Gandhi at 150 as seen through diverse lens in Calcutta
The event: The Bengal Club 9th Annual Panel discussion, in association with TheTelegraph
The topic: Gandhi at 150: Still the Father of the Nation?
Venue: Bengal Club lawns
Excerpts from what the panellists said:
Kunal Sarkar, cardiac surgeon and moderator
Seldom, seldom has history produced a personality who has been taller and bigger than all of this 5ft 5inch Indian who walked the earth more than seven decades ago. In spite of that he perhaps remains the most discussed and the most dissected Indian political philosophical figure ever.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, politician and columnist, author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age
If we look at the national liberation struggle of the 19th century, early 20th century or even the revolutionary movement such as the one in Russia or China, then absolutely no leader touched upon so many aspects of human renewal. In Gandhi, we see on one hand political struggle to make India independent... but at the same time a national renewal based on removal of untouchability, caste inequality, Hindu-Muslim unity and harmony…. Today, our Prime Minister has absolutely reduced Gandhi only to an icon of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.... But there is absolutely no leader in world history who gave so much importance to sanitation, cleanliness — not only cleanliness in outside, but cleanliness in our hearts and minds — women empowerment, village uplift and of course technology and science, seen from a different point of view.
There is no other leader who has touched upon so many aspects of life. Which is why Gandhi-ji is unique and relevant not only to India, but to humanity.
Maroona Murmu, teacher of history at Jadavpur University
Gandhi was faced by B.R. Ambekar, who challenged him politically, morally, intellectually, which exposed the widening gulf between Gandhi’s philosophy of life and the politics that he practised.
During a meeting with Gandhi in 1931, Ambedkar told Gandhi: “You see, I have got a homeland. But still I repeat I am without it. How can I call this land my own homeland and this religion as my own wherein we are treated worse than cats and dogs? Wherein we cannot get water to drink?” And Gandhi had faith in the caste system and its power of organisation.
Even if you are trying to forget Gandhi, the present political dispensation does not allow you to do so. They leave no opportunity to grab concepts floated by Gandhi. They have started the Gram Swaraj Abhiyaan, which had a motto “sab ka saath, sab ka gaon, sab ka vikas”.
Then the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, which was launched on October 2, 2014, with the aim of achieving open defecation-free India to end on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. In the meanwhile, 427 Dalits have died since 2014 while cleaning sewers without equipment and safety gear, 110 in 2019 alone. Records have been placed before Parliament by the ministry of social justice and empowerment, which categorically state that there has been no recorded conviction. Now, the sanitised conscience of this nation chooses to look away from these people, these Dalits, the marginal men and women.
Sugata Bose, Gardiner Chair of Oceanic History and Affairs, Harvard University
In his prayer meetings in late 1947, the Indian and the Pakistani flags used to flutter next to each other. I am very grateful to Professor Murmu for not abandoning her critical perspective on Gandhi. We must retain our critical faculty in evaluating our great leaders.
But I would like to say something on Gandhi’s position on inter-dining and inter-marriage. He was a man who evolved over time. It is true that even in the early 1920s he would not dine with his closest Muslim compatriots, Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali.
He wrote in a very witty fashion that eating was like the privately performed sanitation practices of life. But then he changed. When Gandhi went to visit the INA officers who were prisoners in Red Fort in Kabul Lines in early 1946, they said that “anyway in Azad Hind Fauj we had no differences. Here, the British are serving us Hindu tea and Muslim tea”. And Gandhi asked: “Why do you suffer it?” They replied: “We don’t. We mix Hindu tea and Muslim tea.” And Gandhiji approved of it and smiled.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, chancellor, Ashoka University
In 1946-47, it became clear to Gandhi that the leaders that he had made — Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad — all were willing to sit across the table with Mountbatten and Jinnah to negotiate a transfer of power that would entail a partition of India. Gandhi withdrew from the negotiations and he withdrew from Delhi.
Where did he go? He came to eastern India, to Bihar and the eastern part of Bengal, areas that had been scarred by communal violence. He worked among them, the common people, very very common, poor people. When Nehru wrote: “Bapu where are you when we need your guidance most? Please come back to Delhi. Please counsel us”, he replied, saying: “Jawahar, I am where I am needed most. I am with the people of India.” He went back to the people of India to whom he belonged, whom he had identified with when he first came back from South Africa.
Sudarshan Iyengar, Gandhian scholar and former vice-chancellor, Gujarat University
To my mind, the present day crisis is the crisis of character. Post-truth is ruling. And Gandhi had a quest for truth…. Gandhi’s experiments continued. He was always subject to falsifications.
In 1932, he went on a fast, and (B.R.) Ambedkar had to yield. Ambedkar people would definitely say Gandhi had blackmailed, almost pressured, him. But it is the same Gandhi who realised that changing of heart is important…. So, when you required a person to write the Constitution and Nehru asked Gandhi whom should we give the task, Gandhi said without hesitation “who else but Dr Ambedkar”. This is the kind of openness which Gandhi comes with. He is an experimenter, he strategises, but his quest is the quest for truth, truth until death. In his approach, he has never failed.
When you deal in public life, you are bound to make experiments and the experiments are going to fail. But Gandhi accepts the Himalayan blunders and his point of strength lies in accepting the failures as he goes on doing experiments.
Tathagata Roy, Meghalaya governor
Gandhi was a great man, a fantastic man, an incredible person. Just one example. Having come from a foreign country in 1915, within five years, he had elevated himself to be the unquestioned leader of the masses of India. That is not something that everyone can do. I claim to be a person belonging to the Right and I am saying it.
But having said that I have to point my finger at a failing that we have as a nation, that we tend to deify our great men. We tend to make them into gods…. Deifying him is not the way to appreciate Gandhi.
He talked about truth. He was a deeply religious person. But which truth worked when he supported to the hilt the Hindu-Muslim combined — supposedly combined — movement called Khilafat, led by two fundamentalist Muslims called Maulana Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali? One of whom said the only way to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity in India was for all Hindus to turn Muslims. How could Gandhi support such a person?