Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Nadurai village temple ritual.

Madurai village temple ritual: What do you know about us, our life, asks villagers

A centuries-old temple ritual in a Madurai village, where little girls are paraded and “offered” to the goddess, earned charges of being “exploitative” recently. Weeks later, as probing questions continue, villagers are angry at the intrusion into their lives

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Madurai | Updated: October 29, 2017 6:50:57 am
During the 15-day festival, devotees make offerings of painted clay dolls; (below) a video grab of the ritual, in which seven girls were ‘offered’ to the goddess. (Express photo: Arun Janardhanan)
Periyambillai Amabalakarar, the village elder in his late 70s, is angry, but manages a snarky smile. “What do you know about us peasants, about our life?” he says.
His village, Vellalur, about 30 km from Madurai town, has faced unsolicited attention over a centuries-old ritual held at its Ezhai Katha Amman temple last month, when little girls were “offered” to the local deity for a fortnight. Reports spoke of the “exploitative nature” of the “bizarre temple ritual”, as part of which seven “divine” girls chosen by the temple priest were made to parade in skirts, with only gold ornaments and garlands to cover their bare chests; in Vellalur, there’s anger at the sudden intrusion into their lives.
For centuries, youngsters from Vellalur have migrated to lands far away in search of jobs — Myanmar and Malaysia as indentured labourers in the 19th century, later to Iraq and Iran and more recently, to the Gulf. But despite its diaspora, Vellalur maintains a strong sense of its agrarian, rural self — evident in the posters across the village to mark the sixth death anniversary of a Jallikattu temple bull and flag posts erected by youths from the Thevar community, a politically powerful OBC group, in honour of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (an affinity that comes from their role in Bose’s Indian National Army).
Surrounded by fields that have mostly dried up due to the drought in the state, the Ezhai Katha Amman temple marks the centre of Vellalur village. It was here that the controversial ritual involving seven girls, selected from among 600 children from 60 villages surrounding Vellalur, began on September 19 and ended on October 4.
The unwavering faith of the villagers in the powers of Ezhnai Katha Amman, or ‘she who protects the poor’, stems from their belief that the goddess has answers to each of their problems. During the festival, devotees make offerings of painted clay dolls and place them at the feet of the deity. As a testimony to that faith, in a yard behind the temple, lie over 2,000 such dolls, each holding a silent tale of woe — from a woman who wants her child’s illness cured, a couple with fertility issues or a man without a job. Villagers also practise a rigorous, self-imposed period of abstinence, during which they deny themselves their favourite dishes and devote themselves to the goddess.
The temple is also a venue for crucial meetings held twice a month, where villagers settle disputes and everyday discord. These meetings are led by three ‘Ambalakarars’ — a chief and his two deputies — who are a legacy of the 7th-century Chola dynasty, which had an army base in Vellalur and whose soldiers, the Ambalakarars, held considerable clout.
In September, with activists up in arms over reports of the “primitive” temple ritual, Madurai District Collector K Veera Raghava Rao ordered an inquiry to find out if the girls were being harassed or abused during their 15-day stay at the temple. With the inquiry report ruling out abuse, the district administration refused to stay the ritual, saying the parents had willingly sent their children.
“The report submitted to us said the ritual was held with the consent of both parents and their children. We asked the villagers if they could avoid bare-chested children. However, we found that children who attended the event this year and even those in the previous years were all between 6 and 10,” said a senior official in the Madurai district administration.
The activists, however, raised more questions — “Why can’t they carry out the ritual when children wearing blouses?”; “Did the parents of these children take their consent before sending them to the temple?” — and even moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) against the practice.
Subramanian Ambalakarar, one of the two deputy Ambalakarars, says he is “hurt and shocked” to hear these questions. “Unlike children in cities, it’s normal for girls in these parts, at least up to the age of 10, to roam around in just skirts. Even when we take them to Sabarimala (for the annual pilgrimage), they are usually bare-chested. Does it imply we are being indecent or that we are exploiting them? Aren’t we parents? Why do you presume we wouldn’t know what’s right for our children and that you would?” says an angry Subramanian.
In his late 40s, Subramanian is a graduate from American College in Madurai and holds a diploma from Madras Christian College in Chennai. He says that some years ago, his two daughters took part in the ritual, but were never “chosen by the goddess”.
After an awkward pause, he continues, “You people in cities send your little girls for tuition and swimming classes. While you have the confidence to send your children to male teachers or trainers, you don’t trust parents in villages with their own children. And you call us and our rituals primitive?”
Talking of the ritual, he says most children chosen by the priest are below 10. “Over 600 children come with their parents and relatives from 60 villages around here. Of those, we select seven and they spend the next 15 days in the temple, where they are treated as goddesses.”
Manthayan Ambalakarar, the third Ambalakarar, says, “There are 100 more people in the temple premises throughout those 15 days — not strangers, but the parents of these girls, their relatives and grandparents. Besides, the girls who are chosen to be goddesses sleep with their mothers inside the temple.”
Manthayan points out that the village has no police station in a 10-km radius and that it’s the temple that is their moral compass. “Does it mean that we are primitive? Hundreds of youths from this village work abroad, mostly in the Gulf, and they come here for the 15-day festival,” he says, pointing out to all the other markers of a ‘modern’ society — government and private schools, four Public Health Centres, ration shops and four government-run liquor shops — in Vellalur and surrounding villages.
Subramanian, the deputy Amabalakarar, says, “What the Centre does to Tamil Nadu is what activists and the media are doing to us. Just like the government in Delhi imposes Hindi and tells us that there is only one culture, you people in cities dictate how we should live and celebrate our festivals.”
Sudha Ramalingam, a senior lawyer of the Madras High Court who, at the height of the controversy, said that “such practices” would affect “the psyche of the children”, now admits that people tend to judge others using their own yardsticks. “The question is whether is it right for us to do an objective analysis on a society in which we have no major role? Vellalur is a primary endogamous society and their standards vary from my secondary exogamous society. While we saw this ritual as an aberration, theirs is a society where everyone knows each other. So they will have their inherent systems to check crimes.”
As the sun beats down on Vellalur, farmers and farm labourers continue to work on their parched land on either side of the village road. On trees that line this road are talismans, little bundles tied to the branches. They’ll stay that way, biding their time until the goddess “unties them” and frees them of their burdens, pains and sorrows

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Sabarimala and triple talaq

Sabarimala and triple talaq: The two situations are different, courts cannot see them the same way

October 24, 2018, 2:00 AM IST  in TOI Edit Page | Edit PageIndia | TOI
Many people are keen that temples like Sabarimala should remove restrictions on women devotees, but also that this come about through religious reform from within the community, rather than a court verdict. Some may believe the recent Supreme Court ruling enforcing reform promotes secularism, in fact it does the opposite.
So should the state – government, legislature, or court – never intervene in religious practices? What about the banning of sati, caste discrimination and, as happened recently, instant triple talaq? There, i believe the state was justified in intervening. What is the distinction, you ask? Plenty.
Before addressing the differences from those situations, it is important to understand that the prevailing Indian iteration of secularism is different from what the term usually means in modern democracies, which is separation of church and state. This was discussed in this column earlier. As should only be expected, India’s attempt to “treat all religions equally” is plagued by subjectivity that undermines secularism.
This subjectivity has led to a bizarre situation, where the majority religion in India experiences extraordinary interference from the state, unlike anything seen elsewhere. It is almost as if the Indian state distrusts Hindus and, throwing aside all pretence of secularism, exercises direct control over their religious institutions.
Illustration: Uday Deb
In India, places of worship of Hinduism, and Hinduism alone, experience the following: control and management by government including altering religious rituals; government control over administrative and financial decisions including diverting income for other purposes; temple income subject to tax; government role in the management of educational institutes run by religious bodies; ban on preferential hiring within the faith if the institute receives government funding; and so on.
While some of these may make sense in principle, such as non-discriminatory hiring by institutes availing government funds, it is simply unfathomable why this ought to apply to only one religion. And provisions like government administrators having final say on temple rituals of only one religion, besides indicating systemic bias, are decidedly non-secular by any standard.
This kind of state interference in religion is peculiar. There are theistic states that discriminate against religions other than the official one (think Pakistan or Saudi Arabia). There were and are theistic states that behave in a somewhat secular manner, with much greater tolerance of non-official religions (think of the late Ottoman Empire or present day Dubai). There are secular states that are perceived to exercise bias in favour of the majority religion (Turkey in recent years). But India seems to be unique, the only democratic, secular republic that meddles in the places of worship of only one religion, that of the majority population.
So what about those other religious reforms that came about through state intervention? Surely, we must all agree that banning sati, untouchability, and instant triple talaq are good things? Yes, absolutely. However, there are two distinctions between those and the restrictions at temples in Sabarimala, Puri and the like. Both are well-demonstrated with examples from India as well as the US, the democratic republic with the oldest and deepest commitment to separation of church and state.
First, the state has a responsibility for each citizen’s individual constitutional rights that transcend the rights of the religious group to which he or she may belong. The classic example is the US Supreme Court’s ruling that a child’s immunisation cannot be dispensed with because the adults in her religion deem it against their faith.
India’s prohibition on sati, caste discrimination and instant triple talaq fall in this category, making it entirely rational for the state to intervene to ensure the citizen’s individual rights. These issues impact citizens in their everyday life, and our Constitution mandates that the state ensure equality for all.
This idea is further embellished by a contrarian US Supreme Court ruling, entitling a baker to refuse to sell cake for same sex weddings on the basis of his religious beliefs. While this has dismayed some, the underlying principle has a certain consistency (think of a Jewish or Muslim butcher refusing to sell pork). The disappointed couple can find an alternative baker, whereas a child whose immunisation is blocked by parents on religious grounds has only the state to aid her health.
The second distinction about the state intervening in the practices at a place of worship, as opposed to citizens’ daily life in the wider world, is the venue itself. While it is every citizen’s prerogative to practice any religion, or none, it cannot be every individual’s right to impose his version of a religion on others who profess it. Thus, while he may practice religion as he pleases in private, in a religion’s place of group worship, the rituals, subject to not harming anyone, must reflect the group consensus.
Treating a place of worship like an office or a college will not work. Female college students often assert their right to wear clothing of their choice on campus, and rightly so. But no visitor to a Buddhist stupa or Sikh gurdwara, man or woman, would insist on violating their dress codes. Similarly, many mosques in the UK seat women only at the back, and while their government would not countenance such segregation in buses, this it considers the business of the congregation.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Sabarimala: A place for devotees, not tourists

Sabarimala: A place for devotees, not tourists

October 9, 2018, 11:19 PM IST  in The right lens | India | TOI

The current Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple has forced practising Hindus including pious women devotees who prefer to worship in the sanctity of their homes to protest in streets. The verdict is touted as the big win for women although it has hurt the sentiments of many staunch devotees which include women. However, the lone dissenting voice in the verdict which also happens to be of a woman very aptly warns that challenging religious practices through PILs by people who are neither devotees nor aggrieved parties could cause damage to the secular fabric of the country.
No wonder that the verdict on Sabarimala has triggered an outrage among devotees and there has been a demand for the filing of a review petition. It is an irony that this verdict aims at promoting equal opportunity for women in a state like Kerala where matriarchy has been the norm and women are perhaps more emancipated compared to other states of India. In 2016, women were allowed into the Shani Shingnapur temple although as reported by a News channel only tourists have availed of the change in law and entered into the temple. The devotees have stuck to their beliefs and women from the surrounding villages have not entered the temple. The beliefs of devotees can never be trampled by legal decrees. Hence stepping into the sacred places of worship in a bid to establish equality before the law for the weaker gender could be a misjudgment.
Whether a menstruating woman is polluting the temple, is not the issue. In fact, menstruation is celebrated in many temples such as the Kamakhya temple and festivals such as Rajo symbolizing the menstruation of mother Earth is a mass celebration in Odisha, till date. Hinduism as a religion embodies an amalgamation of diverse and sometimes contradictory beliefs and practices. At the same time, Hinduism is perhaps the most adaptable religion and has evolved with time by getting rid of unethical practices by the believers themselves. However, today the question that every Hindu is asking and perhaps apprehending is that – Will the courts destroy the sanctity of our places of worship in the name of equality?
Places of worship are regulated by norms laid down by believers who are responsible for setting up and maintaining these places. Consequently not only Hindu temples but in all places of worship, there have been rules on entry to these places. However, unlike other religions, places of worship for Hindus are diverse in nature and spirit. There is no temple which is same as the other. Somewhere Vishnu is worshipped, elsewhere Shiva and in the Lingaraj Temple situated in Bhubaneswar, both Hara and Hari symbolizing Shiva and Vishnu are worshipped. There is never a one size fits all structure of practices for believers of Hinduism. Only the believer who in turn is the worshipper understands these nuances of practices followed in the sacred spaces of temples.
Places of worship are for believers and not for tourists although these places have always attracted tourists. However, there is a big difference between the believer or pilgrim and the tourist or traveller. While the pilgrim is driven by a desire to earn religious fervour from the sacredness of the place of worship, the tourist is mostly motivated by the curiosity to explore the physical boundaries in order to fulfil the spirit of adventure and novelty that such places may offer. Hence the tourist longs for the satiation of sensory pleasures that the physical space offers whereas the pilgrim seeks communion with forces beyond the boundaries of the physical and the rational through unflinching faith.
A civilized nation owes its citizens a comfortable environment in which faith can flower. Destruction of faith in the name of equality or in the guise of rationality must never be executed. India as a nation draws its uniqueness from the diverse faiths that have been mothered over centuries and these faiths should not be dispensed with under any pretext.   
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

On Sabarimala - Ashish Dhar


On Sabarimala

The recent verdict on the entry of women in the Sabarimala shrine serves as a grim reminder of the wide gap between the colonial moorings of the modern Indian State and the spiritual aspirations of the Indian people.

The Sabarimala verdict is not surprising. It is a reflection of the times we live in and the values we live by. The verdict truly imbibes the zeitgeist of modern India, a once-colonised nation now blinded by the shiny veneer of modernity and ever-so-eager to lose what it has learned to call the baggage of a savage past. Tragically, the Indian state ends up compulsively toeing the prejudiced line that a stiff-upper-lipped zealot from a bygone era had cunningly drawn to the chagrin of our wise but helpless ancestors.

There is nothing much to ponder on as far as the judgement goes as its purport can be effortlessly gleaned from watching a random shouting match on a TV news channel, where a one-hour session pretty much exhausts the stock of the favourite buzzwords of the exemplars of India’s public morality. It is no exaggeration to say that equality, secularism, tolerance and maybe a dozen more words define the limits of the conceptual universe of the progressive Indian. It is a script done to death every night and faithfully resurrected the next morning.

Let us take a break from the predictable and dull rhetoric of the Indian intelligentsia and try to comprehend what the verdict means to the traditional worshippers of Lord Ayyappa, the very people whose devotion has kept the sanctity of the shrine intact. But this begs the question - what is sanctity after all? Is there anything in life that lies beyond the realm of rationality? What is the connection between rational thought and language? And can the human tongue capture even a small fraction of the infinite expressions of the Universe, that which we call reality?

The meaning of justice

Justice comprises of distributing things of value, tangible and intangible, in such a way that every member of society gets their due. Ideally, justice must not just be delivered but it must be seen to have been delivered, that is, all parties must feel deep down that they have got what they deserved. In isolated legal battles, this may arguably be the norm but in societal matters, true justice is clearly unachievable. It is an ideal, something that must always be pursued even while realizing that it will never be achieved.

Different societies in the course of their histories have defined justice in different ways. In the globalised world order of today, dominated by theories originating in the cultural milieu of 18th century Europe, there are three major ways to approach the concept of justice: welfare, freedom and virtue. Given that it is impossible for justice to be delivered to every single living being, the welfare school makes it about maximizing the happiness of the society as a whole. This is at odds with the freedom camp, which concerns itself with the freedom and liberty of the individual thereby leading to the inevitable conflict of my right versus yours. And finally, there are those who believe that justice must serve the function of promoting a good and virtuous life, deriving that definition from another set of assumptions about what it means to be alive.

The Sabarimala verdict has limited itself to exploring justice purely in the framework of individual freedom, which seems to be the preferred approach of the Indian judiciary on most matters of social relevance. It must be noted that there are some cases where maximizing happiness is the explicit rationale provided in the judgement but this usually comes into play when there is no conflict with anyone’s individual rights. There have also been times when the judiciary has disallowed petitions or the government has imposed serious restrictions on free speech to uphold the freedom of religion of a particular group or in the interest of social harmony.
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My right vs yours

Freedom and liberty of the individual being the focus of our justice system, situations of conflicting rights are commonplace. When a conflict has a bearing on the lives of a large number of people, as in the case of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the courts are required to take a call about which set of rights is more ‘fundamental’ and therefore, worthier of being protected. Accordingly, some rights are more important than others because other rights are, in fact, dependent on them. To drive home the point, if people are not physically safe, then all other rights become irrelevant. Further, those rights that do not overlap or interfere with another person’s identical rights are treated as more important than others. By this logic, the presence of a woman inside a temple is not in conflict with the presence of other men and women and therefore, her right to enter is inviolable.

This, as you may already know, is the broad reasoning that the five-judge constitution bench followed while delivering the Sabarimala verdict, striking down with a 4:1 vote the centuries-old tradition that banned the entry of women of menstruating age inside the temple. As Justice Nariman stated in the court proceedings,

“Rules disallowing women in Sabarimala are unconstitutional and violative of Article 21.”

But was the traditional rule at Sabarimala motivated by the intent to deny personal liberty to women devotees? Women devotees of Ayyappa who intervened in the petition don’t think so. Interestingly, the only dissenting voice in the Constitution bench that delivered the verdict is a woman who is sympathetic with them.


As stated earlier, the purpose of this article is not to explain the judgement and weave a pretentious web of legal jargon around the issue. Rather, it is to shine some light on the broader principles of morality and justice in the context of the verdict. For both of these are deeply intertwined concepts that inform our sense of well-being as a society. While justice, as explained above, is the external distribution of valuable things, morality consists of the feelings evoked and their rationalization.

Feelings are an intuitive response to stimulus and a part of our evolutionary makeup as a species. Morality is, accordingly, the intellectual framework that cultures build to manage our intuitive reactions to social stimuli. When we see someone hurting a child, we are provoked to protect him/her spontaneously because we feel like it. When we verbalize our instinct to protect the child, we summon the shared principles of morality and are likely to say something like, “How could that evil woman hurt that poor thing?”.

Moral intuitions operate at two levels:
  1. Me vs Us
  2. Us vs Them
In ‘Me vs Us’ situations, our intuitions largely take care of conflicts by triggering emotions that suppress individual behavioural patterns arising from self-interest detrimental to the greater good of the collective. The universal rejection of theft as a means of earning a living is a good example of this archetype at play. The ‘Us vs Them’ scenario is more complicated and the source of most strife in the modern world. In this setting, there are two conflicting moral systems at play, true to their internally consistent logic. ‘Us vs Them’ has come to dominate public discourse as a result of unprecedented globalisation, which has dumped different cultures, religions and belief systems together asking them to interact with each other without specifying the rules of engagement and forcing them to mend their ways according to the demands of modern life.

Of course, in the endeavour to work out a common currency of engagement between this group and that, new norms that are aligned with the socio-political dogmas of the time are established. These norms are codified as laws and much of what is touted as progress is driven on the back of these laws. So, what happens to the traditional understanding of right and wrong as a result? It is labelled as regressive and outdated and people who subscribe to the tradition are forced to conform to an arbitrary code imposed on them from above. This problem is even more acute in countries like India that bore the brunt of imperialism. Here, a tradition – no matter how profound and pragmatic – is likely to be discarded simply because it is traditional.

Not many people are aware that what we call modern jurisprudence is - in large measure - a glorified apologia for imperialism and its prime engine, globalised capitalism. Modern law attained the aura of infallibility due to the intellectual churning accompanying the industrial revolution as a part of which, law evolved to serve the interests of the ruling elite, whether they are wealthy capitalists or powerful bureaucrats or both. No wonder then that our law is absolutely unequipped to deal with the severe ecological crisis that humanity faces today. It simply does not have the teeth to take on the powerful establishment whose extractive practices have severely damaged the earth’s biosphere. This has been the story of law for several centuries now, not just in India but all over the world. Fritjof Capra and Ugo Mattei, commenting on the development of the modern legal profession, write:

“Overall, the goals of [medieval folk law] were inclusion and community rather than exclusion and individualization; tradition promoted the diffusion of responsibility and social duties rather than the accumulation and concentration of power. One of the long-lasting effects of legal modernization was to “outlaw” this model of social organization. Although these local, highly context-specific, pluralistic variations were endowed with tremendous flexibility and great capacity to hold communities together, they were not considered “real law” by the members of the legal profession – judges, barristers, attorneys, and scholars. Indeed, this social organization opposed the two winning institutions of modernity, private property and state sovereignty, which worked together to dismantle this traditional system…”

The authors are speaking of 18th century Europe but it is equally relevant to India of the 21st century.


Let’s take a step back and try to understand if the Sabarimala issue even qualifies for applying the “Us vs Them” moral paradigm. Here is a major place of pilgrimage with its unique tradition and customs, which belong to the esoteric realm. As such, the logic for the exclusion of certain women from the shrine is unintelligible to outsiders. Those who do not subscribe to the beliefs associated with the temple can have no stake in the ritualistic affairs of the temple. Were all Hindu temples, or even all Ayyappa temples, barred to women, perhaps the question of the right to worship would be admissible. But then women are free to worship the very same deity in any of the hundreds of other temples scattered across the country. Now, just because the State does not understand the spiritual principle behind an exceptional practice, it cannot dismiss it as superstition. And even if it regards it as a superstition (all ritual is superstition by the standards of modernity), it has no authority to interfere in it. What if the courts declare that the practice of worshipping pre-pubescent girls during Navratris is discriminatory towards boys? Would we be expected to comply?

By refusing to let go of their obsession with individual rights and treating the issue of entry of women in the Sabarimala shrine as an “Us vs Them” problem, the Indian judiciary has exposed its deeply colonised mindset. The natives continue to be ordered around and told what is right for them. This imposition of alien values on the native customs of the land implies that “their” truth claims are legitimate while “ours” are disingenuous and in the name of equality, the Indian state is actively smothering the prized diversity and spirituality of this ancient land. Every single match between Us and Them is fixed and there are no prizes for guessing who the winner is. The tournament has just begun.

Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Krishna and Karna

In the Mahabharat, Karna asks Lord Krishna - "My mother left me the moment I was born. Is it my fault ?

I did not get the education from Dhronacharya because I was considered not a Kshatriya.

Parshu-Raam taught me but then gave me the curse to forget everything, when he came to know I was a Son of Kunti and belong to Kshatriya.

A cow was accidentally hit by my arrow & its owner cursed me for no fault of mine.

I was disgraced in Draupadi's Swayamvar.

Even Kunthi finally told me the truth only to save her other sons.

Whatever I received was through Duryodhana's charity.
So how am I wrong in taking his side ???"

**Lord Krishna replies: "Karna, I was born in a jail.

Death was waiting for me even before my birth.

The night I was born I was separated from my birth parents.

From childhood, you grew up hearing the noise of swords, chariots, horses, bow, and arrows. I got only cow herd's shed, dung, and multiple attempts on my life even before I could walk!

No Army, No Education. I could hear people saying I am the reason for all their problems.

When all of you were being appreciated for your valour by your teachers I had not even received any education. I joined Gurukula of Rishi Sandipani only at the age of 16!

You are married to a girl of your choice. I didn't get the girl I loved & rather ended up marrying those who wanted me or the ones I rescued from demons.

I had to move my whole community from the banks of Yamuna to far off Sea shore to save them from Jarasandh. I was called a coward for running away!!

If Duryodhana wins the war you will get a lot of credit. What do I get if Dharmaraja wins the war? Only the blame for the war and all related problems...

Remember one thing, Karna. Everybody has Challenges in life to face.


But what is Right (Dharma) is known to your Mind (conscience). No matter how much unfairness we face, how many times we are disgraced, how many times we fall, what is important is how we respond at that time.

Life's unfairness does not give you license to walk the wrong path...

In conversation with Tridip Suhrud, India’s foremost Gandhi scholar

In conversation with Tridip Suhrud, India’s foremost Gandhi scholar

Tridip Suhrud, 52, is a multilingual scholar and translator renowned as an authority on Gandhi and his intellectual tradition. While he was director of Sabarmati Ashram, he had helped create the Gandhi Heritage Portal, a free digital archive running into over 1.4 million pages. Armed with knowledge of all three languages in which Gandhi wrote, Suhrud has brought into the public domain literature on the man unpublished for long. Now professor and director of Archives at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, he is working on the diary of Manu Gandhi, a companion of Gandhi, that covers the crucial period of 1942 to 1948. He is also collaborating with other scholars on projects involving a tranche of Gandhi’s letters to his sons from prison and testimonies of over 7,000 indigo cultivators recorded in Champaran, Bihar, by Gandhi and others. Suhrud’s latest work is an annotated and contextualised edition of Gandhi’s An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Seated in his study in CEPT Archives, he spoke to Open about the life and times of one of the most discussed leaders in modern history, a god-like figure for many and a whipping boy for many others. Edited excerpts:
How did you discover Gandhi?
My introduction to Gandhi happened through pleasurable ways, not through political theory or history. It happened through literature. For a long time, the only language I could comprehend was Gujarati, which in a certain period [1915-1940] was imbued with Gandhi’s presence. Virtually every poet, novelist and writer engaged with him, and therefore my early exposure to Gandhi was through them. In Gujarati literature, that is called the Gandhi yug. My introduction to him was mediated by stories, poems, essays, travelogues and translations people around him wrote, and you began to wonder who this person was. That is how my journey began. And when I started, I didn’t realise the journey would take hold of my life. It has been like that for three decades. I have sought to understand modern India through the Gandhian intellectual tradition, which doesn’t include Gandhi’s writings alone, but those of others as well. The likes of Vinoba Bhave and Kishorlal were at the forefront. Mahadev Desai was a great scholar of the Bhagavad Gita. Their works kept me going. To approach Gandhi thereafter is to go through his writings, and it is a serious commitment—which means reading 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Gandhi. Every serious scholar of Gandhi has to do that. It is nothing unusual. The advantage I probably had is I read and write in all three languages in which Gandhi wrote: Gujarati, Hindi and English. I began to read Gandhi in three tongues and that is how you begin to capture the cadence of his language. My work has been to engage with him through his writings, contextualise them, and so on—and it is not something that’s fashionable. But it has given me intellectual joy. Comparing editions and to be able to annotate them (including Hind Swaraj  and An Autobiography) has been great fun. My work is centred on understanding Gandhi’s textual practices, which is akin to understanding his practices as such.
What are you working on next?
Several books. I am also trying to understand the meaning of Gandhi’s silences and his actions—what does the act of walking mean for him? What does it mean for him not to eat salt, to pray, to spin the wheel, and so on. Why does Gandhi think that salt is something that could shake the foundations of an empire? He has thought a lot about salt since he was in South Africa [before 1915]. He mentions in Hind Swaraj [1909] that there is injustice over salt. As part of his dietary experiments, he stopped eating salt. It was also part of his habit of cultivating a palate in which you are not hooked to taste… What I am saying is he did not hit upon an idea like salt by mere accident. It was a long process. What interest me are these aspects of Gandhi.
When he comes back from South Africa aged 45, he is a fully formed man. Then India begins to surprise him and he begins to surprise India
My work in the past several years has been also to draw attention to people around Gandhi, whose lives and writings illuminate his life. One of them, of course, is Manu [his grandniece]. We know she joins him at the young age of 14, and then grows into being the only constant companion he had during his last phase. The letters she has preserved have become an important part of the Gandhian archive. My attempt is also to bring out what has been hitherto unavailable about him. That is the second aspect of my work.
The third is that, as a caretaker of Sabarmati Ashram, my work was to bring the archive into the public domain through the Gandhi Heritage Portal. We began modestly, but it is the largest repository of information on Gandhi, running into 1.4 million pages. It is available free.
How often do you think about Gandhi?
That is the only thing I think about. See, the Ashram is a special place. You keep wondering as to why hundreds and thousands come to the Ashram every day. We once did a kind of a survey over three days in December 2015 or 2016, and we found that per day, 46 languages were spoken at the Ashram. And when you spend a large part of your day there, you engage with the community, visitors, through archives, library and all… I rarely thought of anything else while I was there.
Is Gandhi the intellectual often overshadowed by Gandhi the politician? Isn’t it surprising that Gandhi wrote so much despite being so busy?
No. It should not come as a surprise because Gandhi was also a man of letters, both figuratively and literally. The Collected Works alone include 33,000 letters he had written to people. He communicated—and that was how he primarily communicated—and engaged with the people of India and the rest of the world. From 1904, he has been a newspaper person and continued to own, write and bring out publications such as  Young IndiaIndian OpinionHarijan. He wrote weekly columns for them. And sometimes more than once a week. He was a constant writer. We also know that he wrote incessantly and mostly using both hands. As someone who had to deal with his handwriting, I often prefer the Gandhi who writes with his left hand to the one who writes with his right. It is somewhat laboured but far more legible. He wrote on trains and woke up at the wee hours to write. What should come as a surprise is how little we think of Gandhi as an intellectual. We think of him as a person of action, but we forget that Gandhi read copiously—he read all the time. His one lament was that he was not able to read enough. Very few people know that the first public library of Ahmedabad [MJ Library] began with a donation of 10,000 books that Gandhi gave. The most delightful thing about him is that when he was anticipating a sentence, he began to make reading lists. I was reading a letter he wrote to his son Devdas: ‘This time I have decided not to ask for books from the prison because I have 200 books waiting to be read.’
What kind of books did he read?
He read every major thinker of his time. He also read literature. He not only read books on philosophy and political economy, but also technology and religion. He read very deeply on Indic intellectual traditions. There were people around him who also read as much. Mahadev Desai was an intellectual of a high order, yet he performed the role of Gandhi’s secretary. He was the one who brought Tagore to Gujarati. Others included the likes of Pyarelal Nayyar, Mashruwala, JC Kumarappa, Acharya Kripalani and Shankarlal Banker. I would also include Dr Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru in the Gandhian intellectual tradition. Gandhi engages with these people all the time.
Gandhi did not hit upon an idea like salt by mere accident. It was a long process. What interest me are these aspects of him
Did Gandhi stall Ambedkar’s rise in Indian politics, as some allege?
The Ambedkar-Gandhi debate is one of the greatest debates of modern India. It was the most ennobling debate that we have had. What Ambedkar is able to teach Gandhi, neither Gandhians nor Ambedkarites are able to recognise. Thanks to his engagement with Ambedkar, Gandhi begins to understand a fundamental category of life: humiliation. Gandhi had understood humiliation only in the racial context, as a subject of the Empire, but not from the viewpoint of a lower-caste person. Gandhi talked of untouchability as a sin. Ambedkar taught him that there is a category more fundamental than sin: humiliation. That actually broadens Gandhi’s vision. He becomes a better human being and a thinker afterwards. Does he go as far as Ambedkar would have liked him to go? No. Is there a failing there? Yes. Are there shortcomings? Most certainly. But I think both Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar become larger than themselves through their encounter… Dr Ambedkar was a towering intellect and perhaps the most gifted intellectual in Nehru’s Cabinet. Some of the roles he played in Independent India came to him because of who he was, and some others because Gandhi insisted there can be no Government without Dr Ambedkar. Mind you, it was not a concession. It was, in fact, a recognition that this man has a lot to contribute to the country—the framing of the Constitution being just one of them. I have always felt that pitting Gandhi against Ambedkar is not going to serve the cause of fighting either against untouchability or all forms of humiliation. Gandhi and Ambedkar put together make for a far greater force than one can comprehend. After all, theirs were not personal fights but ideological divergences that kept altering. They were a formidable force as allies as they forged ahead with the task of rebuilding a just and modern India.
Are you convinced there were no personal hostilities?
I do not think so. I was told this moving story when Pyarelal lived in Connaught Place [Delhi]. One day [a few months after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948], he was walking back from a coffee house to his little apartment. An official car stopped next to him and out came Dr Ambedkar running. He had a wedding card in his hand. Then he told Pyarelal, “Bapu would have approved” [of Ambedkar’s decision to marry Savitri, his second wife]. So I think there might have been moments of rancour. There are moments when he is appalled by Gandhi. There are moments when he is unable to get along with Gandhi’s associates. But I don’t think there was animus.
But people often quote Ambedkar selectively for political purposes.
These things happen. Each group of followers makes choices of this kind. But there are always those who are looking at something that is not selective, something that enables rather than disables. How well did Gandhi understand untouchability?
The criticism that Gandhi didn’t understand untouchability enough is fair. The question is, does he make an honest attempt to understand it? Does he make a life-long attempt? Does he move away from his early positions? The answer to all of this is ‘yes’. Why he doesn’t go far enough is probably because of his cognition. Among modern Indians—and I would include Tagore, Nehru, Patel, Aurobindo and Jinnah among them—who else engages with untouchability with the sense of having committed a sin other than Gandhi? His engaging with the subject was crucial. At least thanks to him, a large number of Indians not born Dalit began to comprehend better how dehumanising untouchability is. They did not think much about it before.
The diaries of Manu are expected to uncover a lot of details about the post-1947 phase of Gandhi, whom she calls ‘the lonely pilgrim’
Was Gandhi dissuaded from addressing caste fissures because he was preoccupied with uniting people for the freedom struggle?
I don’t think so. He was not afraid of divisions. Otherwise why would he, at the height of success in mobilising people, soon after the Dandi March, abandon the political project and dive deep into the social project [at the apex of which was the campaign against untouchability]? What did Gandhi do between 1932 and 1942? The only thing he talked about was untouchability. In what came to be known as his ‘Harijan tours’, he crisscrossed the country tirelessly, trying to talk sense into Indian people, that we are probably unfit for freedom.
Lately he has become a whipping boy for the extreme right and the left alike.
Which is fine… See, there are three main assumptions we have of Gandhi [depending on how groups look at him]. One is more of an expectation that he should be perfect. Why? Do we have that expectation from anyone else in this world? The other stems from the need that he should always be available to us. When there is a crisis in our collective life, we expect Gandhi to provide an answer. The third is that Gandhi is the source of all evils. It is a strange predicament that we have created for ourselves.
To what extent were Gandhi’s experiments shaped by his voracious reading?
Deeply. You give him a book that inspires him and he translates that into a philosophical programme [as he did by establishing the Phoenix Settlement in South Africa after reading John Ruskin’s Unto This Last]. He would read a book on the body, on healing, on naturopathy, and want to experiment on himself. He would read about diets and pursue dietary experiments. A lot of his experiments emerged as a conversation with texts, practices, traditions and so on. In An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, there are references to a cultural trend in Manchester [UK] of people skipping breakfast, and then he comes up with a decision to follow that immediately. He is very contemporary in that sense. He is constantly making and unmaking himself.
Did the West shape him more than India?
Initially, the young man who goes to London is an unformed intellect. He is curious and has read stuff. But at 18, he is no intellectual by any measure. He is thrown into this great metropolis of the world which offers him intellectual excitements. He begins to read Latin, learn about vegetarianism, picks up from all those disenchanted with modernity, gets in touch with trade unions, studies Christianity and so on. To deny that he was influenced by Western intellectual traditions would be to deny the possibilities of understanding Gandhi. And then he began a meticulous study of Islam, intellectual and philosophical thought, etcetera. He is always fascinated by people of faith, but he realises that his calling is different from theirs. He is deeply moved by the personal life of Jesus. He is attracted to the life of Prophet Muhammad. He constantly meditates upon the life of Socrates and also the story of Prahlad. He is moved by big ideas. Big figures come to him as lamp posts. Gandhi has always been in touch with the world around him.
What did he learn in South Africa?
Many things. His idea of Indian social life expands widely. South Africa provided him his first intimate contact with Islam and Muslims. And also with the people of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and so on. His understanding of the poverty of India and its political economy comes from there. His understanding of law and the Empire comes from there. He pioneers what today is known as the Public Interest Litigation. His understanding of the power of satyagraha and the printed word comes from there. South Africa in very large measure forms Gandhi. When he comes back to India aged 45, he is a fully formed man. Then India begins to surprise him and he begins to surprise India.
Why did right wing forces try to denigrate him?
I don’t think there is denigration. There is unease. I think one has to choose words carefully here. Why does Gandhi cause deep unease? Because of his social, philosophical cultural vision. And thanks to the kind of life he leads. Are the right wing the only ones who are ill at ease with him? No. Even his followers were. But what is unnerving is that some people thought India would be better served without him. Yes, there is a very deep unease. We don’t know what to do with him. And that unease still remains. The significance and the salience of Gandhi is that he is not dead. Why else do we need to whip a man 70 years after you killed him with the finality of three bullets?
Gandhi talked of untouchability as a sin. Ambedkar taught him that there is a category more fundamental than sin: humiliation
Of all those opposed to him, wasn’t it only the Hindu Right that wanted him dead?
Listen, the fact remains that he had to be killed, and we found it desirable to do so. I don’t think it is the guilt of one individual or group. It was a collective responsibility.
Why do you say that?
I say that because it achieved two things. One is that his killing brought an end to the mindless violence that followed India’s Partition. He has said in his final months that the only proof of non-violence he could give was to die a violent death. It is a strange formulation that only people who think seriously of martyrdom the way he did could make. Second, his death also gives India a period of relatively less strife for more than 15 years, where a democratic project, an institution-building project becomes easier than imagined. Those were the two noteworthy gifts of that death. That he would be killed, he had no doubt about. That was not the first attempt on his life. Did he fear death? No. Did he fear a violent death? Certainly not. What he feared was a purposeless death. Would we have liked him to die of flu and malaria and typhoid? He wanted a certain kind of demonstration of his faith, and I think in that sense Ashis Nandy is right: that he co-authored his own assassination. It is a perceptive insight. It would have bothered him and bothered us if his were a purposeless death. The culmination of his life in a violent act at a particular juncture in India’s moral history is very important. The country somehow missed a great opportunity in his death. Very few people realise this: Ramdas, Gandhi’s son, held out this moral possibility to us soon after the great man’s death—to abolish the death penalty. But the Indian state failed him and fails us today. What if the Indian state were to say, ‘We abolish the death penalty with the abolition of this penalty for Gandhi’s assassin?’ It would have been a great moral victory for the state. I’m sure Gandhi would have been very uneasy with the death sentence [of his assassin Nathuram Godse].
Have you ever thought about why Gandhi never wanted to join the government?
It is such a trivial question. Why would he want to join the government? Governments are important for us. It was not important for him. Why would holding an office of power be of such significance to Gandhi? It would have been anomalous to think of Gandhi wanting to hold political power.
You have worked on a book on the tragic life of his son Harilal.
Yes, it was a tragic life, but Gandhi wasn’t entirely responsible for it. Do you want him to be a normal middle-class father? On one hand, we want him to be perfect, and, on the other, a middle-class father who would take care of the petty interests of his descendants? No. Both are not possible. And Gandhi had often made it clear that his notion of family had altered. It was a failure of a dialogue [between Harilal and Gandhi], but what is our expectation from Gandhi? Turning his political and moral advantage to petty gains for his sons? I was interested in an inquiry into that relationship and hence I worked on the book. I was going through a tranche of letters between Gandhi and his son Devadas encouraging him to better himself and in a very affectionate way. It is a completely different Gandhi we discover in these unpublished letters. Very interestingly, Gandhi wrote to his four daughters-in-law with great love. He wrote to them on a range of subjects from politics and family to pregnancy and lactation. And the daughters-in-law respond to his letters.
Why did Jinnah have strained ties with Gandhi?
Jinnah and Gandhi got off on a bad start, with the latter insisting the former speak in Gujarati. Gandhi came and changed the nature of politics. A lot of people saw themselves pushed to situations where they didn’t know how to deal with mass politics. Gandhi completely changed the idea of politics and organisation.
Was Gandhi marginal to the Congress’ interests around Independence?
Around the time we started feeling that we were going to win freedom towards the end of World War II, Gandhi was only marginal to the scheme of things in the Congress. He came back into relevance only when we turned against each other after Partition… None of them—Jinnah or the Congress or the British—ever imagined Partition would lead to such massive migration. Gandhi is the only leader who knew what communal violence would do to the country and that it starts with people leaving regions where they felt unsafe. His work in Noakhali, in Bihar, in Calcutta became crucial in this context. In Noakhali [now in Bangladesh] he asked Hindus not to leave, saying he would create conditions for their safety. He said the same thing to Muslims in Calcutta and Bihar. He could alleviate the sufferings of the people in India’s east where Partition-related losses were much less compared with those in western India. The diaries of Manu are expected to uncover a lot of details about that phase of Gandhi, whom she calls the ‘lonely pilgrim’.
What is the hallmark of Gandhi’s writings?
Total transparency. Because he even talks about his desires and his failings.