Thursday, September 30, 2010


Mohandas Gandhi might well have been the father of the nation, but to many of his children in the east, especially in Bengal, he was a father who had betrayed one of their own – Subhas Chandra Bose. While growing up in a family displaced by the partition of Bengal and the terrible riots that followed in its wake, I was conditioned a fair bit by the anti-Gandhi sentiments that I overheard whenever family and neighbours gathered around food or festivities. Incidentally, my family had moved to Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi, a residential colony that was built to house refugees from East Pakistan. Next door were the ‘Punjabi colonies’ of Kalkaji and around, home to refugees from a Punjab torn apart by partition on the Western Frontier.

For these victims of partition, Gandhi was oft en the one to blame for their woes. I grew up listening to statements like “Gandhi betrayed Subhash, he betrayed Bhagat…Gandhi favoured Nehru over Patel and Jinnah and it was Nehru’s obstinacy and Gandhi’s weakness for him that caused the partition…that’s why we lost our homes, our limbs, our loves; He sold us out to the Muslims…maybe a good man but he was a lousy leader…” and so on. Then, when I went to school, I was oft en mired in confusion and conflict. My school books spoke of how Gandhi’s ahimsa, more than anybody else, had found us our freedom, while friends and relatives in the refugee ghettoes back home told us tales of how selfless revolutionaries like Subhash, Khudiram, Bhagat, Azad, Udham Singh and Bagha Jatin had booted the British spirit out of this country long before Nehru’s tryst with destiny. The opportunistic Indian National Congress, I was told, was in fact promoted by the British, and came into prominence only because the Raj administration found Gandhi and the INC easier to negotiate with…apparently, he demanded far less, of himself, his followers, and most significantly, of the Empire.

A lot of sludge has flown under the Yamuna bridges since then. But Gandhian ideals had remained uncool for most people from my generation. In high school I was introduced to the romantic image of Che Guevara. An image that was further fortified during my studies at IIPM and the tales I heard from my teachers who are men of great learning, integrity and conviction. By now, Che and his writings had pushed me into asking questions of some other truths that I had hitherto deemed infallible. If Che was to be admired for saying ‘I believe in armed struggle as the only solution for people who are fighting for freedom, and I act according to this belief ’, then why were those picking up arms in Kashmir any different? Eventually, I started teaching a subject called appreciation of literature and history, and there while discussing Che’s principles, we ended up discussing Kashmir. The class was shocked when I said I thought Kashmir deserved to be free because a people have the right to chose to be free, especially if neither history nor culture tied them to their current national identity. After all India would never have been one country if not for the British. So is it really wrong if a people want to be free, especially if they have the historical baggage that a Kashmir comes with?

But the more I read about Che, the more I wondered if his actions were as good as his intentions. Fox History’s series on terrorism tries to project Che as a global terrorist spreading death and destruction in countries as far apart as Bolivia and the Congo but that’s just propaganda. Che never intentionally had civilians in his crosshairs and had restricted almost all of his operations against armed soldiers of the establishment. But my doubts arose from the fact that his revolutions did not have the results he sought. In fact, armed revolutions rarely do. Lives were wasted for an ideal but ideals I have come to believe, are achieved, and more importantly sustained, through evolution, and not through a revolution. And that’s when Gandhi’s ideology became one that got me interested all over again. So was that man really relevant… even today?

Yes, that frail old man in his loin cloth looked neither as brave, nor as inspiring a figure as the ruggedly handsome and macho figure of Che Guevara, but as I grew I got to learn that not only did Gandhi unarguably contribute at least an even share towards India’s freedom but also inspired a Martin Luther King Jr to have a dream and helped a Mandela, through his example, to guide a volatile new democracy to peaceful reconciliation. Gandhi’s Satyagraha inspired the Civil Rights movement, the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The point is, a Gandhi gently, but firmly, asks for a change of heart, while a Che pushes, oft en violently, for a change of heads. The former, if achieved, will almost always bring about peace, perhaps even prosperity, but the latter oft en only ends up replacing one tyrant with another. Look at the Congo, Afghanistan or even Pakistan.

So, the question is, now that we stand in a world fragmented by faith and festering political wounds, where separatist movements and power struggles simmer all over the world, from Chechneya to Kashmir and from Spain to Sri Lanka, can the Gandhian path of Satyagraha and peaceful non-violent protests achieve what many a blazing gun and bleeding heart has failed to find – freedom, peace and prosperity? Or are these battles about something else altogether? Power, for instance, or wealth. Can Gandhian values overcome greed and lust someday? In the following pages, TSI goes into the tents of battle-scarred rebel leaders who share their angst and seem so human from up close, that it is difficult not to empathise…We talk to journalists who have reported from the faultlines of history seeking rationale and perspective to all this madness and finally we talk to those who still walk the path of Gandhian ideals. Their words will soothe and give hope...

As for me, I wonder, if to be able to love and reconcile with the enemy is the essence of Gandhian values, then does freedom or ethnic identity really matter? Couldn’t we have accepted and learnt to love the English then as much as we want the Kashmiris to accept us today? And centuries later, there would have been a whole new race of Indians of mixed Indo-British ancestry, just like when the Aryans mixed things up with the Dravidians, thus giving us our sense of India today.

My final lesson in Gandhian values came during a martial arts class. My Aikido (a Japanese combat art that emphasises the idea of strength in harmony) instructor told me after a particularly hard session, that “if you refuse to be the aggressor, and seek not to win over your enemies but instead to win them over, the energies of the universe will never let you lose… if you (or your causes) are right, you’ll find the might. Right, is might, and not the other way round.”

Amen to that, and whenever you clench your fist in anger against a fellow man, may the futility of violence scream out to you from the words of those who have caused it and suffered it, and may the kind compassion of a Thich Naht Hanh and the gentle yet iron will of an Irom Sharmila calm your soul and give you strength.


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