A Conflict Resolved with Bananas

An Excerpt from "Profiles" in One of Us:  Adventures in Living 
by Ruth E. Bergevin  (Missionary and Girl's School Principal in India, 1917-1958) 

   India's awareness of herself as a people of dignity, and as a nation entitled to govern herself and become free from British rule, was given her by Mahatma Gandhi.  He urged complete non-violence and peaceful non-cooperation with Government to attain this end.  I have witnessed the exceeding efficacy of this power.  Government schools, colleges, courts, places of business, etc., were compelled to close sometimes by people, in the hundreds and thousands, lying side by side on the grounds surrounding these institutions - or by other non-violent means.

    As the years of peaceful protests continued, however, and independence seemed as far away as ever, the masses grew restless and rioting and violence became more and more frequent.  Many public buildings were broken into and property damage was extensive.  In some cases, bodily injury was inflicted.  Our high school for boys in the heart of the business section of the city was badly damaged, classes suspended, and a heavy police guard placed around it.  Mission schools were urged to have police guards to protect both life and property, but I was allowed by the Governing Board of our school to do whatever I deemed necessary.  I chose not to have the police patrolling our grounds.

    One day we were having our morning chapel service in our Assembly Hall, when a large crowd of from three to five hundred men and boys, with long staves studded with steel tips, began winding up our long entrance driveway.  Their frenzied shouts of "Inquilab Zinda bad" ("Long live the Revolution") and such slogans were indeed frightening.  I was glad the students and staff were all together - the only time of the day when they would be.

    I had to make a quick decision.  I asked the teachers to keep the students singing, reciting lessons, or stories, and for no one, no one, to leave the hall while I went out to meet the group.  Some of the staff wanted to go with me, but I felt it better to go alone, and it proved to be a wise decision.  My very aloneness as I walked down the driveway to meet the mob took them by surprise and they quieted down.

    I greeted them courteously, said it was obvious I could not speak to all of them to be heard, and would they choose ten or more of their leaders to come to my office and discuss with me their concern and mission.  They accepted this, fortunately, and while they were choosing who should represent them, I had the peon (who always sat at the school door and acted as our school inter-com telephone system) get the gardener to bring a basket of fresh bananas to the office - something all castes of us could eat together.

    We all sat around in a circle on the floor, talking very loudly and heatedly at first - and eating bananas.  They wanted me to close the school as a sign of protest and if I did not do so, they would do it for me.  I pointed out that the school was in no way connected with the government, that it was serving their daughters, sisters, cousins, and that they were safer in our school than in their own homes in the city, also that we shared in India's hopes and ambitions, but that we did not believe in, nor want, violence, that we were convinced that following The Mahatma's peaceful resistance was best for all concerned, etc., etc.

    It took a lot of talking, a lot of time (and banana peels were all over the place), but it was wonderful to see understanding and trust break through their hostility and passion.  I promised not to put a police guard around our school, and to have a teacher and a man from our maintenance staff accompany the bus driver as he drove through the city to get the students - their children and relatives, many of whom had been kept at home out of fear.  They, in turn, promised to see to it that we were not in any way harassed or harmed, and they kept their word, as did we.  We remained a haven of quietness and peace during many turbulent months.

    How relieved the students and staff were to see the group going quietly down the driveway, and to be released from their temporary imprisonment.  Never had there been a longer or more unusual chapel service!

    Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was for a time imprisoned in the Dehra Dun jail, and small groups of staff and older students occasionally  took books, fruit or flowers to him and to others of his fellow political prisoners.  This was good public relations for the school, and also served to ventilate the nationalistic emotions of staff and students.

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