By Shivi Verma
Gandhism is becoming the flavour of our times as a newly awakened youth discovers the eternal relevance of values like love, truth, and non-violence. Shivi Verma profiles some neo Gandhians
For children born after Independence Gandhi has mostly been a paper figure. A subject to be taught in school, a sermon to be routinely quoted, and a figure as pale and uninspiring as his fading pictures in the wilting, crumbling books found in dilapidated and dust-filled government libraries.
His ideas were considered outdated for a nation eager to join the bandwagon of developed countries. Gandhi’s nonviolence, truth and village-based economic model didn’t quite live up to our aspirations. Sadly, a country which dusted its hands off Gandhian values the moment it gained freedom, and propelled itself into rapid industrialisation, soon reaped a harvest of widespread communalism, pollution, marginalisation of the poor, and all-pervading corruption. No wonder discontent began to fester in the hearts of Indian youth. While the majority may still struggle to find the answer, there are a few young and old Turks alike who believe in Gandhi’s famous quote, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ and are busy carving a path for the future generations to walk on.
T. Somaiya: a model Gandhian
Tulsidas Somaiya, 71-year-old Gandhian and founder of Mumbai Sarvodaya Mandal Gandhi Book Centre at Grant Road, Mumbai, has devoted his entire life to practising and promoting the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. His site, www.mkgandhi.org, is the most popular website on Gandhi. It generates more than 3000 hits everyday and is Time magazine’s recommended site for complete information on Mahatma.
Apart from that, Somaiya distributes books on and by the Mahatma in different jails of Maharashtra and conducts regular Gandhi peace examination for prisoners. “It provides them an opportunity to introspect, undergo inner transformation and change the course of their lives after completing their sentence,” Somaiya says. A Gandhian to the core, he is going to organise a padayatra called Jansatyagraha of one lakh landless people on October 2, 2012, between Gwalior to New Delhi to draw the government’s attention to pending land reforms. He desists, however, from being addressed as a Gandhian, “When I look within I still find lots of impurities. How can I be a true Gandhian?” asks the septuagenarian who neither married, nor accumulated any wealth for the sake of being true to the path of selfless service. “To remember Gandhi is not important at all,” he says. “It is far more important to remember and adopt the values that he stood for.” For someone who walks his talk, Somaiya’s biggest achievement is his disciple and fellow Gandhian, Laxman Gole.
Laxman Gole: From Dadagiri to Gandhigiri
Laxman, 30, was a convict serving a sentence in Thane jail. There were 19 cases of assault, extortion and theft against him. A resident of Ghatkopar, he would spend his time terrorising local residents and collecting hafta from the encroachments in Ashok Nagar. His crime story began at the age of 16 when he slashed a drunkard with a razor for misbehaving with a woman. Sent to jail for this offence he soon came in touch with others of his ilk and his crime graph spiralled. Jails became his second home. As an undertrial in Thane jail in 2006, he came across Mahatna Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth distributed by T Somaiya to inmates. What began as a pastime, soon generated introspection. “I realised I did not have a single good quality possessed and advocated by Gandhi,” says Laxman.
By the time he finished reading the book, he was a transformed soul. He wrote an application to the judge of Vikhroli Court confessing every crime committed by him. The overwhelmed judge reduced his punishment by two years. During the interim period, Gole wrote letters of apology to all those he had hurt and along with seven other inmates began to propagate Mahatma’s word within the jail. After he was released he joined the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal as volunteer and is busy spreading Gandhi’s message to other prisoners. Clearly, Gole’s life is Gole’s message.
MA Khan: The reluctant fundamentalist
MMohammad Amir Khan is another shining example of the power of Gandhism. Amir wrote an essay on Gandhism in April 2011 for an inter-jail competition, after having spent 13 years in incarceration as the alleged mastermind of the serial blasts in and around Delhi in 1996-97. ‘Despite the huge success of his peaceful movement, Gandhi called it off due to that stray incident of violence. In modern society, we should draw inspiration from Gandhi’s insistence on peace, non-violence and truth,’ Amir wrote in the essay which fetched him a T-shirt and a jail coupon for Rs 200.
As a teenager, he was charged with planting two bombs in Sadar Bazaar in Delhi and three bombs inside separate coaches of the Frontier Mail in Ghaziabad on the same date, within hours of each other on October 1, 1997. “The police perhaps thought I was a superman,” he shakes his head in resignation. Aware of the Muslim community’s sense of persecution on account of cases like his, Amir believes he has a responsibility to put things in perspective. “No matter what, I cannot afford to feed into sentiments of separatism,” he says. Amir was acquitted in 17 of the 19 cases booked against him. Though the 32-year-old had to spend almost his entire youth as an under-trial prisoner, and his parents passed away in the meantime, Amir is determined to answer hatred with love.
Pancho: If you want to be a rebel, be kind
“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” This is the credo of a young Mexican called Pancho Ramos Stierel committed to combat ting injustice and oppression in the USA.
Pancho was a student of astrophysics in the University of California at Berkeley on a full scholarship. He soon realised that his research supported an institution that actively proliferated nuclear weapons. Not only did he stop cooperating with the university system, he raised a dissenting voice.
When his complaints fell on deaf ears, he partook in a nine-day fast with other students and professors across California to request an open dialogue with the governing body of the University of California. When the request was denied, they locked arms in nonviolent protest and sat peacefully. To disengage them, the police were ordered to make an example of one of them.
They lifted up Pancho, slammed him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, twisted his arms behind his back and handcuffed him ruthlessly. Supporters protested the inhumane treatment dealt to a frail student who had abstained from food for nine days. But Pancho smiled and said, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” Flabbergasted, the policeman loosened his handcuffs on hearing this.
Pancho’s neighbourhood of East Oakland was rife with gang wars and not a day passed without residents hearing gunshots. There were 53 liquor shops and no grocery stores in the area and tension with police was routine. Pancho rented a house on the border between two gangs with a few like-minded friends and called it Casa De Paz –house of peace. The shared values of the house include two hours of daily meditation, no drinking, vegan diet and no lock on the door – anyone can come anytime. Gradually, the fragrance of love and nonviolence is spreading in the area. Pancho’s commitment to Gandhian values is total. When a friend Kanchan Gokhale commented that he was perhaps too rigid in following the principles, he showed her a book where Gandhi upheld 11 such observances in his Ashram. “More than a Gandhian, I’m just a simple ordinary human being. We must honour diversity at the surface level, and unity at the heart level.
‘So we live fearlessly, disobeying with great love when necessary, serving others all the time, being grateful for the people who came before us and honouring future generations by walking our talk,” Pancho says.
Abhishek Thakore: Taking Gandhi abroad
Abhishek Thakore, 29, anchor of the Blue Ribbon movement focussed on nurturing social leadership in Mumbai, conducts Gandhi workshops for young people in India and abroad. Recently, he organised a workshop called Leadership the Gandhi Way in Portugal and Ecological Activism the Gandhi Way in Rio in Brazil. “People really identify with Gandhian values and come from far-flung cities to be a part of these workshops. I am a Gandhian to the extent that Gandhism for me means experimenting with my truths. And my truth is to see if I can shift from a personal consciousness to larger consciousness. I resonate with Gandhian values like empathy and kindness and I put myself in situations where I can test this philosophy,” he says.
Siddharth Sthalekar: Living by giving
Siddharth Sthalekar, 30, an IIM graduate, was working as an analyst and heading the derivative trading desk at Edielweiss Pvt ltd in 2010. Though he had read about the life and views of greats like Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, and Vinoba Bhave, it was not until he visited Sabarmati Ashram in 2010 along with his wife Lahar, that he realised what he actually wanted to do. He and his wife quit their jobs and moved to Sabarmati Ashram to lead a more meaningful life. With several other enthusiasts he started an initiative called ‘Moved by love’ to create spaces which at their core had generosity as a value. “We are a group of loosely associated individuals who do things to inspire others to be more giving.” Raghu was a young polio-afflicted boy who ran a tiffin service for 13 elders in the slums from his pocket money. When ‘Moved by love’ volunteers realised that he did all that with his own small salary, they began to fast for a day in a week and passed on the money saved to him.
Udaybhai, an autorickshaw driver, is also a ‘Moved by love’ member who believes in the concept of seva. His autorickshaw is equipped with a library, trash can, food packets and water bottle for the traveller. After the ride he tells the passenger that his ride has been paid by an earlier traveller and would he like to do the same? His meter is always on zero and he trusts that he will be provided for all that he needs.
Sidhharth and Lahar also give their services to Seva Cafe in Ahemdabad. Seva Cafe is a unique cafe which works on the principle of gift-economy or giftivism. In Seva Cafe food is cooked and served with love by all volunteers who come from diverse backgrounds. There are engineers, housewives, autorickshaw drivers, journalists, executives, mechanics, and monks who volunteer their time and service at the cafe.
With the spirit of guest being God, food is cooked and served with love by all volunteers. In the end the guests get an envelope saying that his bill has been paid by the person who visited before him and if he wants, he can pay it forward. There is no price attached and the guest is at total freedom. They have recently opened another branch in Pune. Lahar also talks about a line called Wisdom Craft which is operational in Ahmedabad. ‘People create beautiful crafts and give them as gifts to those who want to own it. They can pay from their heart and however much they wish to,” she says.
“It is the spirit of giving and love that we want to communicate to those who interact with us. My quest is to know whether service can be a way of understanding yourself better, and can we keep love, truth and non-violence at the centre of whatever we do?” says Siddharth. They also observe silent Wednesdays at any volunteer’s place. The doors are kept open and anyone can come and partake in the meditation. “My intention is to go back to zero. I want to create a society based on generosity where no Seva Cafes will be required. Or rather, my services would not be needed any more,” he philosophises.
Nimesh Patel: Marching to a different drummer
Nimesh Patel was 34, a young rapper riding high on the wave of fame and success in Chicago 10 years ago. In 2002 he happened to see a concert in Manhattan called Ekta which was performed by 14 interfaith slum dwellers who lived in the border of the Gandhi Ashram in India. It was a dazzling performance centred on the value of unity that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr had championed. Nimesh’s conscience got stirred, and for the next 10 years he wandered, searching for the true meaning of life. Eventually, he moved to the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. Simplifying his life, he began to focus on small acts of service instead of looking for the next big thing. One of his projects involved unearthing the latent musical gifts of children in the slum community and working with them to create Let Them Sing, a CD compilation and recording of their songs.
With the guidance of the renowned dancer, Mallika Sarabhai, Nimo and the kids spent two years conceiving and perfecting a 90-minute show celebrating humanity’s fundamental interconnection. They dubbed it Ekatva – a Sanskrit word that means oneness. They performed several dozen shows across India.
“The whole performance was so moving that the standing ovation seemed to last forever. After perhaps six minutes, the organizers had to actually tell us to stop clapping! The show hits you in a deep place and makes you reframe your ideas of poverty altogether,” said Akshay Seth, a visitor. Nimesh has virtually become a parent, mentor, elder brother and friend to his cast of 19, and nurtures deep values of sharing and honesty in them. “Inspire, not impress,” he says.
Not everybody realises that the fount of happiness lies in values like giving, and those who do, transform many lives like Nimesh has.
Douglas Allen: The Gandhian professor from USA
Douglas Allen, 71, is another Gandhian who tours the world expounding the philosophy of Gandhi. A professor of philosophy at the University of Maine in USA he is regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars of Gandhism. Author of 14 books which include Mahatma Gandhi for the 21st century and Mahatma Gandhi, he rues the fact that while studying philosophy, Mahatma Gandhi’s name did not figure in any philosophy course anywhere in the world, not even in India.
Douglas felt the need to study Gandhism when he participated in the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Junior in USA. Since Martin’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was based on Gandhian values, he uncovered every detail of his life and philosophy.
As Douglas moved deeper into the anti-war movement against his country’s invasion of Vietnam, as well as the anti-apartheid and anti-imperialist movements, Gandhism provided major insights into how to present an active, engaged but non-violent resistance against oppression. “I believe that we must look at Gandhi critically. Not worship him and make him irrelevant to our times,” he says. “We must interpret and apply his principles in new creative ways. There is a need to live consistent with basic principles of morality, truth and non-violence if we want to see a better world,” he says.
Though these are but a few, they represent hundreds of others working self-effacingly yet doggedly to create the world envisioned by Gandhi. And as long as we have such activists, hope’s flag shall keep fluttering high in the human soul.
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