There could be no greater insult to Mahatama Gandhi's memory than the fact that the Government of India enforces a compulsory national holiday on his birthday, October 2. Among other valuable lessons, Bapu taught us that it is our dharmic duty to disobey bad laws.

Therefore, every single year since Manushi was founded in 1978 we have kept the office open and functioning on Gandhi's birthday, as a tribute to the memory of Bapu - the greatest karmayogi of our epoch. I even keep my own office at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies open and working on Gandhi Jayanti even though the rest of the institution is closed that day. On this issue, I am willing to accept whatever punishment or penalty the Government wants to impose on me for deliberately violating this enforced holiday.

Gandhi once wrote: "I have a horror of all isms, especially those that attach themselves to proper names". I have no doubt that of all the 'isms' he disliked "Tokenism" most. However, if the Government must indulge in tokenism on Gandhi Jayanti, it would be more appropriate if it encouraged government employees to spend that one day cleaning up their filthy offices and toilets with their own hands, and observe a maun vrat (fast of silence) for the day.

If those in power learnt to pay tribute to Gandhi's life by simple gestures like inculcating respect for physical cleanliness and encouraging their employees to keep their tables, their office rooms, corridors and toilets clean and orderly, it might trigger a transformation in their mind-set. A person who spends long hours everyday of his working life amidst the squalor, disorder and filth that have become the hallmarks of our sarkari offices is bound to have very low self-esteem. And people with low self-esteem easily become petty tyrants and extortionists.

Abandoned by the Congress

It is unfortunate that very few in the Congress Party take Gandhi's philosophy seriously enough to make it a guide for action in their political lives. Instead, it has become fashionable to cynically use his martyrdom as a sword to fight partisan and self serving political battles with one's opponents. After he had served their purpose, most Congressmen who took over the reins of power found his services, his philosophy, and his ideas altogether redundant and dispensable. Had Gandhi lived longer, he would have probably been prevented from playing a meaningful role in the nation's affairs - just as he was pushed aside on the issue of Partition and the kind of Constitution India needed and deserved after gaining political Independence.

The conduct of the Congress Party had so begun to depress Bapu that he recommended it be disbanded as a political Party and its workers spread out to villages for rural reconstruction so as to give way to new political formations. Many of those who genuinely believed in Gandhi's vision actually opted out of electoral politics and set up institutions devoted to rural reconstruction and gram swaraj. But most such people were systematically marginalized by Congress Party leaders who assumed power as the inheritors of British Raj. Similarly causes dear to Gandhi's heart, like the need for probity and transparency in public life, decolonizing of our education system as well as our machinery of governance suffered neglect after Independence.

Most depressing of all, since Indira Gandhi's days, the Congress party has often resorted to the politics engineering inter community conflicts, including riots, to polarize communal vote banks in their favor. Consequently, the image of politicians took a nosedive in post-Independence India. In the heydays of the freedom movement, Indian films would depict a khadi wearing person with a Gandhi cap on his head as a symbol of the spirit of freedom, a belief in swadeshi, a commitment to selflessly serving the poor and the deprived. However, in today's Bollywood films, a person sporting these symbols is commonly used as a symbol of hypocrisy, greed and corruption.

It is because his own Party stopped taking him seriously that most young people in India grow up thinking of Gandhi as a pious crank with very little relevance for the modern world. Even though many of the most important world leaders, statesmen and women who have played a creative ethical role in shaping world history - be it Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel, Aung Sang Sun Kui or the Dalai Lama - draw inspiration from Gandhi or feel connected with his world view, in our own country Gandhi is either worshipped in caricatured form or used as a meaningless icon.

Had Gandhi stayed alive, he is likely to have led satyagraha after satyagraha against the Congress government's policies in post-Independence India.

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The neglect of Gandhi's ideas and philosophy is also evident from the fact that we do not have even one world-class institution in India doing solid research in Gandhi's philosophy. Institutions built in Gandhi's memory such as the Gandhi Peace Foundation were hounded and virtually destroyed by Indira Gandhi for having opposed the Emergency. Many others are dying from callous neglect, indifference or active hostility as happened with Gandhi Vidyapeeth in Kashi.

Compare the facilities Gandhian institutions collectively offer with those named after Jawaharlal Nehru (such as the Nehru Memorial Library and Research Centre and Jawaharlal Nehru University or even Nehru Park in Delhi!) and you realize how little Gandhi matters for today's Congressmen. Let the Congress Party do a rough and ready survey to find out how many young Congressmen - municipal councilors, district chiefs, even the new generation of ministers - have ever seen, leave alone read a book on or by Gandhi and whether they believe his ideas have anything to offer them in their own battle for survival within the Congress Party.

Instead of attacking the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha for the murder of Gandhi, the leaders of the Congress Party owe them a debt of gratitude because had Gandhi stayed alive, he is likely to have led satyagraha after satyagraha against the Congress government's policies in post-Independence India. Godse's crime has helped the Congress set Gandhi aside, put him up on a stone pedestal, pay token tributes to his memory once or twice a year and occasionally use his quotations in speeches delivered in international forums to try to convince the rest of the world that the Indian government occupies the high moral ground.

Those of who take Gandhi seriously should focus on imbibing in our own lives the following basic principles that would show that we respect Gandhi's message and methods:

  • Adopt, as far as we are capable of them, truth and non-violence as the guiding principles of all our actions and thoughts. This includes modest efforts such as avoiding exaggeration, refraining from overstating our case. Most important of all, we must refrain from demonizing our opponents.

  • Ensure that the gap between our practice and our precept is as narrow as possible. If we lead by example, rather than sermons, people will more readily forgive us our mistakes, especially if we have the humility and honesty to openly admit them rather than adopt an offensive or defensive strategy to cover up for our errors.

  • Build a politics around consensus as far as possible, and try to win over our opponents with sound reasoning, by grounding our politics on principles of fair play and justice, rather than trying to browbeat them into submission or silence by virulent attack.

  • Strengthen the culture of treating politics as a sacred mission, rather than as a means to acquire the power to manipulate and subjugate fellow citizens. Power should be perceived as a limited and sacred trust rather than a means for self-aggrandizement.

  • Weigh each issue on merit and come up with creative solutions to problems rather than judge each issue through the prism of deadening ideologies, which become a substitute for creative ideas and promote servility of thought and emotion. The dead hand of ossified ideologies only creates stalemates and civil strife, which prevent India from moving along the path of progress and prosperity.

  • Work towards bridging the growing urban-rural, rich-poor divide as well as the new divide created by the dominance of English and the marginalization and neglect of all our regional languages.

  • Dismantle the existing colonial machinery of governance and build institutions that put real power in the hands of people to make governance accountable to citizens and transparent in its functioning. In short, steer our democracy towards swaraj.

Gandhi remained a seeker of 'truth', not in any abstract philosophical sense but in order to understand and be finely tuned to the needs and aspirations of his people with "Satya and Ahimsa" as his guiding lights. That is why his life and his message continue to inspire the best among politicians, thinkers, writers, artists, philanthropists and all those engaged in making our world more compassionate and just.