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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6

Reflections on January 30

Saturday 26 January 2008, by Arvind Bhandari


“Scarcely will future generations believe that such a man in flesh and blood walked upon the Earth.” Thus spoke Albert Einstein, whose name will always be remembered as one of the greatest scientists in human history, about Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically, and most unfortunately, Einstein’s path-breaking discovery of the theory of Relativity (Energy=Speed of Light x time) also led to the greatest crime in human history—the manufacture of the Atom Bomb.

Mahatmaji—he was born in Gujarat and his full name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—laid tremendous emphasis on truth. One of his greatest messages to mankind is: “Truth is God.” Significantly, the English title of his autobiography, which was written originally in Gujarati, is: My Experiments with Truth.

Here is a famous saying of the Father of the Nation: “By walking on the path of Truth, one achieves one’s goal more easily and more quickly.”

Congress President Sonia Gandhi recently travelled to New York, with son and protégé Rahul Gandhi in tow, to deliver a commemorative address to the UN General Assembly in connection with the designation of the year 2007 as the International Year of Non-Violence to honour the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest men of the twentieth century. Since her official addresses—she was also speaking in her capacity as Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance’s Advisory Council, which oversees the working of Dr Manmohan Singh’s government—are written by erudite speech-writers, her peroration drew much applause, and India became once again the focus of world attention.

Mahatma Gandhi got his idea of satyagraha (non-violence) by reading the works David Thoreau, an American philosopher, and John Ruskin, a British poet-philosopher.

Mahatmaji, called Bapu (Father of the Nation) by his countrymen, was assassinated on January 30 (it is observed as Martyrdom Day) in the foyer of Birla Hose when Nathuram Godse, a die-hard Hindu belonging to the RSS, pumped three bullets into his chest. His last two words before he breathed his last were “Hey Ram”. These two words are inscribed on his mausoleum called Rajghat.

It is customary for all heads of state and heads of governments visiting India to go to Rajghat to pay homage to a man who changed the course of history through his theory of achievement of political ends through peaceful agitation. Therefore, Mahatma Gandhi can also be described as a leading political thinker.

When Mahatma Gandhi was 61 years old, he led the famous Salt March to the Dandi beach on the Arabian Sea; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi said: “I am going to the Indian Ocean to get some salt.” Soon thousands joined him on the 300- kilometre trip, which lasted a month. Most Indians could not afford to buy expensive British salt, but it was against the law for them to make their own. After the Salt March, the British put Gandhiji in jail.

Mohandas Karamchand studied law in London and became a barrister. After a stint as a lawyer in South Africa—where he had an extremely nasty experience when he was thrown out of his first-class compartment while travelling in a train because he was a non-White and it was the heyday of the obnoxious apartheid policy of the White-controlled government in Pretoria—Gandhi arrived in India. He was appalled by the poverty and inequality he saw in his country.

Rather than fight the British with violent means like guns and bombs, Gandhi believed in simply refusing to obey unjust British laws. For example, he urged Indians to make their own clothing with khadi cloth and the “charkha” become a symbol of home-spun Gandhian economics. Indians began to call Gandhiji “Mahatma”, which means “great soul”.

Mahatma Gandhi led several non-violent protests and went to jail innumerable times. Finally, the whole of India rose as one man in satyagraha and our country won independence from Britain on August 15, 1947. Satyagraha means “truth force”.

INDEPENDENCE was preceded by a number of consultations between the British authorities and the Indian political leadership, in the vanguard of which was the Mahatma and the triumvirate of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. The Pakistani side was headed by the Bombay-born Mohammed Ali Jinah, also a barrister with a razor-sharp brain, who had formed the Muslim League.

The British Government sent the Simon Commission to India, headed by Lord Simon. Then came Sri Stafford Cripps alongwith with his Black spouse and become the cynosure of all eyes, for Indians had never seen what for them was an odd couple.

Pakistan become independent one day earlier on August 14, 1947. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandiloquent peroration in the Indian Parliament has become a historically famous literary phrase. He said: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

After the Partition of the subcontinent between and Pakistan, there was blood-cruddling violence. Lakhs of Hindus and Sikhs were massacred in Muslim-majority Pakistan. And Muslims met the same fate, albeit on a slightly lesser degree, in Hindu-majority India. Mahatma Gandhi was shocked. Following ceaseless blood-letting between Hindus and Muslims in the mofussil areas of Calcutta, he went on a fast unto death. When the Mahatma began to sink after nearly three weeks of self-imposed starvation, Prime Minister Nehru, his face nearly crimson with anger, air-dashed to Calcutta and berated the Hindu and Muslim mobs in scorching language, his voice rising to a fortissimo. This heart-rending scene has been enacted magnificently in Sir Richard Atten-borough’s epic film Gandhi.

The violence perpetrated by Muslims against Hindus in Lahore is described graphically in the book authored by me entitled Caterpillar in Salad. My father and his family, of which I was a prominent member being his eldest son, had a providential escape from Lahore nearly a fortnight after the announcement of Partition.

India has forgotten Mahatmaji’s message. The country is wracked by communal strife, torn by violence and Truth has fallen by the wayside. Worse, India is today among the most corruption-ridden countries in the world, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based, highly reputed NGO.

Here is a further irony. Mahatma Gandhi preached non-violence. Regrettably, India is today among the highest importers of arms in the world. Admittedly, India has a serious threat perception. The Jammu and Kashmir imbroglio remains unresolved, with the result that there is no diminution in the India-Pakistan animosity. China continues to pose a threat on India’s North-Eastern flank. New Delhi is extremely worried about the shadow of terrorism. The North-Eastern States of the Indian Union continue to be seditious.

But “threat perception” does not mean a country should continue to augment its arms blindfolded. With proper defence planning, building of bridges with China and shedding of hidebound attitudes in regard to the Kashmir problem, which would enable gradual military disengagement in J&K, India can not only reduce its import of arms, but actually curtail its military expenditure. With the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and Indian Navy personnel totaling nearly 15 million, the Indian armed forces are definitely over-manned.

With this kind of a military scenario, the apostle of non-violence must be turning in his grave.

If Gandhiji could have had his way, the Indian subcontinent would have remained one country—India. Mahatma Gandhi once told Nehru: “I believe in Hindu-Muslim harmony and not disharmony. Vivesection of India can only take place over my dead body.”

Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan was a grievous mistake committed by Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel, with Muslim leaders like Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai in a supportive role. When Indian Congress leaders allowed themselves to be cajoled by Lord Mountabatten, a man who was as intelligent as he was suave and sophisticated, into agreeing to the division of the country, Mahatma Gandhi was nowhere on the scene. He was in Noakhali, trying to quell Hindu-Muslim riots.

Many political scientists believe that Mahatmaji erred in making Jawaharlal Nehru independent India’s first Prime Minister. The post should have gone to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had to content himself by becoming the Deputy Prime Minister.

Nehru’s problem was two-fold. One problem was rooted in his personal circumstance. He was a handsome widower not averse to being attracted by intellectual, sophisticated women. Lord Mountbatten, on the other hand, was a man of queer tastes (several historians insist that he was a homosexual) with a disparaging attitude towards the opposite sex. Lady Edwina Mount- batten was, by all accounts, a physically frustrated woman. Further, she was dazzled by Nehru’s intellect and literary brilliance.

The denouement was inevitable. She and Nehru became lovers. When I interviewed the late Badruddin Tyabji about two decades ago for a series I was writing on eminent members of the Indian Civil Service for The Tribune, he confirmed to me that Jawaharlal and Edwina were para-mours, a fact which was known to the Viceroy. Little wonder, therefore, that when Mountbatten asked Nehru to sign on the dotted line to carve Paksitan out of the whole of India, he was hardly in a position to resist the diplomatic pressure.

If Sardar Patel, the Iron Man of India, who amalgamated the Princely States into the Indian Union, had been made the Prime Minister, New Delhi would not have been saddled by the Kashmir problem; communal strife in the country would have been less worrisome for Muslims would not have been pampered to the degree they have been; corruption would not have flourished as much as it does today; and some strong steps would been taken to reform the Indian administration, which is among the worst in the world.

However, this foray into the realm of conjecture is not intended to downplay Nehru. His greatest contributions to the nation were his glorious role in the field of India’s foreign policy on the international plane (NAM), establishment of an economic base on which the superstructure is now being built and, of course, the Bhakra Dam.

SOMETIMES leaders scale such lofty heights of eminence that they become an institution and too big for mundane positions. The office of the President or the Prime Minister would have belittled the towering status of Gandhiji. He was the Father of the Nation. Mahatma Gandhi’s fame spread in cascading waves through the length and breadth of the globe, and he began to attract followers from all over the world.

Most prominent among them was Madeleine Slade, the daughter of a Vice-Admiral in the British Navy. She came to India, joined Gandhiji’s entourage and adopted the name “Mira Behn”. Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali and Saraswati (who later married V.V. Giri, subsequently the President of India) were among the notable women who followed Gandhiji on his protest marches.

Vinoba Bhave was among the most respectable Gandhians. Taking inspiration from his leader, he launched the famous Bhoodan Movement. Morarji Desai claimed to be a Gandhian. Indubitably, in some ways he was. His attacks on poor Bacchus, Lady Nicotine and his austerity, which manifested itself in strict vegetarianism and adherence to khadi wear, do subserve his claim. But his lifestyle had a quixotic contradiction. When I went to cover his election campaign in Surat during the 1977 General Election following the lifting of the Emergency, I found him enthroned on a gaddi and eating almonds, cashew nuts and chilgozas to the accompaniment of fruit juices. I wonder whether Gandhiji would have approved of such an expensive gourmandising.

I visited Sewagram last year. There is a Guest House for Indian visitors and a separate hostel for foreigners, who come there for what is a pilgrimage for them. Smoking and alcohol are strictly prohibited on the precincts. Gandhiji’s hut, along with his famous staff, has been preserved in pristine purity. Visitors must see the Gandhi Museum, which provides a photographic history of the great man’s life. His other artefacts are also on display.

Mahatma Gandhi’s name will forever emblazon human history. Among other things, the Mahatma will be remembered as a political philosopher, for he taught the world how political ends can be attained through non-violence. “Satyagraha” will one day become a major subject in the fields of political science and sociology.

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