The Mahatma by the river

The Mahatma by the river

A procession in Srirangapatna carries Mahatma Gandhi's ashes. (DH Photo)

Seventy-two years ago, while the nation was freshly mourning the loss of Mahatma Gandhi, his ashes were being transported across the nation to be immersed in India’s most sacred rivers.

In Karnataka, his mortal remains were dispersed at Paschima Vahini, a pious section of River Cauvery at Srirangapatna.

Thousands of followers gathered on the river bank to pay respects to the stalwart.

H S Doreswamy, a 102-year-old freedom fighter, recalls how, in February 1948, the villages nearby thronged a building at Paschima Vahini that the Wadiyar family lent to the Sarvodaya karyakartas to celebrate Gandhi’s life.

Since then, Sarvodaya workers have been organising a mela annually, in the second week of February, to celebrate the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. 

“The word sarvodaya means ‘progress for all’, and that is the intention of the mela,” Doreswamy explains, adding that Gandhi was not just a freedom fighter but also, primarily, a social worker.

“His intention was not just to acquire freedom. According to him, poorna swaraj meant the upliftment of all people. So, we apply this principle to the current sociopolitical situation and have discussions based on policy and the freedom struggle,” he says. 

Participation

Since Dr Bandi Gowda started organising the mela in the 1960s, the villages around have been actively involved in it.

“Most events are attended by the villagers. They also cook food for the attendees out of respect for Gandhiji,” says Doreswamy.

D Made Gowda, 78, an ex-MLC from the area, says the villages Kumbarakoppalu and Somawarapete have been organising breakfast for the attendees
on the first day of the event
since the early 1980s.

“It is not a lot of money compared to the satisfaction that you will get out of contributing to a good cause,” he adds.

Each year, a senior Sarvodaya karyakarta is chosen to head the three-day event and will speak about the teachings and life of Gandhi. In a show of solidarity for Gandhi’s love for handspun khadi, he or she will lead close to 100 karyakartas in the spinning of the charkha. The thread spun will be offered to god. A khadi exhibition is also organised to support artisans. 

Straying from Gandhi

As time passed, the building that the Wadiyars lent for the mela fell into disrepair and the karyakartas were forced to move the mela to a temple on the river bank.

The event’s current coordinator, Dr Sujaya Kumar, says that organising the mela has been difficult, but it has been an effort to keep Gandhi alive.

“As each year passes, we think that Gandhi was needed more that year. The need for his teachings transcends time and context,” said Kumar, who is also the descendant of Bandi Gowda, the initial coordinator of the mela.

However, the number of Sarvodaya karyakartas continues to decline and as a result, the mela might stop entirely, fears Kumar. 

“We had a Gandhi for our generation,” emphasises Doreswamy, and asks, “but you can’t expect us to live forever, can you?

“In this age, as intolerance increases and the government wants us to sit quietly and accept what it puts out, we need to remember and implement Gandhi’s teachings more than ever,” he adds. 

“India’s independence movement is rooted in peaceful protests and aspirations for progress, but progress today means the progress of the rich, even though they form a marginal percentage of the population. Today, the government experiences pressure from the rich and policy is determined according to their interests,” he adds. 

Root problem

“The problem is with what children have been taught in schools and at home. For them development only has an economic dimension; the social and spiritual dimensions are non-existent. As a result, ‘progress for all’ is a principle that not many people think too much of. Gandhian activism is dying a slow death,” points out Santosh Koulagi, a Gandhian and an activist from Melukote. 

“Because of this, the youth will not take events like this forward,” Koulagi adds. 

“Such events are important,” Doreswamy argues. “Gandhi was also a symbol of exhaustive, well-intentioned discussions. One cannot become a follower of Gandhi merely by invoking his name.”

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