Gopalkrishna Gandhi on Mahatma Gandhi: The pulse of a legacy in an age of heroics

Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary addressing a mass meeting to a huge crowd at Bombay when a motion was passed to boycott British goods following the civil disobedience riots and demonstrations and arrest of Gandhi, in Bombay, May 6, 1930

Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary addressing a mass meeting to a huge crowd at Bombay when a motion was passed to boycott British goods following the civil disobedience riots and demonstrations and arrest of Gandhi, in Bombay, May 6, 1930   | Photo Credit: Popperfoto


Doctors of politics and history will tell us that the heart that defines his legacy does not beat but it seems to, and not so feebly

Birla House, New Delhi. 30 January, 1948:

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s Deputy Prime Minister, had been in deep, earnest conversation with Gandhi till just a few moments before the shots rang out. He had barely returned home close by, when he got the flash and rushed right back. “He sat down,” records Pyarelal, Gandhi’s biographer, “felt the pulse and fancied it was still beating feebly.” Pyarelal goes on to say that a doctor at hand, Dr. B. P. Bhargava, examining the pulse and the eye reflexes, said slowly to Patel that death had occurred 10 minutes earlier. Gloom of a kind that had never been associated with the Sardar descended on him. A moment later Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reached the site. The two — Patel and Nehru — embraced, united in grief, as a shaken yet self-possessed Governor General Mountbatten watched.

But why, why on earth, should we, on the anniversary, the sparklingly ‘bright’ 150th such, of Gandhi’s birth be thinking of his death ?

There is a reason: India and the world would have had little interest in the birth or the birth anniversary of this man if his life had not been what it was — a tussle between his passionate, self-consuming faith in ahimsa and his being stalked, unceasingly, by the fiercest violence until the very last step he took on the earth.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi on Mahatma Gandhi: The pulse of a legacy in an age of heroics

And because something in many — not all, but very many — of us world-wide wants to feel the pulse, as Patel did that day on his wrist, of Gandhi’s legacy today to see if it is beating, even if ever so feebly.

Does it beat ?

Doctors of politics and history will tell us that it does not. And the world around us will concur. That is, of course, if it can spare the time to think upon this. Time now is not about that which makes history but that which makes headlines.

Lincoln, as President of the United States of America spoke his 272 words at Gettysburg in 1863 as he did, and Gandhi, as an sedition-accused, at his Great Trial in Ahmedabad in 1922 as he did, not because they expected to make or ‘break’ news but because they needed to, wanted to speak about political facts, civilisational verities, historical truths. When Lincoln rose to speak, Carl Sandburg, his biographer tells us, he took out from his coat pocket his notes, put on his steel eye-glasses, looked at the paper, put it back in his pocket and then made the speech that the world has not forgotten. A reporter of the Chicago “Tribune” telegraphed a sentence: “The dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.”

When Gandhi rose to speak in the Ahmedabad court room, he too had a text which he read from but only to go into the judge’s mind, not any annals. No judge before or since Justice Broomfield has sentenced an accused in a way that makes the penalty seem like a decoration. That is history for us.

But this world of ours is not interested in history. Its staple is histrionics. This age is not about heroes or heroines, but of heroics. It is about the fabrication of appeal, not the building of understanding. Gandhi said in his Great Trial speech: “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence.” He stressed that last bit. Violence was not an option.

Violence is the signature of our times, terrorism its indelible ink. Brutal, cold-blooded, merciless, terrorist violence is aimed to kill innocents no less than ‘targets’. And it has generated another violence, in racial hatred. Provocation and retaliation are the North and South Poles of the globe today as it rotates on the axis of mutually self-supporting suspicions.

A sloughing of values

Like the icecaps that are melting and sliding off the Poles, certain time-honoured values are flaking off that globe. These values are human rights, civil liberties and democratic dissent. Where inclusion and accommodation were ideals, exclusion, dispossession, dis-entitlement rule. Names and words like ‘outsider’, ‘infiltrator’, ‘illegal immigrant’ are to be heard now in the same timbre and pitch in the world’s most advanced ‘liberal’ democracies as in its entrenched autocracies.

Gandhi’s legacy seems pulseless as the world moves from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to a Global Proclamation of Human Intolerance.

Idealism has gone through a make-over, emerging from the green room of contemporary political fashion in the shape and style of a ‘no-nonsense’ realism. Honesty, frankness, are of course the ‘nonsense’ that has been peeled off. This ‘realism’ sees human thought as a redundancy, human conscience a distraction. Truth — Gandhi’s obsession — is assailed today not by its ‘good old’ opposite-number, untruth but by something else altogether, something that is so sinister as to make ‘honest lies’ look like a bored schoolboy. Truth faces today, world-wide, an unassailable foe: a miasma of fumes, vapours and shimmering mirages that first obscures, then obfuscates and finally obliterates the distinction between the true and the false, the real and the virtual, fact and fiction. All the world is, truly, a stage now, not as a Shakespearean cliché but in grim reality. And all of us are merely players — as data which data-holders can get to play many parts, or none.

As with humans that are now digits, the world’s natural resources, mostly non-renewable, are now weapons — not for human well-being but for power games, getting ever so closely held, tightly and furtively , for the greater and greater good of the small and ever smaller number. Protecting the physical environment has activists working like the galley-slaves in the film “Mutiny on the Bounty”, but the Lieutenant Bligh equivalents in every country, on every continent have no Fletcher Christian to challenge them.

And amidst all this, the threat of regional wars and battles, glorified by hate, greased by fear, rises menacingly. Anything that shoots, sizzles, hisses, uproots gets to be cheered. Anything that soothes, becalms, quietens, tends, nourishes, sneered at.

Disarmament, chemical, nuclear, biological seem like a Hitopadesha fable now and the Convention Against Torture, Panchatantra lore.

And yet

That pulse seems to beat, and not so feebly.

As when the Supreme Court of India says in the now landmark judgment in Puttaswamy vs. Union of India: “Life and personal liberty are inalienable rights. These are rights which are inseparable from a dignified human existence. The dignity of the individual, equality between human beings and the quest for liberty are the foundational pillars of the Indian Constitution…”

And when Pandit Jasraj, of a voice of divine fragrances, composes Om Allah Om in a moment of sheer inspiration to the entrancement of his audience and then goes on to sing it time and again to his and our rapture, our redemption.

But most tellingly, and universally when the Archbishop of Canterbury visits India in this centenary year of Jallianwala Bagh and is so completely overwhelmed by India’s truth that he prostrates at the monument, to atone.

There is in us Indians a Patel, too practical to be all ‘ideals’, but altogether too good to dismiss human values. When that Patel, real, not virtual , tries to feel the pulse of truth, provocation fails to inflame, propaganda fails to ignite, gullibility does not delude.

And which is when the pulse revives of the man whose death has made his birth priceless, his legacy timeless.

Watch: Mahatma Gandhi's impactful role in India's freedom struggle

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 5:14:43 PM |

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