Learning from the Mahatma

Shunning all material allurements, 26-year-old Balwant Chandrakant Ghorpade of Maharashtra’s Nanded is training to lead a life of Gandhian abstention and simplicity — “a fakir of a type well known in the east”, to quote Winston Churchill’s pejorative description for Gandhi.
Students attend Bhatat Mahodaya’s leathers at The Institute of Gandhian Studies (Gandhi Vichar Parishad), Wardha. (Photo by Satish Bate/Hindustan Times)
Students attend Bhatat Mahodaya’s leathers at The Institute of Gandhian Studies (Gandhi Vichar Parishad), Wardha. (Photo by Satish Bate/Hindustan Times)
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 07:25 PM IST
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Youngsters still aspire to live the Gandhian way of life and engage critically with his thoughts. From spinning the charkha to attending interdisciplinary courses on Gandhi’s political and economic philosophy, Gandhi Studies continues to remain relevant in a country where half the population is under 25

Most young Indians — half the population, if one considers those under 25, and two-thirds, if one counts those below 35 — aspire to be a part of the country’s economic dream. They wouldn’t hesitate to take out loans for vacations abroad, rent a home in a salubrious part of town and own a vehicle. In other words, they all want the good life that Mahatma Gandhi abhorred.

There are stunning exceptions to this rule. Shunning all material allurements, 26-year-old Balwant Chandrakant Ghorpade of Maharashtra’s Nanded is training to lead a life of Gandhian abstention and simplicity — “a fakir of a type well known in the east”, to quote Winston Churchill’s pejorative description for Gandhi.

At Gandhi Vichar Parishad in Maharashtra’s Wardha, he is one among 15 students enrolled for a year’s diploma on the practical and theoretical aspects of Gandhian philosophy.

Unlike a regular degree, nothing in the syllabus appears to prepare Ghorpade for a mainstream job. But the Gandhi fan has a surprising take on what the course will afford him. “Our [Gandhian] training is focused on personality development. Won’t that be a plus point [advantage in the job market]? It will attract employers.”

Ghorpade is trying his hand at the spinning wheel and at meditation; he maintains a daily diary of his activities; he wears khadi, or natural homespun cotton; and he is learning to do organic farming. In the months ahead, he will get a glimpse of the core tenets of non violence and Gandhian spirituality.

Also Read: Artists who’ve kept Gandhi alive on canvas, in raga & with bronze

The young man traces his abiding admiration of Gandhi to his grandfather, who took part in India’s freedom struggle and called himself a Gandhian. Ghorpade said one of the main things that drew him to Gandhi’s ideals was the impact of modern life on the environment and the denuding of India’s forest cover. “I have seen droughts, heatwaves and flash floods in my district. You know [about] climate change. Gandhian philosophy is the solution.” Students from far and wide, including Afghanistan, Sudan and Nepal, have attended the Wardha institute since it was founded in 1987.

The course comprises an end term examination, apart from a dissertation and on-field work. It draws from Nai Talim (which literally means, new education), a pedagogical approach founded by Gandhi himself.

In a country with a large young population, few would like to live the Gandhi way of life, said Bharat Mahodaya, director of the institute, which is also called the Institute of Gandhian Studies. “There’s no value of a Gandhian course in the job market,” he added.

In fact, keeping Gandhi alive has been a struggle. Until 2007, the University Grants Commission had approved eight new Gandhian study centres. They were set up at Bhavnagar University, Andhra University, Shivaji University, University of Calcutta, University of Jammu, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, Mangalore University and Bundelkhand University.

The above are in addition to the Gandhian study centres that already exist in 14 other universities. These centres get an annual grant of Rs 470,000 apart from Rs 350,000 as a one-time grant. “I know for a fact that most of these don’t have regular students. Admissions are very irregular,” said Chandan Sarma, a former chair of a Gandhi study centre affiliated to Assam’s Silchar University. Of the 137 sanctioned Gandhi chairs across the country, only 19 were functional, a government report of 2018 states. Like in most universities, a Gandhi chair is an endowed academic position responsible for running the department or teaching centre.

Gandhian studies is not just about Gandhi, but is presented as an interdisciplinary programme, said Manohar Lal Sharma, who has taught Gandhian political philosophy to postgraduates in various universities, including Panjab University’s Gandhian studies department.

The curriculum in most Gandhian centres, as approved by the University Grants Commission, draws on Gandhian political thought, Gandhian economic thought, issues related to India’s rural development, international peace diplomacy as well as a paper of research methodology, according to Ashu Pasricha, the chair of Gandhian studies at Panjab University.

“You’d be surprised that much of the scholarship on Gandhi is happening in northern America, Latin America and Europe too,” said Ramin Jahanbegloo, the Iranian-origin Gandhian scholar and executive director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at OP Jindal Global University located on the outskirts of New Delhi.

Maria Engels, 27, is an educator at the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester.

Adopted from St. Benedict’s Nursery, an orphanage in Bangladesh’s Chittagong, she led a comfortable life in America. A visit to the orphanage from where was adopted transformed her for ever. She said she was “deeply” affected by what could have been her fate had she not been transplanted into the US as a child. She was inspired by Gandhi’s teaching to help the lesser privileged.

Also Read: A young woman who played an aging Kasturba

At Juniata College, where she was assistant dean of admissions, she got to attend a four-day non violence programme sponsored by the MK Gandhi Institute, an off-campus affiliate of the University of Rochester.

She now teaches young children non violence in US schools that sign up for the MK Gandhi Institute’s programmes. Do Gandhian principles of non violence and simplicity work? Engels thinks so. In assessment surveys done after her courses to children, she found that Monroe High School witnessed 66% decline in visits to conflict resolution centres for behavioural issues in Rochester.

Momoun Abdullah, a Sudanese who graduated from the Wardha institute, now works with the Sudanese Organisation for Nonviolence and Development. According to his mission objective, Gandhism is the “way out” for conflict-ridden countries like his.

Jahanbegloo’s objective, he said, is to explain Gandhian ideas to his students, rather than nudge them into accepting Gandhian ideals. Living in a time of violent populism, hardened nationalism and fundamentalism have only made Gandhian studies more relevant, he added.

In Indian universities, Gandhian studies is mostly clubbed with peace and conflict resolution. That’s a point of attraction for many students, including foreign pupils, because it opens up research and also employment in think tanks and NGOs, Pasricha said.

For those interested in studying Gandhi, a Master’s degree is usually the starting point. For doctoral students, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and Panjab University are among the most popular institutions. IGNOU has awarded nearly 20 doctorates over the past decade, IGNOU professor, Pramod Kumar, said, while Punjab University has awarded 19.

“My PhD was on comparative study on women in journalism in India and Iran and how they tended to cover Gandhi,” said Robabeh Mohajeri, an Iranian national whose PhD was guided by Pasricha. Mohajeri now teaches in Hikmat University in her home country.

According to Jahanbegloo, the most important thing about Gandhian scholarship is the “idea of self-examination”. “It was Gandhi who suggests to us alternatives to national community...suggests to us the idea of civic citizenship.”

Babasaheb Ambedkar, the erudite representative of Dalits who steered the writing of India’s Constitution, had bitter quarrels with Gandhi’s ideas, including Gandhi’s fight against caste. Ambedkar rejected outright the Hindu faith that sanctified caste, while Gandhi’s devout Hinduism made him combine articles of the Hindu faith deeply with a spiritual vision of political life. Gandhi is blamed for never unequivocally condemning the caste system. The Hindu extremists — then and now — want a way of life that Gandhi espoused, such as vegetarianism and cow protection. But Jahanbegloo counters these political arguments advanced against Gandhi. “Gandhi spiritualised politics, he did not politicise religion,” Jahanbegloo said.

Scholars like Parmod Kumar, who teaches a four-hour module to students of Gandhi and Peace Studies at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, says it was at Gandhi’s instance that the shoe company, Bata, began making affordable shoes for the “naked feet of Indian masses”. “Gandhi was aware of where industrialisation was required, but he was against a hegemonic set up.” According to Kumar, this kind of myth-shattering — it is often assumed that Gandhi was against big industries — is a central goal of the course he offers.

According to political analyst Shiv Vishwanathan, although India has moved away from Gandhi, Gandhian studies are even more relevant today. “He is one of the greatest critics of technology. He saw his experiments as scientific. Remember, the first loudspeaker was introduced in India at a Gandhi rally. He supported scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose.”

“Nowhere is Gandhi more relevant today than on the whole question violence.” Gandhian studies, still a small and esoteric part of India’s education system, are nonetheless a pilgrimage for those who opt for it.

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Monday, November 29, 2021