A Annamalai: “Gandhi never belonged to any government; Gandhi belongs to the people”

Most issues facing India today, asserts the Director of National Gandhi Museum, are direct manifestation of centralisation of political power and economy, which must change for the collective good

Photo by Vipin 
Photo by Vipin

Ashutosh Sharma

Director of the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi, A Annamalai, sees a surge of interest among the youth in the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi. While some youth indeed visit the museum for selfies and post them on social media, many more actually buy the books, he tells National Herald’s Ashutosh Sharma in an interview, while talking about the legacy of Gandhi, the renovated museum and Gandhi’s continued relevance in India today. Here’re the edited excerpts:

Which is the most frequently asked ‘ill-informed’ question about Mahatma Gandhi that you encounter?

People ask me why we have been promoting only Gandhi as the leader of Indian Independence movement when there where so many others who worked for the freedom of the country.

I answer with my personal experience. I come from Tamil Nadu and I wanted to know the places that Gandhi had visited in the state. After a thorough research, I prepared a map and started travelling to all those places. I was amazed to see that, even after being a native, I had not seen so many places in my state as Gandhi did.

This is true not just in the case of Tamil Nadu. Gandhi had traveled across the length and breadth of the country. No other leader of that time, I must say, would have traveled like Gandhi.

If someone reads a malicious social media post about Gandhi and starts abusing him, it doesn’t reflect badly on Gandhi, but on that particular person. If the person in question is so much concerned about the country, humankind and Gandhi, he must visit libraries, read books written on and by Gandhi to understand him and then frame an opinion about him.

Several controversial books on Mahatma Gandhi have hit the stands. How well researched are they?

Gandhi never concealed anything about himself. He wrote about almost every experience of his daily life. Oddly, the primary source of all such books is Gandhi’s own writings. So, the writers of such books don’t tell us anything new. They write books just to satisfy their own ego or further their agenda by interpreting Gandhi in their own way. But the fact remains that their interpretations of certain aspects of Gandhi in a sensational manner provide a measure of their stature and not Gandhi’s.

Do you see any decline in interest in Gandhi or in the number of visitors to the museum?

No. On any odd day, we usually get about 300 visitors whereas on weekends we get 500 visitors. But the overall number of visitors is on the rise, I would say. The museum has a capacity of accommodating about 1,000 people but last year on the birth anniversary of Gandhi, we received over 3,000 visitors and most of them were not tourists. They had come along with their families. It is because of the inclusive nature of the Gandhian philosophy. When Gandhi was leading the freedom movement, he involved everyone including the young, women, children and the elderly.

While it’s a fact that youth do come for taking pictures here to post them on social media, an overwhelming number of school, college and university students also buy books on Gandhi.

Which book on Gandhi have you found most interesting?

The Man Before the Mahatma (2012) by Charles DiSalvo. It’s a remarkable book about Gandhi’s life in South Africa as a young lawyer. It provides insights into Gandhi’s legal mind and how he fought laws that he found unjust. He would first violate that law so that he got arrested. And then when he was presented before the court, he would use the trial for raising his voice against the unjust laws. Whatever he would speak in the court, he would first submit it in the form of a written statement as he very well knew that the written word was more important than the word of mouth.

Among other anecdotes, I remember particularly one in which a judge asked Gandhi if he had read a certain book. Had there been any other lawyer, he would have readily given a false reply and wriggled out. But Gandhi told the judge that he would appear before him next only after he had read that book. And he did read the book and then presented himself before the judge. The book is also an interesting account of Gandhi’s legal practice and how he remained truthful in his profession unlike a majority of lawyers.

Would you say the Union government is doing enough for the museum or for promotion of Gandhian philosophy?

This government or that government, we have never been dependent on anyone other than the people. Gandhi never belonged to any government. Gandhi belongs to the people and so does this museum and library. We will go to the people and take the message. That is our strategy.

Photo by Vipin 
Photo by Vipin 
A Annamalai shows a khadi tricolour put on display at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi 

Would Gandhi have approved India emerging as one of the biggest importers of arms and exporting arms as well?

Understandably, we can’t phase out weapons all of a sudden, but disarmament is possible. India must take a lead instead of becoming a war economy. It should try to normalise relations with its immediate neighbours through different channels and then work in the direction of disarmament in the sub-continent.

In case there are governments of two countries which do not want to talk to each other, yet there can be trade ties and people-to-people relationships. Violence can never be a solution to the problems of humankind.

The Government is splurging money on advertising the Swachh Bharat Mission and claims it is furthering Mahatma Gandhi’s programme. But our cities, towns and rivers remain dirty.

We have abolished manual scavenging on paper but it’s still going on. Manual scavengers are dying in sewers. We have been building as many toilets as possible without giving it a thought as to who would clean them and from where water would come. Unless we understand that cleanliness is everybody’s job, this campaign can’t be a success.

While we can’t expect cleanliness to be the sole responsibility of the government, it should desist from spending huge money on advertisements and propagation of its own agenda. Swachh Bharat Mission should be a people’s movement and not the government’s movement.

Annamalai: “Between 1915 to 1945, when the entire world was morbidly obsessed with war, only one person in the world was talking about peace and non-violence. His name was Mahatma Gandhi”

Gandhi laid a lot of emphasis on Gram Swaraj and making villages self-reliant. But the migration from villages continues unabated and the Government is busy promoting smart cities.

There are a lot of factors responsible for pushing people from rural areas to urban areas. Then there is an element of attraction also. But we need to make agriculture as profitable as other businesses. Since agriculture is not a full-time job, so we have to create employment through rural-based industries to retain people in the rural area. While we have been obsessed with developing smart cities, we must also develop smart villages.

When we look at several burning issues confronting the country, on which Gandhi had strong opinions, it appears India is drifting away from the Gandhian way of life.

Most of our problems are direct manifestation of centralisation of the political power and economy. Power must be devolved to the local bodies and economy must be decentralised. Every village should be a republic in itself. Just concentrating on a few cities won’t give you a good picture of India.

If you are a military general, you have four-five big bombs and you have to destroy India, where will you throw them? Obviously, you will target the big cities and you would have the entire country destroyed. And for that matter, any layperson would do that. But if we have developed our villages as well and there is equitable development, it won’t be that easy to destroy the country. It is as simple as that.

Annamalai: “If someone reads a malicious social media post about Gandhi and starts abusing him, it doesn’t reflect badly on Gandhi, but on that particular person. If the person in question is so much concerned about the country, humankind and Gandhi, he must visit libraries, read books written on and by Gandhi and then frame an opinion about him”

Social media has become a platform to purvey fake news, disinformation and spread hate speech. How would Gandhi have reacted?

Someone like Gandhi would definitely have used this medium in a far more creative and constructive way to spread his message for larger social good. He would have been active on all the platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to reach as many people as possible.

India has undergone a tremendous change since the era of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation was ushered in. How do you view this change?

Till late 1980s, foreign investment was not at all allowed in the country. That was the strength of the ruling party and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. And eventually, we opened up everything. Today, we are not in control of our own economy. Now, what is happening is that it’s the market forces which are guiding every aspect of our life. Be it politics, media and even culture, everything is being controlled by the market.

Every crisis that we see is a manifestation of the same problem. We will have to do a course correction and it needs collective political courage. All political parties need to do some introspection.

When we have given away everything to the market, where does the idea of a welfare state stand? Remember, Gandhi was never opposed to the idea of big industries. But, at the same time, he was against handing over of big industries to private players for minting money. He strongly advocated that big industries must be owned by the government only.

How relevant is Gandhi in India today?

Gandhi is the only relevant force in the world. Is there an alternative to non-violence? No. If humankind is to exist harmoniously, it can only be possible if we follow Gandhian ideals.

His relevance can diminish for some time, but it can’t fade out completely. Ultimately, non-violence is the only relevant force to reckon with in this world. And he is not just relevant to India or south Asia, but to the entire world.

Between 1915 to 1945, when the entire world was morbidly obsessed with war, only one person in the world was talking about peace and non-violence. His name was Mahatma Gandhi.

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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