“Truth to me is infinitely dearer than the Mahatma-ship which places a burden” – words of a reluctant Mahatma, who would have been 143 years old today if he were to be alive. It’s a national holiday in India today – the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – and that’s all that many Indians today are thankful to the Mahatma for.
Facetious as it might sound, I am glad he didn’t live long enough in post-colonial India or he would have regretted not only that title of Mahatma conferred on him by a people who knew they could not emulate his life, but also the many self-flagellating fasts he undertook to guide his people to do the right thing in the name of “freedom”.
It was difficult for even his most ardent of followers to live by the principles that guided his life, so it is almost impossible today for a generation that sees Gandhi through the lens of a Raju Hirani (maker of the hugely successful comic-drama Lage Raho Munnabhai) to even relate to one who lived his life only to sacrifice it.
Besides, how does one proclaim non-cooperation against a system steeped in political decay? Non-violence at an individual level seems possible, but becomes irrelevant in the face of large scale violence across the world over religious and political unrest. Civil disobedience could get you beaten up or tear gassed by the police; and hunger strikes could get you force-fed by decree of the law courts. Globalization renders protest burning of ‘foreign’ goods redundant; and multi-brand retailing by multinationals would make a salt satyagraha a joke.
So more than six decades after Gandhi’s death, when Indians, vexed with the oppressive corruption among India’s political leaders, saw a diminutive man wearing white khadi and Gandhi topi emerge on the national scene promising to lead the country through fasting (a la Gandhi) they wanted to believe him. The man, Anna Hazare, who goes by the title of ‘Gandhian’, however, fell short of expectations because he stopped fasting for health reasons!
And when a feisty politician like the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee breaks executive protocol and sits on a dharna in the country’s capital to protest against the entry of foreign retailers and the rise in diesel prices, one cannot but see a mockery of the Gandhian dharna as she gloats in self-importance when supporters greet her with a humungous garland worth lakhs of rupees.
Three years ago I remember interviewing the American pacifist and documentary filmmaker James Otis, when he had caused quite a stir in India for putting up for auction certain personal articles of Gandhi – his spectacles, a pair of chappals, a bowl and a plate – which he happened to posses. It was intense drama that played out for international audiences over almost a week when the Indian government sought to block the auction in New York. The drama was chockfull of ironies.
Otis, as he had told me (he said many things to different journalists), wanted to auction the items so they could be bought by some worthy believer of Gandhi or an institution that would hopefully use them in a worldwide traveling exhibition. India wanted those items, simply because they “rightfully” belonged to India.
He had to be naïve, or Otis would not have tried to bargain with the Indian government –free government healthcare for the millions of needy Indians in return for the Gandhi articles.
India threatened legal action and Otis was not Gandhian enough to fight a government. To cut the long story short, the items did go under the hammer at New York’s Antiquorum auctioneers for $1.8 million, bought by liquor baron Vijay Mallya. And that was the last anyone saw or heard of those precious pieces of Gandhi memorabilia. One hasn’t heard since, of or from Otis either.
Like I said, it is not easy to be a Gandhi today – it would not be, even for Gandhi himself.