In Search of Gandhi

The MahatmaFor those of you from XL who were out of station, sleeping, disinterested or unable to come otherwise, you missed an intriguing short film. In Search of Gandhi raised some interesting questions, not necessarily answering all of them, and while I don’t agree with all of what Lalit Vachani stated or implied, I was provoked to think; and that, in my opinion, is the ultimate achievement of a film of this genre.

Vachani began by tracing the path that Gandhi himself took more than half a century back, from Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, on his world famous Dandi march, a fight against the imperialism of the British empire that imposed a salt tax on the very Indians from whose country the salt was derived. The focus in Ahmedabad was divided between Narendra Modi’s prosperous Gujarat and the poverty that plagues the city’s poorest residing in their slums. The irony, behind the state wanting to demolish the slums under the same Ellis Bridge where Gandhi made his historical speech, was brought out well as was the angst of one of the slum dwellers as he pleaded for two meals a day and a roof to sleep under. The megacity, that in its wake promises to leave 40000 people homeless, means little or nothing to these people.

The issue of development, a prominent one at this stage of the video, is one that has been hashed time and again in every forum possible. It is not a situation unique to Gujarat, and in the battle between growth and the equitable distribution of the benefits of this growth to all sections of society, weak, marginalized communities fall prey time and again, a situation that leaves much to be desired and that is rapidly moving to an irreversible state. As I sat sipping a carton of chilled buttermilk and watching the construction work go on around the Ellis bridge, my thoughts went back to recent discussions in a wonderful course we have at XLRI on ‘Corporate Social and Evironmental Responsibility’ – it would seem states need to learn this lesson as well!

The video moved on to talk of the riots in Gujarat, and the havoc wreaked by the majority over the Muslim minority in the state. As Vachani moved further into Gujarat, he met a Gandhian, an old man who on the one hand lived in the memory of Gandhi and his principle, and with equal ease, hated Muslims with a black hate from the core of his being, his head shaking with vehemence as he denounced them. As Vachani and his team examined the situation, they emphasized the religious intolerance, Modi’s hand in spreading the communal hatred and the BJP’s rise to power, riding the tide of communalism.

I’ve always possessed somewhat controversial views on the Gujarat riots. I’ll never be able to condone what happened five years back- the Godhra riots were a disgrace that we, as a nation, should have never given way to. However, one has to realize that every situation has a cause, and more than one perspective. Why it has today become necessary to highlight the militant Hindu and the secular Muslim in every frame, book, video, movie or telecast, to highlight religious tolerance is beyond me. A coach full of Hindu pilgrims burnt to death that day in Godhra. The media conveniently seems to have forgotten that! Nothing is an excuse, however, for mass violence of the kind that happened; all we ask for is an equal representation of the facts. This is not a contest of numbers: ‘how many in the coach, versus how many died in the carnage’ – as a school teacher once triumphantly asked me when I asked her for the full picture; I can speak of far greater numbers of Hindu pundits who perished at the hands of extremists in Kashmir or were driven homeless; this is a clarion call for the need to inculcate the mindset of acceptance.

In one frame Vachani wonders aloud if the reason the village of Napa is peaceful and Gandhian still, is because the Hindus are a minority there. This is not about Hindus or Muslims- this is about intolerance, which stretches far beyond the boundaries of religion into the minds of men, reared as they are on hatred and violence as the only answers to every question. We are but a product of what we are taught, what we imbibe and what we see all around us. The old Gandhian, if one can still call him that, was left with bitter memories and still worse teachings by those who reared him: don’t blame him, blame the mindset he has been inculcated with. Napa, with her peacefulness and spirit of tolerance, should be a lesson to the world at large, equally to intolerant terrorists and holier-than-thou accusers of any one religion or religious community. Godhra was wrong; Gandhi would have horrified and rightly so- but isn’t it time we learned the right lessons from what happened?

The interiors of Gujarat emerged in all their pitiful lack of development, and Vachani moved on to examine the caste divide that rears its ugly head and slices through the brotherhood of people like a sharpened sword. It was heartening watching the newly elected local leader, a Dalit, who descibed his rise to leadership and his plans for his locality with a mix of pride and humbling modesty. This was, in my opinion, easily the best part of the film- a promise for the future, a sign of the change that is beginning to characterize India.

The film was forthright in its message: Gandhian values barely exist anymore in the home-state of the bapu- Gandhi has, in Vachani’s words (as I remember them), been reduced to ‘a barefooted man who made a fuss over a fistful of salt’; but in the small pockets where they are followed, his principles bring peace and brotherhood. There were moments that made me shake my head in disagreement, but equally scenes that made me smile or nod with empathy: the children playing with one another, indifferent to the turmoil and poverty around them, the Muslim bangle-maker whose shop had been demolished in the riots and who declared, “Modi will never get rid of the slums. The more people you drive into homeless poverty, the more slums there will be!”

A thoughtfully made, well-crafted short film definitely worth a watch- my greatest regret was that so few people turned up to  appreciate the message and stimulate their own thoughts.