A prelude to Digital dystopia

November 12, 2017

Reliance shut down its mobile operations in Coimbatore without any notice. My father and father-in-law were among the scores of customers who were left with an unusable and unportable connection (no sms- no porting number; it came a week later). And, they had no one to even talk to. It was some dark fun to watch Airtel showroom turning into a helpless customer care centre for Reliance. One can imagine the plight of people for whom personal lives, businesses and banking operations are all tightly linked to their mobiles.

Not that Reliance Communications had declared bankruptcy. The press reports talked about closure of 2G operations by Nov 30th but their 4G and other business operations were to continue. What is TRAI for? I don’t follow news regularly but was there any great furore in the media? Ok, it is understandable if there isn’t much fuss…PV Sindhus don’t use Anil’s Reliance anymore, do they?

I am tempted to resolve never to buy anything remotely related to Reliance (Mukesh or Anil – doesn’t matter). But I am not sure if the Bhartis and Vodafones would be any different when they are in a similar crunch. (Already, Airtel has used the rush to dump an unwanted post-paid card on my dad, instead of the cheaper pre-paid).

So much for Digital dreams and disrupted sleep!
Thankfully, my life is de-digitized to a large extent, at least for 4-5 days in a week.

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Our War on IDs

November 7, 2017

The various ID cards and the processes to obtain/re-obtain those IDs have intruded into our private lives like nothing else before. Becoming an ID-free man seems to me to be the true path to real freedom. We must remember that the first Satyagraha that Gandhi waged was against ID cards for Indians in South Africa.

I don’t have the courage of Gandhi to go to jail refusing to take IDs, or to go to jail again after burning them. But I am happy to see that I have found a few partners to nudge me along in this journey towards freedom.

During another bus trip yesterday, my purse was picked again. Voter’s ID gone this time. Another good soul had relieved me of my Driving Licence and PAN Card a few months ago.

My repeated compromise with the capitalistic forces in carrying credit/debit cards is also challenged by these partners. As for that anti-national cash, “What kind of Gandian are you? Why are you having any more cash than what is needed for the bus fare?” chided an elderly Gandhian yesterday after I got off the bus, straight after losing the purse.

To my unknown partners: With my jolna bag & dothi, reading a book/kindle on the bus, and a prominent absent-minded look, I am not difficult to spot in any crowd. I am now left with my passport and the most offensive of them all – Aadhar. If my wife permits, from now on, I am intending to carry them in my wallet, which I usually keep in my jolna bag.

But I suspect if she will allow me to even carry a wallet now. I have to somehow convince her that my right to a purse and right to privacy are now inseparably intertwined.

As a first step towards ensuring that she harbours no ill-will towards my partners, I just showed her this quote from Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, which I picked up for Rs.30 at Ukkadam Bus Stand, while waiting for a bus.

“While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.”


Experiential Learning

November 7, 2017

Narayanan works on the farm where our current house is located. He is hard of hearing. But a tireless worker. He starts his day at 5.30 or 6, by cleaning the cattle shed and milking the cow, and works almost non-stop till he ends his day after 6 after handing over the evening’s milk to the milkman.

I keep hearing about snakes in our village. Most of the snakes that they see are reported to be kraits or cobras. I’ve heard our boys talk about 5-headed snakes. I keep pondering if they can really identify snakes or if, out of scare, they think of every snake as venomous.

I was reading a book on snakes by the renowned snakes expert, Whitekar (translated into Tamil). It had fairly extensive details about snakes, with their Tamil names, and black and white photos.

Narayanan was passing by. Suddenly seized by either an urge to test his knowledge of snakes, or a thought that he might be interested in going through pictures of snakes, I showed a photo on the book and gestured to him, asking what snake it was. He can’t read. But immediately after glancing at the photo, he said ‘Russel’s viper’ (கண்ணாடிவிரியன்). He also correctly identified the common krait (கட்டுவிரியன்) and Indian cobra (நாகன்) on the previous pages.

“My father died after being bitten by a Russel’s viper. I must have been younger than your daughter then. My youngest brother was a few months old,” he said.

“In those days, our houses were all damp during rainy days. He was bitten while he was asleep. He kept insisting that it was nothing for a long time. Then my mother saw a viper, and killed it. Later she saw four more coming from behind a drumstick tree. Where were cars and buses during those days? Especially at night. By the time we arranged a cart and took him, he died. He had been bitten below his knees. My mother had tied a cloth on his thighs. But one lady had removed it. The poison rose to his head quickly.”

“None of us studied. After I grew up, I was bitten by a common krait. But my employer had a car. He took me to a Chritian Mission hospital in Kerala. They kept a stone which sucked out the poison.”

“Then…you know my brother, Ponnusamy…he was cutting some maize stalk for the cows. A Russel’s viper zapped around him and bit him on his knees. It was 8pm. We took him on the K.P.K. bus to Pollachi. Even then, we had to spend over 10000 rupees.”

He further spoke about rat snakes and cobras. The details and physical features that he mentioned were more or less similar to what I find on that book.

However many books I read, I doubt if I could identify snakes correctly, or if I am bitten, whether I would know how to react. Whenever even bees or wasps build their hives inside our house, we go running to Narayanan. Who teaches who?

Which system of education can impart them the learning that they gather from their experiences, dangling between life and death? Can we, at the least, not alienate them from their experiences and environment?


Death of a girl

October 14, 2017

(Translation of my earlier lament in Tamil)

The mind which gets agitated by distant deaths, gets diverted to other things soon enough. But deaths that occur near us continue to haunt us and the guilt refuses to fade away.

This week, at our village, Nithya, a tenth standard student, jumped into a well and killed herself. The villagers believe that she had been caned badly at school. They say that she got treated for a bruise on her hand, 10 days ago at the PHC. The teachers had been compelling her to bring her parents, since she was not performing well at her studies. Her parents, who are daily-wage labourers, had not gone to the school, probably due to their ignorance or work load or indifference. Her teacher had continued to warn her and rebuke her. On that day, she had gotten ready for the school, braided her hair, took money for the bus, left her school bag at home and fell into the well. The well, which was covered with bushes, had been barren till that week and water had just been filled from the bore well. The person working on the farm, where we reside at a rented house, had seen her going to that place. But he had not questioned her, thinking that she might be going there for relieving herself. Her parents, after being on the queue at the ration shop, had seen her bag and chappals at the house, and started searching her everywhere. Somebody happened to peer into the well, and saw the school uniform. The whole village assembled immediately.

Having gone to our farm, which is a bit removed from the village, we were oblivious to all these events. We heard the news and headed back to the village only in time for the cremation.

“Had it been one of our children, we would have abducted the teacher and hacked him,” said a few Keralites.
“If she can’t study well, what else can the teacher do but beat her? Should the girl kill herself for this?”
“What is the point of blaming others? Her parents should have gone to school. What can anyone do if they sit at home fearing to go there?”
“They left the matter at this because they are poor. Had they been from a rich family, there would have been great commotion.”
“If she had been from the S.C.community, they wouldn’t have remained quiet.”

We heard many such talks. Something had happened at school that had impelled her to death. It is not fair to blame the child. There is no point in blaming the parents. Almost all of them said that Nithya was a quiet and timid girl. Her brother had also dropped out of school and was working at a petrol bunk.

After investigation, the police seem to have recorded that the teacher had admonished her/advised her. The newspapers carried only those words, the next day.

When I sought to converse with the parents and the village elders on the possible next steps, they were not keen on taking this any further.

I too, personally, didn’t have a violent urge to ensure that the teacher was punished. It could be because I do not have faith in punishments in such cases. Transformation of hearts is what is needed here. And this is not a problem that can be pinned on one person. Most schools still have cardinal punishment for the children. Many parents encourage caning. Even the government schools are now under pressure to deliver good results in public exams. The teachers believe that poor students should have been filtered in earlier classes. They consider them to be a burden.

I thus keep rationalising within myself.

This should not occur to another child. The teachers shouldn’t become complacent that no one would question them.

Next week, I intend to go to that school with another willing friend, and offer to do what I can by engaging with the teachers in group discussions and counseling.

Though our farm is located in this village, we were residing in the neighbouring village so far. It has only been a month and a half since we relocated to this village. Since we hadn’t yet found a place where we can gather the children, our learning centre has not been started here yet. We haven’t yet commenced working with the children. Had we avoided this delay, could we have averted this death? My own lack of clarity, and inadequacies, give me great pangs of guilt.

We can view the bushes around that well from the windows of our house. We had not known that there was a well there behind those bushes. We had never met Nithya. But, when she had trudged towards the well, and slided down the bushes, we had been only about 100 feet away. Had we glanced there, we might have seen her. Had she screamed, we could have heard her. On the way to our farm, her mud tomb is located, decorated with flowers. It will be washed away by the impending rains. But my heart shall not be consoled.

Every time a teacher raises his/her hands to beat a child, they should realise that they might be holding a rope of death. The harsh words that you utter and the punishments that you give might suck a life out. Sow only love. Education, marks and your salaries are all trivial. So what, if Nithya had failed the exams? A death renders everything meaningless. We need a huge shift in our attitudes towards, and understanding of, education, teaching methods, and children – before we lose another Anitha or Nithya.


Gandhian Awareness Yatra – A Journey Within

October 13, 2017

[Translation of an essay written originally in Tamil (also by me) for Savodaya Talisman. The first part covers the experience of the journey, while the second part contains a few of my views on the Gandhian approach.]

(1)

Dr.Markandan, former Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University, had organised a Gandhian Awareness Yatra, from 3rd August to 12th August, 2017. I was part of the yatra with my wife and daughter. We drove from Kanyakumari to Chennai, speaking in various colleges, schools, Sarvodaya Sangams and public places. Seven of us completed the yatra. [N.Markandan, Tamizhaka Makkal Sevai Iyakkam], Kannan, Nedya and Mahirl Malar [Servaikaranpalayam, Coimbatore], Subbaiyyan [Annur], Sivakumar [Editor, Vizhipunarvin Kural], Rajamani [Dindukkal]. A few others travelled with us partially. The impact of the external journey will be seen only in future. The seeds sown may grow unseen. But the journey within each of us is important. Those touched by the shadow of Gandhi have no escape from that internal yatra.

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First, a few notes about the external journey. The yatra was flagged off at Gandhi Mandapam, Kanyakumari, with inter-religious songs. We passed through Nagerkoil, Tirunelveli, Virudunagar, T.Kallupatti, Tirumangalam, Madurai, Gandhigram University, Dindugal, Trichy, Karur, Kangayam, Padiyur, Tiruppur, Coimbatore, Mettupalayam, Ooty, Kothagiri, Sathyamangalam, Gobichettipalayam, Erode, Namakkal, Malloor, Salem, Tirupathur, Pachur, Vellore, Kanchipuram, and concluded our yatra at Thakkar Baba Centre, Chennai.

We spoke at Nagerkoil Hindu College, Palayamkottai St.John’s College, Gandhigram University, Jairams College, Karur, Nanjayya Lingammal Polytechnic, Mettupalayam, Vellalar College of Education, Erode; Gandhi Niketan School, T.Kallupatti, Victoria Armstrong School (NAWA), Kothagiri, and Government High School, Pachur. Meetings had also been organised at most places by the Sarvodaya Sangams, which were attended by the spinners and weavers from the surrounding villages. Food was served for all at most of these meetings. Dr. Markandan spoke on the current political and economic situation and the actions needed to encounter it. He emphasised various aspects like simplicity in public and personal lives, selfless dedication, caste and religious harmony, development for all, decentralisation of power, a skill-based Gandhian education, introduction of sustainable, appropriate technologies in khadi and other handicrafts, and strengthening and widening the scope of the Savodaya Sangams. We also spoke briefly at most places. Our nine-year old daughter sang. In her slender voice, ‘Shanthi Nilava Vendum’ stirred emotions. The Sarvodaya Sangam workers and students asked various questions. In answering those questions, all of us could debate and understand today’s scenario and the Gandhian principles.

 

(2)

Gandhi filled my thoughts throughout the journey. The journey within occurred more deeply than the journey outside. Be it the scorched lands of Kovilpatti, or the chilly green forests of Nilgiris, or the thundering showers near Vellore, or the endless weekend traffic of Chennai – the internal journey was in a single direction. During most nights, despite the fatigue induced by the journey, Gandhi disrupted my sleep. Our everyday compromises seemed magnified when seen through the lens of Gandhi. Various questions arose inside about the Gandhi whom we were taking to the people and the Gandhi we should take to the people. The mind kept deliberating about the many conversations during the journey with fellow travellers and those who we met. In the style of the Editor and Reader debate in the Hind Swaraj, a critic and traveller started debating within my mind. This journey continued even after the yatra was over.

Critic: Who doesn’t know Gandhi? What is the need for this journey, creating awareness et al.

Traveller: The Gandhi that most of us know is the Gandhi who brought us freedom; the Gandhi on the currency notes; the brand ambassador for Swachch Bharat. But there are few who are well versed with the basic principles and the core message of Gandhi. Those who abide by those principles are fewer. Through this yatra, we seek to get people to think about the real Gandhi, for what purpose he dedicated his life and how we can suitably adopt his principles for today’s scenario. We hope that the journey will stimulate people welfare activities.

Critic: What hogwash story is this? Don’t we know Gandhian principles? Gandhi staged a non-violent struggle for independence. He asked us to love everyone. He asked us to be truthful. He said the country has to be clean. Even small children know all these, don’t they?

Traveller: We have all picked up the Gandhi who suits us. Or, it can be said, we have all shrunk Gandhi to suit our needs. Truth, love and non-violence – no doubt, these are core to Gandhian thoughts. But Gandhi, extended these core principles to apply them for all aspects that impact the society; he has continuously discussed them, and conducted experiments, lifelong. We have to pay attention to those too.

On the one hand, we profess our love for Gandhi’s stress on cleanliness, and on the other hand, we conveniently forget what Gandhi did for the poor Bhangis. On the one hand, we extol Gandhi’s love, and on the other, with no compassion and care, we unleash uninhibited violence in the name of development on nature and our future generations. This is against everything that Gandhi stood for.

Critic: Then, do you mean to say that Gandhi was against development?

Traveller: We should look at the kind of development that Gandhi desired. What Gandhi advocated was Sarvodaya – Unto the Last. A growth that is in harmony with nature, and that benefits the last man in the society. A growth that views every task as equal, and brings equal remuneration for every profession.

A growth where only a few prosper, exploiting nature, and the others are dependent on them, would have been anathema to Gandhi. An economy that rolls on the axis of consumerism, which itself, is a manifestation of greed, would never have been acceptable to Gandhi.

Critic: Even your yatra has been made possible by modern development. You’ve travelled to so many places because of our imposing highways.

Traveller: In reality, the other face of modern development became evident during the yatra. We were under the expectation that we would go through many villages, and we would be able to converse with the villagers. But these giant highways have swallowed the villages; or sidestepped them. All along these long highways, there were neither trees nor people. I see these barren, long, wide highways as a symbolic representation of growth that is divorced from this soil and people.

Even when there were no such modern highways, yatras have been going on in India and elsewhere, since eternity. The very weakness of our yatra, it occurs to me, was our speed.

Critic: People crave for such development schemes. Are you not seeing that everywhere? For instance, during the Sarvodaya Sangam meet at Trichy, did not that eloquent lady underscore the pressing need for interlinking rivers?

Traveller: She is saying that, moved by the suffering of people due to water scarcity. Her yearning is true; we can all understand that. But, taking the Gandhian approach, before the talk of interlinking rivers arises, various other initiatives would have been undertaken locally. First, we have to recover and rejuvenate the water bodies in the villages and cities. We have to recover the canals that feed them from encroachments. We have to create rain-catchment structures. We have to encourage industry that utilises water scarcely and sensibly. We have to avoid water-gulping crops and farming practices. We have to stop exacting excess ground water through deep borewells, which usurps what belongs to the future generations. We have to shrink our needs to suit our available resources. We have to stop destroying our rain forests.

More importantly, water management has to be restored to the control of the villages and local administrations. The centralised approaches of the central and state governments have distanced the water management from the people, and have pushed us towards this era of scarcity.

Without entrusting the locals with so many tasks that they themselves can do, undertaking interlinking of rivers and construction of large dams, which cause massive environmental issues and dislocation of people while strengthening the central powers further, will have to be viewed to be at complete contrast with the Gandhian approach.

One village could be sacrificed for the benefit of the country; one family could be sacrificed for the benefit of a village, and an individual for the family: these words attributed to Gandhi have been misinterpreted by us, in divergence with his overall worldview. Indeed, individuals and villages have to be willing to make sacrifices; but, the governments should never sacrifice its villages and people. Governments have to embrace every individual, every community, and nature, and work towards the upliftment of all. That will be the right Gandhian approach. When such an approach is adopted, the individual will be ever willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the larger community – without coercing or inducement.

When we consider every development activity with these tenements, we will be able to make plans that suit people at all levels, and are aligned to nature.

Critic: You claim that the central power should not be strengthened. However, the people seem to crave for a strong centre. They vote for those leaders whom they consider to be capable of swiftly solving all their problems.

Traveller: We do need a strong leadership. But there is no point in having it only at the state or the centre. We need strong collective leadership at the villages and cities, which is capable of administering them with competence. Centralized power will lead towards dictatorship and intolerance.

Only when decentralisation happens, people will be able to rightly choose their own paths. Only when we realize Gandhi’s village autonomy, will we realize true independence.

Critic: You wax eloquent about tolerance. Are the Gandhians tolerant? In the meeting at Coimbatore, a Gandhian insisted on switching off the AC, and removing bottled water from Coca Cola, and threatened to walkout unless it was done. A speaker pointed out then that Gandhians should develop tolerance.

Traveller: You very well know that the tolerance that I speak about is different.

The sort of tolerance that you expect would never have been endorsed by Gandhi. He was always prepared to point out the failings of participants in any meeting. Even at the British palace, he quipped that the King was wearing enough for both of them. At meetings, he had castigated people for choosing to speak in English or Sanskrit ahead of their mother tongues. He has always remained a rebel against iniquity. He followed non-violence in his methods of protest; in fact, he disliked the phrase passive-resistance.

Critic: Imposing your views on me is also a form of violence.

Traveller: True. But there is nothing violent in pointing out the error in your views. There is nothing violent in threatening to walkout when one’s firmly held beliefs are not accepted. There is no violence in fighting to establish what we believe to be true. The means carry violence and non-violence.

When we work by projecting Gandhi, is there anything wrong in expecting that there should be a minimum level of simplicity and honesty.

When I travel by air-conditioned vehicles, or use private transport ahead of public transport, I get pangs of guilt. We have become habituated to making compromises for the sake of others and for our own comforts. Whenever such compromises happen, Gandhi questions us. Gandhi has also made compromises – but we know of them from his writings. Only when we honestly acknowledge our compromises and work towards getting rid of them, will we get closer to the Gandhian way.

Critic: You keep extolling the virtues of Gandhi. How tolerant are you towards criticism of Gandhi? At a women’s college, when a girl asked a question, there was talk about subjecting women to his experiments.

Traveller: Gandhi too is not beyond criticism. It was Gandhi who flagged off the criticism about himself. Gandhian enthusiasts have been patiently responding to all criticism about Gandhi. It is a harsh reality that in today’s charged atmosphere, it is only against Gandhi that you can lay any charge and get away without facing any violent backlash. That is Gandhi’s victory.

There are numerous charges against him – on his handling of Bhagat Singh or Subhash Chandra Bose, on his approach towards Dalits, about his views on Varnasrama, about his acceptance of aid from large industrialists, his views about women, his early writings on native Africans, etc. There are detailed rebuttals or explanations for each of those charges.

During this yatra, we got to speak about two charges.

Firstly, about Harijan Seva. Though Gandhi used the word Harijan with all the best intentions, today it has become unacceptable to those people themselves; hence, it is only apt that we use the word Dalit. I will readily assert that nobody has contributed as much as Gandhi for the welfare of Dalits. Though it is essential that the voice of protest has to arise from the oppressed people, it is more essential that the minds of the oppressors have to be conquered and changed. Especially, when the oppressor and the oppressed have to live together as a single community at the same place. Gandhi brought about that transformation of minds. Though a large distance is yet to be covered, the distance traversed is also quite long.

Gandhi was of the firm resolve that he or his close associates should not visit temples that barred Dalits from entering them. But when Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai happened to visit Puri Jagannath Temple, which practised untouchability, Gandhi condemned them openly in newspapers. The same Gandhi who supported Varnashram during his earlier years, later started insisting that he will attend only mixed-caste marriages, and only when one of the couple was a Dalit.

Gandhi desired that a Harijan woman should become the first President of independent India. Though Ambedkar was opposed to him, and the Congress, politically, it was Gandhi who created the conducive environment for Ambedkar to play the leading role in framing the Constitution. In the dispute over separate electorates for Dalits, there were pros and cons in the stances of both Gandhi and Ambedkar. Gandhi’s approach was most suitable for those days, from the perspective of preventing the splintering of the society and in bringing about a transformation in the thinking of the oppressors. Gandhi also ensured that Dalits got more constituencies through his approach than the original formula. That is the reason why Ambedkar, after yielding his position, did not undertake any serious struggle for separate Dalit constituencies later on. However, Ambedkar’s argument that the Dalit representatives will have to pander to the wishes of the upper castes in the reserved constituencies, is still true. It is time that the Gandhian and Dalit organisations stop constructing them as opposite poles, acknowledge the contributions of both, understand both their perspectives, and join hands in working for the betterment of Dalits and the other classes.

Next, the experiments concerning women. Gandhi’s views on Brahmacharya and his experiments to overcome his sexual inclinations may not be compatible with modern thinking. However, never has there been any accusations raised by the women around Gandhi. Whatever we know about his experiments are largely from his own writings. Manu Gandhi, who accompanied him during his most intense experiments at Naokhali, titled her book as ‘Bapu – My Mother’. Not Father, but Mother. Any accusation could be rendered meaningless by this single phrase. (Pushing a discussion that happened during the yatra to the next stage, Dr.Jeevanantham has translated this work into Tamil.)

Critic: Let us leave aside the sexual experiments. Looking at the way he treated his wife, doesn’t he come across as being very conservative with regards to women’s rights?

Traveller: During his younger days, Gandhi has indeed ill-treated Kasturba at times. We know this also from his writings, where he has been most apologetic about his behaviour. Later on, he has entrusted Kasturba with huge responsibilities. He has encouraged her to lead struggles from the front.

Gandhi will find a prominent place in history in bringing women to the forefront of struggles. As long as swords and guns were the weapons, the battlefields have mostly been the preserve of men. But after Gandhi introduced the weapon of Satyagraha, the way was paved for women to throng the battlefields and lead the struggles.

The other weapon that Gandhi introduced to women was the Spinning wheel or the Charka. A weapon that they could wield from home, at their convenience and at their choice of time.

Critic: What? The charka? Another symbol of regression.

Traveller: In reality, Gandhi’s charka was the symbol of anti-imperialism. The weapon that severed the economic dependence on England, and sought to stop the economic exploitation by the British.

I realize that, even today, charka symbolises the gram swaraj. To see the numerous spinners and weavers, especially women, who attended the meetings organised by the Sarvodaya Sangams, was to gain the understanding that the seeds of gram swaraj sown by Gandhi are still full of life. Sarvodaya Sangams are prominent among the few remnants of Gandhian thinking. They do have many flaws accumulated over the years. Yet, the possibilities that they present are phenomenal.

Gandhian organizations like the Sarvodaya Sangam possess the inherent possibility that an economic setup can be run by the people, for the people.

And, now we have levied a tax on khadi and other handicrafts for the first time in independent India. We have to view this as a blow against local autonomy.

Despite these barriers, only if the organisations like the Sarvodaya Sangam manage to create economic independence and autonomy for the people, we will be able to move towards a decentralised political autonomy.

These organisations also have the necessity to reform themselves as per the current ecological needs. A deep introspection and strategising is required about the function, perspectives, vision and objectives of this organisation.

Critic: Such political and economic view is totally against the flow of the modern world. This can never become mainstream. That is probably why people like Nehru and Ambedkar comprehensively rejected these aspects of Gandhi.

Traveller: If this doesn’t come to the mainstream, the ecological deterioration may threaten to wipe out our the mainstream itself. Ambedkars and Nehrus were rooted in the realities of their times. Those realities shaped their perspectives. Though Gandhi had one foot in the stark reality, his other foot was ever extended towards the larger truth.

Critic: It is because of these complexities, that some people hold that Gandhi should be distanced from political space and kept in the personal space.

Traveller: There is no disputing that Gandhi is essential in the personal space. But that will shrink the possibility of Gandhi. It can only be a starting point. Any honest spiritual person would have exhibited the personal discipline, love and truth of Gandhi. But, only when Gandhi is placed in the social, political, and economic spaces, he reaches his gigantic heights. He raises uncomfortable questions. He gives uncomfortable solutions. The uncomfortable socio-political Gandhi is more crucial to us that the spiritually soothing personal Gandhi.

Critic: It seems that Gandhi may soon be appropriated by Hindutva. Aren’t there many commonalities between Gandhi and Hindutva – opposition to killing of cows, vegetarianism, reviving the ancient Indian culture, love of Rama, nationalism, swadeshi, love of Hindi, and so on, we can go.

Traveller: If Gandhi can appropriated, the Hindutvites would have done it by now. Though there seems to be a superficial similarity between Gandhi and Hindutva in some of the aspects that you mentioned, there are very vehement, fundamental differences.

Gandhi’s Ram and Hindutva Ram aren’t the same. Gandhi’s Ram was not the historical or the mythological Ram; His Ram was the name he gave to the God for everyone; His Ram was the name of what he considered to be God – the Truth. Gandhi’s Ram can never be the symbol of violence. He would never become the hero of majoritarian dominance. He would never demolish a religious structure.

Gandhi opposed the killing of the cow because it had religious significance for a vast number of people, and also because it was the fulcrum of the village economy; and he valued all lives. But he never wanted to resort to stopping cow slaughter through legal intervention. He always, and would have always opposed cow vigilantism which unleashes violence on Muslims and Dalits. What he sought was the transformation of minds of the other side; never the imposition of his side. He also considered that cow slaughter was institutionalised and increased manifold during the British period. This goes against the Hindutva narrative which fixes the major blame on the Islamic rulers.

Gandhi would have exposed the hypocrisy behind shedding tears for the cow, while letting the cow economy to go to the dogs.

Similarly, Gandhi viewed vegetarianism as a matter of personal morality and did not place it on the national agenda. When Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan visited Wardha with his sons, he was not averse to arranging meat for his young sons.

Gandhi’s nationalism was subordinate to his humanitarianism. While Gandhi was stridently opposed to the creation of Pakistan, when he realised that it was the wish of the people, he grudgingly came to terms with it (while nurturing hopes of reunification). Again, his efforts were concentrated on changing of hearts and minds. He went to the extent of proposing Jinnah as the Prime Minister of undivided India in order to avert partition. But when he saw that nobody was prepared to come along with him in his fight against partition, he did not venture to wage a lone battle. He channeled his energies towards diffusing the violence and massacres unleashed by partition. Gandhi would never have agreed to wage a war against the people of any region in the name of nationalism. He fully understood the diversity of India. He would have opposed the imposition of a unitary culture on all the people. He would have been opposed to allocating and spending huge budgets to stay ahead in the military and arms race.

Though Gandhi had immense respect for the Indian culture, he was never averse to critiquing the negative aspects and correcting them. He did not seek false glory by inventing those that never happened. When the scriptures were at loggerheads with the truth, he invariably asked us to choose truth.

Gandhi’s swadeshi came from his heart. It was based on the tenets of decentralisation and gram swaraj. It did not arise from the fountain of hate. It was therefore that when he visited England, the mill workers who lost jobs because of khadi were able to wholeheartedly welcome him and embrace him as their own. Gandhi would never have allowed the word swadeshi to be associated with the process of multinational companies and large Indian industrial houses making in India but increasing the inequalities and depriving the people of their autonomy.

Gandhi saw Hindi as another tool against imperialism and for national integration. Imposing any language against the wishes of a people will not constitute Gandhism; be it Hindi or any other language, the Gandhian way is to create a conducive path whereby the people naturally embrace a connecting language; not impose through constitution and authority. In addition, Gandhi emphasised the importance of having the mother tongue as the medium of instruction, and always gave primacy to the use of mother tongue in all communication. Gandhi would not have sacrificed unity for the sake of uniformity. (Many Gandhians advocate the 3-language formula. During this yatra too, Dr.Markandan strongly put forward the 3-language principle. But I do believe that none of them would support the imposition of Hindi against the wishes of the people.)

Thus the Hindutvites can accept Gandhi only as a spiritual icon, and a brand ambassador for initiatives like Clean India; if they accept him in totality they would have to forego Hindutva and turn Gandhians. As long as they remain within the fold of Hindutva, they can only chop Gandhi and choose a few convenient parts. They are not ignorant of the fact that the broom inserted into his hands could sweep them also away.

Critic: At a time when Hindutva is going strong, what have the Gandhians done to stem the flow? In the protest sites today, we don’t hear the name of Gandhi as much as Ambedkar, Periyar or Marx. Has Gandhi become an icon of conformity?

Traveller: In the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine, senior Gandhians like K.M.Natarajan and Padamuthu have been writing incessantly against Hindutva. During this yatra, Markandan spoke in colleges and schools against the vitiated atmosphere created by Hindutva. All of them are octogenarians. The next generation Gandhian enthusiasts have also been writing in social media and magazines advocating the Gandhian thoughts and countering the Hindutva propaganda.

However, it must be conceded that the Gandhians have not organised any massive movement against Hindutva. Gandi’s name indeed is missing on the protest fields, especially in Tamilnadu. The rebellious Gandhi has not reached today’s youth. Or, the Gandhi who expects dedication and sacrifice, not only during protests, but during everyday life, is not acceptable to us.

But, Gandhi cannot be confined to the can of conformity for too long. He is the fountainhead of non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Overcoming the deficiencies of his followers, by continuing to raise those uncomfortable and disconcerting questions, he continue to push us towards Truth.

Critic: You keep saying that Gandhi would have done this or not done that. What is the point of it? Why should we be prisoners of the past? Isn’t it important to see what is it that we must do now?

Traveller: Gandhi is the pinnacle of human thought and action. To say Gandhi would have been like this, and to do decide what then must we do are no different. I do not view Gandhi as the representative of the past. He belongs to our present; he is the guide to our future.

*****

When we visited the Gandhi Museum at Madurai with our daughter, she pointed towards a picture, and observed that Gandhi was not wearing his chappals. That photo was taken during Naokhali yatra. Having encountered the most difficult problem of his eventful life, and conceding that he was groping in the darkness to find light, Gandhi believed that he needed to embark on the most stringent sacrifices and spiritual experiments. He started simplifying his already simple life. One such act was to walk barefoot on the punishing moist lands of Naokhali, at the age of 77.

This picture created a bigger impression on my daughter than any of the speeches she heard during the yatra. Similarly, a hope emerges that during the yatra, every word, every act, every image would sow some seed somewhere.

Gandhi undertook various yatras – for the sake of immigrant Indians in South Africa, for the sake of independence in Dandi, for the sake of Hindus in Naokhali, for the sake of Muslims in Bihar, and for Dalits allover India. His whole life was a yatra towards truth and Sarvodaya (well-being of all). That yatra continues to this day. And should continue.


Facebook posts – 2017

October 13, 2017

(A compilation of my posts on Facebook, so far in 2017.)

(3-9-2017)

We have sacrificed a young girl at the altar of so-called meritocracy. We are saying RIP to a girl who should have lived and served in peace.

To hell with NEET and all forms of elitist entrance exams. While, in the short run, Tamilnadu’s marks-based selection process is the most pragmatic way to go, and education should be a state subject, it is time to push our imagination beyond that as well.

Our children should be allowed to pursue the futures that they want, irrespective of what their past exam scores tell.

What they desire is more relevant than what they deserve (as decided by someone else).

Scarcity of seats and infrastructural constraints are falsely created political constructs to protect elitist turfs and centralised power. Who can decide if Anitha is eligible to serve her Kuzhumur village as a doctor? Neither Lutyen’s Delhi nor St.George Fort can ever be in a better position to make that call than our Anithas themselves and their local communities. What matters is not whether Anitha could have been among the best doctors in the world or the country (of course, she could have been) but if Anitha could have been the most suitable doctor for Kuzhumur. We don’t need legislation and incentives to force city-bred doctors to serve in villages. We need power with our local communities to groom their own doctors and engineers, and freedom and opportunities for individuals to choose their vocation. There will be more natural balance in this seeming chaos than any centrally designed system.

In the current tangle of expectations and disappointments that our administrators, politicians and judges have got our children into, the only sensible thing to do this year is to give admission to all the candidates who are eligible both under the State admission process and NEET. There surely will be infrastructural constraints. But whatever be the cost, no more young life should be destroyed.

Next year, get rid of NEET permanently.

In future, get rid of all artificial scarcities, and move to a system that places maximum value on the aspirations of the individual and the needs of local communities.


(25-8-2017)

CBSE vs State Board, NEET/entrance exams vs Board exams, BJP Vs Congress, ADMK vs DMK: by constructing such lose-lose binaries, and blunting our imagination and free thinking, does the system(constructed by us, of course) defeat us.

(P.S.: I see that I’ve happened to list my choice of the lesser evil on the right side, in all the cases)


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Freedom

August 1, 2017

Trees that thrive on this planet,

clusters of plants in bloom with joyous fragrance,

creepers that throng those trees,

healing herbs, weeds and grass and such:

By what profession do they live?

 

Men may not plough, nor sow,

not raise bunds, nor water their crop

but if the skies grant rains,

will not the land abound

with trees and various grains and grass?

There is not a thing I fear

Oh men, embrace my religion

and toil not!

 

Tax not your flesh and body

Nature shall yield food.

See, your task here is to wield love.

– Subramania Bharati

(Translated by me)


விடுதலை
———-

இந்தப் புவிதனில் வாழு மரங்களும்
இன்ப நறுமலர்ப் பூஞ்செடிக் கூட்டமும்
அந்த மரங்களைச் சூழ்ந்த கொடிகளும்
ஔடத மூலிகை பூண்டுபுல் யாவையும்
எந்தத் தொழில் செய்து வாழ்வன வோ?

மானுடர் உழாவிடினும் வித்து நடாவிடினும்
வரம்புகட்டாவிடினும் அன்றிநீர் பாய்ச்சாவிடினும்
வானுலகு நீர்தருமேல் மண்மீது மரங்கள்
வகைவகையா நெற்கள்புற்கள் மலிந்திருக்கு மன்றோ?
யானெ தற்கும் அஞ்சுகிலேன்,மானுடரே,நீவிர்
என்மதத்தைக் கைக்கொண்மின்,பாடுபடல் வேண்டா;
ஊனுடலை வருத்தாதீர்; உணவியற்கை கொடுக்கும்;
உங்களுக்குத் தொழிலிங்கே அன்பு செய்தல் கண்டீர்!-

– பாரதி