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.]


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.


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.



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.


Learning – Its purpose and impact: From the Tamil Sangam Age to the Cyber Age

July 10, 2017

[This is the full text that I had prepared for a speech at IIT Chennai. The actual speech delivered there was shortened due to time constraints. I have broken the text into 3 parts: The first part has a bit of my personal experiences; the second part focuses on references to learning in early Tamil literature, and a look at the situation of education in India in the recent past;  the third part deals with contemporary issues. One may choose to read the whole essay or only the parts that are of interest to you – they can be read together or independent of each other.]

Reading at a Table - Picasso

Reading at a Table – Picasso

“For the learned, every nation and every place is theirs;
why then, doesn’t one keep learning till death,”
– Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar.


Educators have a pet peeve. They say only a lawyer advises on issues of law, a doctor on medicine, an engineer on his field, an artist on art and so on. But everybody has something to say about learning. That is because everybody learns. While educators may have a major role to play in learning, learning is not the preserve of educators or educational institutions. Learning may happen because of them, it may happen despite them, and it may well happen without them.

How we learn, why we learn and what me must learn are questions crucial to the human civilisation today.

What I intend to speak about learning has a lot to do with how I myself have learnt, and still learn. I have been to premier educational institutions, and have worked in large corporates. But I was continually plagued by the questions, what was I learning, and how was my learning relevant to the society that I lived in. I incidentally started translating Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil text by Thiruvalluvar. I also started to read deeply about Gandhi, and works by Gandhi. My questions didn’t go away – they got deepened. I saw a big mismatch between what we were learning and doing, and the impact of all that on my own inner self, and the society around me. I decided to quit my job, and corporate career. I started training students on leadership – righteous and compassionate leadership – using the tenets of Thirukkural and Gandhi. While my efforts may have helped inspire some students, I still felt a void. I began feeling that sitting inside a classroom, listening to a lecture, watching fancy multimedia slides, and doing pre-designed activities, however absorbing they may be, is not how children, or adults, learn. Learning, I began realising, emerges from and has to be rooted to the society, to its culture and Nature.

Despite rampant urbanisation, a large part of India still resides in its villages, and I too, decided to shift to a village. Along with my wife and daughter, we are now learning farming and various other aspects of life from the village. Yet to forego our vanities, we run a learning centre at our home, which we call ‘Payilagam’. It is a free, open space for the village children to come, read books from our library or play games or do homework or clear doubts, be themselves and do what they want to. It has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn about learning. Our nine year old daughter doesn’t attend formal school, and has been learning naturally from the rich experience she is gaining from her environment, and the people and books around her.

With this little personal background, let me proceed deeper into the subject of interest for us today: learning. Learning, I would like to emphasise again, has to be rooted to the culture, society and nature. The impact of learning is today measured by the exam scores, the entrances that one clears, employability, earning potential and depth of knowledge. But we have reached a point where not many of us really care about the impact of our learning on the society. Cultural continuity has been lost in our learning, which in turn, negatively impacts the societal relevance. ‘Let Nature be your Teacher,’ said William Wordsworth. But much of our modern learning has taken us too far away from nature. In the course of this speech, I shall devote some time to each of these aspects.

Firstly, culture. An understanding of one’s culture, and aligning our learning to our culture, will, one can understand intuitively, enhance learning. However, our education systems, on the one hand, think learning is universal and local culture has nothing to do with it. There has been a disdain towards our learning heritage, and many of us seem to think that our education started with Macaulay. There is no need for us to seek a false sense of superiority, but to have an understanding and rootedness is essential. Being rooted to one’s culture, will give the thrust to embrace all other cultures. Of course, there will be, and has to be points of departure from certain aspects of the cultural past. But an understanding is a must for making those departures too. As a first step, I first seek to understand our culture of learning.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)


There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]


Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.


A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Non-violence was not a mere strategy

November 29, 2016

Shashi Tharoor may be right in debunking the rose tinted view of the Empire, but his understanding of Gandhi and non-violence seems suspect (in the interview in The Hindu, 12-Nov-2016). This view, held by many Congressmen even then, of non-violence as a mere strategy was heavily contested by Gandhi. He said that what happened in India was not real Satyagraha. He didn’t feel or claim success. He didn’t wave or hoist flags. Potential of success was not what determined his method. He employed non-violence in Noakhali and Calcutta and Delhi against angry mobs. He advocated non-violence to Jews. He wrote to Hitler. He was prepared to resist the Japanese aggression with non-violence. There is no reason to believe that he could not have done this against Hitler and Pol Pot. He definitely had as much (or more) of a chance of success as somebody with a gun: but the point is, it did not matter.

/You say that Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence would not have been possible under another colonial power.

Gandhiji was able to shame the British because they were claiming that they were a democracy and, at least for themselves, had a free press. Gandhiji used their own instruments against them; he could have possibly done this against the French, may be not against the British before 1857, but he couldn’t have done it against Hitler or Pol Pot. There was a significant amount of hypocrisy by the British in their advocacy of democratic values, and Gandhiji called them out on it. /

Sarvodaya Day Conference – A few memories

May 30, 2016

Published in Sarvodaya magazine, May 2016.

The death anniversary of the Gandhian leader, Jagannathan, who played a crucial role in the Sarvodaya movement, is commemorated every year (on February 10,11,12), in a way that is refreshingly different. Instead of reducing it to a series of homages to an individual, or tributes to a leader who was indeed loved by all, these three days are converted into an exploration of the social change that he desired. This year, the conference was anchored around education and healthcare. Experts and young students came together to think, converse, exchange ideas and return with renewed enthusiasm.

The first day began with a welcome address by Dr.Bhoomikumar. K.M.Natarajan delivered the inaugural address. He shared his memories of Jagannathan. He spoke of how Jagannathan, when he was a teacher, donated his wrist watch to Mahatma Gandhi for the Harijan Seva Fund. He also pointed out that various Sarvodaya leaders like M.Arunachalam were mentored by him. He further recalled Jagannathan’s educational initiatives in Javvadu Hills.

Dr. Pankajam, ex-Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University, who spoke next, focussed on Basic Education – she declared with pride that she completed her entire education, from school to graduation, through the Nai Talim method. She emphasized that the future educational strategy has to evolve from the students. She listed out the challenges faced in the field of education today: deprivation of education for many, exclusion of quality education for the poor, high drop out rates from schools in the rural areas, unemployment of the educated, drain of skilled manpower and lowering standards of teaching. She charted out the required changes in education: Basic education has to be altered in line with changing times; researches should be solution-oriented and not intended for promotions and degrees; Delhi should not be making the curriculum – it should instead be evolved locally; talent should be identified at an early age; maximum stimulus should be provided at the pre-primary stage; various alternatives should be made available to the students; we need to move towards sustainable development.

The next speaker was Dr.Jennifer Lad, who runs the organization, Class Action, in the USA. She remarked that we have to view education in the context of economic changes happening all over the world, the climate change, the over dependence on and exhaustion  of fossil fuels, and raised the question on how we can create resilient communities. She identified six foundations for education: (i) Light is in each of us, and the objective of education is bring out that light;  (ii) Adaptability to the times and conditions; (iii) Systems thinking that will encompass family, community and history, health, food and transportation; (iv) Education has to be transformative, and make us think out of the box; (v) Sustainability should be at the core of our thinking, and all our decisions should be assessed based on the impact 7 generations down;  (vi) Courage and strength of heart.

Jennifer went on to facilitate a discussion with me and my wife, Nedya, which turned out to be a surprising and pleasant experience for us. She focussed on our move to quit the corporate-urban life, and shift to the village to take up farming and teaching the village children, and our experiences around home schooling our daughter.

Later, all the participants broke up into smaller sub-groups, to discuss within themselves and present their views on education. The deliberations could be summarized as follows:

Education should be decentralized.
On the lines of Nai Talim, education should be centered around crafts ad physical work.
Morals and values have to be inculcated.
Students should not be assessed only based on marks.
Equal educational opportunities should be available for everyone.
Mother tongue should be the medium of instruction.
Teachers training and evaluation should undergo significant changes.
Quality of education in government schools has to be improved.
All Children should learn without fear.

The theme for the second day was healthcare, and Dr.Sathya coordinated the events. Dr.Nachiar, one of the co-founders of Aravind Eyecare Hospital, narrated the social journey of her organization. She opined that blindness has afflicted 39 million people globally and 12 million in India, and 80% of it is treatable. She mentioned that Aravind Hospitals reaches the people directly through the 56 primary care centres in villages. The village centers are more important than the large hospitals in cities and locals have to be trained and employed in those primary care centres; even if healthcare is offered free, it is not free for the patient who has to bear certain direct and indirect costs to avail that free treatment. This challenged my perspective on freebies.

Dr.Ramasubramanian, founder of M.S.Chellamuthu Trust, shared his experiences in community psychiatry. He lamented that mental disorders are viewed by the society as a curse or as black magic; it is not just the individual but the entire family that is affected. A vast majority don’t seek medical help from psychiatrists because of ignorance, fear of stigma and high cost. However, all mental illnesses, if detected early enough, are curable, he said. He gave the background behind starting a mental care hospital at Musundagiripatti village, through his Trust. Initially, cooperation from the villagers was not forthcoming; but after he managed to cure a local patient, and employed the same person, the villagers started trusting him. After the fire accident at Yervadi, he tied up with the religious institutions there, and made them refer the patients to qualified psychiatrists. This seemed to be an excellent strategy to use when social initiatives are in conflict with religious faith.

Jone Schanche Olsen, a psychiatrist with Stavenger University Hospital’s Transcultural Centre in Norway, shared his harrowing experiences with refugees affected by war. Refugees have been streaming into Norway from African countries, such as Eritrea, for many years. Now there is a sudden influx from Syria. These refugees have to cross many countries on land and by water. Many of them are children and teenagers. Due to the many gory sights that they have seen, and sexual exploitation, they experience severe mental trauma. Nurses and social activists are trained to work with them. Group therapy is provided for them.

David Albert has been a regular visitor to India for the last 40 years. He has had a long association with the Krishnammal-Jagannathan couple.  He has written important books on Homeschooling. He has been engaged in efforts to bring hygienic drinking water to African countries and India, through his organization, Friendly Water for the World. He spoke about the relationship between education, health and water. In India, the quality of water is worse than it was 40 years ago. The ground water level has gone down. 48% babies are stunted at birth due to malnutrition. Children are damaged the most due to water. Even in the United States, malnutrition among black children is at the same level of India; their mortality rate is similar to that of India. Our educational institutions have failed to impart the knowledge about water filtering and water management. Every teacher should be seen to be cleaning toilets; every child should be taught about clean water and cleaning hands; Gandhi’s experiments with latrines were experiments with truth; Corruption and acceptance of unsanitary conditions are mental illnesses. David touched upon many disparate topics and established their connection with water.

The third day (February 12) was the death anniversary of Jagannathan. It is celebrated as Sarvodaya Day. This is a day that brings together many Gandhian workers. Many villagers from Nagapattinam region, who have benefitted through the works of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, had also come. Dr. M.P.Gurusamy, Dr. Padamuthu, Dr. Markandan and Dr.Jeevanantham spoke. Inamul Hasan and Rajendran narrated their experiences during flood relief operations in Chennai and Cuddalore. Dr.Kausalya Devi, who has been rendering great service in the medical field, and Vengayyan who has, through his stirring songs, played an active role in Sarovodaya movements, were honoured with Sarvodaya Awards. Dr.Natarajan, Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University spoke about Dr.Kausalya Devi and K.M.Natarajan about Vengayyan.

These three days gave fresh impetus to our current efforts, and motivation to take up more. The incident that capped the three memorable days happened on the last day, when the morning session was coming to a close. After hearing many delegates speak, and with the lunch time approaching, the attentiveness of the group had started sagging. It was time for Krishnammal Jagannathan to speak. She rose from the stage, and started walking ahead; she rushed to centre of the hall, sang a small prayer and started speaking emotively in colloquial Tamil. She brushed aside the mike that was offered to her, and someone had to insist on holding it. The American friend, next to me, who out of respect for the speakers was sitting patiently and diligently, though she couldn’t understand the language, was up on her feet, exclaiming, “This is the way to do it.” Krishnammal recounted how, during 1948, in the same location, she was a warden in a hostel for poor women, and helped them to become nurses; of how, many years later, at the same place, she heard of the massacre at Keezha Venmani and rushed there, stayed there and started off the initiative to procure land for landless Dalits. “I saw in newspapers – on the eve of Pongal, rice, jaggery and piece of sugarcane was distributed for all…have you all become so despondent, that you queue up to get rice, jaggery and sugarcane for 10 rupees? What work have those who were in power for 60 years done? Did they give land to the people, did they build them houses, or educate them? Whatever left is the tag, ‘lower caste’,” she stopped abruptly and turned back. The stillness of the room stretched out for a few more seconds, and then dissolved in the applause. For those few moments, the atmosphere there was electric.

Narayan Desai: A Journey in the radiance of Gandhi

June 4, 2015

My essay on Narayan Desai in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.

Sarvodaya Talisman cover

March 15, 2015. Narayan Desai, one of the last few close associates of Gandhi, who lived amongst us, passed away. “For a generation that had never seen Gandhi, he made us realize how Gandhi would have been,” said my friend Suneel Krishnan, who runs the Tamil website Gandhi Today, when he called up to share his grief. He echoed the words that were in my mind. Both of us had met him, for the first time, when Narayan Desai had visited Madurai, for delivering his ‘Gandhi Katha’ series. Later, I seized an opportunity to interview Narayan Desai. The interview, ‘A Bridge to the times of Gandhi”, was published as a book, by Madurai Sarvodaya Ilakkiya Pannai. That meeting with Narayan Desai opened the doors to a new world for me; it brought me into contact with many Gandhi enthusiasts. I met him again, twice. I spent a few days with him, along with my family, in his ashram at Vedchhi. His loss bears on me, more as that of a family elder, than of a Gandhian leader. This is also the time, when I can reflect, and explain, why Narayanbhai was held so high, and close, in the hearts of many, including me.

From the time he was born in 1924, Narayan grew up in the proximity of Gandhi. He was the son of Mahadev Desai and Durgabehn. Mahadev Desai was Gandhi’s secretary, friend, and was like another son. He was a relentless worker. During the 25 years, he was with Gandhi, he had taken a holiday only twice. There was never a weekend or a festival day for him. A significant portion of the thousands of pages of Gandhi’s writings were scribed by Mahadev’s pen. He could even write what Gandhi would write, as well as him. Many essays of Mahadev, were endorsed and signed by Gandhi, and published in his name in Harijan, without a change. Mahadev was the voice and pen of Gandhi, to such extent. He shone light on the wonderful everyday life of the Mahatma, through his diaries. Since Narayan was born to such a man, Gandhi’s tender shadow and radiance fell on him, right from his childhood. It stayed on him, after Mahadev, and later Gandhi, passed away. “It has been a blissful experience for me to have spent one-third of my life in Gandhi’s physical presence, and the rest in his spiritual presence,” said Narayan, about the permanent existence of Gandhi in his life.

The chance to grow up on Gandhi’s lap led Narayan along the right path. He wrote about the Gandhi he knew, from different angles. Thousands of books have been, and are being, penned about Gandhi. But Narayan got a vantage point denied to almost all others. “He was Bapu (Father) for the whole of the Ashram, leader of the nation; Mahatma for the people. But for us, above all, he was simply a friend. He never seemed to us as anyone other than a friend. When he went for his walk, he used to play with us. When we were doing our morning exercises, he will come and encourage us. While being in a state of deep meditation during the prayers, or while having discussions over important issues with national leaders at Hriday Kunj, he always appeared to be a friend for us,” was how Narayan introduced Gandhi to the world through the eyes of a child. While the Gandhi we knew was a political leader, Father of the nation, pioneer of non-violent resistance, social reformer, originator of a new economic thought, educator, the Mahatma, and more, Narayan showed us the Gandhi who was the friend of children. His book, Gandhi through a Child’s Eyes: An Intimate Memoir,  was a wonderful and rare work, written with humor and emotion. “Most of Gandhi’s biographers deal with his political life in far greater detail. In doing so, some of them often neglect the other dimensions of his life. Gandhi cannot be properly understood in parts. He must be studied in totality. One cannot comprehend Satyagraha without connecting it with Constructive Work or the Ashram observances. Gandhi, the statesman and the fighter for freedom, could not have been like what he was, had he not been Gandhi, the social reformer, and Gandhi the saint. In this book I try to trace the common thread between these four seemingly diverse dimensions of Gandhi’s life. It is the quest for truth in all its glory that creates Gandhi, the man,” says Narayan Desai in the preface to his biography on Gandhi, My life is my Message. One can observe this aspect of painting a complete picture of Gandhi by connecting all his dimensions, in all activities of Narayan Desai – be it his writing or Gandhi Katha speeches or personal conversations. This biography was originally written in Gujarati, and later, translated into English, by Tridip Suhrud (published by Orient Blackswan in 4 volumes).

Narayanbhai, once, observed – I can’t say if there was a tinge of regret, “It has been a few years since the English translation of my Gandhi biography has been published. I haven’t seen a single review, yet.” I was also guilty of not having read his massive work. Only recently, I had bought the full set, with a strong intent to read and write about the book, while he was alive. It was not to be. It is a bitter truth that we have lent only negligence even for the greatest of men, who had lived with us. It was through the tributes for him, published in mainstream newspapers and magazines, that many came to know about him. Some who had read my essay on him in the Tamil Hindu, expressed this to me. I am writing this piece, with the satisfaction that, however late, at least now, the limelight has fallen where it should. Be it on stage, or in person, Narayan Desai was an excellent storyteller. His Gandhi Katha was his attempt to take Gandhi to the next generation through the traditional Indian Katha form, revitalising it with his own flavour. When religious riots and massacres broke out in 2002 in Gujarat – the Gujarat, where he and Gandhi were born, he felt the need to reintroduce Gandhi with a renewed vigour, and took up Gandhi Katha. He started with the intent of doing 108 events, and eventually went beyond it. Those who have attended his Gandhi Katha would be able to appreciate how well, through music and his emotional narration, he was able to create a sense of seeing Gandhi from close quarters.

My conversations with him helped me sharpen my views about Gandhi. For instance, I had my doubts over whether Gandhi really intended to make Jinnah the Prime Minister to avoid partition, or if it was a superficial, diplomatic gesture. Narayanbhai wiped out my doubt when he elucidated, “I call it the Judgement of Solomon. When 2 women came to Price Solomon, quarreling over a child and claiming the child to be theirs, Solomon said, ‘alright, let us divide the child into two and give half to each one’. But the real mother said, ‘Oh no, let the child live. Give it to the other women.’ My god! That is what Gandhi offered, ‘leave it to Jinnah and keep the country united.’” He also explained how this suggestion was shot down by Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel. He went on to add, in the words of Jayaprakash Narayan, how Gandhi was ready to enter the battlefield again to halt partition but no support came from any quarters: “We developed cold feet. Gandhi said, if you are willing to join, I am willing to give them a fight.”

Gandhi was initially against inter-caste marriages. It is this stance that is being latched on to, and criticized by many, today. But, later, he came to the emphatic realization that, to eradicate untouchability, inter-caste marriages were a must. He announced that he would attend only those weddings where at least one of the couple was a Harijan. Narayan Desai married outside his caste. His wife Uttara was the daughter of Nabakrushna Chaudhury, who, later, became the Chief Minister of Odisha. Though the couple belonged to different castes and languages, neither of them was a Dalit. Hence, Gandhi refused to attend the wedding of the son of his beloved Mahadev. However, Narayan Desai said with glee, since it was an inter-caste wedding, he accorded it the status of a ‘Second Class Wedding’, and blessed the newly-wed couple. When Narayan Desai was put in a school at Wardha, he felt repulsed by the anglicized culture there, and decided to drop out. His father directed him to take the advice of Gandhi. Ariyanayakam, who had recently taken charge as the HeadMaster there, argued with Gandhi against this decision. But Gandhi could empathize with the sentiments of Narayan, and supported him wholeheartedly. Not yet satisfied, he proceeded to persuade the Ariyanayakam couple to quit that school and join the Nai Taleem movement.

Narayan believed that in many ways, this incident helped sharpen Gandhi’s views on Basic Education. Narayan, himself, started his career in social work, as a teacher at a Basic Education school. He, then, started one, on his own. Till the end, he continued to encourage experiments in Nai Taleem. That, someone who had not completed his formal education, went on to rise to be the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, is an apt testimony for the spirit of Gandhian education. Though he had dropped out from school, what better school could have been there for Narayan than the Sevagram Ashram? Who could have taught him better than the great people with whom he resided and interacted? What better could he have learnt than from his enriching everyday life? When we had visited Gujarat Vidyapith, hundreds of students and teachers had assembled quietly for paying tributes to Nelson Mandela, who had then recently passed away; many of them were spinning on their charkas, while attentively listening to Narayan Desai’s speech. It was a memorable experience. Narayan Desai, too, used to spin for about an hour every evening. He asserted that if everyone in India, bought at least one Khadi dress every year, two crore people will have work through the year. It was an unforgettable sight to watch the tall octogenarian, nearing ninety, sit still on his cot, gather all his concentration, and spin on the charka in a meditative state. It was inspiring to see photographs of him striving to spin at the hospital, after briefly recovering from coma.

After Gandhi lighted up his childhood and teenage, two more imposing personalities influenced the next stages of his life : Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. Who else were better suited to take the place of Gandhi in Narayan Desai’s life? Narayan joined Vinoba’s Bhoodan movement and travelled to various parts of the country. He got large tracts of land as gift through his walking tours in Gujarat. Narayan concurred that the impact of the remarkable Bhoodan campaign could have been much larger. Apathy, corruption and other organizational issues impeded it. I asked him, “If the Bhoodan movement had remained as such, involving only individual contributions, and not expanded to Gram Dhan, could it have been more successful?” He replied, “Vinoba did not view this merely as land reorganization. He wished to see this evolve into something that will alter the societal fabric and framework, and lead to true Sarvodaya. That state could only have been made possible through Gram Dhan.”

A revolutionary idea, which emerged from Gandhi, but went largely unnoticed, and then became one of most important experiments in ahimsa, in independent India, was ‘Shanti Sena’. Shanti Sena was started by Vinoba, and later, led by J.P. Narayan Desai played a critical role in it as the National Secretary. When social, religious and caste conflicts occur, the intervention of armed police tend to cause huge human and material losses, or enforces an unnatural, transient calm. The primary aims of Shanti Sena were to create volunteer forces, drawn locally, which forge communal harmony through continuous constructive work, prevent riots, and when riots do break out, resolve the conflicts in a peaceful manner. Gandhi dreamt of making such a peace force operational in all villages and towns.

Though Shanti Sena didn’t grow to such a large scale, it has played crucial roles in many places. When riots occurred in the 1960s in places like Surat in Gujarat, I’ve heard Narayan Desai talk about how Shanti Sena interacted with the police and all concerned parties, to make valuable contributions. Many were trained in Ahimsa through the Tarun Shanti Sena camps that were held annually. Some of them are still doing important social work; some have even become Chief Ministers. “Unfortunately they also became like others…that is what they copied from the other people,” said Desai with a wry smile. Shanti Sena, under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan and Narayan Desai, has rendered an invaluable service in ushering in peace in the Northeast India, during the tumultuous period following independence. The Shanti Sena leaders had enough conviction and courage to be able to say they could offer non-violent resistance to the Chinese forces, during the Indo-China clashes. Narayan Desai mentioned what Nehru told him, “I don’t believe you will be able to do anything big. I don’t believe non-violence can work that way. But I don’t want to stop you from trying to do that. And you have, not only my permission, but all kind of help that you need.” Desai appreciated the democratic spirit of Nehru, who encouraged them to do something, even when he didn’t fully agree with it. Though, they could secure Nehru’s support, the situation was not conducive for Shanti Sena to function at its full potential, due to the lethargy of the bureaucracy. When Jayaprakash Narayan launched his movement against Indira Gandhi, the operations of Shanti Sena in the Northeast came under strain. Narayan Desai narrated with a heavy heart, “We were all thrown out of the area where we were working. There the distance is measured not by kilometres but by number of days of walk…our centre was some 45 days walk from Dibrugarh…we had to walk some days until we got a train. Whole villages followed us because we were leaving…we were all leaving….’Who will work with us?’…they were weeping all the time.”

It was an agonizing time for Narayan Desai, when Vinoba and Jayaprakash parted ways. He was very close to both of them. He chose the harder path of following JP. He spoke movingly about that moment when he parted from Vinoba : “‘I am afraid, this is the parting of ways. And I am going to be on the other side.’ I was weeping all the time…putting my head on his lap. He never encourages any kind of touching of the body…he is like, namashkar,….he put his hand on my head for half an hour..and everytime…the only sentence he said was, ‘You are doing the right thing for you. It is absolutely right for you.’ That is the kind of freedom he gave.” The experiences with Jayaprakash and Vinoba that Narayan Desai recounted, illuminated the scarcely known sides of their personalities. Once, Narayan had quipped in jest, “The Sarvodaya movement, has two leaders – one of them is the saint and the other, the politician. And Jayaprakash is the saint.” When these words reached the ears of Vinoba – Narayan continued his fascinating tale, “Vinoba had this habit: whenever he likes something, he would stand up from his seat and start clapping. He stood up and clapped…’It is true what he said…Jayaprakash is the saint, and I am the politician!’. After this, he started saying this in public meetings. That is because of this man’s absolutely crystal-clear honesty.”

Narayan held Jayaprakash in high esteem and the reason was evident through another poignant episode. “Jayaprakash was the first to visit Indira, after she was defeated in the Parliament elections. All his colleagues complained, ‘Are you going to visit her? She was your main rival.’ ‘Whatever. She is Indu. She is Kamala’s daughter.’ Not even Jawaharlal. Kamala’s daughter. Kamala and Prabhavati were very close. They were like two sisters. She is Kamala’s daughter. “Having been defeated, she must be feeling very isolated and sorry. I must go and see her.” He went to see her. And she wept.” In memory of the movement led by JP, Narayan Desai founded Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) Vidyalaya at Vedchhi in Gujarat, for training volunteers involved in non-violent movements and constructive work.

Narayan Desai was trained in many languages. On his eighty-ninth birthday, we watched him sing a Bengali song, written by Tagore, with delightful gestures. One of the key tasks, that he wanted to be accomplished at the Gujarat Vidyapeet, was to have major literary works in all Indian languages to be translated, directly, into Gujarati. On the last day of our stay with him at Vedchchi, he was scheduled to travel to Ahmedabad, and he had offered to take us with him. The car was delayed. While we were waiting, he noticed that there was an article about the Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar, in a Gujarati literary magazine. He knew about my involvement with Thirukkural, and started instantly translating aloud, the Gujarati essay into Hindi and English. It was another unforgettable experience.

Narayan Desai was amongst the pioneers who had understood the imminent danger of nuclear powerplants, and opposed them. When a nuclear plant was planned in Gujarat, he mobilized people to fight against it. He had to encounter the full force of the government machinery. I found it ridiculous when I heard from his family that like many sincere activists before and after him, he, too, earned the epithet of anti-national. Narayan Desai, too, had touched upon the role of media and government, possibly because of such experiences: “They have all the centralized information agencies in their hand – in spite of many TV channels etc, they are just repeating what the Government tells. There is no independent information coming across. And nuclear energy cannot be discussed in the parliament. Because it is part of defense. You can’t discuss that. I think it is absolutely foolish to think of that.”

Many international students sought out Narayan Desai to get trained in Gandhian methods. When we were at Vedchhi, around 25 students from across the world were staying there for 2 weeks for a course on Gandhism, conducted by Gujarat Vidyapith. Two of them, were from South Sudan. While they were there, there was an intense war happening in their region. Narayan Desai explained to them how ahimsa can function even in such dire situations. “First, pay attention to constructive work. That is the only way to gain the trust of people. Only then will they start paying heed to you,” was his core message for them. That the foreign students could stay there with minimal comfort, and by eagerly taking on manual work, made us realize the respect that they had for Narayan Desai and the sway that Gandhi held over them still. One of them, wrote to me later, that he had setup a school on Gandhi in Brazil. Such was the impact of Narayan Desai on those who came in touch with him. During the prayer meetings that he held in the early mornings, he shared a lot of information about Gandhi and Shanti Sena. We could sense, how Gandhi’s prayer meetings would have been. Once, while in the car, he made a sharp observation about poverty line and GDP: ‘They don’t see. That is why,they measure.’ As someone who had made a handsome living out of analyzing data, this loaded remark left a deep mark on me.

The only time when I saw him mildly annoyed was when one of the foreign students, wanted to take a photo with him on the last day of their stay. He had willingly obliged all requests for photos till then. But he refused this time. I was a bit surprised, till the explanation that he gave later pricked my heart. Though, he relented and posed, his usual smile was missing. He told the lady, “For 2 weeks you never asked me any questions. Now you want this photo just as a token memento. What purpose will it serve?” I saw him as a bridge to the Gandhian times. He carried the message of Gandhi, Vinoba and JP to our generation. His own life was a powerful message as well. I wish to hold on to his message as much as, if not more strongly than, the personal memories of the few days with him. That is the fitting tribute that we could pay to such a man.

 May-June 2015 Sarvodaya Talisman

Narayan Desai – A Tribute

March 15, 2015

Narayan Desai has passed away – he was a truly noble Gandhian. It is not easy to explain the impact he has made on our lives. Forever, I will cherish the day I interviewed him, the day when we received him at the Egmore railway station to drive him down to Thakkar Baba Vidhyalaya, and later, the days when we stayed with him at Vedchhi. As someone who had made a handsome living out of analyzing data, I felt a deep mark left on me, by what he told me about poverty line and GDP: ‘They don’t see. That is why, they measure.’

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

His lovely, loving smile, his clear and measured words, his fond childhood memories of Gandhi, his persistence in continuing to spin at his age, his total belief in non-violent resistance and constructive work, the energy with which he spoke during Gandhi Katha and his prayer meetings, the personal affection that he showered on the three of us, his exclusive live translation for me of an article on Thiruvalluvar in a Gujarati magazine – there is much to remember and recollect about him. 

But this day, the memories that bubble up to the top are of two incidents during our stay with him at Vedchchi.

When we were talking about his biography on Gandhi, Narayanbhai observed with his typical smile – I can’t say if there was a tinge of regret – “It has been a few years since the English translation has been published. I haven’t seen a single review yet.” Apart from an article by his translator, the only one I had found on the internet was a small note. I was also guilty of not having read the 4-volume biography then (‘My Life is my message’, published by Orient Blackswan). Last month, I bought the full set, with a strong intent to read and write about the book, while he was alive.

The only time when I saw him mildly annoyed was when one of the foreign students, who had been staying with him to do a course on Gandhian thoughts, wanted to take a photo with him on the last day of their stay. I was, initially, a bit surprised, since he had willingly obliged all requests for photos till then. He told the lady, “For 2 weeks, you never asked me any questions. Now you want this photo just as a token memento. What purpose will it serve?”

I saw him as a bridge to the Gandhian times. He carried the message of Gandhi, Vinoba and JP to our generation. His own life was a powerful message as well. I wish to hold on to his message as much as, if not more strongly than, the personal memories of the few days with him.