentleman?”
Swami Vivekananda said, “In your country tailors make you gentlemen; in our country character makes us gentlemen.”
True strength is the strength of character.
This incident happened when the freedom struggle movement was at its peak in India.
The procession, seeking independence from British rule, kept marching on. It included children, youth and old alike. Carrying flags, banners and placards, they loudly chanted ‘Vande Mataram!’ and marched ahead.
A group of policemen were posted on the crossroads to stop the procession from proceeding further.
The police officer, Birbal Singh, came on his horse in front of the procession, and announced: “ You have no permission to go further.”
Ibrahim Ali, the elderly leader of the procession and a staunch Gandhian, came forward and said: “I promise you, there won’t be any riots of any kind. Ours is a peaceful and non-violent procession. We are not here to loot the shops or burn the vehicles. We have a higher purpose.”
Birbal Singh: “I have to obey the orders of my superiors.”
Ibrahim Ali: “Why don’t you consult your higher officers?”
Birbal: “I don’t think it is necessary.”
Ibrahim: “In that case, we will sit here.”
Birbal: “You don’t have the permission to sit here. You must disperse.”
Ibrahim: “You may stop us, but you can’t send us back. What a tragedy! Educated Indians like you have become the enemies of our country. When will that day come when our brothers in a spirit of oneness fight this battle together!”
Birbal, hearing these words, felt greatly embarrassed. It was then that he saw DSP, his higher officer, monitoring the scene. This was a golden opportunity, he felt, to prove his superiors his loyalty, skill and efficiency.
He charged the horse towards the procession, and with great force, hit Ibrahim’s head with his baton. The elderly man, holding his profusely bleeding head, fell on the ground, unable to stand. Birbal raised the front hooves of his horse and stamped on Ibrahim.
The old man, being trampled by the horse, became unconscious. The onlookers could not bear this heartbreaking scene. They plunged into action. With two bamboo poles and tying some spare clothes, a stretcher was made and the old man was taken away to safety.
But the incident created a commotion among the masses. Soon a heavy lathi charge followed.
The activists, by their sheer numbers, could have done away with these policemen. But their path was the path of non-violence, not the path of revenge and bloodshed.
Inspired by their leader, Mahatma Gandhi, these freedom fighters received all blows without retaliation. Soon many had their heads, hands and legs broken, swollen and bleeding.
Gandhiji was clear, “Unless we touch the conscience of the people, we can never make this independence struggle a mass movement. And to do this, we need men of character who would die, but never deviate from the path of virtue.”
Gandhiji had himself led the path umpteen number of times. There were times when he was knocked off, bleeding and unconscious, but he never raised his hand in protest or even for self-protection. He firmly believed that the Lord would take care of his devotees who have completely surrendered unto Him.
And this was exactly what happened here too.
The activists were non-violent but firm, peaceful but unyielding, humble yet uncompromising. Even when beaten ruthlessly, they received these blows without fear, without stepping back, without a grumble, without retaliation. The onlookers on the roadsides, who were passive till then, were unable to watch this heart-rending scene. Their hearts swelled in pride yet melted in love and sympathy for their self-sacrificing fellowmen. Their conscience did not allow them to be mere onlookers and they too stepped in, in support of the righteous cause of the freedom fighters. It soon became a mass movement.
Three days passed by. At home, Birbal could never be at peace. Tremendous guilt ate him from within.
When his wife, Mittan Bai, came to know from others what her husband had done to the activists, she could not control herself. She stormed in front of him and spoke to him firmly: “I never knew you are such a coward.”
Birbal: “You don’t understand my situation.”
Mittan Bai: “I know very well your purpose of hitting that elderly man. You wanted to impress that DSP who was watching you from behind. You may thus enter in his good books, and may possibly get a promotion.”
Birbal: “True. If I had not acted, it would be a black mark on my performance, and I would be replaced by someone else. But I am sure, DSP sir must have noted my act and my loyalty towards the Government. My promotion cannot be far off.”
Mittan Bai: “This promotion is not a reward to be proud of, but a bribe to be ashamed of. A promotion gained by staining your hands with the blood of these innocent and helpless ones – you think it is praiseworthy? Shame on you!”
Her words pierced his heart and he had no answer to give. He had never seen her so firm and ferocious. Morally broke, he was crumbling from within.
It was then that he got the news from his superiors that a huge procession was marching through the streets. He quickly wore his uniform, got his revolver, put on his hat and mounted the horse. He quickly got his police troops ready to face any untoward incident.
The procession was a mourning one. Ibrahim Ali, who was badly injured in the lathi charge, had passed away, and the whole village was plunged in sorrow.
Hundreds gathered to offer their prostrations at the feet of this saintly man – a man of values, a staunch devotee of Mahatma Gandhi, a selfless patriot.
At the time of death, as a dying wish, Ibrahim had expressed the desire that his body should be buried after bathing it in Ganga, and that a tri-colour flag must be fixed above his body on the burial ground.
The procession was proceeding to give a ceremonial bath to his deceased body in Ganga. As the procession marched forward the crowd roared ‘Vande Mataram!’ in unison.
Birbal kept patrolling the procession. To his shock, he saw a familiar face in the procession – his wife, Mittan Bai! She turned her face away seeing him. Her face reflected how much contempt and disregard she had for him.
As he moved along with the procession, a lady shouted pointing at Birbal: “He is the one who killed this noble man.”
An old lady, hearing this, looked at Birbal and screamed: “If you were to be born as my son, I would have killed you from the very birth itself.”
People had gathered on both the sides of the roads, on the terrace, on the balconies etc., to get a last glimpse of this great leader. It was indeed a wonder to watch how a single man, through his spirit of non-violence, had inspired hundreds to dedicate their life to freedom struggle.
As the ceremonial bath was given to the body of Ibrahim Ali, Birbal came near to get a final glance. The baton-mark – turned dark due to blood-clot – was clearly visible on the calm lifeless face of Ali. Birbal’s whole being trembled, and his conscience did not allow him to gaze at that face for long.
The body was bathed in the Ganges. By 2 pm the procession returned.
Mittal Bai did not want to return to her husband’s house. She did not want to live with a person who had done such a heinous act. But where will she go? At that moment she remembered the old childless widow of Ibrahim Ali. “Poor lady! She must be sitting alone, weeping and wailing, having none to console her. From now on, I will serve her the rest of my life. Only then my soul will have peace.”
Passing through a narrow lane, amidst the huts of the poor, Mittan Bai found Ibrahim Ali’s house. Outside the old tattered house, on a cot, this old widow of Ali was seated. Next to her was a young man in a simple dress, holding her hand and talking to her.
Mittan Bai casually glanced at this man. She was shocked. He was Birbal!
She asked in a serious tone: “Why are you here?”
Birbal controlled his emotions. After a brief silence, he said: “I have come to seek forgiveness and to wash away my sins. I have resigned from my job. God willing, may I walk the path shown by this great man and dedicate my life to the cause of these freedom fighters.”
Mittan Bai felt as though a great burden was removed from her heart.
Gandhiji created very many ‘Ibrahim Ali’s all over India. Such was the influence of this Mahatma that many eminent personalities in the British Government became his ardent devotees and supported the cause of India’s independence.
The world-famous scientist and the man who paved the way for nuclear bombs, Albert Einstein described Gandhiji thus: “The future generations may not even believe that such a person walked upon this earth in flesh and blood!”
What was the strength of men like Gandhiji and Ibrahim Ali?
Not the strength of money-power, muscle-power, or man-power, but the strength of their character.