Amrith Lal on Narayan Desai - Recalling the political Gandhi

NB- This is an excellent commemoration of Narayanbhai, and a welcome corrective to efforts to sanitise Gandhiji. I have posted some comments beneath it that address the observations made by a reader of the IndianExpress, where it has appeared: DS

Narayan Desai, who passed away earlier this week at 90, is best known as a chronicler of Gandhi’s life. The son of Gandhi’s friend, disciple, fellow activist, stenographer and translator, Mahadev Desai, he had a close view of the Mahatma. He wrote extensively about growing up with Gandhi, as well as Gandhi, the philosopher-activist. His four-volume epic biography of Gandhi in Gujarati, My Life Is My Message, is not merely a sketch of Bapu, but also a political tract of his time. Nearly a decade after he completed it, he chose to turn into a kathakar to narrate the journey of Gandhi to a wider public, and in a popular format. Why did he decide to do Gandhi Katha?

Desai started performing Gandhi Katha in 2004, and after many discourses in Gujarat, held the 50th performance in New Delhi. During an interaction then, he told this reporter that Gandhi Katha was his response to the anti-Muslim massacres that Gujarat witnessed in 2002. At 80, he said, he could not lead a political movement. I can only talk about an alternative world, he said.

In a state riven by sectarian violence and administered by a callous government, could there have been a more political act than to repeatedly remind people that truth and non-violence were the essentials of Gandhian thought? To recall how Gandhi walked through the bloody tracks in Noakhali to end communal violence and how the divide and rule policy of the British, the two-nation theory of the Muslim League and the ideology of Hindu Rashtra culminated in the murder of the Mahatma was to put history and the importance of political memory in perspective for a people who had forgotten the essence of Gandhian praxis and the roots of communal politics.

Clearly, Gandhi Katha was the last act of an activist who had an acute sense of history and politics. The katha, which followed the model of a spiritual discourse by combining storytelling and singing, did not attempt a polemical discussion on Gandhi’s life and ideals. Instead, it turned out to be a remarkable exercise in reinventing a popular performance tradition to valourise an alternative vision of history, politics and living. It sought to conscientise listeners and prod them to organise to fight injustice. It reminded people that Gandhi was a man of action, and that he organised people and fought injustice without compromising the ideals of non-violence. He chose to debate with those who disagreed with him and when he failed to win them over, he refused to be bitter. 

And, most of all, he considered all religions to be true and held that Hindu-Muslim unity was central to building a better India. These were the themes that Desai elaborated in detail over hours and days, through anecdotes, personal experience and the wide material of autobiographical writings and commentaries left behind by the historical cast of his Gandhi Katha. It was as much a class in history and politics as it was an intimate view of the world and words of Gandhi and his contemporaries.

Desai, however, didn’t limit the idea of violence to physical acts of violence, like riots, bomb blasts and such. He recognised the forms of violence embedded in social, political and economic structures. The polarisation of communities along religious lines in Gujarat and elsewhere, according to him, was not merely the outcome of people following different faiths, but also a reflection of political mobilisation that fed off structural violence, manifest in the lopsided management and distribution of wealth and resources and in conspicuous consumption. The way we live has a huge effect on the society that is created. It is not only wealth but also the way wealth is displayed that adds to the structural violence, he said. Recalling Gandhi, he added that the means needed to be in line with the ends.

Desai’s political work was in the finest tradition of sarvodaya activism. He headed the Shanthi Sena, which Vinoba Bhave set up in 1957 to combat communal violence, between 1962 and 1978, and turned it into a vibrant organisation. However, he chose to be with Jayaprakash Narayan when JP launched the Total Revolution against corruption and the Emergency in 1975, and was jailed. After JP’s death, Desai set up the Institute For Total Revolution in his village, Vedchi, in Gujarat to train activists in sarvodaya. He was no “priestly” or “governmental” Gandhian, but a political and radical Gandhian who refused to be silent when faced with violence and falsehood.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the few politicians to condole Desai’s death. “Narayanbhai Desai will be remembered as a scholarly personality who brought Gandhiji closer to the masses,” Modi said in his tweet. It is important to know the Gandhi that Desai spoke about, and the apolitical and ahistorical Mahatma the Sangh Parivar is projecting, and the difference between them.

NB: Here is the only comment (thus far) on this article. It appears in the comments section of the Indian Express:
Two aspects brought out in this write which touch one are that Gandhi was no "priestly" or "governmental" Gandhian. Another that he projected whatever he wished to through the katha route implies that he was not enamoured of the pontificating route which is the trade mark of politicians and intellectuals, and which is quite distasteful if not revolting as the later route assumes that the readers and listeners are fools, and they on their own will be unable to discern the truth and falsehood of actual happenings. The write also mentions that Modi we as one of the few politicians who took note of his passing away through his tweet which is a very decent act. Coming to Gandhi, one can see very lucidly that he failed to communicate his mission of non violence. And one wonders, as to whether 'non-violence' is bound to fail, as being the opposite of violence and thus being a non-fact, it is rooted in violence. Moving on, one perceives that harmony or peace are independent of violence, and exist on their own.

My comments on the above: 
The first sentence is confusing, unless the commenter meant to say that Narayanbhai was no priestly or sarkari Gandhian. The second sentence is understandable, but a bit unfair. If by 'politician the commenter means elected representatives, there are many thousands of them at local levels who may not be pontificators. And if the word intellectual includes the commenter himself and the writer of this article, then all intellectuals need not be dismissed as foolish and self-important people, which is what we normally understand by the word pontificator

The commenter is touched by Modi's tweet. But he fails to notice that the last sentence of this article draws attention to the difference between (yet another) sarkari and sanitised Mahatma and the man whom Narayanbhai was talking about in his Gandhikathas. It requires little effort for Modi or anyone else to 'tweet' a sentence. Far more significant is that Narayanbhai by performing 108 kathas, spread over years, was expiating for, doing prayaschit for 2002. (I have heard him say this). Shri Modi's contribution to communal harmony is debatable (to say the least) - and in the absence of any remorse on his part for the mass violence that he presided over, we may be excused if his 'tweet' looks like a bit of PR, for which he is well known. We would be far more touched by his 'decency' if he and his friends in the 'parivar' had shown a commitment to upholding the criminal justice system; instead of celebrating Gandhi's assassination.

As to whether Gandhiji failed in his mission, well, that is a long story. Suffice it to say here that in Noakhali (November-December 1946), Bihar (March 1947), Calcutta (August-September 1947), and Delhi (January 1948), Gandhiji's presence - and his fasts had a colossal impact, attested to by most observers, including persons who had sneered at him. Suhrawardy, the man who had presided over the massacre of August 1946, begged him to stay in Calcutta, and is reported to have wept like a child at the station when Gandhi left for Delhi. (Suhrawardy's and others' reactions upon Gandhi's assassination may be read here). 

Gandhiji's last fast in Delhi was for restoring communal harmony - not for giving 55 crores to Pakistan, as per the relentless propaganda of the admirers of Godse. It resulted in the Delhi Declaration of January 18, which was a solemn commitment to communal peace and civic sense. This was a historic achievement that arguably saved the newly independent state from a swift descent into complete chaos and disintegration. Gandhi's ultimate oblation in his final yagna - as he called his fasts - was to refuse protection, despite the bomb-blast of January 20, and willingly to give up his life. To say that Gandhiji 'failed' is to dismiss and rhetorically simplify a complex situation. His death exercised a calming effect on the raging violence, both in India as well as in Pakistan. The world-wide reactions attested to this fact. A new book by Makarand Paranjape, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, elicits the complexity of Gandhi's impact upon Indians. The author perceptively observes that Gandhiji' death became his message, that it was not in vain.

As to whether ahimsa is bound to fail, it is a centuries-long debate, is it not? Suffice it to recall Martin Luther King - 'the choice today is not between violence and non-violence; it is between non-violence and extinction.' The last remark by the commenter is a welcome philosophical reflection: 'that harmony or peace are independent of violence, and exist on their own.' True, sir, here is what Gandhiji said about this (among many remarks):"Good is self-existent, evil is not. It is like a parasite living in and around good. It will die of itself when the support that good gives it is withdrawn."  As Burke said (in a patriarchal mode, unfortunately): ''The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' The Mahatma was not just an icon of the good man in an age of genocide and utter barbarity, his Kailash-like steadfastness and courage, and his love for truth will, like that of Socrates, shine for centuries. Those of his fellow countrymen who hate him, who celebrate his murder, are spitting at the moon. He belongs to humanity, and if (some) Hindus fail to see this, it is their loss. They will disappear into the mists of time. Gandhi will never be forgotten.

Also see
 The Abolition of truth - (on the 'parivar's celebration of Gandhis murder)

सत्य की हत्या
The Broken Middle (on the 30th anniversary of 1984)
The Savarkarist syntax
Sanjay Tickoo's Open Letter to Omar
Kashmir - 16 yrs on, Wandhama victims ...
Rahul Pandita - Violence in Kishtwar ...
Jamal Kidwai on Kashmir today
Kashmiri Pandits Stage Protest March in Srinagar
Balraj Puri (1928-2014) An Extraordinary Socialist Democrat
Nandini Sundar: No room for 'others'
Communal violence in Kishtwar - an analysis
Pak Parliament condemns Afzal Guru's execution
High Court of Jammu & Kashmir upholds Sanjay Tickoo's petition...
Superflous People - review of Rahul Pandita's 'Our Moon has blood clots'

The Broken Middle - my essay on the 30th anniversary of 1984
Shekhar Gupta - National Interest: Secularism is dead!

Very short list of examples of rule of law in India
The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

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