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Hardselling Gandhi®

The Mahatma’s legacy is represented by those who seek to understand him, not by those carrying his name and turning Brand Bapu into merchandise, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Oct 06, 2009 22:42 IST

In 20 years of studying Gandhi, I have had as friends and advisers, three brothers who grew up in a flat in Connaught Place owned by the Hindustan Times (of which paper their father was then the editor). They all went to the same school (Modern) and college (St Stephen’s), and all had a deep scholarly interest in the life and legacy of Gandhi. Fortunately for me, and the world at large, they approached him from different disciplinary and methodological perspectives. One analysed him as a philosopher, another as a historian and biographer, a third as a student of literature and language.

These brothers were named Ramchandra, Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna. Their surname, as it happens, was Gandhi. However, unlike scions of other freedom-fighters, they never exploited or abused the name of their grandfather. Where the direct descendants of other famous Indians have acted as if they were owed something — or a great deal — by India, these three brothers always asked themselves what they could do for India. Their lives have been marked by an exemplary devotion to their country, and to the principles of its founding figures. In promoting (and practising) inter-faith harmony as well as inter-generational justice, they have learnt as much from Nehru, Ambedkar, Tagore, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Lohia, JP, Acharya Kripalani, MS Subbulakshmi and Rajagopalachari, as from Gandhi himself.

For these three brothers, ‘grandson of Gandhi’ has been, at best, a tertiary identity, and one never advertised by themselves. As for their primary identities, Ramchandra was a much loved teacher (in, among other places, the universities of Delhi, Rajasthan, Hyderabad, and Viswabharati), Rajmohan a brave and respected editor (of the weekly Himmat and the daily Indian Express), and Gopalkrishna an outstanding public servant (he founded the Nehru Centre in London, and also served with distinction as our High Commissioner in South Africa). Their secondary identities are as scholars and students of Gandhi’s ideas and practice.

As a philosopher, Ramchandra Gandhi explored how Gandhi was a product of — as well as a departure from — the long line of modern Hindu spiritualists that begins with Ramakrishna and includes such figures as Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharishi. As a historian, Rajmohan Gandhi has underscored how this foremost critic of the British Empire was in many ways shaped by it. Meanwhile, as a biographer, he has also paid special attention to Gandhi’s relationships with his followers (Nehru, Patel, et al), and with his critics (notably, Jinnah and Ambedkar). Meanwhile, as a multi-lingual Indian himself, Gopalkrishna Gandhi has studied this Gujarati’s relationship with other provinces (such as West Bengal), while also producing a superb anthology of his writings.

It is well to recall the career of these accidental Gandhians now, when a professional Gandhian has been much in the news for his ringing endorsement of the expensive ‘Gandhi’ pens issued by the Montblanc company. For Tushar Gandhi’s only identification is ‘great grandson of the Mahatma’. Unlike some of his kinsmen, he has made steady and cumulative use of the genes he shares with Gandhi. In the past, it was merely publicity. Now, it appears, it is something more, with Montblanc gifting his Foundation some Rs 72 lakh, which, despite the inevitable disclaimers, is clearly a quid pro quo for his support of their scheme.

Let us move the discussion beyond Gandhi relatives whether honourable or opportunistic. There is a man in Ahmedabad who is about the same age as Tushar. He shares a mother tongue, Gujarati, as well as a lifelong engagement with Gandhi. This man is the author of a landmark study of the literary landscape of 19th century Gujarat, and of a fine-grained analysis of the differences between the two editions of Gandhi’s autobiography. He is also an accomplished translator, who has rendered into English the moving biography by Chandubhai Dalal of Gandhi’s rebellious son, Harilal. This past week, his English translation of a four-volume biography of the Mahatma by Narayan Desai was released in Ahmedabad.

I have not mentioned the scholar’s name, in keeping with his own understated personality, and since an interested reader can go to a decent bookshop and find out anyway. But let me say something about Narayan Desai, who is arguably our greatest living Gandhian. Narayan is the only child of Gandhi’s secretary and effective second-in-command Mahadev Desai. Growing up in the ashram, he went to jail in the 1942 movement. After Independence, he spent decades doing work on land distribution and social peace. Now in his 80s, he spends his time touring Gujarat performing a ‘Gandhi Katha’, a monologue in prose and poetry that conveys the religious and cultural pluralism of Gandhi to an audience used to hearing other — and opposed — messages from their Chief Minister.

While Montblanc may be laughing all the way to the bank, Gandhi’s name and reputation can stand any amount of distortion or perversion. However, the current controversy has served a purpose — at least a certain ‘great-grandson’ has finally been outed as a racketeer. Perhaps reporters and TV anchors will now be wiser than to presume that he, in anyway, represents Gandhi. As for understanding Gandhi, help is at hand, in the form of the just released biography by Narayan Desai. Knowing the author, and his translator, I can assert that one page of the book will tell you more about the Mahatma that 500 sound bites by a certain opportunist who happens merely to be descended from him.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and the author of India After Gandhi