Finding Gandhi

Gandhi Peace Foundation
It is surprising to see the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi flocked with visitors on a weekday afternoon. While most of them are tourists and foreigners, there is a fair share of Delhiites walking around the exhibits in complete silence.

Alaghan Annamalai, director of the museum, is not surprised. "There has always been a certain degree of curiosity about Mahatma Gandhi and that interest only keeps increasing," he says. Dressed in a crisp white kurta pyjama, he sits inside an office that looks frozen in time. I sit on a painted, white cane sofa opposite his, which is cushioned and upholstered in a non-descript manner. There are pictures of Gandhi all around and the only signs of changing times are the computer and a printer on the desk.

While the assumption is that the National Gandhi Museum - and other institutions in Gandhi's name - are owned and run by the government, the truth is far from it. After Gandhi's assassination on January 30, 1948, eminent members of the civil and political society came together and decided to create a memorial for Gandhi. Members of the founding committee included Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad. It was then that Gandhi Smarak Nidhi was founded, with an appeal to the public to donate money to create the memorial. The Rs 11 crore collected became the largest public fund of its time, and though its actual size was maintained, the value of the fund severely depleted over the years. "Even though the eminent politicians were, in essence, the Indian government, not a single government rupee was spent on this project at the time. Gandhi felt that it was the duty of the people and not the government to carry his work forward," says Annamalai who has been associated with the Gandhian student movements for 30 years.

Gandhi Smarak Nidhi then became a parent organisation of sorts, allocating funds for various projects and memorials built across the country. But after the initial stages, each Gandhi organisation became autonomous, managing its own finances and hiring its own people. The two-storey museum in Delhi came into existence in 1959, on a portion of the 6.2-acre Gandhi Smarak Nidhi campus, which is close to Gandhi Samadhi at Rajghat. The land, according to Annamalai, is on perpetual lease from the government. The Rajghat campus is spread across close to 36 acres. Except the samadhi, which was taken over by the government a few years ago, no Gandhi institution has any dealings with the government in terms of finances or administration.

The museum during P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh's governments was allotted a corpus of Rs 10 crore, over and above the public fund corpus of Rs 11 crore that it had. Today, the museum meets its finances with the interest it earns through this corpus, and a habitual frugality, according to Annamalai.

Other than Gandhi's relics and personal effects and an auditorium that screens films on Gandhi, the museum houses a large library that is open to public. "We do not lend out books because if lost, they are irreplaceable," says Annamalai. An ongoing project to digitise its archives will ensure its reach increases.

Outside the museum, families pose for photographs in front of the large Gandhi installations set amidst walking paths in red stone and flowering gardens. I request one of the security guards to point me in the direction of Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and he asks me to walk through a small gate and onto a tiny pathway. Just past the gate, I begin to feel like I have walked into a different era, with distemper peeling off buildings and fallen leaves all over. While the garden has flowers, most of them are drooping and the grass looks evidently neglected. Ramchandra Rahi, secretary of Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, asks me to meet him inside his office, which is a concrete reflection of the neglect outside. The grey walls and dim lights are positively depressing, but the small heater and Rahi's pleasing persona lift the gloom a bit.

Despite the obvious lack of funds and waning public interest, Rahi displays no sense of bitterness. "Gandhi taught us how to live within our means and we try to follow that. Our trustees have sometimes been miserly in their personal expenditure to ensure these institutions continue to survive," he says.

The Gandhi Smarak Nidhi was decentralised in 1969, allowing each state unit to function independently. While this is in line with Gandhi's vision for the country - as broken into smaller cooperatives with independent powers - it leaves the Gandhi legacy with no overarching institution that ties all organisations together. Annamalai points out the irony: "In making each of its succeeding organisations independent, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi is left with no funds to even renovate its own property."

The campus has residences for workers across various Gandhian institutions, including a guesthouse for visitors and scholars attending events. The houses and the guesthouse appear to have not received any maintenance in at least 20 years, let alone a fresh coat of paint. At the far end is the Gandhi Book House, manned by a single employee, with nary a visitor in sight. Inside, steel cabinets display books about and by Gandhi, besides a separate section on naturopathy. The bookshop receives bulk orders from educational institutions and sells books worth Rs 5-6 lakh every year.

A few kilometres from this campus, the Gandhi Peace Foundation on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg is another time capsule. It's like walking into a 1970s Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, the only sign of the millennium in the cars parked outside and the computers inside. The older staff, with its tweed jackets and mufflers, seems to fit into the era the building belongs to.

Gandhi Peace Foundation was established in 1964 to carry out "research and studies on the teachings and practices bequeathed" by Gandhi and their "relevance" today. Kumar Prashant, chairman of the foundation, says the real challenge is to stay relevant and be a source of guidance to the youth. "With a change in generation, the interest in Gandhi is declining. In that aspect, we seem to have failed," he says.

What is striking and refreshing about all those associated with these Gandhi institutions is their candid approach to what they see as their own shortcomings. "We have statues and pictures of Gandhi with a lathi, but we never show Gandhi as the young, vibrant lawyer who went about the world challenging authority," says Prashant.

Like Rahi and many others in these organisations, Prashant hails from a freedom-fighter family, allowing him to be ideologically aligned to the work of Gandhi. "Ideology before self" appears to be another motto among Gandhians who have given up material gain to dedicate their lives to Gandhi's work. A senior employee of the foundation, who has been working with it for 40 years, draws a monthly salary of Rs 15,000.

Most members also seem to have actively joined these organisations during and after Jayaprakash Narayan's political movement in the 1970s and carry with them a strong sense of revolutionary politics. "Someone recently pointed out that most of our speakers at the Gandhi Peace Lecture are over 60. This needs to change. We have to allow the young to come forward and interpret Gandhi in the way that is relevant to their reality," says Prashant.

Much like the one with Prashant, my conversation with Anupam Mishra, editor of the journal, Gandhi Marg, often goes beyond the organisations and into the larger Gandhian ideology. As we walk into his office, Mishra rushes out to switch off the tubelight in the anteroom. Inside his office, the Gandhian simplicity takes on vibrant tones, with Gandhi stamps and posters stuck to cupboards and bookshelves.

"We have no copyright over our work and we ask for no funds. Without ever promoting our research, it has reached places such as Morocco. That is the true strength of Gandhian principles," he says.

The true strength, says Gandhi's granddaughter Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, lies not in how many hours one spins the charkha for or if one wears khadi. As self-reflexive as her fellow Gandhians, Bhattacharjee says that Gandhians have a tendency to be "self-righteous" in their interpretation of what is Gandhian. "One doesn't necessarily have to be a vegetarian or pray for a certain number of hours in a day to be Gandhian. Being Gandhian means being compassionate, non-violent and of a free mind," she explains. "Similarly, there may be many institutions in India that may be principally Gandhian in their work but do not have his name. Gandhi never wanted his name on anything to begin with," she adds. That is, except the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, which Gandhi founded in the memory of his wife during his lifetime.

Over pakoras made with a family recipe, Bhattacharjee, dressed in a khadi saree and shawl, says that over the years, people have started mistaking austerity for shabbiness. "Just because we want to be frugal does not mean that we let Gandhi institutions become dirty and neglected. That is primarily against Gandhi's aesthetic."

Bhattacharjee is one of the few members of the Gandhi family who has actively participated as a trustee in these organisations. She warns against being fanatic in an attempt to preserve what Gandhi means. "There is no wisdom in carrying a lantern when there is electricity. We need to change our attitude about who is Gandhi and what he means today." All that needs to be done, it appears, is to find a way to marry Gandhi's ideology and persona to the needs of modern society.

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