Acharya Kripalani seems ever so right in retrospect. Ten years ago, he bluntly said: We Indians are the world’s “most sanctimonious humbugs”. The occasion was Gandhi Jayanti and the provocation: New Delhi’s award of Padma Shri to Mr Ritwik Chatak. A year earlier, the Acharya had drawn Parliament’s attention to a book by Mr Ghatak in which he had called Mahatma Gandhi “the son of a pig”. He wanted the book banned and took up the matter with the Union Education and Home Ministers. But nothing came of his effort. Instead, Mr Chatak, a well-known film director, was given a Republic Day Award. Greatly saddened, the Acharya wrote: “Before independence I used to think that the British were the most hypocritical people…They were in India…for the good of the people… But after independence I have come to realise that we Indians are the most sanctimonious humbugs throughout the world. We call a person the Father of the Nation. But we do not mind his being insulted after his death. We go out of our way to award those who perpetrate such monstrosities.”
These thoughts are prompted by the 34th Independence Day and its celebration which has come to acquire the form and character of a ritual. Gandhi is outwardly remembered and homage paid to him at Rajghat. The national flag is unfurled on the ramparts of the Red Fort and the nation is addressed by the Prime Minister, in keeping with the tradition set up by Jawaharlal Nehru in accordance with India’s tryst with destiny. In the evening, the President hosts a reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan. But there is little time or inclination among our leaders to do any serious heart-searching and ask themselves some hard questions? How would Bapu and Jawaharlal Nehru have reacted to the present political mess? Would they have approved of all that has been going on for the past many years? What would have been Mahatma Gandhi’s practical advice to our leaders for dispelling the spreading cynicism and despair? What about the youth and its involvement in purposeful national activity? Those born after independence now total some 28 crores.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi, appropriately called upon the country and more especially the youth to follow the teachings of the Mahatma and help realise his dream of a truly free India – “a swaraj for our hungry and spiritually starving millions”. She also did well to refer in her spirited and thought-provoking speech to the long and arduous freedom struggle and the stupendous task that awaits the country. But mere exhortations and platitudes are far from enough. Regretfully, Gandhi and many others who joined the struggle against the British and led the country to freedom, are today but distant names, remembered by our leaders only to project an image of commitment and dedication to higher ideals. Little has been done to involve the younger generation effectively. One looked for some special programmes on AIR and Doordarshan on August 15 to recall the freedom struggle in depth — and the role of its heroes. But one was largely disappointed, notwithstanding the fare of patriotic songs.
True, our students have now books to tell them about the Mahatma as also the freedom struggle. However, not much has been done to use visual aids and other modern techniques to get the message of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders across to the people, especially the younger generation. In 1969-70, a Gandhi Darshan exhibition was put up near Rajghat as part of the Gandhi Centenary celebrations. The exhibition proved a great success and it was decided to make it permanent. Some 40 acres of land next to Rajghat was even acquired and the exhibition reopened on October 2, 1970. But today five out of the six pavilions stand closed. Visitors can still mercifully see the pavilion entitled: My Life Is My Message. All the six pavilions were carefully planned and include many valuable, even priceless exhibits. Not all the exhibits are, however, in good shape at present. These include the boat in which Gandhi crossed river Mahi on his way to Dandi for the famous salt march. The boat is reportedly lying in the open without cover within the Satyagraha pavilion. Already, the elements have damaged it considerably.
All our top leaders continue to swear by Bapu. But few have spared thought all these years to bring various exhibits relating to the Father of the Nation under one roof as in the case of the Nehru Memorial Museum at Teen Murti. Anyone eager to draw inspiration from Gandhi, his philosophy and teachings is, therefore, required to go to three separate places — Gandhi Darshan, Gandhi Sangralaya and Gandhi Smriti, which now manages the erstwhile Birla House on Tees January Marg where the Mahatma fell a victim to the assassin’s bullets. Gandhi’s blood-stained clothes and the assassin’s bullets are, for instance, neither at Gandhi Darshan nor at Gandhi Smriti, both of which attract crowds. Instead, these are kept at Gandhi Sangralaya. The gun-carriage on which Bapu’s mortal remains were carried to Rajghat is, meanwhile, at Gandhi Darshan. To add to the confusion, all the three centres are separately administered. While Gandhi Darshan is under the Ministry of Education and Culture, Gandhi Smriti is managed by the Ministry of Works and Housing. The Sangralaya, for its part, is under the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi.
Not only that. No serious attempt has been made since the dawn of independence to establish under one roof or in one complex the story of India’s freedom struggle. During the silver Jubilee year of Independence in 1972, a Portrait Gallery of Nation Builders was set up at Gandhi Smriti or, more precisely, in Birla House, thanks to the personal and active interest taken in the matter by the then Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi. The gallery covered the period from 1857 to 1947 and the exhibits totalled about 3,000 portraits and photographs, some secured from the British Museum. The portraits also included original paintings of the heroes of India’s first war of independence, namely Rani of Jhansi and Tantia Topi. Also included were the portraits of nation builders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Maharishi Dayanand and Dadabhai Naoroji. In effect, the gallery became a pictorial history of India’s freedom struggle. Alas, however, the gallery was wound up in October 1979 after the former Prime Minister, Mr Morarji Desai, reportedly ruled that the Gandhi Smriti should display only the exhibits relating to the Mahatma.
Mr Desai was perhaps entitled to his view, shared by some Gandhians. But the great pity– scandal — is that no worthwhile thought was given by the Janata regime at the time of closing the Portrait Gallery to the basic concept underlying it. With what result? All the exhibits collected with great difficulty and at considerable expense today lie “dumped”, to quote knowledgeable people, in a “godown” at the Gandhi Smriti. (Fears expressed by some persons that the exhibits may have already provided a feast to white ants, I am assured, are “unfounded”. The room is said to be treated regularly against possible havoc by termites.) At one stage, some persons actively involved in setting up the gallery thought in terms of moving it into the Nehru Memorial Library adjoining Teen Murti House. But the idea did not fructify. Meanwhile, two years have rolled by and a national treasure lies gathering dust when it could have otherwise provided the nucleus of a full-fledged presentation of our freedom struggle for the benefit of all.
Gandhi Darshan, Gandhi Smriti and Nehru Museum no doubt serve their own purpose. But none among the three or all the three collectively can be a substitute for a full-fledged presentation of the freedom struggle. Gandhi and Nehru together provide no more than the concluding chapter of the struggle, even if the chapter is large and the most important. Clearly, there is need for what may perhaps be called the National Gallery of Freedom Struggle. Such a gallery or hall could not only be a constant reminder for the generations to come of how the battle of Independence was fought and won through non-violence. It could also help to underline India’s basic unity in diversity and the glorious role played by persons hailing from different parts of the country and subscribing to different faiths in achieving independence. Temporarily, the gallery could even be set up at Gandhi Darshan or any other suitable place. Ultimately, however, a befitting memorial should be set up at some central place as in the case of the National Museum, which now displays at one place some of India’s priceless heritage and treasures.
Unfortunate incidents in Moradabad and Mrs Gandhi’s call for a crusade against communalism, casteism, corruption and indiscipline make it incumbent on our people to hark back to the values and ideals cherished by the freedom fighters and symbolised by the life and teachings of the Father of the Nation. Gandhi is no less relevant today than he was at the time of the freedom struggle — a point effectively driven home by a small but meaningful exhibition organised by Gandhi Darshan in Parliament House to coincide with the anniversary of the Quit India movement and Gandhiana, which was set up on August 9, 1978 and provides in the Library of Parliament some 1500 books by and on the Father of the Nation. (It is a pity that not many MPs visited the exhibition except when Mrs Gandhi opened it!) We must be clear on fundamentals and also remember Bapu’s emphasis on the importance of practice as against platitudes and preaching. Either we accept Gandhi as the Father of the Nation or we do not. We cannot have it both ways and still swear by Truth. —INFA