Reportage from the Gandhian heartland reveals that his relevance in contemporary India keeps coming up, with no definitive answers
When they left, the last Gandhians of Porbandar took Gandhi away with them. The birthplace of the father of the nation now has some faded memories of his struggles, an old building in the middle of a busy street marking the place where he was born, two statues of him, and khaadi.
He is there somewhere seared in the consciousness of the people, but remembering him on his birth and death anniversary is almost like a collective ritual that the city cannot afford to let go. He is much like a god who the residents of Porbandar want respectably placed on the shelves of their walls, adorned with fresh garlands and jewels, much to Gandhi’s own disliking; but whose values, they find are too difficult to accommodate in the lives they live.
Welcome to Porbandar
It was on 2 October 1869, that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in this coastal city of Gujarat, on the ground floor of a three-storey house where his family lived since 1777. Gandhi’s house, now known as Kirti Mandir, is situated at one end of an arterial road near Bhatia Bazar on Kasturba Road. Outside, there is a string of jewellery shops, several kirana stores, flower sellers, and a temple. Most of those who come to the memorial temple are tourists from across India, foreigners from around the world, and on occasion locals too.
Such physical proximity to the birthplace of Gandhi doesn’t make him a hero or a role model for all those working in the area.
There is 46-year-old Lalit Amrit Lal who sells utensils. All he has is gratefulness for Gandhi for giving the country freedom, but he doesn’t want to, and says cannot follow, his vichaar dhaara. “Is samaaj mai kaam nahi hai aisi vichaar dhaara ka (There is no place for his views in today’s society)."
There is 60-year-old Dirembai Sharaf, a jeweller, who thinks “sachai pe chalne wala akela rehjaata hai aaj ki dunya mai (those who follow the truth are left to walk alone in today’s world)."
There is 22-year-old Ritesh, a third-generation jeweller who says, “Gandhi is someone we celebrate on 2 October and 31 January. He gave the country freedom, but committed many political mistakes in the process."
Then there is 45-year-old Rajesh Maxibariya, a Dalit who works as a sweeper in the memorial. For him, Gandhi is “pyaare bapu" who genuinely loved the valmiki community. “At least that’s what my elders have told me," he says.
There still are a few shopkeepers who start their day only after getting the darshan, but none who calls himself a Gandhian.
Porbandar, earlier known as Sudamapuri, is perched on the south-west of the Kathiawar peninsula. The peninsula surrounded by the Arabian Sea on India’s west coast had several princely kingdoms in the post mutiny Victorian era. Porbandar was one of some seventy chiefdoms in Kathiawar. Gandhi’s ancestors, even his father, were employed as diwans (chief ministers) of the small princely states then ruled by the Ranas (princes).
In his book Gandhi Before India, Ramachandra Guha writes that the first census conducted in 1872 estimated the peninsula’s population at about 2.3 million. While 86% of Kathiawaris were Hindus, belonging to different castes and sub-castes, about 13% were Muslims—mostly Hindu converts, and some who claimed Arabic or African lineage. The book states that the Muslims of Kathiawars were traders, farmers and artisans. The Jains and Parsis were communities “admired for their scholarship and business acumen".
A picture of Gandhi in his childhood.
Searching for Gandhi
Growing up in such a mixed society, Gandhi was exposed to different religions early on. His mother Putlibai was from a Pranami Vaishnava Hindu family, a sect that focuses on Hindu Muslim unity and believes in Ram and Rahim. Later in his life, after his marriage to Kasturba, this ideology strengthened. According to the locals in Porbandar, if anyone died in Kasturba’s house, the person was given both gangajal and zamzam. Hindu Muslim harmony hence became one of the central aspects of Gandhi’s early work.
Sitting in a small room filled to the brim with books, pamphlets and stacks of paper, Narottam Palan, an 85-year-old Gujarati writer and retired principal of a government college, and Surekha Shah, a 59-year-old gynaecologist, talk about Gandhi’s Porbandar. Palan was a teenager when Gandhi was assassinated. His memories of the incident are of seeing everyone, including his milkman, sob for days. There were fears that Hindu -Muslim riots would erupt. It all settled down when the news came out that it wasn’t a Muslim who killed Gandhi.
Both Palan and Shah boast about how even when the entire country was grappling with communal strife during Partition, this coastal city never had any Hindu -Muslim fights. Even now, the two claim, Porbandar has kept alive this legacy of Gandhi. “There are Hindus who fast in the last five days of rozas. There are Muslims who have memorized verses from Gita. Even I have a copy of Quran with me," says Shah.
According to Census 2011, Porbandar has a Hindu population of 93.9%. It has 5.7% Muslims, 0.1 % Christians and 0.1% Jains. “All religions co-exist here. It’s just that Sunni Muslims are the only ones who are so rigid that their intolerant behaviour leads to disharmony. Look at all terrorists—not one is a Shia. These people have not understood Quran at all. I have read Quran twice, and have also translated Hadith into Gujarati. I also offer namaz sometimes," says Palan. Shah adds that even though Hindus have so many castes and creeds, the community practices Gandhi’s ahimsa (non-violence), which the Muslims do not.
Shah calls herself a follower of Gandhi. She says she makes sure she doesn’t exploit the poor, wears swadeshi clothes, sincerely does her job as a doctor, and loves all fellow beings. She waited for two years to buy a mobile phone when mobiles entered the Indian market because she wanted to buy a phone manufactured in India.
Palan identifies as a Gandhian, but says he would rather be called a student of Gandhi. He wears khadi, lives a simple life, and says he believes in religious harmony. “The reason for all the problems in this country is politics. Look at Azam Khan. When I listen to his speech, despite being a Gandhian, I want him to be thrown out of my country," he says. Both Palan and Shah are calm, soft spoken, and both claim to believe in Hindu-Muslim unity just like, as they claim, does the rest of Porbandar. Both think the issues of violence against Dalits anywhere are one-offs, and do not represent any larger issue the country is grappling with.
A cursory glimpse through the news reports shows that barring the lynching of a Dalit in 2016, thrashing of four Dalits in August this year, there are not many incidents of crime reported from here. Porbandar went through a bad phase with gang wars, formed along caste lines, dominating the scene for three decades. The influence of the gangs was such that according to a 21 December 1988 news report by India Today magazine, “in 1984 the government had to shut down Porbandar Jail when it became obvious that it had been transformed into a hostel for hardcore criminals who were let out at night to stalk the streets and return the next morning to spend the day comfortably behind bars".
It was a shame that all this happened in Gandhi’s Porbandar, Shah says, but “It isn’t like this place has his radiations because he was born here. Porbandar is also part of the country where poverty, unemployment, consumerism, corruption is dominating. In the social everyday atmosphere, you can’t see the impact of Gandhi even now. But yes, in the celebrations you can see it more than you can elsewhere."
The handpump in Kaba Gandhi No Delo, the house of the Gandhi family, which, caretakers say, has been around since the family moved here in 1881. Photo: Nandan Dave/Mint
The real Gandhian
While the city still has a sizeable elderly population, ask anyone about any living Gandhian, the answer is that there is none left. But Ramesh Jhala is someone people say is very close to their idea of what a Gandhian should be like.
Jhala’s photograph from the 1970s shows him as a smart, immaculately dressed man wearing black sunglasses and having an Elvis Presley haircut. Today, he is a frail man, with a toothless smile, sharp memory, and a knack for details. Scrambling through some documents safely tucked away in his wooden trunk and under his mattress, Jhala brings out his autograph diary, some newspaper clips and a few black and white photographs. Jhala was there when the then home minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel inaugurated Kirti Mandir, on 27 May 1950. He was there when Jawaharlal Nehru visited the memorial. Most recently in 2009, he was there when Rahul Gandhi visited and also has an autograph from the Congress leader.
“In these days, Gandhi is not as relevant as he was in our times. I think if he was here now, and would have now tried to do what he did then, no one would have accepted him," says Jhala.
However, after Gandhi’s death in 1948, for some time Gandhi was alive in Porbandar. “Up to 1960s, we hadn’t heard the word corruption. In that time, if in your neighbourhood some officer was known to be corrupt, people didn’t allow their children to go to that house. People trusted each other. We would borrow money from merchants just by saying I will give you the hair of my moustache, you give me what I want. Teachers knew the names of all the students. They were dedicated. All of this was Gandhi’s impact, and it stayed till our generation. Education now is increasing but value for education requires sanskaar (values) too," says Jhala, who worked as an engineer with ACC Ltd till 1978.
Jhala’s house has basic furniture. He rides a cycle. He has two pairs of clothes for everyday wear, and one shirt and pants in case he has to go for a formal meeting. He doesn’t buy toothpaste, uses salt instead. He doesn’t buy shaving creams, instead uses his soap to create the foam. He doesn’t believe that wearing khaadi makes anyone a Gandhian, and doesn’t think there is any Gandhian alive in Porbandar anymore.
The Rajkot memory
In 1874, when Gandhi was five, his father moved to Rajkot. His family joined him two years later.Gandhi was admitted into the Taluk School, a short walk from his home in the district Darbargadh.
Today, except for a photograph at the entrance of a big classroom and a sign that reads “Gandhi Studied Here’’, there is nothing extraordinary or different about this school. It looks like any other government school in a small town or village with the same dust-laden floor mats, a few broken desks and benches, posters of Indian leaders and some of Hindu gods.
After his primary schooling, Gandhi got admitted in Kattywar High School, later known as Alfred High School. Established in 1853, it was the oldest high school in the Peninsula. The school was shut down in 2017 to convert this state-run Gujarati medium school, also known as Mohandas Gandhi High School, into a museum, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated on 30 September. Unlike the primary school, this everyone in Rajkot knows as Gandhi’s school. The building is magnificent, the architecture eye catching, and the location right in the city centre.
The school is not more than a mile from Kaba Gandhi No Delo or literally Karamchand Gandhi’s (he was called Kaba Gandhi) house. It was in 1881 that the family moved to this home from a rented place. The house is built in a Kathiawari style, with an arched entrance, and a large terrace. While Porbandar holds a symbolic significance because Gandhi was born there, it is in this house in Rajkot that he spent his time between 1881 and 1915, even though not at a stretch.
“Porbandar is his janmbhoomi (birthplace). Ahmedabad is his karmbhoomi (where he did most of his work). Rajkot is what shaped him. It is his sanskaar bhoomi (where he got all his values). All his experiments, mistakes, correction of those mistakes happened in Rajkot. It is in Rajkot that he took the journey from Mohan to Mahatma, but like always people tend to identify the karmbhoomi of a hero more than the janmbhoomi," says Alpana Trivedi, secretary, Gandhi Smriti Trust, Kaba Gandhi No Delo.
At the time when Gandhi moved to Rajkot, according to Ved Mehta’s book Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, Rajkot had grown up in the manner of other Indian towns where British maintained a token establishment. “There was the native city, consisting of crowded, dirty slums, with high, squalid tenements topped by peaked tile roofs; and the British section consisting of clean, low, spacious bungalows with flat roofs, each set in its own well tended compound," the book states. The Gandhis moved into a tenement on the outskirts of the native city.
Locating Kaba Gandhi No Delo today is not easy, and reaching the house means passing through a maze of narrow streets and lanes. The locals seem to be unaware of the location, even though it, just like Gandhi’s birthplace, lies right in the middle of a lot of hustle bustle.
Among all the memorials and museums on Gandhi in the two cities, Kaba Gandhi No Delo is the most well maintained, clean and peaceful. There is a handpump outside which the caretakers say is from the time of Gandhi. As one steps out of the house, the soft background sound of Raghupati Raghav Rajaram mixes with the noise of the marketplace. Shopkeepers outside say it’s Gandhi’s school that is famous in Rajkot, and that not many care about the house where he lived.
Apart from Alfred High School and Kaba Gandhi No Delo, Rajkot also boasts of having a Rashtriya Shala, which was founded by Gandhi in 1921. The school’s constitution was written by Gandhi himself to inculcate the ideals of nation building among children. It was also here that he fasted in 1939, and had held several meetings.
Dhirubai Dobariya, the trustee of the Rashtriya Shala says the owners of the buildings surrounding the institute have for long been asking if they could purchase the land and also why Rajkot even needs such an institute anymore. “People think these are just buildings. There are a select few who know Gandhi’s philosophy and even fewer who follow it. The few remaining Gandhians should go abroad where at least Gandhi’s name exists."
Whether Gandhi is relevant in contemporary India that is deeply divided and inequitable is a question that keeps coming up, with no definitive answers. Rajkot based educationist G.T. Jani says, “Gandhi as a person might not be relevant anymore, but as a thought he is. Whether a person follows good deeds or not, everyone knows the value of good deeds. It is easy to worship someone than follow what they do."
There are different people picking and choosing the aspects of Gandhi they think they can afford following in these times. Like 77-year-old Veljibai Desai, a mechanical engineer who in his 40s left his job, and set up a venture to manufacture miniature industrial machines named Tiny Tech Plants. The idea behind was following Gandhi’s footsteps of empowering the villages, decentralizing businesses and sticking to swadeshi goods. He is an industrialist, but he doesn’t go to a barber, doesn’t watch television, and wears only Khadi. Right now, there are 800 mills of his company that run across India and 1,200 outside. His house is filled with books on Gandhi, and pictures of him everywhere.
Like Desai, Dipali Rajyaguru, a follower of Gandhi in her 40s, was also introduced to Gandhi through literature. As a child she had many fears and the mention of fear in Gandhi’s autobiography made her feel a strong connect with him. After that, she just wanted to know more about him as a person. She began her Gandhi education by searching for Gandhians across Gujarat. Some were just khaadi wearing Gandhians, others were too boring for someone in her early 20s. She decided to know Gandhi through Gandhi.
“I realized Gandhi as a ritual is growing everywhere. I didn’t want to do that. I rejected him as a ritual, and tried finding him through his writings," she says. As part of this, she began reading and teaching school kids. “Children looked at him like he was a villain. I asked them to read him more and stop looking at him as a political figure….rather focus on him as a person," she says.
She is studying Gandhi and teaching his values in some schools of the state and trying to imagine what he would do in current scenario. Like one of the workshops she held in schools recently was on recycling and Gandhi, and another was on sustainability and Gandhi. One workshop to be held next year will be on Gandhi and emotions.
“Gandhi is a total syllabus, you have to choose what subject you want to explore. You can’t get stuck on externalities—khaadi, charkha and glasses," she says. Because older Gandhians are stuck with Gandhi as a tag, Rajyaguru says the main essence of his life is lost somewhere among the current generation.
Having worked in villages for 22 years now, Sumitra Thacker from Rajkot-based women’s rights non-governmental organisation Anandi (Area Networking and Development Initiatives) says the life of Gandhi is emulated more easily and effortlessly in a village, where no one is bragging about being a Gandhian. “Gandhi never forced anyone to follow him. He kept saying dharam is a personal affair. There is rigidness around people, particularly those in power. The person has become bigger than the vichaar," says Thacker
And then there is Hiralal Baavan, for whom the independence that Gandhi gave to the country, it so seems has still not arrived. Hiralal works as a security guard at Gandhi Smriti Smarak in Porbandar, and earns ₹ 2,500 per month. With watery red eyes, and dark complexion that working in the sun has given him, he looks world weary, dejected, and pessimistic. His standard of living he says has remained the same in more than a decade.
“Sometimes I think may be ghulami was better. In a way, we are still ghulams of politicians, of the rich. Gandhi has no value in Porbandar or even Gujarat. The rich use his name to climb up; the poor have no time to worship anyone, as they have to keep worrying about two meals a day. No one values what he said, no one values what is happening to those he wanted to uplift…how then do we say he is relevant?" says Hiralal. Perhaps the world of tolerance that he once dreamt of is now intolerant of Gandhi himself.
(To mark the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, Mint will be running a year-long occasional series on the life, times and relevance of Gandhi in the great Indian dream.)
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