A young man recently visited us and noticed a sketch of Gandhi up on my wall. He asked if I liked the man. I said I did. He said he didn’t. I asked why. He said, “We were better off under the British”. So I said, “Do you know what it was like with the British?”
He changed the subject, hopping from one general statement to another about how Gandhi didn’t work. I was about to argue, then I realised he didn’t read, and hadn’t seen much of India outside of his family business and an urban college with a fairly high tuition fee.
I could have told him about satyagrah. But that gets you into trouble with most authority figures including your parents and sometimes involves a stint in jail. But perhaps, I should have told him anyway.
I’ve been thinking about Gandhi all this month. The papers were full of photos of schoolkids dressed up like him — shirtless, bald, round spectacles. It’s one way of remembering Gandhi, to suggest that we want our children to be like him. But the baldness or spectacles were the least significant aspect of him.
The critical difference between him and other Indian leaders was that he embraced our greatest nightmare — poverty. He chose hunger. He chose to walk. He chose jail.
Gandhi could have stayed out of jail. With his determination and intelligence, he could also have served the interests of our colonial masters. He could have bent the backs of other Indians further. He could have bought a car, and sent his children to London. And the children could have done the same.
Instead, Gandhi cleaned toilets because he wanted to smash a social system where some human beings are forced to do ‘dirty’ work that other human beings don’t want to do. He believed in peace between communities and was subjected to assassination attempts — by Indians — much before partition.
Gandhi dressed poor and worked like the poor because he needed to remind us — and himself — that the poor exist, and that India was a place of exploitation. The main problem with imperialism is that it leads to exploitation. People become poorer and are kept that way through unjust laws. If they rebel, they are accused of working against the ‘national’ interest.
Today, the ‘national’ interest is no longer British interests. And yet, food godowns overflow and farmers kill themselves and ‘advanced’ technology allows seeds to self-destruct. Slum-dwellers get 24 hours to move before their homes are demolished, but builders must provide comfortable alternate accommodation for ‘flat-wale’ people whose buildings must be demolished. What would Gandhi do?
Some people in Chhattisgarh must have asked themselves this question. I saw photos from Gare village in Raigarh district, where an organisation led a coal satyagrah, just like the salt satyagrah in Dandi, led by Gandhi. On October 2 this year, villagers decided to pick up coal from the open cast mines. They were willing to pay royalties as well, and they invited local officials to measure the mined coal and give them receipts for the tax purposes. This was their way of asserting rights not only over the land but also over mineral resources.
Were they breaking the law? I do not know. But I think they are right to want to do this. There are problems of exploitation in every district, every village. But Gandhi did leave us tools with which to fight. And perhaps, if schools had modules on Gandhian philosophy, or at least on human rights, civil rights movements and non-violent political tools, we might feel less powerless.
Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)