A common space for harmonic peacemakers
By DAN MORRISON
Bikas Das/Associated Press
Ahead of an event in January in Kolkata, India, marking Mohandas K. Gandhi’s death, children donned costumes to look like the renowned leader.
VARANASI, India — I recently stumbled upon a small war being waged over a piece of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s legacy.
It’s a battle between earnest socialists and a faction reportedly tied to India’s leading Hindu nationalist organization, with decades of social science research and some pricey real estate in the middle.
Like all inheritance battles, the fight for control of the Gandhian Institute of Studies is messy, complete with allegations of bribery and profiteering. (One side says it’s defending Gandhism from fascists; the other says it’s rescuing Gandhi from Communists.) It’s also another example of how Gandhi’s patrimony is misused. Beyond nationalism and nonviolence, most people simply don’t know what Gandhi stood for, and his words are open to misinterpretation. Sixty-four years after the Mahatma’s assassination, anyone can claim to be a Gandhian.
With his simple clothes, hunger strikes and innate conservatism, Anna Hazare, the social activist whose anticorruption drive had the Indian government on the run last year, is invariably described as a Gandhian. This is despite his calls for the execution of corrupt bureaucrats and a “Walking Tall” approach to governance in his home village, where he is known for flogging local drunks into sobriety.
In the western state of Gujarat, where Gandhi was born, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has erected the Mahatma Mandir, a windowless convention center where he inks billion-dollar deals with foreign multinationals. Whatever you think of this model of development, it’s probably fair to assume Gandhi would have sooner starved to death than lend his name to it.
It is to be expected that any historical figure should suffer such symbolic tramplings — even when perpetrated by one, like Modi, whose state police took part in the communal massacres of more than a thousand Indian Muslims in 2002. And why shouldn’t Gandhi’s name be on a convention center, when his face already adorns India’s paper currency, including the 1,000-rupee bill?
In a forthcoming documentary called “Gandhi Lives” the filmmaker Aruna Har Prasad travels across India to find the many strands of Gandhi’s philosophy, his enduring “brand” and his living embodiments. Some of film’s most insightful moments come from an advertising guru, who muses about both Gandhi’s magnificent use of his own image during India’s freedom struggle and the growing distance between modern India and the one Gandhi idealized.
How distant? In a busy shopping mall, Prasad asks a young boy if he knows who Gandhi is. Of course, the boy answers: “He makes money.”
Or not. Muniza Khan, a scholar at the Gandhian Institute in Varanasi, has been living without electricity for years, since the faction that controls its campus ordered the power cut to her official quarters in an effort to drive her out. Khan, who is working from the offices of a parallel organization while the court battle over control of the institute continues, says a group tied to the five-million-member nationalist paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.) has rented out the institute’s grounds and cottages as a hostel for students of a private engineering college nearby.
Kusum Lata Kedia, an economist who now occupies the director’s bungalow on the 11-acre campus, told me the students were staying free of charge while undergoing “informal training in eco-attitude and eco-education.” A protégé of one of the R.S.S.’s leading figures and 2006 winner of an award named for the organization’s founder, Kedia dismissed her opponents in the ongoing court case as “call girls, prostitutes and pimps.”
Kedia is co-author of a book, “India Was Never Subjugated,” whose cover features a phalanx of charging Indian soldiers. She assured me that, far from diminishing the Gandhian Institute, she had saved it from Communists — “unemployed small-timers, vagrants out for petty money.”
Tushar Gandhi, a great-grandson of the Mahatma — which is Sanskrit for “great soul’’ — told me the battle in Varanasi is ironic, because the R.S.S. “actually was the inspiration and source of the ‘Kill Gandhi’ and ‘Hate Gandhi’ movement.” (Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a former member of the organization, which has never been formally linked to Gandhi’s murder.) “It would be a shame,” he said, “if the court was ever to rule in favor of the claim put forth by the R.S.S. group.”