Two days ago, a Sabarmati Ashram official wondered aloud if the Chinese president would wear a suit when he visited the former spiritual home of Mahatma Gandhi, and if he would spin the charkha. President Xi Jinping answered both questions on Wednesday, lending a personal flavour to the complex India-China relations.
Children waited, singing Vaishnav Jana To, the Mahatma’s favourite tune in the background, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel received Xi, who arrived dressed in a half-sleeve, informal Nehru jacket, a marked change from the formal black suit he had worn when he alighted the plane at Ahmedabad.
One report said it was a khadi jacket. Both Modi and Patel offered khadi garlands to the president, which he kept wearing through his visit.
The Prime Minister took Xi for a tour of the ashram, throwing in snippets of information about the Mahatma’s life. Both offered flowers to Gandhi’s statue and Xi even offered a namaste to the idol.
Both leaders were seen in animated conversations, sometimes even without their interpreters. At the banks of the Sabamarti river, Xi listened with rapt attention as Modi explained the development of the riverfront. They later had dinner on the other side of the river.
At the next stop at Gandhi’s home, Hridhay Kunj, both leaders sat on the floor, spinning the charkha, the symbol of India’s freedom struggle. Modi gifted Xi a miniature charkha and a replica of a letter of appreciation the Chinese community in South Africa had given Gandhi in 1908 for his struggle for equality in the country.
The Gujarat state information department later said Xi described his Sabarmati visit as among the most memorable of his life.
State visits to India are often marked by what has now been reduced to a ritual — paying respect to Gandhi’s samadhi at Rajghat in Delhi. This is what made Xi’s visit to Sabarmati special: sending out a message that India and China — the two most militarised states in the world — appreciate the principle of non-violence in resolving conflicts.