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Mahatma Gandhi (1869-2019)

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-2019)

A friend and school principal told me a little proudly that on the Gandhi Jayanti Day on October 2, she organised a cleanliness drive on the school campus in which teachers, students and other staff took part. On the same day, a bishop in New Delhi went to a nearby Hanuman temple in Delhi with a broom to sweep the floor. It is a different matter that the floor happened to be carpeted and was in a spick and span condition. I wish he had used a vacuum cleaner!

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a broom to initiate his cleanliness drive a few years ago, his associates had managed to pluck some green leaves and put them on the floor so that he could sweep the much-cleaned road off the new leaves. When I saw the photograph, I wondered where on earth green leaves had started falling. Was it a sign of the climate change we often hear about?

The two incidents I mentioned tell us how Modi has succeeded in making the Mahatma the symbol of cleanliness. I have seen the round-rimmed spectacles on the walls of new toilets built to do away with open defecation. In short, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose name the modern-day rulers cannot recall except with some effort, has been reduced to a symbol of the toilet revolution in the country.

I visited the house in South Africa where Gandhi lived with his wife Kasturba and saw the toilet she refused to clean initially because it was used by some non-family members. Even today there are many people, including educated ones, who think that if they cleaned a toilet, they would lose their caste purity. I have come across domestic workers who would announce at the outset that they would do all the cleaning work except in the toilet room.

They believe that only people belonging to a particular caste, the lowest in the Indian caste pyramid, should do the work. Manual scavenging is officially abolished but there are tens of thousands of people who make a living cleaning the toilets and sewers in the country and this job has been reserved for them with no protest from anyone. I do not know why those who protest against reservation like the protagonist in Omchery’s play Nokkukuthi Theyyam (The Scarecrow), do not protest against this reservation,

I know the daughter of one such family who is brilliant in studies. When her father was beaten up by some villagers and he was bed-ridden for some time, her teacher paid her school fees only to find the father rushing to the school to meet the teacher and return the money she paid. His self-respect did not allow him to receive charity. How many of us can say with pride that they would not accept anything given in charity, meant for the poorest?

Let me return to the subject, are we doing a favour to Gandhi by reducing him to a symbol of toilet? True, unlike most people belonging to his caste, then and now, he did not find anything wrong in cleaning toilets. There is a picture of Gandhi carrying a bucket of water cleaning a toilet, which is etched in my memory. In the ashrams he established in both South Africa and India, every resident was expected to clean the toilet he or she used.

Other than that, there is no logic to raise him to the pedestal of an ambassador of cleanliness. It is only in India and that, too, after Modi came to power that Gandhi was equated with toilets. Nowhere else was he seen in this manner? This year’s Gandhi Jayanti was unique as it was his 150th birth anniversary. 

The media in India and the rest of the world focused on Gandhi and carried innumerable articles, pictures and cartoons depicting the various facets of his life. There were, of course, passing references to his sense of cleanliness. That’s all!

What was Gandhi’s message to the world? That they should clean the toilets and keep their surroundings clean? Now, let’s look at his life. How did he die? He died at the hands of Nathuram Godse, whom the RSS says was not its member. Let’s accept its claim in good faith. Why is it that we have people in power who find nothing wrong in offering Pranam to the statue of Godse, just as they do it to Gandhi? How is it that temples are coming up with Godse as the presiding deity?

How is it that a person, facing charges of terrorism and who openly extols the virtues of Godse, is allowed to become a member of Parliament? That raises the question, why did Godse think of killing Gandhi? Or, in other words, why did Gandhi have to sacrifice his life? Gandhi was not felled in the first attempt. There were attempts earlier which Sardar Patel as Home Minister did not take due cognisance of?

Gandhi went on a hunger strike to demand that Pakistan should be given the money as decided upon during the Partition. Patel showed some reluctance to pay the amount. Gandhi, as a true gentleman, believed that a promise given was a promise to be honoured, not like the famous promise Kalyan Singh as UP Chief Minister gave to the Supreme Court that Babri Masjid would be protected at any cost.

Finally, the Central government was forced to pay the money which is a normal thing that happens when properties are divided among siblings and between divorced couples like Indrani Mukerjee, facing charges of killing of her daughter Sheena Bora (24), and on whose statement P Chidambaram is now in jail, and media baron Peter Mukerjee.

Rightly or wrongly, Gandhi believed that honouring the promise would bring Hindus and Muslims in India closer. The shrewd politician that he was, he would have certainly known that his fast would have infuriated the likes of Godse and he faced a risk to his life. However, he was not unduly bothered. He went about doing what he believed to be the right thing to do. He paid for it with his own life.

Gandhi should, therefore, have been a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity. A true symbol of the secular ideals that characterise the Indian society till lynching started in the name of cow, not just the Constitution. When India won Independence, Gandhi was not in Delhi enjoying the delicacies served at the Viceroy’s House, now Rashtrapati Bhavan, but comforting the victims of religious hatred in distant Bengal.

The very same people who remember only Gandhi’s cleanliness are the ones who passed a law that welcomes refugees who are Hindus and Buddhists, not Muslims in the Northeast. Everyone from RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat to Home Minister Amit Shah promises that not one of the 19 lakh people identified as “aliens” in Assam will be deported if he is a Hindu. What right do these people have to utter the name of Gandhi? 

Bhagwat wrote a nice article on Gandhi in the Mathrubhumi daily. He wanted the people to follow the ideals for which Gandhi stood all his life. Hindu-Muslim unity was one of them. Does he know that there were two waves of forced migration from Israel when the Jews reached India as refugees? They were received with open arms. I have seen Muslims facing persecution in Afghanistan and Iran finding refuge in India. 

Dalai Lama is the most famous refugee in the world. How do we treat the Muslim refugees from Myanmar? My friend and theatre person Ajith G. Maniyan narrated to me the horrendous living conditions of the Rohingya community in the National Capital Territory. “I found children scavenging for food in the waste dumped near their dwellings. They were eating with their noses closed”. Gandhi was a good Hindu who did not see persons on the basis of their religion.

If Gandhi cannot be a symbol of secularism, why can’t he be a symbol of political etiquette? Few people know that Gandhi was the greatest journalist India produced. I wrote a whole column on Gandhi as a journalist. No journalist has written as much as he had written. His collected works have more than 100 volumes. If four volumes of his writing equal one Bible, he wrote 25 Bibles! He wrote not less than 35,000 letters, a record of sorts.

On a Gandhi Jayanti Day, a Gandhian who read all his collected works delivered a lecture at Delhi’s Kerala Club. He mentioned that in none of his works is there a personal attack. The only exception he made was about a leader from Bengal who became President of the Congress. He referred to the charge against him that he pilfered public money, while he was an official of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. 

Can those who blame Nehru for their incompetencies day in and day out and call their political rivals names declare Gandhi as a symbol of decent political life? Like countless others, I am also a critic of some of the policies of Gandhi. He had many fads like his excessive faith in the medicinal properties of goat milk but nobody can say that he was ever revengeful. 

What is the situation today? An election commissioner who differed with his fellow election commissioners on whether Modi’s utterances during the last Lok Sabha elections constituted a breach of the code of conduct found his wife suddenly facing enquiries. 49 intellectuals who wrote a joint letter to the Prime Minister reminding him about his constitutional duties are now facing criminal charges in Bihar. 

Anyone who opposes any of the actions of the government faces victimisation in forms unheard of until recently. Anti-national. is a charge flung at anyone who asks embarrassing questions about the government’s failure to honour its promises, be it on jobs or elimination of poverty.

As I mentioned, Gandhi had many fads like conducting some questionable experiments like lying and sleeping beside naked nubile girls. What was most remarkable about his experiments was that he did them in the open. Like Mother Teresa, who never slept in a closed room in her home, Gandhi kept the door open when he slept naked. Yes, there were no peeping Toms wielding mobile cameras those days!

What Gandhi did was unacceptable even to many of his own disciples as there was an element of coercion on the girls who were involved in the experiments. But nobody ever accused him of moral turpitude. Gandhi could, therefore, have been a symbol of India’s moral superiority.

How can those who take pride in attacking a country when its citizens are fast asleep and then claiming that their forces have night-vision capabilities to pinpoint targets at the dead of night recognise, let alone praise, Gandhi’s transparency? The word stealth was not in Gandhi’s vocabulary for he believed in doing everything in the open. Those who say one thing and do another thing can never appreciate this aspect of Gandhi.

Gandhi rightly titled his autobiography as “My Experiments With Truth”. In short, truth was the cardinal principle of his life. It was in deference to his unshakeable belief in Truth that India chose Satyameva Jayate, a verse from the Mundaka Upanishad, as its national motto. He could have been projected as a symbol of truth.

While waiting for a boat to reach the Statue of Liberty in New York, I saw a huge hoarding which said, “An eye for an eye will make the world blind — Gandhi”. Of course, this does not square with the present-day leaders who preach that for every Hindu woman love-jihaded, 100 Muslim women should be forcibly concubined. 

Gandhi did not believe that two wrongs made one right. He could, therefore, have been a symbol of justice and of fair play. Gandhi saw every Indian, in fact, every person in the world, irrespective of caste and creed, worthy of respect and entitled to human dignity. He could have been a symbol of universal brotherhood. 

Alas, the Mahatma, about whom no less a person than Albert Einstein had said that “'generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”, has become a symbol of toilet. What a tragedy!

( ajphilip@gmail.com )

(Published on 07th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 41)