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Showing posts with label grandfather. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grandfather. Show all posts

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The rise of righteous reaction

Mahatmas with a small m

Through my pre-teen and teenage years, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was a medical doctor, a theosophist, a Congress party activist and a compassionate human being. He was my ideal.

One summer when my siblings and I were visiting his home in Surat, someone told him I had eaten meat. Grandfather wasn’t incensed or censorious; he simply said “We don’t eat meat.” I was in awe of this man who attracted eminences like Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, George Arundale, among others to his home. When he said something, I listened, deferentially.

However on this occasion his comment rankled. Grandfather seemed to be suggesting that because of caste and religious strictures, our family was vegetarian. Having eaten a mutton samosa at a friend’s house, I thought to myself that his reaction was over the top. I knew he was tolerant and liberal; his extensive library included books by Bertrand Russell and other free thinkers.  Thanks to him, we were spared worst traditions of caste and religion.

This incident haunted me over the years. Since I admired him, I dismissed the episode as a one-off occurrence. Nevertheless, it came back to haunt me in the mid-1970s, when I was living in the US.  Our high-profile India Forum group in Chicago became a magnet for NGOs and activists of all types, looking at times for financial support but mostly to spread the gospel of the jholewala alternative.  I termed it “the rise of righteous reaction.”

The ascent of the righteous activist posing alternative, mostly woolly and impractical models, was like a riptide generated by the Navnirman wave.  Led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a Congress party dissenter, the movement was against the perceived corruption and, in a phrase cherished and propagated by the jholewala, ‘anti-people’ development policies of the Indira Gandhi government of the time.

Training his guns on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Narayan called for “Total Revolution,” a Maoist-style leap backward into anarchy which prompted the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975. Condemned worldwide as a dictatorial regression, the Emergency destroyed the government’s credibility. The Congress Party was defeated in the general election of 1977.

However, even before the first non-Congress government assumed office in Delhi, things had begun to go awry. During what he thought was a revolutionary war; Narayan had called on the armed forces to revolt against the government. That’s when the steady erosion of his vastly inflated stature began, helped in no small measure by the subsequent fumbling and ineptitude of the Janata government which came to power in 1977.

Narayan’s movement had its roots in the margins of the Gandhian movement. The Mahatma’s success with the independence struggle allowed him to exhume and propagate an anti-Western, anti-modernity ideology drawn from his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. Mohandas Gandhi challenged Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernization agenda, recommending simplistic notions like village republics, self-sufficiency, nature cure and vegetarianism as national alternatives.

Like many students who studied in the US after him, Narayan became a Karl Marx admirer. However, when he returned to India he found his position pre-empted by Nehruvian economic policies that emphasized central planning and nationalization of core industries. For him and his acolytes, it was a short step to the vituperative and impractical edicts of Hind Swaraj.

The Navnirman movement was confused at birth. It combined the anti-Western, anti-modern strains of Gandhian utopianism and the anti-market, anti-constitutional Marxist dogma. This weird and unsustainable campaign fell apart as casually as it was formed.

After the failure of Narayan’s movement, the role of righteous reaction became marginal. The protest against the Narmada Dam project led by a global coalition of NGOs gave it a second wind. Through the 1980s, the Indian jholewala brigade became involved with relatively benign campaigns against child labor, deforestation, and for employment generation, education, healthcare, among others.  

In 2004, the newly-elected UPA government, recognizing their contribution to social welfare and poverty alleviation, sought to co-opt the jholewala brigade into the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC’s deliberations focused on welfare and (Citizen’s) rights rather than the legitimacy of the government and the political system. But a more virulent strain of Jholewala activism surfaced with the appearance on the national stage of Anna Hazare and his disciples.

The Hazare protest went further than Narayan in challenging the legitimacy of the Constitution and the credibility of the political system. Sophisticated in the use of propaganda, the rural chieftain and his jholewala acolytes cleverly projected their protest as being against corruption when actually it is a political assault on the UPA government and its leading party, the Congress. Like Narayan, Hazare over-reached and today, his protest has degenerated into a media relations effort.

Is the tradition of smug righteousness so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that it can only be contained, never eradicated? Who will be the next mahatma (with a small m)?

This Article appeared in the Education World magazine in August 2012 issue.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Going Home

Thirty-five years and two months is a long time to stay away from a place that you hated to leave at all. The thought crossed my mind as I wandered the streets of the old city of Surat, looking for familiar landmarks and for my family home.

Is that my cousin's house opposite the temple? I can remember playing cards there on a sweltering afternoon in May 1964 when news came that Jawaharlal Nehru had died and admonishing my cousin for her less-than-respectful demeanor. My outburst surprised her for she did not expect a teenager with an Elvis-style pompadour to be politically sensitive.

A few steps down and there's the building that housed the all-girls school that my great-grandmother founded. As we stood and looked, an official came up and greeted us. When I told him of my interest in the school, he became nostalgic and reminisced about my family. However, he got confused between my grandfather, the doctor, and his brother, the lawyer, both of whom were active in public affairs.

Just down the street is Gandiva Sahitya Mandir, the publishing house famed for its Bakor Patel books that brought Disney-like anthropomorphic characters into the homes of the Gujarati middle class. It was into this family that my younger aunt was married. Sadly the `press', as it was called locally, was torn down some years ago.

Across the street from the press is the house where my grandfather's brother lived. He was the lawyer, whose prominence in the city was the stuff of history. However, I remember him for his great collection of mystery books: Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake and Ellery Queen and for his ability to produce a coin from behind the ear of any person less than 10 years old. His house was part of the old family home that was really two grand old buildings connected by a bridge. On the ground floor was my grandfather's dispensary, where a quaint old compounder mixed all the good doctor's prescriptions. My interest in his rudimentary pharmacology led some to insist that I would follow in my grandfather's footsteps to major in medicine. As it turned out, I did follow the old man's trail, not in medicine but in public affairs.

Between the two houses is the narrow lane that led to my grandfather's house, where I was born and raised and visited regularly till April 1966 when he died. My eyes brim over as I walk through the alley into the house that was a home and is now a rich trove of treasured memories: of those who have passed like my grandfather, with his inspiring vision and my grandmother, who gets my vote as the sweetest person of the 20th century...and of those who remain, inheritors of strong family ties that have weathered the passage of time and the alienation of distance.

Thirty-five years on, I feel the swirling confluence of the past and the present: as though the youth who lived in that house had journeyed into the future and returned with a 50-year-old man in tow. then the youth disappeared into the past, leaving the older man to luxuriate in the warm and fuzzy memories of the house and its people.

from the times of india august 20 2001