The lake town of Motihari in Bihar has turned into a battleground for self-styled champions of Mahatma Gandhi and George Orwell’s legacies. While the pro-Gandhi group wants a memorial to the Mahatma who launched a Satyagraha movement from Motihari, the other side supports a project to turn a crumbling brick bungalow where the Animal Farm author was born into a monument to him.
About a hundred people held a demonstration and a fast on Tuesday, saying those opposed to the Orwell memorial were racists with totalitarian tendencies, traits both Orwell and Gandhi criticised.
Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903 in the city near the Nepal border while his father, Richard W Blair, worked as an agent in the opium department of the civil service in colonial India.
The family’s tiny single-storey bungalow was in disrepair until the Bihar government kicked off the project to turn it into a protected monument this year.
“We are proud that Motihari is the birthplace of such a great and world-renowned writer,” said activist Muna Giri, who led the pro-Orwell demonstration. “Had they (the detractors) known him, they would not have opposed Orwell. Both Orwell and Gandhi fought against injustice.”
The pro-Gandhi group, however, wants the bungalow to be demolished and a Satyagraha Park to be set up in the area to honour the Mahatma. Orwell was a symbol of the British Raj and its imperialism, they said, and all signs of his legacy should be blotted out from the city.
“We are committed to protest the development work at the Orwell site,” said advocate Mamta Rani Verma, who is spearheading the pro-Gandhi movement. “The Satyagraha Park should be built first.”
Verma and others say Gandhi's first Satyagraha movement began at this site in 1917 against the high taxes imposed on indigo farmers by the British regime.
The local administration has, so far, maintained a distance from the controversy. This reporter tried to contact area district magistrate Abhay Kumar Singh, but he remained unavailable for comment.
Orwell, who lived in Motihari for a year as a child before leaving for England, wrote admiringly of Gandhi in his 1949 essay “Reflections on Gandhi”.
But he also criticised his famously austere lifestyle.
“No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid,” Orwell wrote.