Lost lessons

Lost lessons
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First Published: Thu, Jan 29 2009. 07 09 PM IST

Art by Vasudha Thozhur. An untitled work of mixed media on canvas, Thozhur’s work evokes the monkey, common on the rooftops of Gujarat. Playing into the image of the three monkeys, the work suggests t
Art by Vasudha Thozhur. An untitled work of mixed media on canvas, Thozhur’s work evokes the monkey, common on the rooftops of Gujarat. Playing into the image of the three monkeys, the work suggests t
Updated: Thu, Jan 29 2009. 07 09 PM IST
Exactly 50 years ago, a remarkably detailed, extraordinary blueprint was drawn for The Gandhi Institute—a university that would “extend and fulfil” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s thoughts and philosophy. It named Albert Einstein, Karl Jung, Aurobindo Ghosh and Jean-Paul Sartre as “patrons”. Envisioned as a global hub for Gandhian studies and education, its elaborate plans included 17 departments, 10 institutions abroad and “an imposing building in Delhi” to house the institute.
Art by Vasudha Thozhur. An untitled work of mixed media on canvas, Thozhur’s work evokes the monkey, common on the rooftops of Gujarat. Playing into the image of the three monkeys, the work suggests that in the land of Gandhi’s birth, the doctrine of ‘ahimsa’ has been violated. At Saffronart Gallery, Mumbai, till 15 February.
It was an ambitious plan. And one that remained entirely on paper. That failure was perhaps a sign of things to come. The last 50 years have seen a range of half-baked, oft-delayed and poorly implemented plans that have not only obscured the Mahatma’s thoughts but, in some cases, effectively buried them. Gandhian studies now exists as a fringe discipline— under-funded, poorly managed and all but forgotten. “I’m sorry to say that all we have are signboards with titles—nothing has taken off,” says Savita Singh, director of the International Centre for Gandhian Studies and Research at Rajghat, New Delhi.
“Things are not in a good shape. The financial situation of a lot of Gandhian institutions, especially educational, is not very rosy,” says Razi Ahmed, secretary of the Gandhi Sangrahalaya in Patna. According to Ahmed, while the government has provisions to help such institutions, most functionaries rise to symbolic action only “during centenaries and anniversaries”.
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It was in that vein in 1969, on Gandhi’s birth centenary, that the government announced a set of ambitious plans to set up 69 Gandhi Bhavans in universities and a National Service Scheme, a student volunteer corps focusing on community service. History repeated itself. “Most of these plans are in disarray as they were not well- coordinated,” says Singh. At around the same time, a large, elaborate exhibition complex came up along the Rajghat memorial; it was called the Gandhi Darshan International Exhibition Complex. In a by now all-too-familiar pattern, the exhibition, after a six-month run, was forgotten and largely abandoned.
An early plan to convert the site into an international centre for Gandhian studies resurfaced 25 years later in 1994, when then prime minister Narasimha Rao christened it the International Centre for Gandhian Studies and Research.
Last bastion: Savita Singh hopes the International Centre for Gandhian Studies and Research in New Delhi will finally get its due. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Since then, the centre— spread over 36 acres, with numerous classrooms, lecture halls and auditoriums already constructed and waiting—has been lobbying for deemed university status. Currently it conducts short, vocational courses in spinning, tailoring and pottery for schoolchildren (about 400 have applied in the last five years), and is a recognized centre of the National Institute of Open Schooling.
Elsewhere, as part of the Ninth Plan from 1997 to 2002, the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced the “Epochmaking Social Thinkers” scheme, which granted financial support to universities starting Gandhian study centres. As of August 2008, 61 universities had signed up and obtained funds.
While Singh is of the opinion that few of these centres function with any success, Jeevan Kumar, director of the Centre for Gandhian Studies at Bangalore University, disagrees: “From my experience, a number of these centres are doing significant work, and we must remember that most of these are started with UGC support... So when the UGC withdraws this support in, say, five years, the lack of adequate finances on the university’s side means that activities get curtailed.”
Other universities have found that a little modification of the syllabus helps increase the number of takers. The Panjab University’s department of Gandhian studies, for example, has seen a flood of applications for its master’s programme in Gandhian and peace studies. So much so that the university recently increased the number of seats from 20 to 25. The change? “We’ve restructured the course to be more oriented towards people taking competitive examinations,” says Jai Narain Sharma, professor, chairman and honorary director of the department. “We’re proud to say that nine students from our current batch have made it to the final stages of the civil services examinations, while two others have sat for the judicial services.”
Sharma says Gandhian studies are still relevant and contemporary, but students are mostly looking for something “job-oriented”, a need few Gandhi courses seem to cater to. Kumar, however, says he’s “not convinced” this particular approach would work: “I’m not sure we can adjust a course on Gandhi to be more career- oriented. I would look at it more as a philosophy or a set of principles one inculcates in whatever career you find yourself in.”
Outside India, however, the outlook appears more optimistic. Sushil Mittal, a professor of Hinduism at the James Madison University in Virginia, US, sees a growing interest in the ideals of Gandhi. “Recent years, especially after 11 September 2001, have witnessed a considerable worldwide growth, and in particular in the US, in Gandhian thought,” said Mittal in an email interview.
Mittal is founder-director of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at the university. According to Mittal, the centre is helping to put together the considerable amount of Gandhi-related work going on in American institutions. Starting this year, the best of this research may be found in the International Journal of Gandhi Studies, the flagship annual publication of Mittal’s centre.
Mittal hopes that the journal will help revive neglected areas of Gandhian studies and find relevant, modern interpretations. In April, the centre will host an international conference on non-violence with the theme “Rethinking Gandhi and Global Nonviolence”.
As far as Mittal is concerned, Gandhian studies are getting a new lease of life abroad. He says several teacher-scholars are doing cutting-edge work and contrasts this with the largely symbolic efforts in India. And while most students are non-Indian—Mittal says that only around 1% of the 1,500 students he has taught are Indian—he believes that the discipline has come of age. Contemporary global events have provided a new reason to go back to the Mahatma’s teachings. Referring to 9/11, Mittal observes, “It took the worst act of terror in Western history to make the world, and in particular the scholars, remember and learn from the life and achievements of the Mahatma!”
In India too, after years of start-and-stop initiatives, we could now see a resurgence in the discipline. “We feel that now, when the government is mulling plans for a World University at Nalanda, we can push for a plan that is equally relevant: setting up a central university of Gandhian thought here in Delhi,” says Singh.
She, along with other signatories, has drafted a letter outlining plans to Arjun Singh, the Union minister for human resource and development. The Rajghat campus is ready with a “full-fledged” plan, Singh says, including course curricula up to the PhD level. All it needs now is the government’s go-ahead.
While films and art exhibitions continue to perpetuate the icon that was Gandhi, the essence of the Mahatma, his beliefs, convictions and philosophy,struggle to find people willing to study or teach them. Singh says, “Gandhi himself didn’t want to be remembered or idolized; he wanted people to build a world that would make him irrelevant.” That has probably happened. But not in the way the Mahatma intended.
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First Published: Thu, Jan 29 2009. 07 09 PM IST