Gandhian Awareness Yatra – A Journey Within

[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.]

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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.

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