Sevagram swung suddenly into my brain this week, triggered by two very different reasons. The first was the prevailing talk of ‘civil society’. I was reminded of what Jawaharlal Nehru, barely a few months into office as prime minister, said at a meeting of political and constructive workers or what may, today, be called ‘civil society’.
It took place at Sevagram in March 1948. The Mahatma had planned this meeting to discuss the post-Independence equation between those who had entered public life through the portal of elections and those who were doing ‘constructive work’.
January 30, 1948 intervened.
Rajendra Prasad as president of the Congress and of the Constituent Assembly, and Union minister for agriculture, was then foremost among the elected representatives. Vinoba Bhave, already regarded as the undeclared spiritual heir of the Mahatma, was the pre-eminent representative of the spirit of Gandhi outside politics.
The two of them were determined to organise the meeting as Gandhi had proposed.
Those attending the first and last meeting of its kind included Jayaprakash Narayan, the economic thinker JC Kumarappa, the scholar and reformer Kakasaheb Kalelkar, the teacher Ashadevi Aryanayakam, the balladeer Tukdoji Maharaj, the expert on tribal affairs AV Thakkar, the intrepid rescuer of abducted women during Partition, Mridula Sarabhai, the Gandhian leader from Andhra, Konda Venkatappaiya, the khadi pioneer, Srikrishnadas Jaju.
Nehru inaugurated the meeting, Rajendra Prasad presided over it and Maulana Azad made the keynote speech. Representing government, they were about the only ‘elected’ representatives of the people or ‘politicians’ present.
But it was the non-elected, the ‘constructive’ group that really powered the proceedings, setting the agenda, asking the questions, identifying the issues to which the three leaders from Delhi responded. There were many subjects under discussion but underlying them all was the question : ‘Gandhi is gone: Who will guide us now?’
Speaking on the new equations between political and non-political field work, Nehru observed: “My thoughts on all these issues are not clear and I feel quite perplexed in my mind.
Whenever I have managed to get a few free minutes to myself, I have thought over this year and a half that we have been in government, and of how we have done some things but left a great deal undone... When I look back at it all I am not happy… The government has its own unique way of solving issues.
It has certain limits and restraints of its own. The mere power of the government is not in itself enough to solve anything. I am part of the government. I live in Delhi. And night and day I have to live under guard… This is more of an imprisonment for me than Ahmednagar or the other jails were…”
Later the same day, addressing an open session he introspected on the period prior to the traumatic episodes pre-Partition and said: “Why, ultimately, did India get out of control?
There are many reasons. As far as Congress is concerned, the Congress leaders got so bound up in election arguments and in running their own governments that they had no time for serving the people. A wall came up between the people and ourselves, and Congress increasingly lost stature — even if a few individuals retained their influence and standing.
Conspicuous squabbles between Congress people came under the public gaze and the leaders were busy with superficial matters; nobody thought in terms of public service. So other kinds of people rose up between them and the people.”
Asking the gathering to establish a new connection with each other in order to give India the direction it needed, he employed a splendid Hindustani phrase that captured the essence of his thought :“… in savalon ko phir se nayi fiza ki roshni mein sochna hoga (… these issues will have to be reconsidered in the light of a new fiza).
Fiza means atmosphere. Nayi fiza invokes a fresh breeze, an altogether new ambience. The 1948 meeting discussed many burning issues — security, war, refugees, terrorism, communalism, industry, agriculture etc — but not corruption. That was not an issue then. Today, all those issues remain with us, urgent and pressing, plus corruption.
Is it impossible for a Sevagram 1948-type meeting to be convened by the equivalents of those who organised that meeting to discuss corruption? Is it inconceivable that they can be inspired to gather for a meeting chaired by the Congress president, inaugurated by the PM and addressed by representatives of the ‘unelected’ to discuss corruption?
The second trigger for Sevagram dominating my thoughts this week came from a news item: a pair of Gandhi’s spectacles were reported to have gone missing from Sevagram.
Gandhi is known by three material objects of use: round-shaped spectacles, the pocket-watch which dangled at his waist, and his two cross-strapped slippers.
The first helped him see the universe around him with clarity. The second helped him keep and respect time — that of others’ as much as his own. And the last symbolised his light but unmistakable footprint on our diverse soils. Gandhi began using glasses only when he was around 50 — an opthalmologically interesting fact, considering the phenomenal strain he was putting his eyes to.
But once he took to glasses, there was no going back. The two became inseparable. A famous 1940 photograph of his with a young Vinoba Bhave at Sevagram shows both bespectacled.
If we ponder his photographs we will notice how important spectacles were in his life.
And we may assume they helped him to see the human condition in India not through the bi-focals of political versus ‘constructive’, official versus ‘civil’, bureaucratic versus non-governmental, elected versus non-elected but through the honest lens of what and not who, is right.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal)