The five Gandhis
Many people in Tamil Nadu are named after MK Gandhi. Most of them have EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, to thank for it. One of the ways in which the Dravidian social reformer challenged Brahmanical domination in politics, education and administration in Tamil Nadu was to agitate against caste surnames. Nearly 100 years after his Self Respect movement swept across the state, parents continue to name their children not after gods but great men and women from the worlds of politics, philosophy, science and mythology: Aristotle, Socrates, Athena, Lenin, Stalin, Nehru, and Gandhi are popular first and middle names. Gandhi was a particularly popular name in Tamil Nadu in the decades leading to and after India’s independence. Gandhi’s strong ties with Tamil Nadu cemented the choice for many families.
It’s not easy being named after an idol. Besides expectations of humility and renunciation, the Gandhis of Tamil Nadu must also confront the difference between the man they are named after and the man who paved the way for it. While Periyar called for the eradication of religion and caste, Gandhi strove for social reform within the framework of Hinduism.
We meet five Gandhis in Tamil Nadu — a cricketer, a cook, a retired IAS officer, a political activist and a real estate agent — to find out how their name has shaped their lives.
‘I respect my opponents, I don’t fear them’: Kaushik Gandhi, 29, Chennai
Kaushik Gandhi got his second name because he was born in Gandhigram in Dindigul district, a town that takes its name from an institute of rural development modelled on Gandhian principles. Two months after his birth, however, his parents left Gandhigram to settle in Chennai where his father, P Mohan, played professional cricket. Now a professional cricketer himself, 29-year-old Kaushik first returned to Gandhigram while playing a college match at 19. “When I went there, I was treated like a celebrity. So many people came to greet me; they said they watch every game I play (over television),” he said.
Kaushik realised he was receiving all this affection because of his grandfather. “I figured he must have been a big deal in this town,” he said. V Padmanabhan did play a big role in shaping the rural community based around the institute.
Set up in 1947 by TS Soundaram, the daughter of the founder of the TVS group who worked as a doctor in rural areas, and her husband, G Ramachandran, a Dalit and a Gandhian, the Gandhigram institute sought to fashion a self-sufficient rural community through education, health care, sanitation, skill development and job creation. “To work for the reconstruction of the social order in the country along the lines laid down by Mahatma Gandhi, that is, building up of a ‘casteless and classless’ society of complete justice to the common man through wholly non violent effort and with special emphasis on the social and moral values of manual labour,” was one of the objectives of the trust.
Padmanabhan joined the institute as the secretary of the trust. “In 1976 he took an early retirement from the state Khadi board and worked full time in Gandhigram. In the next 20 years, about 80 products were made providing permanent jobs to about 3000 people in Dindigul Theni areas,” said Bharathan, Kaushik’s uncle. In 1991, he was awarded the Padma Shri for his social service.
When Kaushik is not playing matches for the Tamil Nadu Premier League, he does think about his family’s roots in Gandhigram. “I donate clothes and money to the trust,” he said. He is aware of the unarticulated influences from a Gandhian upbringing. “I have respect for my opponents but I never fear them.”
‘Every year on October 2, I think about my father and Gandhi’:M Gandhimathi, 47, Chennai
Gandhimathi wasn’t supposed to have that name. Her father, K Lingapa, an avid admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, had wanted to name a son after the man, but he had none. He had three daughters; he named the second after Gandhi. Later, after he served in the army during India-Pakistan war, he sought the Gandhian ideals of peace and non violence even more.
“My father used to read a lot of books about Gandhi and his life. On what he did, what he studied and about him getting married at the age of 13. He used to tell us about it,” said Gandhimathi, who has been working since she was 18 years old. “Back then not many women went to work at a young age,” she said.
As part of her first job, she cooked for a Mexican couple in Chennai. Now 47, she has worked in a number of expat households and boasts the mastery of many cuisines. “Western, American, Italian, Australian. I like my job,” she said.
Like her father, Gandhimathi is a huge fan of Gandhi. “I like reading about his history. I liked that he preached ahimsa. He got us freedom from the British without lifting a sword,” she said. At present, she is the only Gandhi fan in her family. “My daughter is an MBA graduate and she is married. My son is in his second year of college studying B.Com. My daughter and son are not very much into Gandhi,” she said. It doesn’t matter to her. “Every year, on October 2, I think about Gandhi and my father. Even when my father was dying, he made it through till October 2 before passing away. On that day, I pin a small Indian flag to my white-and-gold sari.”
‘Mahatma also spent time in jails’: Thirumurugan Gandhi, 45, Chennai
On most days, Thirumurugan Gandhi has to appear at one of Chennai’s multiple courts to present his side in multiple ongoing cases against him. On some days, all he does is move from one court to another. This takes a long time if he is walking as he is stopped for selfies every few metres. Gandhi is a familiar face in Chennai. He made his name by leading a movement, called May 17, to advocate for the rights of the minority Tamil population of Sri Lanka. “On May 17, 2009, a genocide happened in Sri Lanka in which 40,000 people were killed according to UN experts’ report. Our movement began on the same day. Today it has thousands of volunteers,” said Gandhi, waiting for a hearing to begin at the district court in Chennai. He is referring to the final months of the decades-long civil war between ethnic separatist rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state. While the Sri Lankan army has refuted these numbers, the government set up a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee in 2010.
Over the years, the May 17 movement has expanded to represent voices of a wide range of disenfranchised groups, from Kashmir to Catalonia, through speeches, sit-ins, agitations and candle light vigils. The charges against Thirumurugan have also piled up along the way: sedition, hate speech, promoting enmity between different groups, and organising protests in violation of regulatory orders. He was last arrested in 2018 while on his way back from Geneva where he spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council against the police firing in Thoothukudi on people resisting the expansion of Sterlite Industries’ copper-smelter plant over pollution concerns. A day after the May 22, 2018 firing in which 13 people died, the state government constituted an inquiry commission and ordered the closure of the plant. Arrested on the charge of sedition, Thirumurugan spent 55 days in jail. “Mahatma Gandhi also spent a lot of his time in jails,” he said.
His father was named Gandhi by his grandfather, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a member of the Congress party. Encouraged to find his own political icons, Thirumurugan settled on Periyar, BR Ambedkar (Dalit icon and who steered the writing of the Constitution), Karl Marx and Prabhakaran, LTTE’s guerilla leader. He didn’t name Mahatma Gandhi even though Gram Swarajya, a collection of Gandhi’s writings on rural living, was one of the first books his father gave him. “He is certainly an inspiration to the movement. He challenged British imperialism. He connected with the common people. He didn’t brand anyone as personal enemy. He believed in discussion. Everyone could take part in his movements,” he said.
But Thirumurugan questions Gandhi’s political philosophy. “He didn’t ask for the abolition of caste system,” he said. As a follower of Periyar, this Gandhi feels the answers to many of the world’s problems today lie in the Dravidian movement.
‘No freedom, dignity to SCs’: R Christodas Gandhi, 66, Chennai
Christodas Gandhi’s father, M Ramdas, wasn’t a Gandhian but he named his son after the Mahatma because it seemed like the right thing to do in 1952. “In those days people had a rousing regard for Gandhi.” A superintendent of police based in Chennai, his father, who belonged to a Scheduled Caste, taught his children the value of shaping their future through education. “He showed us how to be a person of self determination.” Christodas, a class topper, made it into the Indian Administrative Service. “The consciousness of me being an SC was not there. As a good student, you are respected everywhere,” he said. One of the rewards he received year after year for his academic performance was “umpteen copies of My Experiments with Truth”.
“In the books, we are told he was a man of truth. He stood for simplicity. He cared for the common man,” he said. Later, Christodas realised this wasn’t an objective interpretation of Gandhi’s life and legacy. “He was none of these things as far as SCs were concerned. It’s only after reading Ambedkar and getting into civil service that I could get a sense of his impact on society,” he said.
Now 66 and retired, Christodas, who served as additional chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, continues to question what he calls the textbook view of Mahatma Gandhi.
“He liberated Indians from white people, but he paved the way for some of them to be enslaved by others — in other words, subjugation of a whole mass of Scheduled Castes in the country,” he said.
For Christodas, the problem is rooted in Gandhi’s tethering of India’s Scheduled Castes to Hinduism. He said the fact that the Indian Constitution defines SCs as Hindus, Buddhists and Sikh sets them against those outside of this fold. “Because of that, Dalits couldn’t form any unity because they are many who follow Islam and Christianity. Collectively we could have counted as 25% of the population, but by this definition SCs only count as 16%,” he said. If Gandhi had not regarded Dalits as different or special, they would have had a better chance at inclusion, he argued.
“The Harijan wasn’t the son of god. He was the son of a Vaishnava god. Hari does not stand for a universal god or a spiritual god; he is a Hindutva entity. The word carried a dark portent for India’s Dalit population. Look at where things stand now, from the state of Harijan hostels to the institution of manual scavenging. The root of this is Mahatma Gandhi. Why did he not go on a hunger strike until untouchability was abolished?” he said.
Throughout the years of his service as an IAS officer, Christodas Gandhi said he never followed the teachings of the man he is named for. “ I didn’t have a portrait of Gandhi in any of my offices. I had my junior officers put up portraits of Ambedkar. We took in a lot of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe staffers,” he said. “I did things in either the Ambedkar way or my way.”
‘My brother, Nehru, and I resolve people’s differences’: Vaidhyalingam Gandhi, 42, Virudhachalam
V Gandhi is the fourth of five children born to his parents who lived in Virudhachalam, a town in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. The first, a girl, was named Victoria after the Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India. The second, a boy, was named Kennedy after John F Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States.The third, a boy, was named Charles Armstrong, after Prince Charles of the United Kingdom and Neil Armstrong, American astronaut who was the first person to walk on the moon. Gandhi came next. The youngest child, a boy, was named Nehru, after Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. “We were the only children in the village to be named after famous people,” he said.
His father, Vaidhyalingam, was also a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a member of the Congress party. He even had a personal Gandhi connection. “Before the peak of the independence movement, he ran into the Mahatma at the local station. He had a lemon in his hand at that time which he offered to Gandhi. He accepted it,” he said.
Gandhi said his father, a high school teacher, was Gandhian to the bone. “Whatever he said, my father followed.” He is no longer alive, but the five siblings continue to live by Gandhian principles. “We are following peace and harmony in our lives.If there is a fight in the village, my brother Nehru and I sit both parties down and make them resolve their differences,” he said. “I’m helping people who don’t have much. In the village we still don’t have drinking water. I work with people below the poverty line,” he said. His family belongs to a Scheduled Caste and follows Hinduism. “We are pure Hindus,” he said. He believes everyone is making progress in India, at times without the help of governments, including the Scheduled Castes. Currently, his sister manages her home and his brothers work as farmer, pharmacist and teacher.
Gandhi’s income comes from farming and real estate brokerage, but he is actively involved in the local politics. He began his political career as the town’s coordinator for Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam but he has recently switched over to Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam as associate secretary. It saddens him to think that his father’s party is no longer a political force to be reckoned with. “No one is there to show the path to the Congress party.”