Today is Lal Bahadur Shastri’s birthday. The second Prime Minister of India, who was rather killed/poisoned on his visit to Tashkent in 1966. He had gone to sign a peace deal organised by the US and the USSR seminaries, UN security members with Pakistan’s Military Leader Ayub Khan after the war of 1965. The deal was signed in the evening as the Peace Pact failed. The next morning, he was found dead in his room. For days, months and years that commenced and kept passing by; it was less strange, rather maddening that no one ever asked for an inquiry, no one protested, no body looked for proofs or questioned the circumstances of his death. Death of the head of a nation state was accepted as mere fate.
He was a sincere and a firm leader. He did not shy away from going into war with Pakistan in 1965, that was pushed on him merely a year later he took office; and only three years later, after Nehru’s historical blunder when China opened fire and defeated us in the war of 1962.
Today is the day that is long known and celebrated across schools and other institutions as Mahatma Gandhi’s birth day, 2nd October. I wanted to remember Lal Bahadur Shastri likewise while congratulating everyone for what they did to build this nation to where it is today.
It is deeply important to me that we keep walking towards empowering children in the ways that is today available to us. That we reform and make that evolution happen in each child, which is their rightful, fundamental right. As it is not for them but to humanity we will and must serve as one.
This also reminds me of another Reformer that I want to quote is Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, probably the most important figure after Gandhi that India could receive from. A Jurist, Economist, Teacher, Social Reformer. One of the five men, behind India’s constitution. And it was he, probably only he, whom Gandhi detested, may be even hated as he could not literally stand Ambedkar.
In a 1955 BBC interview and here, Ambedkar had said, “Gandhi was never a Mahatma; I refuse to call him a Mahatma. He can be heard saying that Gandhi was no reformer. “He was just an episode in the history of India, not an epoch maker,”
While some Gandhian scholars have time and again dismissed Ambedkar’s characterisation of Gandhi as mere ‘polemic’, I would argue that his sharp criticism stems from logical analysis and philosophical disagreement rather than hatred for Gandhi as a political opponent.
Ambedkar was of course not Gandhi like. All his life he tried, but he could not touch the Indians in a way that Gandhi could, this thing called the soul. But Ambedkar touched something more important to the body. He touched their mind.
And while what both of them could not touch rather bring along was the union of the mind and the soul, they did try, may be we all are. To makes this body; Bharat, which is India.
While growing up as a young kid, there were many things i never liked about my school. And the foremost was that it unintentionally took my freedom away or so I think. I was never introduced to any ancient Indian texts, neither I learnt anything about Yoga or even Sanskrit till i was 13. A child like me who only wanted to see and know of the world was made to sit and learn answers to the question for examinations after every three months or more like a parrot. So much so my unlearning started before i could wake up my interest for higher learning. And soon it started affecting my results in higher classes or that is what i think of it now probably because i couldn’t pursue anything apart from five subjects at school.
I feel liberated at the thought that I am not in school. And more so there is no more need to answer questions about Gandhi’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle.
School history curriculum was also one reason i did not take Modern History of India as my thesis while studying for my Masters in History. I am glad I am not preparing for the Civil Services Exam and writing essays on the differences between Gandhi’s and Nehru’s outlooks. I am so glad that period of my life is not ongoing and that tryst with the persisting education system is over.
It took me years to distance myself from school, to realize about the wrong decisions that were politically taken on account of Gandhi. As I answered a friend’s query over phone on my thoughts on Gandhi, on his 152nd birthday on 2nd October, i actually started with thanking him within me. Also because i consider Gandhi’s “My Experiments with Truth” to be the first ever book i remember reading consciously, that changed something in me, that even kept calling me back once a year in my adult life for over a few years. It helped me embrace some habits that i still carry. But a lot later again when my political or worldly mind started developing, I realized the importance, more so the magnanimity of events that went on with us as a colony. We as a nation had already started looking up to Gandhi a lot before he became Mahatma. He was so called an educated Indian out of the illiterates, in our colonizer’s eye. He was a lawyer, someone who could carry or represent the India that can become the India ruled by the British. But so much so his decisions- The Khilafat movement, the Direct Action Day, his controversial role in Bhagat Singh’s hanging, the sidelining of Netaji, the Partition of India — all these debilitating, damaging events in the life of India made me realize the culpability of Gandhi. Even in his personal life, it wrings my heart to think of the women whose lives were possibly destroyed by the man’s “experiments’ with celibacy”.
But there is one thing that Gandhi understood and said which completely lines up with what I have learned about India in the past two and little more than half decades of my efforts to decolonize myself — that India lives in its villages. In my travels crisscrossing the states of India on my bike, hitch hiking, or even long walking journeys, soaking in its uniqueness, I often remembered his words from My experiments with Truth, that the warmth and kindness of villagers and people living in small towns, the faith in Bhagwan, the adherence to meaningful traditions long-discarded in urban India; all these would make me understand that indeed, “India’s soul lived in her villages”.
Of course, Gandhi was not the first to observe that the Atman, the soul of India was in its villages or that they need to be preserved for the sake of humanity. The Rishis and Gurus of India have not only known it but have done much to preserve that ethos. The Ashrams they established and the discourses they gave kept the oldest civilization rooted for a long time. And yet, in a broken India left behind by the British, it is from Gandhi that I learned about the Charkha, Khadi, the cottage industries and the importance of rural livelihoods. At a time when development, industrialization and modernization were all that India wanted, someone who spoke up for Indian villages — for that, I will acknowledge Gandhi.
Yet another statement of Gandhi that hit me between the eyeballs is that the British left India more illiterate than it was 50–100 years before. Like many Indians in modern India, I thought that the British, despite all the evil they wrought with their oppressive rule had at least established modern schools in India, which raised many people out of illiteracy. I myself studied in a Christian missionary school and was taught to think that the poor in India had to be uplifted not just from poverty but also from the ignorance of Dharma.
Reading the statement of Gandhi on British-fuelled illiteracy in Dharampal’s “The Beautiful Tree” burst my bubble and forced me to explore the extent of damage caused by English-medium schools in India. It made me cry at the impoverishment of villages caused by oppressive taxation, the destruction of the ecosystem of learning, the disconnect with Indian languages that had once been rich in literature and sciences, the descent into unawareness and the degradation into confused Indians who do not speak or write well in their own languages. The rootless Indians who loathe their own civilization and discard her myriad gifts, who do not know how to use their own indigenous worldview are but a product of the schooling that started from colonial times.
Leaders are often imperfect, even fatally flawed. I am glad we are learning to stop idolizing them. But sometimes, a grain of truth emerges from the people we barely agree with.
As they say, Fame and foresight are rarely bedfellows.
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