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Gandhi too was close to tycoons whose practices were under question: Activist-researcher to Modi critics

By Rajiv Shah
Even as stating that Gandhi’s association with industrialists can’t be compared with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s because “Gandhi was not in the government”, well-known activist-researcher Nandini Oza has, in a controversial article, taking issue with Modi critics, said that the Mahatma’s relations with India’s tycoons wasn’t just limited to accepting donations.
Pointing out Gandhi kept supporting at least two of the top industrial houses – Tatas Birlas – during the freedom movement despite their repressive ways, Oza insists, “Gandhi was close to even those industrialists whose practices were under question.”
Oza says this in response to the critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is known to have compared his relations with industrialists with that of Gandhi’s closeness with GD Birla. One of them, MK Venu, wondered if Gandhi would have ever “endorsed the use of violence on the people by the state apparatus to bulldoze a mining project by GD Birla.”
Another, Rajni Bakshi said that Gandhi, contrary to Modi’s ways, wished industrialists should adopt the principle of ‘sadhan shudhhi’ (fair means) and that their trade does not exploit daridranarayan (poor).
Says Oza, who has been an activist of the powerful anti-dam organization, Narmada Bachao Andolan, “Gandhi maintained relations with the Tatas even after the powerful resistance in the early twenties in the form of Mulshi satyagraha against a large dam being built by the Tatas near Pune.”
She adds, "The repression faced by the satyagrahis at the behest of the Tatas is well documented in the book ‘Mulshi Satyagraha’ by Rajendra Vohra.”
Ratanji Tata
“Further”, says Oza, “Gandhi’s association with the Tatas continued even after the strike of workers in the Tata factory in the early twenties at Jamshedpur, in which workers were fired upon and some even killed.”
Thus, who joined the Tata Company at Jamshedpur in 1913, and went on to work with the company for 25 years and was the general manager of the company during the last eight years of his tenure, wrote the following:
“…Soldiers detailed to prevent the men from destroying plant equipment ordered the prankish strikers to leave. They emphatically refused. The soldiers were ordered to load and take aim. The men, like overgrown children, laughed at the soldiers and their officer. The order was then given to fire. Thirteen strikers were killed and many more taken to the hospital…”
Oza also cites an entry in the diary of Mahadevbhai Desai, a long time close aide and secretary of Gandhi, to describe the latter’s visit to Jamshedpur: “Two years ago [1923] there was a dispute with the company, there was a strike and unrest led to firing too. However that is an old history.”
Yet, Desai Gandhi, in an address to the assembly, said, “It has been my great desire to see the greatest enterprise of Hindustan for many days now. We enjoyed Tata’s hospitality for two days. He showed us his township with a lot of love and even now, he continues to shower immense love.”
Calling himself “the younger brother of the Parsee community”, Gandhi doubted if any other community would have supported him like the Parsees. “When I was in South Africa, Ratanji Tata had sent me huge support – he was the first to send Rs 25,000, and he had written that I could ask for more if required. Therefore, I am under a great obligation to the Tatas.”
Similarly, says Oza, Gandhi’s relationship with Birla was not “limited to fundraising”, pointing out, “There are several pointers that Birla did not adopt ‘sadhan shuddhi’ in his business.”
Thus, notes Oza, in their book, “A Strategic Risk Analyses of Ideals, Heritage and Vision, Dipak Basu and Victoria Miroshnik, write, “On December 8, 1947, workers in Birla Textile Mill in Delhi went to the manager asking for the cost of living bonus. They received a reply in terms of gunfire and rifle butts.”
GD Birla
Basu and Miroshnik continued, “The workers sent a delegation of five workers to see Gandhi at the Birla house. Gandhi refused to see them. In 1938, Subhash Chandra Bose, when he was the president of the Congress Party, drew Gandhi’s attention to the inhuman working condition of the jute mills of Birla in Bengal.”
Oza also cites Birla’s autobiography, “In the Shadow of the Mahatma – A Personal Memoir”, where he wrote, though he “liberally financed his Khaddar-producing and untouchability activities”, the fact is, Gandhi alone “is responsible for keeping the left wing in India in check.”

Comments

Anand Sahay said…
I am all for open and free discussion. But if this is done without the context in mind, objectively speaking we give a free pass to undesirables- in this case Shri Modi in the back drop of his flaunting pro big biz links. In Gandhi's day, there was no big biz. He was in the process of unifying all for the end of British rule. He was not looking at a working class perspective. And yet Lenin asked M N Roy to side with Gandhi.
Anonymous said…
Good one....Gandhi and Modi can't be compare...
Indra Neel Mukherjee said…
Comparisons could be odious but the article is very well put and makes a very easy reading with a flawless flow well encapsulated... I was well engrossed and read it fast and quick and quite understandable why it was compared !!
Uma said…
The article is well researched with many quotes. To think that any Tata-from founder to present day-would order firing on workers, much less supported by Gandhiji, is ridiculous and laughable. It could NEVER have happened.
Anonymous said…
Bapu never did all this for personal benefit. He may be feeling that industrialists should not be just rejected because they generate wealth. He may be having overall faith in these two groups.
Whereas today the relations are cloudy. Time will open out the truth. There has been lot of murmur about unhealthy relationship.
Bapu never wore 10 lakh suit.
Anonymous said…
I think that the idea that Mahatma Gandhi simply refused to meet the workers makes little sense. Mahatma Gandhi was willing to meet all of his fiercest critics. He met Dr Ambedkar and Mr Jinnah. He even invited one of his assailants to meet him (he refused). So, I don't think that it makes much sense that he would be unwilling to meet workers who were suffering. Remember, this is the same man who, at age of 78, was walking around in Bengal (unarmed) to stop violence. He walked on broken glass to achieve his aim.

Upon researching the claim made in this article, I came across the following words:

"So a delegation of five weavers started off for Birla House to
tell Gandhiji about it. I suppose it was their misforttme to have reached there so late
at night, but Albuquerque Road in New Delhi is a long trek from
the Sabzi Mandi in the old city. It was nine o’clock when they finally arrived at Birla House gates and they were told to come
again the next day. At the appointed time they returned, and were
informed that Gandhi had no time to see them before the 13th of
December, another four days! The thirteenth brought them no
better luck."

—Halfway to Freedom, Margaret Bourke-White

Now, the two explanations that should be given weight here are these:

1. Mahatma Gandhi, as the greatest leader of the freedom struggle and the person who spent his life to promote unity, simply did not have much time due to the ever-increasing violence as a consequence of the partition.

2. Weren't the Birlas and the Tatas close? Although this is admittedly conjecture, is it really that improbable that some vested interests wanted to ensure that the reputation of some people or companies?
Anonymous said…
The man who was walking from one place to another in Bengal in order to establish peace not being willing to meet aggrieved workers makes little sense.

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