By Shivam Vij for The Print, 30 September 2019
When the scorching heat of the Indian summer gets beyond unbearable, the monsoon rains arrive. No matter how little or how abundant the rains are, they carry with them the promise of life.
Like the summer heat, people suffer growing oppression as a test of their patience. Eventually, a hero emerges, overthrowing the oppressors.
If that sounds too filmy a tale, how do you explain the rumours in Champaran in 1915-16 about a “chamatkaari baba”, a saint with miraculous powers, who would soon arrive in Champaran?
The farmers of Champaran were undergoing great suffering under the British. They tried to do something about it. They filed cases, they tried civil disobedience on their own, only to get beaten up.
What they needed was a hero, and rumours started spreading that a hero was about to arrive in Champaran, a messiah from the heavens. They knew the messiah’s name, Gandhi, who had demonstrated his magical powers for Indians in South Africa. He knew how to get his way with the Englishmen, and some in Champaran were convinced that he was going to arrive in this remote Bihar district – one had to take an elephant ride from Patna to reach Champaran.
Mind you, Gandhi had not even heard of Champaran in 1915-16. He was travelling across India, attending Congress sessions, speaking against princes and Congress leaders and the British alike. A farmer from Champaran went to Gandhi in 1917, followed him around from one city to another, and dragged him to Champaran on an elephant. Gandhi spent more than six months in Champaran, leaving only after he had freed the farmers from the oppression of the British indigo planters.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Today, India is witnessing oppression and injustice in all corners. The Hindutva forces that did little to overthrow the British are now in power. They want to disenfranchise millions of Muslims and put them in detention centres. They have already turned the Kashmir valley into one large detention centre. They are bringing economic ruin to the people, causing job losses and decline in incomes. They enable lynch mobs, protect rapists, put opposition leaders in jail, disallow protests, muzzle truth and dissent with police cases, turn heroes into villains and villains into heroes. We have a government that openly wants to make India a one-party system with one religion and one language.
There are rumours, once again, that a Chamatkaari Baba will arrive and put an end to this oppression of majoritarianism. We do not yet know the name of the hero, or when s/he will come. The heavens will send one, that much is certain. There’s no better time than the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi to believe in heroes, and to hope. The greater the repression, the bigger the Mahatma that will be born. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, as someone famously said.
Newspapers across the world wrote in awe of what a figure Mahatma Gandhi had become in India. An American paper in 1931 insisted he was inspired by Jesus: “Somebody gave him the Bible in London. He picked up the Old Testament, read through Genesis and the rest put him to sleep. He picked up the New Testament and was wide awake. Jesus enthralled him. The Sermon on the Mount went straight to his heart.”
‘If you do as I tell you’
It doesn’t matter if Gandhi was inspired by Jesus or Buddha, what’s more important is that he was being compared to them in his lifetime. There’s a quality about heroes, real or mythical, that is immediately recognisable. Heroes believe, above all, in their own ability to bring change. In 1921, urging farmers in Gorakhpur to shun violence and follow his path of non-violent civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi said, “I want to tell you, if you follow my programme – I want to assure [you] if you do as I tell you, we shall get swaraj by the end of September.”
The 21st century Mahatma may not come from any of the current political parties. S/he might, who knows, alight from a ship from South Africa via London?
The task ahead is so onerous that the 21st century Mahatma will not look forward to European vacations. Instead, s/he will look forward to going to jail. That’s how Gandhi chose Sabarmati as the site of his ashram in Ahmedabad: “Its vicinity to the Sabarmati Central Jail was for me a special attraction. As jail-going was understood to be the normal lot of Satyagrahis, I liked this position”.
Our modern Mahatma will probably read what Mahatma Gandhi had to say about his times and realise the more things change, the more they remain the same. Gandhi wrote about his first impression of the Indian National Congress in 1901: “The Congress would meet three days every year and then go to sleep”. If that sounds a lot like the opposition today, we know what it needs is a Mahatma.
Modern-day Mahatma will not come and blame an unfriendly media. Mahatmas create their own vehicles to reach out to the masses. Gandhi edited and published his own newspapers. He wrote in his memoirs about the newspaper he ran in South Africa: “The tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen. Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion.”
Our modern-day Mahatma will not be an Anglophone, but speak the language of the masses. Gandhi repeatedly chided the Congress party for speaking in English. His criticism of the Congress party in the early 20th century would be apt for today’s opposition as well. He wrote about the Congress session he attended in 1901: “The volunteers were clashing against one another. You asked one of them to do something. He delegated it to another, and he in his turn to a third and so on; and as for the delegates, they were neither here nor there.”
It will take a Mahatma to put the opposition’s house in order. Such a saviour will not take it for granted that the opposition has lost its mass connect. S/he will go around creating cadres and seeking volunteers. Gandhi wrote in 1918: “Really I am recruiting mad. I do nothing else, think of nothing else, talk of nothing else… save one on recruiting”.
Not all heroes wear loin cloth
Gandhi wore the loin cloth because he wanted to be the same as the poorest of the poor. He wanted to be one with them. Our modern-day Mahatma may not wear a loin cloth. Perhaps, she might wear a saree. What s/he will definitely have in common with Gandhi is the commitment to the masses. S/he will think about the people, and not his or her own comforts.
For all his criticism of the Congress, he ended up joining it and even presiding over it for a year. He noted as early as in 1901: “Public work in those days meant Congress work”. Gandhi thought that after Independence, the Congress party should do ‘public work’. For this purpose, he felt the party should transform into a “Lok Sewak Sangh,” an organisation in the service of the people.
“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” Gandhi wrote. After his first meeting with the farmers in Champaran, he wrote: “It is no exaggeration, but the literal truth, to say that in this meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and Truth”.
When we see a politician who understands this, we will be able to say that a Mahatma has arrived.