| The ashram set up by Mahatma Gandhi at Bhitiharwa in West Champaran. Picture by Nalin Verma |
Speaking at Ram Nagar — part of the karmbhoomi of the Father of the Nation, who enabled Indians to have their own Prime Minister — Narendra Modi said he was benefiting from the goodwill the Mahatma generated in this part of the country in the early 20th century.
“The people are so affectionate here. The affection that had drawn Gandhiji to this land has drawn me here too,” the BJP mascot said on May 7 at a rally in Ram Nagar — barely 40km from Bhitiharwa — the land Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi chose to set up an ashram, don a poor man’s dhoti and transform into the Mahatma.
But the strongman from Gujarat in a smart kurta, pyjama and bandi, sunglass and wristwatch — a sharp contrast from the dhoti-wearing Mahatma with naked torso — shirked from making any promise, particularly in the context of doing something for the Gandhi Ashram in Bhitiharwa where Mahatma had set up a school to teach students lessons in truth, non-violence and peace.
“It is because one cannot win if he lies in Gandhi terrain. Lalu Prasad visited the ashram in 2000, promised that his wife Rabri Devi would upgrade the Kasturba Gandhi High School to an intermediate college but failed to do so. He was punished for telling a lie (the RJD lost in the 2005 elections). One cannot get away after telling a lie in this ashram, the temple of truth,” said Anirudha Prasad (60), the grandson of Prahalad Bhagat, a Bhitiharwa resident and Gandhi and Kasturba’s companion at the ashram.
Anirudha, a social activist and patron of the Kasturba Gandhi High School, asserted in his simpleton conviction: “One cannot get away by telling a lie here. The soul of Mahatma lives here. That soul will not pardon you if you lie.”
Was Narendra Modi — otherwise quite profligate in making promises at election meetings — aware of the myth or reality associated with the place that the Mahatma had made his home in 1917 to liberate India from British rule?
Neither Anirudha nor other Bhitiharwa villagers who have many anecdotes to share of their grandfathers’ dalliance with the Mahatma were able to decode why Narenda Modi shirked from making any promise vis-a-vis Bhittiharwa Ashram — 60km from Bettiah, the district headquarters of West Champaran, and 260km from Patna.
Bhittiharwa — where Gandhi initiating the revolution to spread the light of liberation in the country — still looks like an abode of primitive existence. The huge village, inhabited mostly by Dalits (they prefer to call themselves Harijan, a term the Mahatma had coined for them) is filled with thatched homes and poor people. The 6,000-voter village in north Bihar’s Valmiki Nagar constituency, however, is approachable by a decent road and has power supply for about 18 hours a day, thanks to chief minister Nitish Kumar’s special attention to the area.
While the villagers attributed Lalu not keeping his word at Bhittiharwa Ashram for the fall of his regime, they still live in remote corners — far removed from the political atmosphere prevailing in the rest of the country. They were not ready to believe that Nitish Kumar was in trouble. The basis of their conviction about Nitish’s “strength” was the chief minister’s ability to keep his promise with Bhitiharwa.
“The Paryatan Bhavan (tourist guesthouse) is coming up on the premises of the ashram. Nitish had promised it in 2008. Work is on in full swing to complete the building. Nitish visited the place several times, improving its upkeep and maintenance,” said Awadhesh Chourasia, the guard at the ashram, raising his fingers along with Anirudha towards the guesthouse’s upcoming building.
“Nitish makes true promises and implements them. He had launched his first yatra — known as Nyay Yatra from this place in 2004 — after getting the reigns of the state in 2005. All the 6,000 voters will vote for Nitish’s party at Bhittiharwa for Nitish is on Gandhi’s path of truth,” Anirudha said, apparently, unaware of the hawa (wave) created by Narendra Modi against Nitish in the rest of Bihar.
After nearly over 100 years, Bhittiharwa residents still revel in anecdotes that their ancestors shared about Gandhi at this village.
“Mohanji will one day be worshiped like Krishna and Ram. He was an incarnation of God,” Anirudha quoted his grandfather Prahalad Bhagat as saying.
Born in 1954, Anirudha still remembers many anecdotes his grandfather had shared about the Mahatma when Anirudha was a child.
“Gandhiji class shuru hone ke pahle apne se ghanti bajate thay (Gandhi rang the bell himself before classes began),” Anirudha quoted his grandfather as saying. The bell that the Mahatma rang is still there at the ashram. The name of Prahalad (1874-1965) and other companions of Gandhi from the village is etched in a stone plaque at the ashram.
Prahalad Bhagat became a freedom fighter who went to jail many times with Gandhi.
Gandhi-like simplicity is in ample evidence at the village. Perhaps, that simplicity has deterred the villagers from believing that the “path of truth” may no longer be the only way to succeed in politics. And that’s why they were unable to believe that Narendra Modi had an upper hand over Nitish Kumar in the ensuing battle of ballots.
JD(U) candidate and sitting Valmiki Nagar MP Vaidyanath Mahto is locked in a four-cornered contest against Congress’s Purnamasi Ram, BJP’s Satish Dubey and Independent Dilip Verma.
A walk through the constituency indicated it would be tough for the JD(U) to retain Valmiki Nagar.
Were Vaidyath supposed to romp home on the votes of Bhitiharwa villagers alone, he would have been a clear winner, though. “We will vote for Nitish who has spoken the truth and kept his promises with us. It does not matter to us how Vaidyanath has performed,” said Bagar Shah (55), the mukhiya of the Bhitiharwa panchayat.
Any number of senior leaders have visited this ashram — from former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, former defence minister George Fernandes, Rahul Gandhi, Ajit Singh, Mahatma’s grandchildren Rajmohan Gandhi and Tara Bhattacharya — at various points of time.
“When we asked Rajmohan Gandhi to do something for the ashram, he said he was not a government functionary and, as such, he could not do anything. But, he said, he would surely suggest to the prime minister and chief minister to pay attention to it,” Anirudha quoted Rajmohan as saying. Rajmohan had also said: “My grandfather’s soul lives here. I cannot make a false promise at the abode of my grandfather’s soul.”
Valmiki Nagar votes on May 12