Friday, February 13, 2009

The clamour about Gandhi's belongings being auctioned

Reports of an auction of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal items, scheduled for early March in New York, have sent a cross section of our MPs into a clamour for Government’s intervention. The MPs have demanded that the Government either try to stop the auction and in the event of that being impossible, to participate in the bidding and get the items back home and place them at Tees January Marg!

Well. It is likely that Sonia Gandhi wakes up and instructs Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to do the needful. Parties across the spectrum will only welcome such an initiative. After all, it makes ample sense to have the Bapu’s personal belongings at the museum on Tees January Marg and most importantly have a function organised to mark the day when they are brought back from New York. Such a function would provide an opportunity to those MPs to visit the place (some of them may not have gone there until now even if they have been living close by), to show themselves as the inheritors of the Mahatma and his legacy!

The fact is that these leaders of our political establishment continue to have ample use for Gandhi’s image. And where the image alone and not the values that Gandhi lived and died for is of use, the Bapu’s personal belongings are of immense use to them. Ram Manohar Lohia, who could probably be described as a Gandhian political activist among other things, did notice the beginnings of this tendency and derided it as either priestly or governmental Gandhism and that the two got along, so well with each other, to reduce Gandhi’s thoughts into an anemic doctrine.

This, in due course, led to painting Gandhism as a sterile idea that merely relies almost exclusively on changing the heart of the well-placed to the utter neglect of bringing about a change in the heart of the poor and the oppressed. It was necessary, for this project, to reduce Gandhi into a messiah or an idol to be worshipped. The Bapu’s personal belongings and his images are indeed essential to further this project. And that clearly explains the clamour for Governmental intervention in the context of the auction in New York in early March.

This is not to say that it is alright to let the Bapu’s memory be erased. The point is that Gandhi is as relevant today as he was in his own times. And even if the Bapu’s personal belongings are not with us in any of the places connected with the Mahatma and his life – at the ashrams in Sabarmathi, Wardha or at the Gandhi Smriti on Tees January Marg – the fact is that Gandhi and his ideas continue to reverberate in many others parts of the country.

Irom Chanu Sharmila, fasting since November 2, 2000, demanding that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is scrapped is keeping the Mahatma alive even sixty one years after Nathuram Godse shot him dead. Or Vinayak Sen, a humane medical professional, detained in one of Chattisgarh’s prisons, is indeed among those who ddid not believe in reducing Gandhi and the ism into a sterile idea that merely believed in changing the heart of the bent and the beautiful and instead went about organizing the poor and the oppressed to fight for their rights.

Similarly, Medha Patkar and the people in the remote villages in the Narmada valley, by not submitting to the powers have kept the Gandhian legacy alive. And the same holds good for the adivasis in Kalinganagar who bared their chests before the armed police to stop their lands being taken away.

It is appropriate, in this context, to present the case of the victims of the gas leak from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in December 1984. The hundreds of children from Bhopal, born to parents who were victims of the leak, these children continue to suffer from a host of health problems. But then, a number of them were here in Chennai last week to register their protest at the corporate office of Dow Chemicals. They did that because they all find Gandhi and his ideas – that machines and high technology cannot solve the problems of mankind and that it is one’s moral duty to struggle against injustice – relevant even today.

A short note on Dow and its connection with the Bhopal gas leak will be in order here. Multi-national Corporation, Dow Chemicals, has taken over Union Carbide and hence is the owner of all that remains of the Bhopal plant from where lethal Methyl-Isocyanate leaked causing one of the biggest industrial disasters in India. And according to established canons of law, Dow is bound to clean up the contaminated sumps inside the plant and also spend on the measures that are inevitable to render the land around the plant free from the toxic deposits. The toxins have sunk so far and deep that the water table in most parts has been affected. MNC Dow, however, is refusing to do that. And the Government of India, whose duty it is to ensure that Dow does what it is bound to do by law, is not enforcing the law all these days.

Like Gandhi himself, the true inheritors of his legacy are those who lead such struggles and are part of every such movement against injustice. These men and women stay away from the rigmarole of elections and shun offices of power. Gandhism, to them, is neither priestly nor governmental.

As for our MPs and others who clamour that Gandhi’s belongings are brought back, they will do great service to the cause they claim to fight by taking time off to read The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It may help them understand what Gandhi represented. In the last but one paragraph of that, Gandhi makes the point about himself: ``The experiences and experiments have sustained me and given me great joy. But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him.’’


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home