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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 41

O, Gandhiji, Where Art Thou?

Friday 5 October 2007, by Som Benegal


Gandhigiri is much in the air, nowadays. It is, of course, with the young new generation growing up and fortunately looking around to see what the lie of land is and how they fit into it, and what they should do about it to mould it to their hearts’ desire. I do not accept the utterly mis-conceived notion that the young generation is only concerned with itself and only with the reckless up-in-the-air fun of life detached from the realities—the stark realities—on the ground. The young generation may appear to some to be concerned only with the glitz and glamour of the so-called rich countries, particularly, indeed wholly, of the US West. But they are also aware, even bewildered, by the manic violence that prevails there, and simultaneously, of the yearning for inner spiritual peace and repose.

That is the paradox and contradiction between the struggle of materialism and spiritualism.

In many ways, then, the quest of our young generation is something very laudable and worthy of encouragement. It is very important that they must not be misled into false and superficial ideas of the basic values of Gandhiji which could lead to disappointment, disenchantment and disillusionment. So far Gandhigiri has appeared in the form of films and media entertainment. Good as it is, it must take on more serious and substantial founda-tions. The young generation is capable, competent and primed to accept the challenge and its affirmative outcome.

But, what of the generation that should give them the impetus, thrust, and trail-blazing path? What we see today of the old generation at the higher level is the lowest form of conduct, behaviour and example. All public behaviour of most of our leaders today is the very opposite of Gandhigiri, perhaps best described as Gandi-giri! Alas, alas.

O Gandhiji, where art thou? India hath need of thee! It has been today made by its leaders of stagnant minds into a stagnant swamp instead of a just, equitable, energetic, prosperous polity opening up a land of peace that is bright and an inspiration for the world.

(Courtesy : Neighbourhood Flash) to were habitual wearers of khadi (made of hand-made yarn and hand woven), which symbolised the movement started by Gandhiji. We must have absorbed all this in our subconscious. But, it did not have any visible effect on our daily lives. We went about focusing our activities on our academic pursuits and playfields. Then came the stormy days of the ‘Quit India’ movement.

I had entered the Maharaja’s College in Mysore and joined the three-year Honours course in English Language and Literature. When the news of the historic meeting in Bombay—where the ‘Quit India’ movement was launched under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi—came, it electrified the country. It was from Bombay that a call was given to boycott all government institutions, educational, administrative, and judicial and launch a general non-cooperation movement, and the whole nation responded. We students stayed away from college and held a meeting outside. Fiery speeches were made. We were exhorted to be prepared to face bullets, gallows or jail. On the spur of the moment I took off my sacred thread as Gandhiji had advised us to renounce the caste system. At the rally, it was decided that we should organise prabhaat pheris or early morning processions in as many areas in the city as possible as well as big daily processions through the main streets of the city, singing patriotic songs and slogans against the British rule.

In the area where I was living, some of us mooted the idea of teaching the national language, Hindi, and spinning yarn with the help of the charkha. A sympathetic resident, who owned a house, which was yet to be rented out, offered us the use of this house for the purpose. A volunteer who knew Hindi was found. Someone brought the news that there were a number of unused charkhas lying in the storeroom of the District Board office. We managed to secure them with the help of the Chairman of the District Board, who turned out to be sympathetic to our cause. Thus was born our own national school in no time. That very evening, when my father discovered that I was no longer wearing the sacred thread, he questioned me and I told him the truth. He asked me to get out of the house and never cross the threshold again. I bowed to him and spent the night in the school we had started.

The next day I and many other friends were arrested and taken to the local sub-jail where we were lodged as detenus. The period of some months that I spent in jail saw a sea-change in my attitude to life and my views on various matters. From an apolitical teenager I turned into a keen political activist. Since not all the employees and warders, who could walk in and out the jail, were inimical to our cause, apart from news of what was happening around the country, books, political pamphlets and other literature found their way into the jail. Also, there were some older detenus who were well read and had taken part in earlier agitations as satyagrahis. I got greatly interested in economics and history, especially contemporary history. I devoured whatever reading material came my way. I read a lot about the events of the First and Second World Wars. I was greatly moved by the horrors of the Hitler years. I was equally affected by the events that culminated in the birth of the Soviet Union. My days in jail were spent in reading and intense discussions with others.

All the detenus were released from prison in the latter half of December the same year. All the students returned to their respective educational institutions. Some of us had decided to resume our political activities along with our studies. While in jail I was greatly influenced by socialist thinkers and writers. This included the well-known Marxist thinker, M.N. Roy. It was natural, therefore, for me to be drawn towards some like-minded students in the college. We used to meet in the evenings and discuss current political events and what the socialist and radical leaders said and wrote. I decided to work with the Communists. In spite of differences on issues like trade union rights for workers and land to the landless farmers, the Communists continued to work in collabora-tion with the Congress under the leadership of Gandhiji. We felt that he was the only leader who could take all sections of the Indian society, Hindus, Muslims and others together towards freedom. We did have differences with the Congress on the Muslim question. The Communists felt that the Soviet example should be followed by giving the right of self-determination to them where they formed the majority so that they form a voluntary federation, which would keep the country together with everyone’s freedom assured. But this was not to be. The Cripps’ Mission and the events that followed led the Indian National Congress to accept the demand of Pakistan even against the bitter opposition of Gandhiji. Till the end the Communists called upon Gandhiji and Jinnah to meet again and resolve the issue without partitioning the country. Partition became inevitable and Pakistan was carved out as a new nation. A little after six months came the tragic assassination of Gandhiji at a prayer meeting. So ended an era on a sad note.

The country was yet to cope with the communal massacres on both sides of the partition. It was only after the Constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly and adopted as the Constitution of India legally that one could turn one’s attention to building the future of the country. It was then that the differences between Gandhiji’s ideals and the Nehruvian approach, obviously influenced by the Soviet Union of central planning, came to the fore. Not that the idea of planning was totally new. Urged by Nehru and other like-minded leaders, the Congress had set up a National Planning Committee under the well-known economist K.T. Shah. The Communists backed these efforts wholeheartedly. Nehru set up the Planning Commission. He found an able aide in this task, the well-known statistician, Mahalanobis. The first two Five-Year Plans concentrated on laying the foundation for a countrywide irrigation and power generation and supply system. The entire planning was done at the central level. This seemed right, as it would give an integrated outlook on the country’s needs. But, it differed radically from Gandhiji’s ideas of completely decentralising legislation and adminis-tration. The Communists merrily supported central planning. It was only about three decades later that the country awoke to the yawning gulf between the planning and the execution. Then it was realised that much of this was due to alienationof the central planners and executives from the grassroots needs. So, decentralisation was the need of the hour. Gandhiji had laid down a fundamental basis for determining any policy decision. Think of the poorest Indian in the remote villages and ask yourself if this policy would better his condition in the smallest way and then decide. So, Gandhiji had not become irrelevant, after all!

After the basic industries like steel and heavy machinery were set up, ancillary industries like engineering came up rapidly. Gandhi and Gandhiism started to become fading memories. Rapid growth of ancillary industries and the growth of the textile industry brought to the fore the basic conflict between organised industrial labour and the owners of industries. Gandhi’s idea of calling upon the captains of industry to consider themselves as trustees vested with the responsibility of looking after the interests of every- one, including the workers, came to one’s mind. It brought back morality and justice as important factors in economic relations. We began to relearn Gandhism all over again.

Meanwhile, Gandhi’s influence in African countries, still struggling for their freedom, was growing enormously. It was, naturally, more evident in South Africa, where Gandhi had started his experiment of non-violent satyagraha. The most outstanding Gandhian leader of modern times has been Nelson Mandela, who went on to become the first President of the free Republic of South Africa. Perhaps, the Truth and Reconcilia-tion Commission set up by Mandela with the help of his fellow Gandhian, Bishop Tutu, to bring together the oppressors and oppressed into one cohesive social fold will go down in human history as the greatest non-violent revolution to date.

Gandhi’s influence travelled as far as to the bastion of Western democracy and capitalism, the USA. The Black American leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by Gandhiji and his work and successfully used non-violent satyagraha protest against racial discrimination. The famous Freedom March that he led to Washington D.C., and the equally memorable speech he made— starting with the ringing words “I have a dream”— have already gone down in the annals of the history of the Black American movement.

IN my personal life, I got a great opportunity to rethink about the basic principles of Gandhism and its contemporary relevance. In November 1959, I joined the Films Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as a senior commentary writer in English for their documentary and news films. In early 1962 I took over as chief of the News Film Section. Apart from producing the weekly newsreels, I dabbled in making some documentary films on very relevant topics like Devaluation of the Rupee, the Green Revolution etc., which I preferred to call current affairs films. About a year before the Gandhi Centenary celebrations were to start, the then Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of I&B, Asok Mitra, who was a distinguished demographer, asked me to submit my ideas on how the Films Division could contribute to the Gandhi Centenary celebrations. I thought about it for a few days and suggested that the best way to pay tribute to the Mahatma would be not by making a couple of laudatory films but to present the authentic proof by picture and sound in a true Gandhian spirit by producing four documentary films on the present situation on subjects close to Gandhiji’s heart, namely,

a. Abolition of Untouchability;

b. Status of the Indian Woman;

c. Indian Youth and their Role in National Reconstruction; and

d. National Integration.

To my great and happy surprise, this suggestion was accepted and I was asked to produce these four films.

1. An Ancient Curse;

2. The Indian Woman;

3. A Boundless Ideal; and

4. Quest for a Nation

Before I set out to make the first film I sought and was lucky to get an interview with the well-known sociologist and Gandhian, Prof Nirmal Kumar Bose, who was then the Chairman of the Scheduled Castes’ and Scheduled Tribes’ Commission. I acquainted him with what I had in my mind and he gave me an insight into the problem and said that the nation had not yet realised the enormity of the problem and the inherent injustice that had to be uprooted from Indian society. As I was leaving after thanking him, he wished me well and added with a smile: ‘I wonder if you will be allowed to make such a film.’ I smiled back and said: ‘Sir, but I can make an earnest try.’

I got busy for the next few months shooting and and completing the film along with a colleague, Abraham, who was also an excellent editor. We found untouchability being practised in Sewagram at Wardha, founded by Gandhiji himself. The worst atrocity perpetrated against the Scheduled Castes that very year was at village Kilvenmani in Tanjore district in Tamil Nadu. The prosperous landowners there were able to harvest an extra paddy crop thanks to the irrigation facilities and improved seeds, fertilisers and pesticides apart from mechanisation. When the landless labourers, who belonged to the Scheduled Castes, wanted an increase in their wages, the landowning Nadars decided to teach them a lesson. One evening when the menfolk were away, some 40 women and children were herded into a hut, locked in and burnt to death. This incident shocked the nation. I decided to include this incident in the film. When I was in Tanjore about a month later to get shots of the famous temple where the legendary Scheduled Caste devotee, Nandanar, was forced to sing his songs outside the temple, I casually mentioned to the District Collector, Kilvenmani and he became very agitated. He told me that some radicals were trying to exaggerate the incident and said that it was just a local clash between the labourers and landowners. He dissuaded me from going there and wasting my time. I did not pursue the matter with him. But I had made up my mind to go there and made my own plans. After finishing shooting some farming activities around there, I bade good-bye to the Collector and told him that we were leaving for Chidambaram early next morning. Meanwhile, I had engaged a taxi to take my three- man team to Kilvenmani very early the next morning and on towards Chidambaram.

I found that the police had cordoned off Kilvenmani. I used my Civil Servant’s ID card issued by the Home Ministry for entry into the various Central Government offices in New Delhi. As we entered the village I found a lone policeman patrolling the place while the others had gone out for their tea and breakfast. I again flashed my Home Ministry ID and fortunately it worked. I had had asked my cameraman to walk a few steps before me with his camera lens facing backwards while slinging it on his shoulders casually and keep it running all the time. My recordist was walking beside with his tape recorder hanging from his shoulder and holding the microphone close to me while I carried on a conversation with the villagers as I walked along the devastating scene of the village. It was exactly a month after the ghastly incident. One old distraught woman was wailing her heart out in front of the burnt hut remembering the many members of her family who died that day. That scene haunts me to this day. I remembered another day some two decades ago in February 1948, as I went round Gandhiji’s samadhi. I wondered if this was the way we Indians were celebrating the Mahatma’s Centenary! We quickly recorded what we saw and heard on film and sound tape and left the village. Now I understood why the Collector was so anxious to keep me away from this village! After the film was shot and put together, I got it approved by the Censor and Film Advisory Boards. I was happy that we were able to make a truthful film.

I was not prepared for the rude shock that I got. The I &B Secretary called me up a couple of days later to tell me that he was very sorry to inform me that the Ministry for Social Welfare, which was concerned with the eradication of untoucha-bility, had not approved of such a film being released. I was stunned. But, I did not want to give up. I went to Delhi. The Secretary was kind enough to show me the file and fill me up with the details. I found that the Secretary to the Government, Ministry of Social Welfare, had not seen the film himself but had gone by the advice of his Joint Secretary that such a film should not be released. I requested the I&B Secretary to permit me to make one more attempt to get the film approved. He wished me well and said ‘go ahead’. I immediately went over to the Social Welfare Ministry and saw the Secretary. I told him that everything in the film was truthful and that I was prepared to cut out anything that was objectiona-ble. I requested him to see the film himself. He agreed to see it the next day at the Films Division auditorium. Now, I thought of a strategy. If I could only get the Chairman of the SC and ST Commission, whom I had consulted earlier, to see the film and give his opinion, the film had a chance of seeing the light of the day. I found that he was still recovering from a recent illness and was on leave. I rushed to his house and sought an urgent interview. I got one and told him of my woes. He was surprised that I had made the film. He said that he would consult his doctor and, if he permitted, he would see the film with the Secretary. He arrived on the dot a few minutes after the Secretary had come. The Secretary was surprised and said that he did not know that the Chairman was coming. I told him that I had consulted him earlier and he wanted to see it when it was completed. In any case, he could not say anything because the Chairman had the rank of a Cabinet Minister. After seeing the film, the Chairman patted me on the back and said that every Indian must see the film. I thanked him and he left. I turned to the Secretary now. He saw nothing objectionable as such but… I stopped him from saying anything more and said I was only interested in his objections, if any. I quickly produced the relevant file and he was forced to say that there was nothing objectionable in the film. I thanked him and rushed the I&B Ministry and triumphantly placed the file before the Secretary. He was very happy. This was how the film was shown to the people. I have gone into the details of the making and release of this first of the Gandhi Centenary films only to highlight the relevance of Gandhism even two decades after India became free and Gandhiji himself was assassinated. This film made me realise that mere legislation would not put an end to untouchability. The nation’s conscience had to be roused. It also made me realise that Gandhiji was a farsighted man and had become far from irrelevant. He was conscious that a caste-ridden India could not progress.

The second film of the series dealt with the status of woman in Indian society, which was highly male-oriented and patriarchal. It was Gandhiji’s charisma which drew a large number of women from all classes to the freedom struggle. At a time when their British sisters were still fighting for their right to vote, Indian women were marching shoulder to shoulder with men in the fight for freedom of their country. But, after freedom was won, they were relegated to their original inferior position. Though a few women like Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Hansaben Mehta etc., had reached positions of eminence and a woman, Indira Gandhi, had become the Prime Minister, the ordinary Indian woman, specially in the rural areas, remained uneducated, ignorant and a victim of male domination in every field. She did not have any property rights. All this was brought to the fore in this film.

The third film dealt with Gandhiji’s concern that the youth of India should be brought into the development of the country, as it was primarily their future. When young men and women were interviewed, they unhesitatingly criticised the older generation for making Gandhiji a ritual icon to be venerated and worshipped on certain days and forgotten for the rest of the year. They wanted to know how Gandhi was in flesh and blood and how ordinary mortals like themselves could make a determined effort to overcome all human weaknesses and become a Mahatma. They wanted to carry forward his ideals and establish a society that he wanted based on ethical values and justice.

The last film I deliberately and provocatively titled ‘Quest for a Nation’. Gandhiji, all his life, worked for unity in a land which was diverse in every respect, terrain, ethnicity, language, culture, etc. He wanted every Indian Indian to fight for freedom and to share the fruits of freedom. That had not happened and the people were unhappy. Divisive forces raised their head. This was high-lighted in this film. The need for a concerted effort to develop the backward regions on a just basis was stressed. These four Gandhi Centenary films brought home to Indians the enormous unfinished work before them and squarely put Gandhiji’s relevance in the proper perspective.
ancient problems of social and economic deprivation. The symbol of increasing the size of the cake, made famous by Nehru, sizzled us till statistics showed that the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. We realised then that distributive justice, which was forgotten in the rush to increase the size of the cake, was an essential part of a socialistic project, which the country had launched after the Constitution was adopted and had become law. Thinking persons began to feel that if we had only stuck to the basic tasks that Gandhiji had set before the nation, perhaps we would have been better off.

The Cold War that followed the Second World War only increased our problems. Nehru, rightly, stressed the need to safeguard our freedom to choose our own destiny rather than join the bandwagon of one side or the other. The Third World countries kept up a semblance of unity while the Western world was wooing the developing countries with tempting loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the two institutions set up under the leadership of the USA. Some of the Latin American and African countries, which succumbed to this temptation, fell into a debt trap and had to mortgage their economy to the USA. The countries that stood steadfast to guard their independence were India, Yugoslavia, Egypt and Cuba. Slowly but surely, the aim of the IMF and World Bank loans of enslaving the economies of weak developing countries and building up multinational corporations controlled by the rich Western countries began to emerge. Perceptive economic and political observers the world over noticed this and the setting up of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), heavily biased in favour of the rich Western countries began to be resisted. The demand for a level playing field grew. The development paradigm set by the Western powers was based on competition, individual enterprise and incentive for profit. This brought to one’s mind the wise words of Gandhiji. He had said long years ago: ‘This bountiful earth has enough to meet the needs of all, but it does not have enough to meet the greed of a few.’ These words have been proved to be prophetic in this age of globalisation. The rich few are advocating mindless mechanisation to facilitate jobless growth and are propagating the philosophy of ‘compete or perish’. In this process, the earth’s resources, air, water and minerals are being furiously consumed and wasted. We seem to be running towards the doom’s day of destruction of all life.

It is the right time, before it is too late, to follow the alternative way taught to us by Gandhiji. We have already seen how non-violent satyagraha can resolve individual and national conflicts. The only requirements are goodwill and cooperation. The choice for humanity is really between ‘compete and perish’ or ‘cooperate and survive in peace’. One can only hope that humankind will make the right choice for its own survival.

[Text of a paper prepared for a meeting of Gandhians, Pune, February 2007]

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