This book review was originally published in the Quarterly Journal of the GANDHI PEACE FOUNDATION, Gandhi Marg, Volume 37 Number 1 April-June 2015, pp 191-200. The review published here has had a few minor typing errors corrected.
An Oedipal Crime reviewed by Antony Copley (PDF file)
This book review was originally published in the Quarterly Journal of the GANDHI PEACE FOUNDATION, Gandhi Marg, Volume 37 Number 1 April-June 2015, pp 191-200. The review published here has had a few minor typing errors corrected.
Dear Prime Minister-designate,
This comes with my hearty felicitations. I mean and say that in utter sincerity, which is not very easy for me to summon, because I am not one of those who wanted to see you reach the high office that you have reached. You know better than anyone else, that while many millions are ecstatic that you will become Prime Minister, many more millions may, in fact, be disturbed, greatly disturbed by it.
Until recently I did not believe those who said you were headed there. But, there you are, seated at the desk at which Jawaharlal Nehru sat, Lal Bahadur Shastri did, and, after a historic struggle against Indira Gandhiʼs Emergency, another Gujarati, Morarji Desai did, as did later, your own political mentor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Those who did not want you there have to accept the fact that you are there.
Despite all my huge misgivings about your deserving that rare privilege, I respect someone coming from so sharply disadvantaged a community and family as yours, becoming PrimeMinister of India. That fulfils, very quintessentially, the vision of our egalitarian Constitution.
Revisting the idea of desh [country]
When some spoke rashly and derisively of your having been a “ chaiwala [tea person],” I felt sick to my stomach. What a wonderful thing it is, I said to myself, that one who has made and served chai for a living should be able to head the government of India. Far
better bearing a pyala [cup] to many than being a chamcha [spoon] to one.
But, Mr. Modi, with that said, I must move to why your being at Indiaʼs helm disturbs millions of Indians. You know this more clearly than anyone else that in the 2014 election, voters voted, in the main, for Modi or against Modi. It was a case of “Is Narendra Modi the countryʼs best guardian — desh ka rakhvala [looking after the country] — or is he not?” The BJP has won the seats it has because you captured the imagination of 31 per cent of our people (your vote share) as the nationʼs best guardian, in fact, as its saviour. It has also to be noted that 69 per cent of the voters did not see you as their rakhvala . They also disagreed on what, actually, constitutes our desh . And this — the concept of desh — is where, Mr. Modi, the Constitution of India, upon the authority of which you are entering the office of Prime Minister, matters. I urge you to revisit the idea of desh.
Reassuring the minorities
In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assemblyʼs Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees —educational, cultural and religious — to Indiaʼs minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee.
Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?
It is because when you address rallies, they want to hear a democrat who carries the Peoplehood of India with him, not an Emperor who issues decrees. Reassure the minorities, Mr. Modi, do not patronise them. “Development” is no substitute to security. You spoke of “the Koran in one hand, a laptop in the other,” or words to that effect. That visual did not quite reassure them because of a counter visual that scares them — of a thug masquerading as a Hindu holding a Hindu epicʼs DVD in one hand and a minatory trishul [trident] in the other.
In the olden days, headmasters used to keep a salted cane in one corner of the classroom, visible and scary, as a reminder of his ability to lash the chosen skin. Memories, no more than a few months old, of the riots in Muzaffarnagar which left at least 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus dead and displaced over 50,000 persons, are that salted cane. “Beware, this is what will be done to you!” is not a threat that anyone in a democracy should fear. But that is the message that has entered the dayʼs fears and nightʼs terrors of millions.
It is in your hands, Mr. Modi, to dispel that. You have the authority and the power to do that, the right and the obligation as well. I would like to believe that, overcoming small-minded advice to the contrary, you will dispel that fear.
All religious minorities in India, not just the Muslim, bear scars in their psyche even as Hindus and Sikhs displaced from West Punjab, and Kashmiri Pandits do. There is the fear of a sudden riot caused with real or staged provocation, and then returned with multiplied retribution, targeted very specially on women. Dalits and Adivasis, especially the women, live and relive humiliation and exploitation every minute of their lives. The constant tug of unease because of slights, discrimination, victimisation is de-citizenising, demoralising, dehumanising. Address that tug, Mr. Modi, vocally and visibly and win their trust. You can, by assuring them that you will be the first spokesman for their interests.
No one should have the impudence to speak the monarchist language of uniformism to a republic of pluralism, the vocabulary of “oneness” to an imagination of many-nesses, the grammar of consolidation to a sensibility that thrives in and on its variations. India is a diverse forest. It wants you to nurture the humus that sustains its great variety, not place before it the monochromatic monoculturalism of a political monotheism.
What has been taken as your stand on Article 370 of the Constitution, the old and hackneyed demand for a Uniform Civil Code, the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and what the media have reported as your statements about “Hindu refugees” in our North and North- West and “Muslim refugees” in our East and North-East, strikes fear, not trust. Mass fear, Mr. Modi, cannot be an attribute of the Republic of India. And, as Prime Minister of India, you are the Republicʼs alter ego.
Indiaʼs minorities are not a segment of India, they are an infusion in the main. Anyone can burn rope to cinder, no one can take the twist out of it. Bharat mata ki jai [victory for mother India], sure, Mr. Modi, but not superseding the compelling urgency of Netaji Subhas Chandra Boseʼs clarion — Jai Hind [long live India] !
A historic win it has been for you, Mr. Modi, for which, once again, congratulations. Let it be followed by a historic innings, which stuns the world by surprises your supporters may not want of you but many more would want to see you unfurl. You are hugely intelligent and will not mind unsolicited but disinterested advice of one from an earlier generation. Requite the applause of your support-base but, equally, redeem the trust of those who have not supported you. When you reconstitute the Minorities Commission, ask the Opposition to give you all the names and accept them without change. And do the same for the panels on Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and Linguistic Minorities. And when it comes to choosing the next Chief Information Commissioner, the next CAG, CVC, go sportingly by the recommendation of the non-government members on the selection committee, as long as it is not partisan. You are strong and can afford such risks.
Addressing the southern deficit
Mr. Modi, there is a southern deficit in your India calculus. The Hindi-belt image of your victory should not tighten itself into a North-South divide. Please appoint a deputy prime minister from the South, who is not a politician at all, but an expert social scientist, ecologist, economist or a demographer. Nehru had Shanmukham Chetty, John Mathai, C.D. Deshmukh and K.L. Rao in his cabinet. They were not Congressmen, not even politicians. Indira Gandhi had S. Chandrashekhar, V.K.R.V. Rao. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the UPA did not make Professor M.S. Swaminathan and Shyam Benegal, both nominated members in the Rajya Sabha, ministers. There is a convention, one may even say, a healthy convention, that nominated members should not be made ministers. But exigencies are exigencies. Professor Nurul Hasan, a nominated member, was one of the best Ministers of Education we have had.
Imperial and ideological exemplars appeal to you. So, be Maharana Pratap in your struggle as you conceive it, but be an Akbar in your repose. Be a Savarkar in your heart, if you must, but be an Ambedkar in your mind. Be an RSS-trained believer in Hindutva in your DNA, if you need to be, but be the Wazir-e-Azam of Hindostan that the 69 per cent who did not vote for you, would want you to be.
With every good wish as you take your place at the helm of our desh,
I am, your fellow-citizen,
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator and diplomat. He was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009, and officiating Governor of Bihar, 2005-2006.
Let this historic win be followed by a historic innings, which stuns the world by surprises your supporters may not want of you but many more would want to see you unfurl, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.
Rajkumari Kaur, 1889-1964 – Health minister in Indian cabinet for 10 years after independence
Vallabhbhai Patel, 1875-1950 – Indian congress leader, founding father of India
MS Swaminathan, 1925 – Geneticist and administrator, played key part in Green Revolution
Shyam Benegal, 1934 – Indian director and screenwriter
VK Rao, 1908-1991 – Indian economist
S Chandrasekhar, 1910-1995 – Astrophysicist who emigrated to USA and won 1983 Nobel Prize
K Rao, 1902-86 – Indian engineer who won award
CD Deshmukh, 1896-1982 – First Indian to be Governor of Reserve Bank of India
John Mathai, 1886-1959 – Economist who was India’s first Railway Minister
RK Chetty, 1892-1953 – Lawyer who was India’s first finance minister
The Gandhi Foundation’s Multifaith Celebration took place on Thursday 30th January 2014 at the House of Lords, London
Dr Rex Andrews gave a lecture on Gandhi related aspects of his new book “God in a Nutshell“. Our President, Lord Parekh, hosted and Chaired the event with Q&A with a multifaith audience.
Thank you to all who attended
The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration Review
at St Ethelburga’s on 30th January 2012
By Mark Hoda, Chair & Trustee of The Gandhi Foundation
It was really heartening to see such a large audience gather at St Ethelberga’s on a cold January evening. They heard though provoking reflections on the environment and sustainability from a range of faith perspectives as well as on Gandhi’s influence on the green movement today, which continues to draw inspiration from his philosophy and satyagraha strategies.
Anglican Priest Father Ivor opened proceedings with a quote often attributed to Gandhi that “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need buy not anyone’s greed”. He also quoted from Tagore and the Upanishads before offering the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, who he said had much in common with Gandhi.
Gandhi Foundation Trustee, Graham Davey, set out how the Quaker Testimonies of simplicity, truth, equality and peace relate to care for the environment by espousing the values of moderation, sustainability and non violence and concern for the depletion of non renewable resources. The Quaker Book of Discipline calls for us to rejoice in God’s world but to appreciate that we are not its owners but its custodians.
Gandhi Foundation and Environmental Law foundation founder, Martin Polden, offered observations on the teachings of Judaism. He quoted the Old Testament’s injunction to “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and everything that moves on the Earth”. He said this should be read in conjunction with chapter 2 verses 7-8, where Adam first appears, and is expressed to be ‘planted’ in the Garden of Eden, with a duty to ‘cultivate and keep it’, i.e. serve it and conserve it. Throughout the Torah, there is the injunction to take account of cultivation and obey good husbandry, said Polden.
He explained how Gandhi was influenced by the Jewish community in South Africa and how the 12th century philosopher Maimonides influenced E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Guide for the Perplexed’. As a lawyer, Polden has worked with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists “on issues that concern the region and where each marks the other with respect and recognition of each as human beings, with the key of living together, as distinct from stereotypes”.
Martin Polden also said that our prayers with GF President Lord Attenborough, who is unwell. Trustee John Rowley also collected messages from the audience to send to him.
Reverend Nagase from the London Peace Pagoda, said that in Buddhism, there are two paths open to attain Buddhahood; creating the pure land, and to lead the people to the teachings of Buddhism. “When people become peaceful and affectionate, the land in which they live is also bound to become peaceful and affectionate in accordance…It may seem as if the path is separated into two: the land and the people, yet originally both are the realisations of a single truth”.
Reflecting on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year, Rev Nagase said “If the minds of the people are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure, in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of people’s minds. It is the same with a Buddha and a common mortal. While deluded, one is called a ‘common mortal’, but once enlightened, is called a ‘Buddha’. Even a tarnished mirror will shine like a jewel if it is polished”.
Madhava Turumella from the Hindu Forum explained how he stayed at Gandhi’s Sevagram ashram after graduating from university. He said he found serenity there and appreciated the many faiths that influenced Gandhi. This religious pluralism in Turumella’s branch of Hinduism which believes in the universality of humanity and harmony with other belief systems. He echoed previous speakers when he said that the earth does not belong to anyone. He said all life is interconnected and we must not covet or steal its resources. He said that this is precisely what is happening today, however, and it is causing great damage to our world.
Gandhi Foundation Trustee, Omar Hayat, speaking about Islam, also echoed much of what previous speakers and highlighted the great commonality between faiths. Muslims are guided by the Koran and the teachings and conduct of the Prophet and Hayat gave examples of both to explain the faith’s environmental perspective. The Koran states that man is not at the centre of the world, but just one part of the environment. Islam emphasises the unity of creation and equality of all creation and the role of man as a trustee of the earth and its resources and calls for humility. The current environmental crisis reflects mankind’s spiritual crisis.
The teachings of the Prophet, emphasise that the earth must not be exploited or abused and flora, fauna and animals have equal rights to man as God’s dependants. Hayat concluded with a quote from Prophet Mohammed “Act in your life as though you are living forever and act for the Hereafter as if you are dying tomorrow”.
Green London Assembly Member, Darren Johnson, explained the impact that Gandhi has had on modern environmentalists. Johnson said Gandhi was one of the first public figures to warn of environmental damage, warning of the consequences of pollution of air water and grain, and he described him as “A patron saint of the green movement”.
He said that Gandhi’s contemporary influence was based on his emphasis on sustainability, social justice, democratic participation and non-violence. Johnson felt that Gandhi would approve of modern London’s multi-ethnic society but not the massive gap between rich and poor. Gandhi would understand the reason behind the current Occupy movement in the capital.
Gandhi’s non-violent methods have inspired civil rights movements across the world and are fundamental to the green movement today. Johnson said that we have a long way to go to realise Gandhi’s vision but his philosophy is as relevant as ever.
John Dal Din, representing the Catholic faith, like Father Ivor, offered a Franciscan prayer – the Canticle of Creation. He talked of the deep links between St Francis and Gandhi.
Ajit Singh explained the influence of the Sikh faith on Gandhi. He posed the question what is the world and our place within it. Quoting Guru Nanak and Sikh morning prayers, he said that God creates and sustains the earth but mankind is responsible for it and all its life forms. All life is interconnected and any damage done to the earth is damage to me, said Singh.
David Fazey from Village Action India talked about a month-long Ekta Parishad (an indian grassroots movement) Satyagraha march in October in India in which 100,000 people will participate. It is inspired by Gandhi and is being staged to highlight the plight of Indian rural communities who are being denied rights to their land, water and forests. This march builds on the Janadesh march in 2007.
Fazey said that if the March is to be successful, it must be witnessed and he called on all those present to raise awareness of the event. A leaflet on the march was circulated and further details are available at www.marchforjustice2012.org
There were further impromptu contributions at the end of the event; Margaret Waterward highlighted a march of 450 slum children dressed in Khadi in Kolkata the previous day, calling for education and a future free of poverty; a from a representative of the Jain faith, Sagar Sumaria, highlighting the environmental damage created by our demand for consumer electronics, such as mobile phones. A peace petition was also circulated on behalf of Newham Mosque.
Mark Hoda concluded the event by thanking Omar Hayat and GF Friend Jane Sill for all their help in organising this year’s Multifaith Celebration.
Meeting the Mahatma: Gandhiji’s Visits to Orissa
Edited by Jatindra K Nayak
Rupantar 2006 pp123
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.
The Second Fred Blum Memorial Lecture
If I were to sum up Gandhi in just one phrase (his phrase) I would say he committed his life, as he called it,
“to grow from truth to truth”.
In other words, as a human being he said he only had partial perceptions of ultimate reality, or what is truth about anything, and life consists in our constantly rising above our limitations, our prejudices, exposing ourselves to others, and – in the process – growing “from truth to truth”. In fact, I think that sums up the Mahatma’s life, and in my view it also sums up the life of Fred Blum.
Now, what about Mahatma in the 21st century? I think the best way to approach the topic would be to ask what are the important questions with which the 20th century began, and which will haunt us for the next hundred years, if not more? And of the many issues I have thought about, I would say four are critically important:
- Clash of cultures and civilisations
- The role of religion in public life
- Is there an alternative to violence ?
- Is there a place for personal integrity ?
Clash of cultures and civilisations
Let’s take the first one: clash of civilisations. Thanks to globalisation, different cultures and civilisations come together. As they do so they encounter incomprehension and misunderstanding. What do we do about it ? Although many say a clash is inevitable, Gandhi had a different kind of answer. When “9/11” happened in 2001, a lot of people said this was due to a clash of civilisations, and what has happened since has gone on to confirm this. And therefore – they say – all we can hope to do is to manage the world as well as we can, hold on to our values, keep enemies at bay, and try to make sure that the world remains reasonably stable but be prepared for the clashes to occur from time to time. Gandhi’s arguments were: (a) no kind of clash is inevitable; (b) by believing they are, you are demonising your opponent, turning them into inhuman monsters. Therefore you put them outside the pale of human community and, because you have dehumanised them, you feel you can do anything with them because they “are not human beings”. Therefore you can hunt them down. Many Middle Eastern countries acquire “plus points” for every individual they can lock up or kill, so long as they are described as “terrorist Al Qaida supporters”. In other words, once you dehumanise people you begin to dehumanise yourself, because that is the only way you think you can deal with them. Therefore the moral inhibitions and scruples, which normally govern your life, seem to disappear.
I think this kind of Gandhian analysis has come true because if you look at the way, for example, that President Bush talks about Al Qaida, and the way in which Osama bin Laden talks about the Americans, there’s a complete symmetry. Osama will say “Your capitalist American society in the West is an axis of evil, you are a degenerate society”. Bush says the same in reverse. Osama will say: “None of you are innocent because you are all complicit in the guilt and the harm that you are inflicting on us.” Bush says the same: “You are either for us or against us”.
Gandhi said again and again – in his fights against racism in South Africa, the under-privileged in India or against the British – that he discovered increasingly how you become the “mirror-image” of your enemy. So that is a no-win situation. In trying to defeat an enemy, you defeat something very vital within yourself. So Gandhi’s answer was that what we need is dialogue between cultures, trying to understand each other and in the process recognise that other human beings are not “others” or strangers or enemies – they are “us” in a different form – and we share a common community.
But that’s easy to say, and I want to explore the specificity of the kind of dialogue that is taking place in this and other forums – where you simply talk in a mainly gentle, courteous kind of way: I listen to you, you listen to me – and we go home exactly the same as before ! Mahatma says that that is dishonest. That is not a dialogue – it’s simply a series of monologues. We think each other “a nice chap or girl” and we never critically engage with each other’s beliefs. The Mahatma’s concern was what I talked about earlier – “going from truth to truth”. Gandhi said true dialogue is important because (a) I want to understand “what makes you tick” – what is the world of thought from within you from which you look at the world ? and (b) what can I learn from you ? True dialogue grows out of the desire to grow, to expand one’s universe, to enrich oneself. Which leads to a further question: Why do you want to enrich yourself ? Where did that desire come from ? And Gandhi says it comes from the fact that you recognise your own limitations. In other words, self-criticism is the foundation of a dialogue. I, reflecting upon myself, find certain limitations in my own culture, in myself. I want therefore to open up myself to others and see what they have to tell me; to incorporate those things into my ways of thinking and, in the process, to grow.
Let me give an example of this kind of creative and critical engagement the Mahatma was talking about. All his life he looked at his own civilisation and was enormously impressed with the fact that of all the civilisations, the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains had been the greatest votaries of nonviolence, ahimsa. So from his own civilisation he took some of the ideas of nonviolence. But, as he reflected, he realised that this idea is negative because it is passive. Nonviolence for the Indian means not doing harm to anybody. It doesn’t mean going out and helping and, therefore, is passive. It does not have the active spirit of social service and love. So Gandhi turns to Christianity. In the 21-odd years he was in South Africa that was one religion that was extremely close to him. From Christianity he gathers the idea of caritas or love. Active love. So he takes over the Hindu idea of nonviolence, combines it with the Christian idea of caritas and arrives at the idea of “active service for the love of human beings”. But then – as he reflects further – he is slightly unhappy with the Christian idea of love on the grounds that it is emotional, and he was looking for a kind of love which leads to no internal emotional disturbance. So he turns again to the Hindu idea of “non-attachment” – and arrives at the idea of “detached but active engagement in the world, in the spirit of love for your fellow human beings”. So what you see here is a man who plays with ideas drawn from different religions. Added to this are his fasts, which can only be born out of a creative tension between the two traditions. So this is the kind of thing Gandhi was talking about when he talks about a dialogue between civilisations.
“And this means,” says Gandhi, “that because other civilisations are my interlocutors they are the sources of my inspiration. I wish them well. I want them to flourish.” So this dialogue results in universal sympathy for different points of view and a desire to see them grow and flourish.
The role of religion in public life
The second question – what is the role of religion in public life? Now, many of us are scared when religion is brought into public life ! We know what happens – it can either lead to Ayatollah Khomenei, or to the BJP in India, or to evangelicals in the USA when they tried to persuade Reagan to take on the so-called evil Soviet Union, etc. Religion is frightening. Therefore the liberal impulse is to say “please keep it out of politics”, every time they see a religious figure or hear a religious statement: “You are welcome to live by it but don’t bring it into the political circle Because you will raise atavistic passions, you will be making absolutist demands because religion talks in the language of absolute emotions, like the evangelicals. Which is not like politics. Because politics is about compromise, about what is negotiable, what can be talked through”. Now the difficulty here is that for religious people, religion simply cannot be privatised. It is not simply meant to ensure contemplation between you and the Almighty – religion is a matter of fundamentally held values. You want to live by those values – these values inform you, and therefore they inform the public life. Therefore religion simply cannot be excluded from public life. But at the same time, religion can cross a limit when it becomes a ‘state religion’: then the state begins to enforce certain religious values – as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. So the question for us – and the answer I look for from the Mahatma – is, how is it possible to recognise religion as a significant factor in the public and personal life of the religious person, but at the same time prevent it from taking over the state and becoming authoritarian and illiberal?
Here I think Gandhi had some important things to say. First, he says religion has a central place in public life, but should have nothing to do with the state. In other words, central to Gandhi’s religious thought is the distinction between the public realm and institutions of the state. So, religion has a legitimate place in public life, but the institutions of the state should have nothing to do with religion. They should be secular. Gandhi, for example, surprised many people by being opposed to the state funding religious schools or religious organisations, as it is not the state’s business. Any form of religious organisation that cannot be kept going by their own members, is dead. If you are really committed to religion, you raise the funds to keep it going. So his first important argument was that we need a secular state, with religion playing an important part in public life.
The second important thing he was saying is that one must recognise that no religion is perfect – in the same way that no country is perfect. Now, there are highly complex arguments, not to be gone into here, when religions claim to be ‘revelations’, direct from the Almighty – e.g. Allah dictating the Qur’an, Jesus being the Son of God. These religions would claim to be ‘perfect’, so they would have a big bone to pick with the Mahatma when he said that by definition, no religion can be perfect. His argument went something like this: God is infinite: the finite human mind cannot capture the infinite: therefore all our perceptions are inherently limited. Even if there is a direct revelation, that revelation is in a human language, with all its limitations to a human being, a particular human being, a prophet or whatever, who have their own limitations and therefore Gandhi says that every religion captures a particular vision of human life. That is its strength. But, in so far as it excludes other visions of human life, these are its limitations. Therefore every religion benefits from systematic and critical dialogue with God and with other religions. This is because your understanding of other religions, your understanding of the ultimate reality of God, deepens as you engage with other religions in trying to see how they perceive the infinite.
Gandhi would often cite the famous example from the Jain tradition where you have seven blind men trying to describe an elephant. One gets hold of the trunk and says God is this kind of thing, another takes hold of his foot and says an elephant is like a castle – and so on. Gandhi would say each of them captures something, but each of them is limited. Even if you are describing a scene that all of us have seen, we would each describe it differently from our own perspectives – how could it be otherwise in relation to the infinite and in relation to God?
Therefore the proper attitude of one religion to another is not to try and convert people, but rather to engage in a critical dialogue, so that each can benefit from the other. In this way you make a fraternity – a solidarity of different religious believers – rather than hostilities.
The alternative to violence
My third question – does the Mahatma have an alternative to violence? Of course he was totally opposed to violence in principle – although in practice he condoned acts of violence from time to time on the grounds that when human beings were desperate and pressed beyond a certain point, they might react, and that is understandable, although it might be unjustified. We must fight against injustice – of that there can be no compromise. So you can’t be a pacifist in the sense that you are not bothered about the state of the world. Injustices address you, and you must do something about them. But is violence the answer ? Gandhi says no, because violence itself is a form of injustice. It also involves hatred and it can create nothing lasting because its legacy is always going to be of ill-will. Therefore, while violence is not the answer, justice must be fought for.
The only answer is rational discussion. But Gandhi said there is one important lesson he learnt in life and that is that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point, but as he kept saying, when the heart is hard and rigid, reason doesn’t work. What you need is the unity of head and heart. Reason can only appeal to the head – you must find ways of activating somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, so that he is prepared to recognise you as a human being and then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realise.
So – what are the alternatives ? You will know about satyagraha – the ‘surgery of the soul’, reason connected with the head and nonviolent resistance connected with the heart. In other words, in the moment, the perpetrator of injustice does not recognise the victim as a human being and the questions are “How can we activate his/her conscience? How can we get him/her to recognise that both are human beings and therefore both have certain rights?” Gandhi’s answer is for you to take upon yourself the burden of other people’s sins and nonviolent suffering. If you look at satyagraha, or the way of engaging in nonviolence, it consisted mainly of three methods or ways of acting, evolved over time:
- Non-cooperation. People would see an evil regime, realise their own complicity in keeping it in being, and refuse to cooperate with it.
- Boycott. For example, the boycott of British cloth in favour of Indian homespun.
- Civil disobedience, where you break the law because your conscience would not allow you to comply, and you would accept punishment but not give in.
It is amazing how this kind of civil disobedience and form of noncooperation is coming back into the 21st century in a big way. I have been involved – not directly, but by passive participation – in many discussions when people have been asking about the Iraq War: over a million people protested in Britain, scores of millions protested all over the world, religious people were against it … and yet the war went on. What could we have done to stop it? And if something like this were to occur again, what should we be doing to stop it? Increasingly people are beginning to say civil disobedience might be the answer: we will not pay our taxes; we will not co-operate with you. And if a million people, instead of marching, had done this, what would have happened?
The same thing is beginning to happen in the States. A fine Gandhian scholar and friend of mine, Professor Douglas Allen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine, a few months ago, together with academic colleagues and students, staged a peaceful demonstration outside the office of their Senator. They were arrested, tried and have been sentenced to community service. Douglas was telling me that many people in the US are beginning to feel increasingly that if something like Iraq were again to loom on the horizon, the level of practical action will have to be raised to the next gear – and that’s the sort of thing Gandhi was doing. I think the question for us to ask is are these methods which Gandhi employed the only ones or are there other ways in which we can try to activate the conscience of the opponent, or put pressure on the Government when it is trying to do something which is unjust? What other methods can be added to the Gandhian part of it?
When I was in Israel not long ago I asked several Arab hosts of mine about the possibility of their using nonviolence against Israelis, because they will always react against violence. But what if, I suggested, you were to engage in nonviolent resistance of the Gandhian type – civil disobedience, non-cooperation – telling the Israelis you will not harm them but want injustices remedied: If you want to shoot us, do so. Do you think the Israeli Government would have shot down a thousand people or more? If such a nonviolent movement had been mounted, with the world watching, I wonder what its success would have been? The Gandhian method can be tried in complex intractable situations, which is not to say it would always succeed. For instance, against Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, nonviolence would probably not have worked because there were no witnesses capable of reporting to the world. But the point is, this is not the case in the 21st century. Given the fact of the internet with access to almost any part of the world, I think the Gandhian method has a considerable chance of working.
The place for personal integrity
Let’s look at my fourth main question, Is there a place for personal integrity ? We have seen that our values are constantly being revised in the light of what we come across. But once they are revised and you are reasonably satisfied, then you say in the language of the theologian Martin Luther,
“I can do nothing else. This is my life, the values on which my life is constructed, I want to live by it”.
And Gandhi’s point was – and this I think is an unusual way of looking at it – that these values define you. They constitute your truth: the truth of my life is the truth of the values I want to live by. And therefore integrity for him basically means: How can I live by my truth? By the truth as I see it, recognising that I will constantly be going ‘from truth to truth’. Gandhi would say, for example, that both capitalism and communism are evil but there is no use in just campaigning against it – if it is evil does it show in your own life or not? So, for example, he considered the evil of capitalism was the idea of possessiveness, buying property and so on. So he had no private property and when he died all he left behind were his sandals, spittoon and his three monkeys – no insurance policy, writings, royalty or copyright – nothing. Another example was untouchability in India. Gandhi complained about it, fought against it but then asked himself whether he was also living it? So he went and lived among the untouchables and adopted an untouchable daughter.
Being a deeply religious person, Gandhi believed he must ultimately be able to trust God. And therefore he refused to have security of any kind, and no bodyguards. And when there were several attacks on his life, and the Government of India insisted he had physical protection, Gandhi said,
“The day I seek physical protection, I would rather not live”.
At a prayer meeting, when a bomb was thrown and the crowd began to disperse, Gandhi sat unmovingly and said to the crowd,
“Frightened of a mere bomb?”
and carried on with his prayer. This was the integrity of the man. It was such a profound integrity that when India became independent this man was to be seen nowhere near New Delhi. When the Prime Minister of India said that Gandhi should be the President of India in a position of power, he thought it was a joke! He said:
“My place is among the victims of Muslim/Hindu violence”.
This, I think, is the lesson that can be learnt from his life: personal integrity and when he said,
“My life is my message”
I think his life ultimately was the message of absolute, uncompromising personal integrity:
“This is where I stand. This is how I shall live. And unless I am convinced that it is wrong (and I could be convinced that it is wrong), then this is how I shall live”.
I think the different ways I have tried to take you through these four questions, go to show that the Mahatma is not ready to disappear in the 21st century!
A translated version of this lecture is available in Bengali by clicking on the link below. Copyright for this translation is strictly the property of Prof. Anwarullah Bhuiyan, Associate Professor, Dept of Philosophy, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, 1342.
Born in a remote Himalayan village and that too in a princely state, I could know about Gandhi when I was a High School student at the age of 13. My inquisitiveness to know about a strangely dressed young man, who was dressed neither like the officers of the state nor like the poor subjects with loin cloth, but was putting on white Khadi cap, Kurta, Jacket, dhoti and chappal, inspired me to chase him.
He had a small box in one hand and a bag in another hand. I guessed he must he somebody like an archer, who had demonstrated his feats in archery and we were so much impressed that we left going to the school for some days and followed him. The idea came to my mind that his small box must contain something of our interest. I along with a few friends asked, what are you carrying in your small box?’. He very gently replied, ‘come I will show you’. He sat under a banyan tree, opened the box and demonstrated his feat. He was spinning yarn. Looking at this new wonder, we said, ‘It may take you a year to produce yearn sufficient for a shirt’, He promptly replied, whether I get enough yarn for my shirt or not, Gandhi with confidence says that we can end the British rule and become independent, if every Indian starts spinning. This is Gandhi’s Yarvada Charka (the spinning wheel he invented inside Yarvada prison).
‘What else does Gandhi say? How can a spinning wheel bring freedom’. The young man said, “if you want to know more, you can buy these small booklets”. I spent the whole amount of six annas, (about five pennies), which my mother had given me for a week’s breakfast on three small booklets. One was by Gandhi – How to achieve Swaraj? Other was of national songs and the A Word to Young Men by Prince Kroptkin.
The young man was Sri Dev Suman – a smart hillman of 25, who had become Gandhi follower at the age of 15. He asked me, ‘what are you going to do after finishing studies?’ I said, ‘service of the ruler’. And he again asked, ‘But who will serve these poor with loin cloth?’ I immediately replied ‘we will also serve them too’. ‘How can a person serve two masters?’ He silenced me by asking this. ‘Then what should I do?’ He said, ‘That you have to decide, but I ask you, will you sell yourself for a few silver coins?’ And I firmly said, ‘No, never. I also join the army of Gandhi’.
It occurred to me that the soldier of Gandhi’s army should wear Khadi (hand-spun, hand woven cloth), know spinning and above all know more about Gandhi’s life. Our small group could manage to get a spinning wheel, Gandhi’s autobiography and some other books. We were cautious not to be detected, so we practised spinning and study of Gandhi’s autobiography in the cemetery.
Sri Dev Suman after three years was arrested and charged with treason. He was tried inside the prison, where he undertook fast unto death for the protection of civil liberties. I myself was arrested for getting his statement published in the press and kept in the police lockup for five months. Gandhi’s writings and Suman’s penance strengthened me and as a boy of 17, I felt glorified in being imprisoned for being a humble soldier of Gandhi’s army.
Another opportunity to study Gandhi and practice his teachings came, when I went underground from Lahore, where I was studying in the University. I was in a remote village in Lyalipur district teaching children of a Sikh family. I felt I should take up Gandhi’s constructive work programme. I started spinning for self-sufficiency and scavenging the village streets. Though I was laughed at, I felt very much satisfied.
The British had left India, but slavery in the native states continued and thus the freedom struggle in the states was intensified. I was prevented by the Army from entering into Tehri town. I went on a fast. They dragged me some distance and I remained sitting. My fast continued for a week and finally they had to yield. I had seen Gandhi during his last days in his prayer meetings in Birla House. We met him a day before his martyrdom. He expressed his happiness over the success of non-violent struggle of Tehri-Garhwal state’s freedom.
Gandhi in his last will had called upon the freedom fighters to settle down in villages, liquidate the Congress and take up constructive work among the villagers. I could not do so. I was working as a general secretary of the Congress party in my district but this work did not give me satisfaction. Untouchability was still there. Scavengers were regarded as untouchable. They, in order to forget their miserable life, used to take liquor and fight among themselves. The police would not intervene. On Gandhi’s birthday, October 2nd, 1949, I started a night school in their colony. We used to sing the devotional songs and Ramayan. Now they were under a new type of intoxication – the intoxication of Ram-nam — so dear to Gandhi.
I met Thakkar Bapa in Delhi. He had devoted his life for the upliftment of tribals and untouchables. He asked me, ‘Have you seen the cells in which those where you teach live?’ I admitted, I never saw these. Shewing his stick he told me that he had measured thousands of dark and dirty cells where these servants of the society lived. This was a practical lesson to me. We launched a programme of making better houses for them. Untouchability was in practice in the school hostel. There was a scheduled caste boy, who was served food outside. Two young caste students raised voice against this, but their protest was not paid heed. So we started a hostel where students of all castes could live together. It was later named as Thakkar Bapa Hostel.
We started the construction of its building when the number of students increased. I used to work as a and some construction labourer, helper to the masons. The students also worked after their school and study hours. Within five years, we could construct a building. This become the centre of anti-untouchability movement. We had a group of young students, who led the temple
entry in the holy shrines of Gangotri and Yamunotri. Spinning and other manual labour along with their studies became a part of their routine and these students could be ion of civil recognised separate from others.
But it was Mira Behn, the English disciple of Gandhi, daughter of Admiral Slade, who persuaded me to work in the villages. She established her Pashulok (Animal’s World) Ashram in the Himalayan foothills at Rishikesh. In 1949 Ganga was in spate and damaged the Ashram. Mira Behn rode on horse back towards the source of Ganga in the hills to find out the causes of the flood. She could see it was deforestation and, more than that, conversion of natural broad leaved oak forests into commercial Chir-pine forests. She wound up her foothill Ashram and set up a new Ashram-Gopal Ashram (Ashram for the service of cow) in the remote hill village of Geonli. To reach there one had to walk 40 Kms. Mira Behn looked after the cows, worked in the kitchen garden and simultaneously could find time to listen to scriptures, read books and write articles. In her life I could see a balance between head, heart and the hands.
Tehri-Garhwal was the poorest district of India. There were forests, but of no use
to the people. The contractors made fortune out of these forests. Mira Behn had a plan to change the land use in which tree species giving fodder, fuel and fertilizers were to be encouraged, but bureaucracy came in the way, in spite of Pandit Nehru’s full support. Finally she left the area and settled in Kashmir. But she created in me a village worker, passionate for Ashram life.
Finally my dreams were fulfilled, when I and Vimala—an assistant of Gandhi’s other British disciple, Sarala Behn, who had established an Ashram to train women workers in Kumaon hills—were married. I left party and power politics forever on June 1956.
We constructed huts, with the help of Thakkar Bapa Hostel students, on a degraded piece of land covered with thorny bushes. Two huts were made—one for
We used to living and other for kitchen. Vimala found work for herself. She gathered cowherd children and taught them during the night. I tended cow, worked with the villagers in the fields, sat with the villagers for evening prayers.
Gandhi’s prayer of the Sevak (people’s servant) sustained me. One of the sentences of the prayer was, ‘Oh God give me strength and eagerness to be one with the common masses of India’. Common people earned their livelihood by doing manual labour. We formed a labour co-operative and worked through it in constructing the canal and the roads. The villagers were addicted to liquor and used to distill liquor. The ladies were the worst victims. They could not speak anything against their drunk husbands, but in our evening prayer meetings the issue was raised. Women become vocal and the men took pledge to give voice against up this bad habit. When complaint of their breaking the pledge came, I went on fast in lonely place and they repented.
In 1960, in the wake of Chinese aggression, Acharya Vinoba Bhave—the spiritual heir of Gandhi—called me to Agra, where he was halting during his padyatra (foot march). He said in a challenging tone, ‘look here, I am an old man walking all over the country but you being a young man are sitting in your Ashram. The threat from China is psychological more than physical. China is not a tiger to be threatened by the guns. China has a philosophy of alleviating poverty. We have the superior philosophy of Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj (village rule). You should go from village to village in Uttarak hand (Central Himalayan) region with this message.’ Nehru and Vinoba came out with a similar statement that Gram Swaraj was a defence measure.
Exactly four years after we had started the Ashram, I left it to go from village to village. We would tell villagers to free themselves from three shops—liquor shop, courts, the shop of litigation, and cloth shop. They should give up liquor, settle their own disputes and spin their own cloth. But the government was encouraging liquor to earn revenue. A new liquor shop was proposed near our Ashram in Ghansali. I sought Vinoba’s permission to suspend my wandering in the region and offer satyagraha at the liquor shop. He immediately responded, ‘you have to organise people for picketing the liquor shop. The government should think how can they confront China freed from opium by making people drunkards’.
Men were not serious, but the ladies were determined to fight the liquor. They had to look after the family, the farm and the cattle. The main problem was of creating leadership from among them. We organised Ram Lila (the play of Ramayan) during the night. Ladies in hundreds thronged.
After day’s hard work and feeding the family, they would walk 7 to 8 Kms. with torchwoods in their hands. We encouraged them to come on the platform. They would also come with a handful of rice to help the movement. A retired judge — an old man, the most respected in the area — came forward to lead the movement. Seeing the dedication, determination and devotion of the people, the government changed the decision. This was the peoples’ first victory and their faith in non-violence was established.
We multiplied this experiment. For seven years, we fought against liquor. There were mass movements against the liquor, picketing by ladies everywhere. One after another the liquor shops were closed and finally the government declared five bill districts dry in 1970. But the High Court revoked the prohibition. Everywhere an atmosphere of terror was created. The women were told that if they picketed the liquor-shops after High Court orders, they will be sent to jail for many years. We were keeping vigil at the spot where the shop was to open, but the liquor-vendors eluded us by opening it at a new place. Immediately we rushed to the spot. Acharya Vinoba Bhave had made a rule to chant one thousand names of Lord Vishnu (Vishnu Shahastranam) at 10.30 a.m. all over the country. I sat in front of the liquor shop and started chanting Vishnu Shahastranam. As soon as I finished and opened my eyes I was shocked to see the ghastly scene. The head of the son of the liquor vendor was bleeding. He was beaten with an empty bottle by his own servant, who had taken the full bottle to rejoice over the reopening of the shop.
Liquor is the cause of violence and bloodshed. Is it going to happen all around? What to do? Because everybody around us said that it was impossible to close down the liquor shops now. I was reminded of a devotional song of blind saint Surdass. He sang long-long ago.
I bow to the feet of Almighty.
With whose kindness, the lame crosses the mountain.
The blind sees everything.,
The deaf hears and the dumb speaks.
The poor wanders as a crowned king.
At least a blind man had experienced that the impossible can become possible. When all our worldly efforts had failed, why not go on a prayerful fast?
Thus, I started my prayerful fast in front of the liquor shop on Nov. 5th, 1971. It was an open place on the road. People laughed at me. The drunkards created noise. They became more vocal and remarked what right I had to create hindrance in their way; but gradually some senior citizens came to persuade me to give up the fast. Later women started coming. I asked them were they still afraid of the prison. They said, ‘no’. ‘If so, go from village to village and bring thousands to protest against the liquor shop’. Their number went on increasing. They sang devotional songs near the place of fast. On 16th day, 20th November, more than twenty thousand people, mostly ladies, assembled in Tehri town. They had come fully prepared to court arrest. A public meeting was held, which passed a resolution asking me to give up the fast as they will picket the liquor shop. Thus, I concluded my fast.
The people, the most oppressed in the society, the women, had come forward to fight for the cause. This is what Gandhi wished. Scores of these women, and also my six year old son Pradeep along with his mother, were arrested and sent to far off prison. My wife’s old mother was also arrested. In this way the three generations had come together for a common cause.
While working for Gram Swaraj in the border villages, we had seen a bigger threat to the country in the shape of ever-increasing floods due to deforestation in higher Himalayas. We took up forest problem in 1972. We thought the unscrupulous contractors were responsible for overfelling the trees. So the demand was to replace the contractor system with forest labourers’ co-operative, supplying raw material to local forest-based industries. The idea to pressurize the government by hugging the trees marked for selling came from the villagers. This was the result of 12 year long efforts of peoples’ education in non-violence. Chipko means hug — feel the heartbeats of the trees.
Women, who were trained in non-violent method of protest came forward to save the trees, but their vision was different than that of mens’ economic demand. They said ‘forest is our mothers’ home — a place, which a lady remembers when in trouble.’ After five years our illusion was cleared, when we saw that there were landslides even if the trees were felled by the forest co-operatives. Womens’ participation and our long foot marches to educate the people, a fifteen days’ fast in 1974, gave birth to a new concept – a new slogan:
What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air.
Soil, water and pure air, are the basis of Life.
On 9th January 1979 was my 53rd birthday. We were camping in villages of Alaknanda valley. Thousands of green trees had been marked for felling. The axemen were at work. The villages were scattered. I sat under a tree marked for felling. The axeman was to come there to start his work. I felt I had become so insensitive that I was doing nothing when my sons are being slaughtered before my eyes. The holy Upanishad says, ‘A tree is equal to ten sons.’
I hugged the tree and the axeman went to the next. I chased him. For some time this continued. Finally I followed them to their huts, but nobody would give me shelter. They were told I was their enemy — an obstacle in their way to earn money. I sent my two colleagues to go to the village and declare my fast unto death till tree felling was stopped. I squeezed under a heap of hay. Next day people from the villages came. The news spread far and wide. On the fourth day to my surprise the hay was burning. I saved my life by running away with the sleeping bag, my only belonging. Thereafter we could find shelter under a hut.
Vimala, along with some ladies from my Ashram, had come. On the 13th day of my fast, they took me to jail. I continued my fast and gave a statement that force feeding and medicines would cause my death as I was naturalist. This baffled the authorities, who were pressing the doctors to do force-feeding. When I did not yield, they sent me to Dehra Dun jail. Groups of doctors came every day to examine me. They would feel my pulse, the heart, measure the blood pressure; but found everything alright. I observed silence and listened to devotional songs. This strengthened me. Doctors asked me the secret of this. I said there is a hidden power — the power of self — to measure which you have no instruments.
On the 24th day, the government decided to stop tree feeling and talk with me on the issue on management of hill forests. Thus ended my prayerful fast. I came
out stronger from this ordeal.
It was finally in April 1981, when felling of green trees for commercial purposes was banned. But it was only in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Himalaya extends from Kashmir to Kohima. How to spread this message? I finally decided to undertake padyatra (foot march). During this foot-march, the first to join me was 72 year old Gandhian activist, Sri Ratanchand Dehloo. Later many more people joined and we could complete this 4,870 km march in 300 days. Besides Indian Himalaya, we walked through Nepal and Bhutan, about 2000 kms. We carried our luggage on our backs and lived upon whatever the villagers offered. We could take the message to the hearts of the people, impress upon them the vital importance of forests for their survival.
The slogan given by Chipko attracted international attention. Richard St. Barbe Baker, celebrated Man of the Trees, the veteran forester came to India to greet the movement. He was a saint scientist. He declared that this was a scientific movement. Later, Indian Science Congress also passed a unanimous resolution supporting the movement. Thus the way for Sarvodaya — well being of all — was paved. Science had come in support of self knowledge (Atma-Gyan).
A 260.5 meter high dam, Tehri dam, the highest in Asia was planned over River
Bhagirathi in 1960s. When it was sanctioned by the Planning Commission in 1972,
people who were going to be displaced by this monstrous dam launched a movement against it. Work on it was started in 1978. The movement slowed down. People went to the court, but in spite of all scientific opinions against it and the apprehension of a big earthquake, work continued. Sri V.D. Saklani, the spirit behind the movement, asked me to devote full time to this issue as he had become old and weak. On November 24th, I left Silyara Ashram, the base of my 33 years work, with a decision not to return till Tehri dam was stopped. Now I was a homeless wanderer. I went from village to village listening to the people and to the nature around. Is this all going to vanish if the dam is built? Nobody was listening to the people.
On Christmas day, 25th December, 1989, I went on a week’s fast. This was a call to motion on my part. I was fasting outside the dam site. Nobody was allowed to go to the site. On the fourth day of my fast, I walked to the work site. Gigantic machines were at work. First I made gesture to stop these, but they continued. Finally, I jumped upon a bull-dozer which was in action. They had do stop it. It was evening and the frosty winter night was to fall. My sitting there made people brave. They came in the hundreds. We made fire around. Next morning a temporary shelter was made, but I made the wheel of the bulldozer my permanent seat. I would offer my prayers, speak for an hour and observe silence for the whole day. When nothing happened for seven days, I declared an indefinite fast. On the 11th day, message came from Delhi for talks.
The talks were not decisive. Our protest continued. I repaired to my ancestral deserted house, which is in the submergence area of the dam. Later, through foot marches from the source of Ganga to Hardwar, where it descends down from the hills to the plains, we walked spreading the message from village to village. River Ganga is worshipped by millions as the holy mother. It is the symbol of India’s Aryan Culture, which sees life in all creation and advocates a worshipful attitude towards all forms of life. Moreover, behind the story of the origin of Ganga is the story of penance of a king, who left everything for the welfare of humankind. The river is suffering from the dual onslaughts of exploitation and pollution.
To make people conscious about it, we set out on a cycle rally on September 11,
1991, from Ganga Sagar, Bay of Bengal, where Ganga joins the sea, to Gaumukh in
Himalayas. Again, teaching and preaching through our action. We covered 2300
kilometers in 46 days, when a big earthquake rocked the hill region on October 21st, 1991.
This put a big question mark on the construction of Tehri dam on a highly seismic zone. On October 29th, we decided to sit in protest near the dam site and finally, on December 14th, 1991, along with more than two thousand people, we stalled the work at dam site.
The monstrous machines were again stopped. We pitched our tents at the work site keeping 24 hours vigil. They tried to dislodge us, brought a bull-dozer to demolish our camp. We again climbed upon the bull-dozer. The work remained stalled for 75 days when in the dark of night the police came and invaded our camp, arrested forty of us and took us to the jail. Among those arrested were Vimala, my wife, two young girls of our Ashram and three ladies. This was an attack on civil liberties. I started indefinite fast in the prison. Vimala and Diksha Bisht, a lady worker, joined me.
We were shifted to Roorkee jail the fourth day and later to Megrut Medical College, finally released an brought back to Tehri. I continued my fast and insisted to be taken to the spot, where our camp was demolished. But everywhere armed police were posted to prevent our entry. We pitched our camp on the road side. All methods of torture were adopted. The fast generated countrywide interest in the problem of Tehri dam. It was discussed in the parliament and finally George Fernandes, a socialist leader and member of the Parliament, visited me with an appeal from the President of Lok Sabha to break the fast. We wanted an assurance from the Prime Minister that blasting of explosives at the dam site will be stopped and a review of the project undertaken. It took another two week On the forty-fifth day when this came, I broke my fast and shifted to the bank of the river near the dam site.
Here I live in a shanty since April 1992. People from different parts of the country and world visit this spot. Near our shanty is a red flag — the flag is not the flag of the socialists, but railwayman’s danger signal, to caution people about the dangers from high dam in Himalaya, in particular, and from destructive development. People often ask what is the alternative. Gandhi had foreseen the doomsday as early as 1908, when he wrote Hind Swaraj. The objective of development is economic growth or prosperity, but to achieve this temporary economic prosperity we have lost peace and happiness.
We have created a world, which is confronted with the problems of threat of war and internal security, pollution and depletion of resources, and poverty and hunger. The concept of development had made man the butcher of nature. Gandhi’s vision of a ideal society was based upon the Indian culture. Development is a state in the life of individual and society in which they enjoy permanent peace, happiness and fulfillment. This can be achieved if science and technology is applied to sublimate nature. Thus the ultimate goal of humankind, to march from nature to culture, will be achieved. The seed was sown by Gandhi. He nurtured it and left tender plant to our generation to rear and help the tree to grow. I have been devoting myself to this during these 55 years.
This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997.