Archive | October, 2010

Nehru On Gandhi, Views On Political Culture – by Prem Misir

Gandhi and Nehru

 

In an effort to review India’s emergent move into global economic dominance I thought that it might be useful to look at a few of Gandhi’s ideas of something called ‘political culture’ through the eyes of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. And indeed, Gandhi and Nehru did not have a monopoly over ideas to craft a new political culture. But we have to start somewhere. I present these ideas randomly, not for integrative purposes.

Nehru admired Gandhi’s constant focus on the ‘right way’ of doing things; using the correct methods for doing things. Stress on using the right means to achieve ends was one of Gandhi’s great contributions to public life. Where most people think about ends, it seems strange that Gandhi would concentrate on means; but it is an extraordinary way of thinking; thinking linked to the moral law of truth that may have hugely impacted India. Nehru endorsed the use of an ethical or moral perspective on life; and both Nehru and Gandhi sought to infuse this moral law of truth in politics. Gandhi’s moral approach to problem solving brought a significant new dimension to Indian political behaviour; Nehru observed the moral impact on politics, thus:

“Politics cease to be just expediency and opportunism, as they have usually been everywhere, and there is a continuous moral tussle preceding thought and action. Expediency… can never be ignored, but it is toned down by other considerations and a longer view of more distant consequences … Bernard Shaw has said that though he (Gandhi) may commit any number of tactical errors, his essential strategy continues to be right. Most people, however, are not much concerned with the long run; they are far more interested in the tactical advantage of the moment.”

Nehru noted too the cultural impact on India of a Turkish invasion, an Afghan invasion, and a Turco-Mongol or Mughal invasion; and highlighted ‘purdah’ (seclusion of women) as one new cultural development, among others; ‘purdah’ possibly emerged during the Mughal times. Isolating women in both public and private life was noticeable in Delhi, the United Provinces, Rajputana, Bihar, and Bengal. Gandhi spoke out against ‘purdah’; through the Indian Congress Party and with the help of thousands of middle-class women, Gandhi advocated that women should have the same freedom and opportunity for self-development as males; and an end to domestic slavery. Note the constitutional provision in Guyana for the Women and Gender Equality Commission; still on paper, as the PNCR withdrew its parliamentary services on the day the item was put to the vote. Guyana is poorer with this loser mentality.

At the beginning of World War I, Pandit Nehru asked “How could we pull India out of this quagmire of poverty and defeatism…?” Nehru captured Gandhi’s answer and teaching, thus:

“… He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of these peasants and workers … all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery.”

For Gandhi, the squalor of poverty and the great divide between the rich and the poor owed their existence to foreign rule and foreign exploitation, and capitalism through introduction of technology; Gandhi was not opposed to technology per se, but believed that it should be applied to absorb labour and not produce new unemployment.

To alleviate some poverty, Gandhi devised a programme of the spinning-wheel and village industry to address the problem of India – scarcity of capital and abundance of labour. Gandhi believed that the ends, such as profitability from technology, cannot justify the means, as unemployment to attain prosperity; he understood that moral values must first triumph, as the ends cannot substantiate disreputable means, no matter how good the ends are.

But Nehru believed that the real meaning of Gandhi’s teaching was fearlessness and truth with allied action, at all times upholding the welfare of the masses. This was the period of British rule of India, at a time when deep-seated fear stalked the land; fear of British institutions. Gandhi’s voice on truth and fearlessness brought some change and a psychological reaction that enabled people to feel ashamed about their long capitulation to foreign rule; and indeed the desire to do something about it. And this is true, too, of his nationalism, inevitable for the freedom of India.

It always has been the norm that a country will first protect its national interests before it considers the international community interests. And Nehru noted that Gandhi’s nationalism deviated from that norm; for the longevity of foreign rule and exploitation in India became an irritant to the mind and distorted all thought and action; producing frustration and bitterness. But Gandhi’s nationalism had a world outlook, where he visualized a world federation of interdependent states; and Gandhi created a nationalist movement that reduced irritation and animosity that Indians felt against the British. Nehru remarked that he had not seen any other nationalist movement like Gandhi’s, largely devoid of hatred. Incidentally, Dr. Cheddi Jagan also spoke about interdependence between the North and South in his New Global Human Order proposal.

Through Nehru’s eyes, we saw how Gandhi’s passion for democracy transformed the Congress Party into a mass movement; becoming an agrarian organisation; how the success of anything was premised on the quantity and quality of benefits the masses receive; a unique and quiet kind of democracy for the masses, definitively linked to the freedom of India.

Prem Misir is Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana.

East Meets West Through Rokeya – by Shaheen Choudhury Westcombe

 

The Centenary Parade Begins – Shaheen Chaudhhury Westcombe (holding flag) and teachers of the Sakhawat Memorial School

 

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein has inspired and changed the lives of many women. A muslim feminist writer and educationalist, she campaigned for equality, peace, social justice, harmony and an eco-friendly world. Born in 1880, in colonial Victorian India in Rangpur, now in Bangladesh, she fought a lonely battle to create a better society and improve the lives of women. She was brought up under very strict purdah and denied the opportunity of education. It was sheer determination and commitment that kept her going despite all the difficulties, barriers, abuse and opposition.

For the past five years I have been trying to raise awareness and promote Rokeya in the West. Following the success of a play Rokeya’s Dream (based on Rokeya’s satire Sultana’s Dream) staged in London last year, there was an invitation to visit West Bengal this spring. The production, a joint venture was initiated by Mahila Sangha, a Bangladeshi women’s group (that I Chair) with Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance and Tara Arts as partners.

A group of three Bruford graduates (Rae Leaver, Claudia Jazz Haley and Alia Wilson) who had worked on the play, the choreographer (Showmi Das) and I went to India in response to the invitation from three Universities and Sakhawat Memorial Government Girls’ High School. The trip was possible because of the untiring efforts of a Rokeya scholar and peace activist, Mr. Prantosh Bandyopadhyay. The warm welcome with beautiful bouquets of flowers everywhere and the love, affection, hospitality and kindness of everyone touched our hearts deeply. It reflected the true spirit of Rokeya. We had travelled 6000 miles and had taken from Britain a message of goodwill, love and peace.

We attended the centenary of Sakhawat Memorial School established by Rokeya in 1911 to educate young muslim women. At the time Muslim women did not have access to education and purdah was a barrier. Today, the school boasts as one of the top institutions in Kolkata and is open to students of all faiths and denominations. The march through the streets of rush hour central Kolkata with placards displaying Rokeya’s slogans and the rally and cultural performances by the students were breathtaking. The chief minister of West Bengal and several other ministers were present. So were their alumni from all parts of the globe. It was quite an emotional experience for me as my mother (Anwara Bahar Choudhury) was a student of Rokeya and a former Headteacher of the school. My siblings (Iqbal Bahar Choudhury and Nasreen Shams) had also been invited and they joined me from the US and Bangladesh to attend the event. Our team did a workshop at the school on Rokeya’s messages through dance and movements. The students enjoyed every moment of it. There are plans to link the school with Plumstead Manor School in London.

We were indeed very honoured to have the opportunity of working with the students of the Department of Drama, University of Rabindra Bharati and Visva Bharati. The latter was created by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and is situated in rural Bolpur. The ethos of Visva Bharati is based on Tagore’s philosophy of learning in a natural environment and also linking up globally. It is part of Santiniketan, a unique educational centre for all age groups. The peace and tranquility of rural Bengal can be experienced here amidst the natural surroundings. Rabindra Bharati was established in Tagore’s family estate in the outskirts of Kolkata by the Government of India in his honour on his birth centenary.

Our aim at the workshops was to tell the participants about Rokeya’s life and messages, share our experiences of producing the play, Rokeya’s Dream and presenting the western interpretation of her story. At the end of the workshops, and after exploring the ideas, the students had to present their interpretation of the messages in short group performances. Their creativity and innovative talents were stunning. Most of them had never heard of Rokeya and the media picked this up by quoting in the headlines of The Indian Express ‘Britons help Bengal students rediscover one of the early feminist icons of South Asia’.

Tagore and Rokeya had many common messages. In some of the performances the students had incorporated Tagore’s work alongside. Rokeya had touched them all. Many of them said that they could relate with her messages when they looked at their own life experiences. The themes are all very pertinent in today’s world. They were deeply moved and inspired and pledged to continue to work on Rokeya.

We left the two Universities with the request from the students and teachers to organise further collaborative work and exchange programmes between them and Bruford. With Tagore’s 150 birth anniversary next year, there could not be a better opportunity. Promoting friendship, exchanging ideas and understanding different cultures through theatre can be very powerful and enriching. Theatre as an art form is visual and universal, there is no language barrier.

Our final destination was Burdwan University. We were speakers at an international conference on Women and Folk Culture. Rokeya featured in our presentations. Rae Leaver who spoke on behalf of the Bruford graduates said that ‘Rokeya is a role model for British women’. Rokeya has no boundaries.

We left Kolkata with tears. They were probably tears of joy. We had experienced so much in such a short time and had been greatly enriched. We had even seen the final resting place of Rokeya and visited a children’s home in Panihati that she had initiated. We had made numerous friends, shared our ideas, raised awareness about Rokeya and her messages; established a link for future communication between the centres of learning. East had met West. There is now global interest in the work of our group – The Rokeya Project. These small steps could be the beginning of a wider peace movement that Rokeya dreamt. Salaam Rokeya.

Shaheen Westcombe is a member of the GF Executive. Her heritage country is Bangladesh where she trained as an architect. After working as an architect in the UK for about 10 years she moved to community development and worked in management positions in local government in London for 25 years. She was awarded the MBE in 2001 for contributions to community relations.

Sounds of Silence – a new dance drama presented by The Rokeya Project

Friday 19th & Saturday 20th November 2010

at The Brady Centre, Hanbuy Street, E1 5HU

7pm
tickets £5 (£3 conc.)

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a revolutionary figure in Indian and Bengali history; an ecologist, a human rights activist and a campaigner for education across India and Bangladesh, she fought peacefully throughout her life to give Muslim women a voice almost 100 years ago. Following the success of the production of Rokeya’s Dream in 2009 and The Rokeya Project’s successful working trip to India in March 2010, the company are pleased to present Sounds of Silence, based on one of Rokeya’s final works, Behind Seclusion. In Behind Seclusion Rokeya explores different stories of women suffering under extreme persecution under the guise of Purdah, which has inspired The Rokeya Project to develop a brand-new fusion dance theatre, including the use of puppetry, contemporary movement and range of exciting dance styles to explore these persecutions in relation to our contemporary society. Using original music and dancers of different disciplines, Sounds of Silence explores our united duty to stand up to oppression wherever we may find it.

Directed and choreography by Showmi Das
Directed and designed by Claudia Jazz Haley
Written by Rae Leaver, Based on the writings of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Book Review – Gandhiji’s Visits to Orissa

Meeting the Mahatma: Gandhiji’s Visits to Orissa
Edited by Jatindra K Nayak
Rupantar 2006 pp123
ISBN 81-901759-7-1
Rs195

Gandhi visited the Indian state of Orissa seven times and this book brings together 25 short accounts of some of these visits written by mostly Oriyas but also by two European women. Most of the authors were young at the time and some were even children, and the memories were obviously of lasting significance to them.

Gandhi seems to have visited Orissa mainly as part of his campaign against untouchability and he often travelled on foot from village to village accompanied by his ‘mobile office’ on a cart along with his ‘staff’. The expectation of his appearance in their state drew people from far and wide.

For many it was simply the sight, or darshan, of the tenth incarnation of Vishnu (as many thought) that mattered, but for Gandhi it was the reform of Indian society that counted – perhaps even more than independence for his country.

He expected those who came to also donate to the campaign. One story is of a poor woman barber who came to shave him. Gandhi expressed his disapproval of her jewellery, which she had put on for the special occasion; yet after she had shaved two of his colleagues and been paid, she presented the money to Gandhiji.

We also read of Gandhi’s tolerance. Although an ardent vegetarian, when asked by one of the audience whether it was right for poor Oriyas to eat fish, which are abundant, he responded that it was. Another instance concerns a fundamentalist Hindu who defended the exclusion of low-caste Hindus from his temple yet Gandhi invited him to speak from his platform.

The longest piece is by a German Swiss woman, Frieda Hauswirth, who was an artist and writer married to an Indian. She hoped to sketch Gandhi, whom she describes as ugly but with a beautiful smile, and she manages to do so although he would not pose for her. (This portrait is now in the USA.) She also observed how a group of women who had to keep purdah slipped out of their houses and went onto a roof to get a glimpse of Gandhi.

Manmohan Choudhury relates how the priests of the Puri temple planned to beat up Gandhi because he wanted lower castes to be admitted and so local politicians arranged for his protection. Gandhi was not pleased with this decision and so decided to walk rather than travel by the motorcar provided “in order to give greater opportunity to anyone who wanted to beat him up”.

One small error in Choudhury’s piece is “Piere Sherrysol” which should be Pierre Ceresole, the Swiss founder of Service Civil International, who joined one of Gandhi’s marches for a few days after helping earthquake-affected people in Bihar.

These recollections vividly convey the extraordinary personal qualities of the man as well as his social concerns and the editor is to be warmly thanked for bringing these writings together.

George Paxton

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