How (and how not) to remember Ghandi

GandhiWorking in the archives in Delhi, I recently came across a  file of newspaper clippings collected shortly after Gandhi’s death. These dealt with various schemes suggested by diverse citizens of India to honour the Mahatma’s memory. Thus, for example, in its issue of 3rd March 1948, a paper named New Orissa, published from Cuttack, reported that a certain Dr Prunachandra Mitra had introduced a resolution in the Bihar Legislative Assembly demanding that India be renamed ‘Gandhistan’.

Other proposals were somewhat less ambitious, seeking merely to have the dead leader commemorated in their own place of residence. Thus, as reported in the East Bengal Times of 22nd March 1948, a meeting of the Hindu and Muslim ladies of Sylhet resolved to establish a Gandhi Memorial Hall in the town, where ‘they would conduct a women’s library, club, introduce cottage industries and would propogate the teachings of Gandhiji’. The scheme was modest, as well as noble—for Sylhet was now in East Pakistan.

A far more ambitious scheme was reported in The Hindu of 1st March 1948. On the 29th of February, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar had laid the foundation for a statue of Gandhi on top of a hill fifteen miles north of Bombay, adjacent to a village named Chandivilli. The report on the ceremony noted the actual height of the hill—six hundred and ninety four feet—as well as the height of the statue itself. This was to be seventy-nine feet high, presumably one foot for every year of Gandhi’s life.

Nawanagar was a princely state in Kathiawar, the ear-shaped peninsula in Western India to which the Mahatma himself belonged. His father had been Dewan both of Porbandar—where Gandhi was born—and of Rajkot, where Gandhi went to school. After Independence, the princely states of Kathiawar were brought together in a united state known as Saurashtra (later to be merged with Gujarat).

At this time, March 1948, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar was the Rajpramukh (or Governor) of this Union of Kathiawari States. Now, watching him lay the foundation for a statue of the greatest son of Kathiawar was his Chief Minister, the veteran Congressman U.N. Dhebar. And there were a clutch of other dignitaries too. For some reasons the former rulers of Rajkot and Porbandar were absent. Yet  The Hindu report (which came courtesy the wire service AP) noted the attendance of the Maharajas of Bhavnagar and Morvi, both states of Kathiawar to which Gandhi had close connections. (He had studied in Bhavnagar, while his best friend came from Morvi). Also present were the lawyer-politician K. M. Munshi, S. K. Patil (the influential President of the Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee), Dahyabhai Patel (son of Vallabhbhai), and the Sheriff and Mayor of Bombay.

The summit of the hill was to be named Gandhi Shikhar. If/when it reached its full height of seventy-nine feet, the statue would be seen from miles around. The scheme also envisaged the construction of seventy nine pillars or stupas. These would be placed, at suitable intervals, around the foot of the hill, punctuating a one and a quarter miles long perambulation (pradakshina). Each pillar would contain details (presumably in Gujarati and English, and possibly Hindi as well) of an important event in Gandhi’s life.

The scheme itself was the idea of one Amritlal D. Sheth, editor of the Janmabhoomi group of newspapers.

One does not know whether this statue and those pillars were ever built. One suspects not. A well-known historian of Bombay, who lives in the city’s northern suburbs, when asked whether such a statue of the Mahatma exists on a hill in the vicinity, says he has never heard of it. Googling Gandhi/ Chandivilli throws up no results either.

These many and various (and grand and sometimes crazy) schemes to honour Gandhi distressed those with a somewhat deeper understanding of his work and legacy. Thus, in a letter to The Hindu published in the first week of March 1948, the social worker Mrs S. Muthulakshmi Reddi deplored this proliferation of proposals for Mahatma memorials. ‘If he were alive and consulted in this matter’, she remarked, ‘he would certainly decline to have any statues and temples in his name; but, instead, he would strongly advocate that the funds raised in his name should be utilised for carrying out his constructive programme for social and national service.’

The Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also deplored the mania to name so many things after Gandhi. As one who had worked closely with the Mahatma, he said that ‘the most suitable memorial’ would be to ‘follow his great teaching and to organize work in order to further his constructive ideas in the development of the nation’. Nehru thought some statues and memorials should be constructed, yet the current craze, if not checked, might leadto thousands of roads, parks, squares named after him. This would be both empty symbolism as well as bad aesthetics. For it would ‘not contribute either to conveniences or to the glory of the father of the nation. Only confusion will result as well as a certain drab uniformity. Most of us will then live in Gandhi roads in Gandhinagars or Gandhigrams’.

Those who had known Gandhi closely or worked with him were naturally dismayed by the desire to freeze his memory in street names or grand statues. Yet some ordinary citizens were disenchanted by this frenzy as well. In its issue of 1st March 1948, The Statesman printed a lovely letter to the editor from a certain Indian resident of Rangoon named V. Raman Nair. This began by noting that the desire to memorialize Gandhi would in time be followed by similar proposals to honour, after their own death, other leaders of the freedom movement. And so ‘perhaps some hundred years since the name of Mahatma Gandhi will stand for a town in Madras, of Pandit Nehru for a river in the Punjab, of Sardar Patel for a hair-dressing saloon in Bombay, and so forth.’

Mr Nair of Rangoon observed that ‘our renaming enthusiasts evidently forget that almost every existing name has a cultural and historical background, or may already be perpetuating someone’s memory. To change that name is to attempt to perpetuate one memory at the expense of another. If every age had the same craze for christening and re-christening the Ganges, the Himalayas, and the Taj Mahal would now be known by a hundred cacophonous names. All the romance associated with them will vanish if Sabarmati and Santiniketan, for instance, are renamed after their founders.’

The diasporic Indian was not entirely swayed by the then prevalent mood of anti-colonialism. Thus, as he pointed out, ‘the renaming of Clive Street and Hastings Street’ in Calcutta (then under active consideration) would not wipe out the history of British rule in India. In fact, said Mr Nair, ‘people who really value their independence will want to leave these names alone, as symbols of their one-time servitude. If all such traces and landmarks are destroyed, future historians might be compelled to dig up archives in foreign countries to evaluate the past’.

The grand statue planned for a hill outside Bombay was never built. Yet, some six decades later, another Gujarati centure to memorialize Gandhi bore fruition. This is the so-called ‘Mahatma Mandir’, a large…

I’d like to end this essay with the views of Gandhi’s foremost Southern disciple, C. Rajagoplachari. At the time of the Mahatma’s assassination, Rajaji was Governor of West Bengal. Like Nehru and Muthulakshmi Reddy, he asked for social action, rather than statues or buildings in stone, to honour the memory and example of their dead leader. The Hindu reported that, speaking on All India Radio, Calcutta, on 28th February 1948, Rajaji pointed out that Gandhi had lived and died for the cause of religious harmony. Therefore, the establishment of Hindu-Muslim amity would be the ‘only worthy and satisfying memorial over his ashes’. And so it still remains.

Ramachandra Guha will be speaking on “Arguments with Gandhi” at the Chalke Valley History Festival on Monday, 23rd June 2014.