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Gandhian unease at Mahadev Desai book launch: Sabarmati Ashram may lose free space

By Rajiv Shah 

A simmering apprehension has gripped the Gandhians who continue to be trustees of the Sabarmati Ashram: the “limited freedom” to express one’s views under the Modi dispensation still available at the place which Mahatma Gandhi made his home from 1917 to 1930 may soon be taken away. Also known as Harijan Ashram, a meeting held for introducing yet-to-be-released book, “Mahadev Desai: Mahatma Gandhi's Frontline Reporter”, saw speaker and after speaker point towards “narrowing space” in Gujarat for Gandhians (as also others) to express themselves.
Penned by veteran journalist Nachiketa Desai, grandson of Mahadev Desai, while the book was planned to be released on January 1 and the meeting saw several prominent personalities, including actor-director Nandita Das, her scholar-mother Varsha Das, British House of Lords member Bhikhu Parekh, among others, speak glowingly about the effort put in for bringing out the book, exchanges between speakers suggested it should be released before the Sabarmati Ashram loses its character of a free and open space for one and all.
Held next to the Hriday Kunj, where the Mahatma actually lived in the Ashram, the function saw Sudarshan Iyangar, former vice chancellor the Gujarat Vidyapeeth and a trustee of the Sabarmati Ashram and Preservation Memorial Trust (SAPMT) say that the overall atmosphere was “fast changing”, and though the Ashram remained a place where one could still hold a meeting like this one, the situation might change soon – quite like the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, founded by the Mahatma. He added, one should therefore ensure that the book, which is being published by SAPMT, is released “at the earliest.”
Dr Iyangar is one of the nine trustees of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth who resigned following the appointment of a “non-Gandhian” and a well-know BJP man, Gujarat governor, Acharya Devvrat, as the Vidyapeeth chancellor. Others who resigned were Narsihbhai Hathila, Anamik Shah, Mandaben Parikh, Uttambhai Parmar, Chaitanya Bhatt, Neetaben Hardikar, Michael Mazgaonkar and Kapil Shah.
In their statement while resigning as trustees, they said, the Vidyapeeth’s “real essence” lied in the “courage to say ‘No, Sir’ in pursuit of truth and non-violence, doing one’s utmost to uphold the value of equal respect to all religions, preservation of democratic values, civil liberties, institutional autonomy and against kowtowing to Government diktats.” They underlined, “Gandhi is incomplete without these.” The function at the Ashram gave enough reason for Dr Iyangar and others to suggest that the Ashram may go the Vidyapeeth way.
While the book is still not out, Nachiketa stated why he decided to pen the book and why he wanted it to be urgently out. He said, while scanning through Mahadev Desai’s writings of not just as a secretary of the Mahatma but also a powerful journalist, one who worked as Associated Press correspondent, he became aware of the “type of journalism” that existed and the dangers that existed then, and how the media was being misused. While considering to pen the book, he found, “What this man was speaking in 1936, the same thing is happening today also.”
Continued Nachiketa, one finds “yellow journalism, distortion of facts, communal bias, casteism” existed in the media then, which is not every different from what is happening today. This, said he, was the main reason why he decided to come up with the book, asking the publishers to “urgently publish” it, removing all the typos that were noticed in the final manuscript. “How long will you take?”, he asked Ashram trustees, hoping, “It wouldn’t take three or four months.”
The meeting saw speakers referring to how the journals which were founded by the Mahatma but edited by Mahadev Desai – “Navjivan” and “Harijan” – faced the ire of the British rulers. At one point, it was pointed out, the Mahatma sent Mahadev Desai to “explain” to the British rulers why the clampdown on the two journals wasn’t justified. A clampdown was being wintessed today, it was suggested.
If Mahadev Desai wasn’t there, Mahatma couldn’t be imagined. But for him, Gandhiji would have been Gandhiji, not Mahatma
Held against the backdrop of eyebrows being raised by Gandhians against the alleged efforts of the Gujarat and Indian authorities to turn the Sabarmati Ashram into a ‘grand structure’ and a tourist plaza – a sort of an amusement park – by pumping in Rs 1,200 crore, thus obliterating Bapu and erasing his legacy, the meeting saw Varsha Das, ex-director National Book Trust and National Gandhi museum, call Mahadev Desai an “extraordinary journalist who made Gandhiji as the best known and the best loved man in the world”.
Nandita Das, referring to Mahadev Desai’s diaries, said, they were actually “not his but of Gandhiji’s”, as one finds in them “nothing about his personal life, not even a passing reference to his only son’s birth”, pointing out, one can only imagine what he would have been “if he was not overshadowed by Gandhiji’s personality.” Referring to Mahadev Desai’s journalism, she regretted, we are losing the “depth of his spirit.”
Stating that he has tried to incorporate in the book some of the so far unpublished writings of Mahadev Desai, Nachiketa said, his effort is to project the “making of Mahadevbhai as a journalist”, pointing out, the book contains Mahadev Desai’s “serious writings which state how British culturally, politically and economically oppressed India”, a few of his “human interest stories”, even as reflecting what the Mahatma thought of different national leaders. It has also stories on how the historic Salt Satyagraha was visualised a decade before it actually took place in 1930.
Nandita Das, Bhikhu Parekh, Sudarshan Iyangar
Nachiketa gave details of how newspersons, especially from the western world, would come in order to take the Mahatma’s interviews, taking down their notes in shorthand. They would seek approval from him after transcribing the interviews, only to be told to “compare the interviews with Mahadevbhai’s notes”. Mahadev Desai did this, even as doing weekly reports for his news agency, Associated Press, whether it was Salt satyagraha or Bardoli satyagraha.
While veteran Gandhian litterateur Prakash N Shah said Mahadev Desai introduced “Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore to Gujarat, Bhiku Parekh, who happened to the chief guest and was introduced as a top Gandhi scholar, said, if Mahadev Desai “wasn’t there”, Mahatma Gandhi “couldn’t be imagined”, insisting, but for Mahadev Desai, “Gandhiji would have been Gandhiji, not Mahatma”.
Claiming that he has “several evidences” to prove what he has to says, Bhikhu Parekh quoted Pyarelal, who became the Mahatma’s secretary after Mahadev Desai passed away on August 15, 1942, at the age 50, as pointing out how it was so difficult to be a Mahadev Desai. Mahadev Desai, to Payarelal,was “totally immersed” in the Mahatma, though without losing his personality. He did what the Mahatma did, even as raising his voice when needed. “He combined the two: total surrender with a spirit of dissidence”; he was in fact the Mahatma’s “political adviser”.


Anonymous said…
Till now I had only heard of communist regimes and some Islamic regimes destroying their past. Germany, with all its gory past, does not try to obliterate it. Do I need to say anything more............?


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