Still Searching for Gandhi

Article excerpt

Since independence India's rulers have championed inequality and injustice. Look not to these politicians for echoes of the nation's founding spirit

Jagat Ram Joshi, the 87-year-old secretary of the All India Freedom Fighters Organisation, sits in the winter sunshine on the white-painted veranda of the Villabhai Patel library in New Delhi. Imprisoned by the British in 1933 in Lahore Fort for possessing a revolver, he openly advocated violence then. "I was tortured. Hung upside-down over a smoking fire which damaged my eyes and lungs. They inserted a metal roller into my backside. When I was in jail my mother and father died. I was not allowed to attend their funerals."

Later he renounced violence and joined the Congress party. Today, disappointed, he says he is "almost a Marxist" again - although this time there is no mass resistance to the rule of goondas (political thugs), money-power and multinationals that have laid siege to a nominally free India.

Those who speak of "the recolonisation of India" have no want of evidence to support their case. Addressing a recent conference in Calcutta, P Chidambaram, the finance minister, told foreign investors: "To those of you who wish to come to India I say, come here for the long term. The last time you came to India to take a look, you stayed for 200 years. So this time, if you come, you must come prepared to stay for another 200 years ..."

Just behind Rajghat, the national shrine to Mahatma Gandhi and the leaders of free India, there is a vast slum built around the waste from the power station. The discharge from this comes in a milky liquid; sun and wind evaporate the water and the ash remains, blanching the huts and sending white wraiths of dust dancing across the Yamuna river. Migrant workers here are mainly cycle-rickshaw drivers; refugees from an impoverished rural Bihar, landless labourers who, in the burning heat of Delhi, perform some of the most degrading labour on earth.

In this unpromising environment a group of young Gandhians are working. Gandhi's ideas of self-reliance and labour-intensive development have been abandoned by an India obsessed by market reforms, just as they were bypassed by Nehruvian socialism. Gandhi's influence in the free India he fought for has been negligible; but there are signs of renewal. More and more people are asking what is the alternative to an abusive industrialism that has ravaged the soil, overfished the coasts and deforested vast tracts of the subcontinent. It is a paradox that the element in Gandhi's teaching which has the greatest urgency today - frugality and resource conservation - is the one for which he is least remembered. All mainstream political parties are now dedicated to a hi-tech future that disemploys the young and leaves the rate of job creation far behind population growth.

The virtues of frugality may not be immediately apparent to the city poor, but Gandhi did not preach the coercive poverty of slums. "There is a world of difference between economic violence and a freely chosen simplicity," says Satye, who left his work in a fashionable restaurant in Green Park to live in a hut in the Rajghat slum.

Dirubai Sheth of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi says: "In pre-modern society, poverty was also there. This was not elective poverty, but neither was it necessarily the same as misery. There was an ideological acceptance of poverty, that it was the karma of the poor and so on. Yet there was also joy, a celebration of life, folk songs, music, customs and rituals; the poor derived some satisfaction from their indispensability in the scheme of things.

"Much of this was destroyed by ourselves when we dreamed with Nehru the dream of modernity. The forms of violence we see now - the corruption, the looting and burning of houses, goondaraj and organised crime - these were not in the pathology of the old society. Since independence we have had socialism by decree and capitalism by default. …