And he lives on...

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti on October 2, Kavita Kanan Chandra sheds light on the people who are practising the Mahatma’s ideals even today...

When American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India in 1959, he famously stated that to other countries, he might go as a tourist, but to India, he came as a pilgrim. As a preacher and a leader, King was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence for social change. So was the great anti-apartheid South African leader Nelson Mandela. He had an emotional connect with India and Gandhiji. On his visit to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in 1995, he wrote in the visitor’s book: “Feelings of joy and happiness filled our hearts as we went in and out of the ashram. Feeling the heavy and pervading presence of the Mahatma.”

Amrut Modi, secretary at Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram since 1974, vividly recalls that visit of Nelson Mandela when he became emotional touring the premises. “The ashram attracts 500-2,500 visitors daily, from the head of states to common men. They all visit with great reverence to the Mahatma,” says Lata Parmar, the communicator at Hriday Kunj, Gandhiji’s home from 1917-1930. For her, it’s a dream job for she was always interested in Gandhian thoughts. She enjoys sharing her knowledge of the life and ideals of the ‘Father of the nation’ to excited schoolchildren and eager foreigners.

Tranquil environs

A visit to Sabarmati Ashram is like visiting the nerve centre of India’s freedom struggle. It was from here that Gandhiji started the Dandi March on March 12, 1930 that culminated on April 6 in the tiny coastal hamlet of Dandi in Gujarat, to break the colonial salt law that levied taxes on salt. This kindled the fire for non-violent civil disobedience movement. The landmark event is commemorated by a statue of Gandhiji lifting a lump of salt.

Thus, Ahmedabad became Gandhiji’s karam bhoomi where he conceived the idea of satyagraha that guided India’s freedom movement. At Sabarmati, visitors flock to Hriday Kunj, Gandhiji’s spartan residence to pay homage. His frugal belongings are well preserved like the charkha (spinning wheel), writing desks, a pair of spectacles and khadau (wooden slippers). The charkha was symbolic to the freedom struggle for it represented self-entrepreneurship that could provide sustenance to the poor.

The British were wiping out India’s textile industry. Even the first unfurling of the Indian flag in Ahmedabad called ‘Swaraj flag’ by Gandhiji in 1921 had a prominent charkha on it.

In the present times, when Gandhiji’s ideals of non-violence, freedom, equality and tolerance have gone for a toss, his philosophy gains more relevance as it has eternal value to guide us. It’s heartening to know that many villages and individuals are following the Gandhian principles.

In Rajkot, where Gandhiji spent his teenage years while his father was the Dewan of Rajkot, a septuagenarian Veljibhai Desai is following the philosophy of Gandhian economics through his innovations of small industrial machines at his aptly named Tiny Tech Company. He is all for decentralisation and local, family-run small scale industries rather than commercially exploitative big industries. “Gandhiji’s ideology is ever relevant. I read and write on Gandhian thoughts. He did not oppose modern technology but emphasised on local production and local consumption but not for marketing,” said Veljibhai. His tiny oil mills are successful in villages over 86 countries making them self-reliant and tiny steam power plants run on waste and biomass are lighting up villages in India.  

At Rajkot, visitors could retrace the footsteps of Gandhiji by visiting his alma mater Alfred High School built in Gothic style in 1853 from where he did his matriculation. A must-visit is Kaba Gandhi No Delo, the residence of Gandhiji’s formative years. Built in typical Saurashtra style with an arched gateway, it’s now a ‘Gandhi Smriti’ with a small museum.

No trip would, however, be complete without a visit to Gandhiji’s birthplace in Porbandar. Kirti Mandir, a memorial of Gandhiji in the old walled city, is thronged by visitors. It is built adjacent to the ancestral three-storied haveli of Gandhi where one can visit the actual room where Gandhiji was born on October 2, 1869. The place is marked by a red swastika on the floor and from the wall hangs a large picture of Gandhiji spinning his charkha.     

Sevagram, Wardha
Sevagram, Wardha

A life of service

One of Gandhiji’s ardent desire was to see ‘gram swaraj’ (village self-governance) that included economic self-reliance, social equality and decentralised political system. He initiated a model village with Sevagram in Wardha. Sevagram was a village of service where he set up experiments to improve rural facilities using local resources, rural economics, and applying his philosophy for a self-reliant village. One could visit Sevagram and Bapu Kutir where a few of his possessions are well-kept, including a small paperweight with three monkeys.

Though an agrarian crisis and poor villages abound in our country, few that followed Gandhiji’s idea of gram swaraj have become shining examples of self-reliance, social-justice and prosperity in India. When Shyam Sundar Paliwal became the sarpanch of Piplantari village in Rajasthan in 2005, he set an example on the very first day of his felicitation. In a caste-ridden society, the women from lower castes sat on the floor, unlike others on chairs. He didn’t start his address till each of those women were seated on chairs. He constructed toilets, thus making his village open-defecation free, introduced wastewater management and efficient water management, planted trees, and empowered women through the cottage industry. “We plant 111 trees when a girl child is born and today you will find a forest on the government land adjacent to the village. It attracted birds, animals, and the forest produce now sustains the village communities giving them work,” says Paliwal.

From being a barren land of 182 hectares to bagging the 2014 UNDP Award for Biodiversity, the Melghat village Payvihir in Vidarbha has come a long way thanks to the implementation of community forest rights through self-governance by the village panchayat.  Purnima of NGO Khoj hails Payvihir as a village republic where residents make their decision and get it implemented through government schemes.

In Gangadevipally village in Andhra Pradesh, the development started by utilising local resources, says its proud resident, K Raja Mouli. Not waiting for the government to do things, the village residents took to village development on their own with dedication and discipline. “Different communities are formed to look after each aspect of village life with leadership roles assigned to every family,” said Sivaram Mylavarapu of NGO Bal Vikas that is implementing this model in 130 villages.

For a better tomorrow

In 1996, R Shanmugam had inspired his village Odanthurai in Tamil Nadu to become a self-powered village through solar and wind power. Several other villages like Dharnai in Bihar with its solar power, Chizami in Nagaland with sustainable farming, hi-tech village of Punsari in Gujarat and Eraviperoor in Kerala, Baghuvar in MP with water conservation, among several others are the beacons of hope for Gandhiji’s ideals.   

Far off in South Africa, where Gandhiji spent 21 years that shaped his political acumen, his Mumbai-based grandson Arun Gandhi started a Gandhi legacy tour where they focus on places of human interest rather than a touristy tour. Also retracing the footsteps of Gandhiji is a journey from Durban to Johannesburg. There is a visit to Pietermaritzburg Station at the very spot where Gandhiji was tossed out of the train from a ‘whites-only’ compartment despite having a first-class ticket.  

One of the top responsible tourism projects, Uthando (meaning love) in Cape Town feels elated hosting Gandhi legacy tour groups. The organisation incorporates principles and philosophy that echoes Gandhian thoughts. They practice fair trade and responsible tourism that provide significant benefits and incomes to the local communities. James Fernie, the founder of Uthando, recalls some emotional moments when Arun Gandhi visited Moya we Khaya Community Garden in Khayelitsha where one elderly Mama Christina Kaba produced her ‘passbook’ to show him. She was full of gratitude to Gandhiji and his efforts to eradicate racial discrimination and hatred in South Africa and around the world.  

Clearly, the ‘father of nation’ has inspired many people, both within and outside the country. His ideals and principles continue to live on...

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