“I Had to Understand Gandhi Myself” — In Conversation with Tushar, the Great-Grandson of Mahatma Gandhi

Babushadow1.jpgINSIDE HIS SPARTAN Mumbai home on the second floor of an ageing building with narrow, dark staircases and walls with peeling plaster that remind one of Fassbinder movies that portrayed life in post-World War Germany, Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the Mahatma, looks out of place. For a man of his size, bearing and composure, dressed in a T-shirt and walking shorts, he looks as if he should be elsewhere. That is the first impression.

For a Gandhi scion—and a real one at that—who had made a controversial pact with Mont Blanc almost a decade earlier to sell high- end pens with the image of the man who led India’s freedom struggle embossed on them, you expect him to lounge in an opulent home in a tonier locality. In videos I had seen of Tushar, with his locks, fashionable beard and kurtas, he could easily be mistaken for a corporate hot-shot, prosperous and haughty.

It is when he begins to speak—and he is a natural conversationalist—that the real Tushar Arun Manilal Gandhi steps out. Born in 1960 to Gandhi’s grandson Arun, son of Sunanda and Manilal, one of the great man’s more obedient sons, Tushar had lived in Santacruz West as a kid where he grew up interacting with visitors that included the likes of C Rajagopalachari and Maniben Patel (daughter of Sardar Patel), among other Gandhians and close associates of the man revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’.

Though he was born 12 years after the assassination of the Mahatma—Tushar keeps using the word ‘murder’ for some strange reason—he was made aware of his legacy very early in his life. But he was also made to realise, especially by his grandmother and father, that he didn’t have to live according to others’ expectations. The difficulty was that, Tushar concedes, “My legacy could be simply overwhelming. It could be oppressive too.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s name evokes not only the grandest idea of passive resistance and simplicity, but also unfathomable respect for a human being who, attired in a simple dhoti like the majority of his poor followers, brought to its knees an empire on which it was said ‘the sun never sets’ and went on to become one of the tallest icons ever among those fighting for liberation from oppressors, inspiring leaders of various political hues across the world, from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to Martin Luther King Jr in the US and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

“THERE IS NOTHING called a ‘greatness gene’—that is what I was taught,” recalls the 58-year-old, sitting back in his living room that also doubles up as a dining area next to a modest kitchen. His father, he says, taught him the value of austerity by refusing to fall for the trappings of being Bapu’s grandson. Arun Manilal currently lives in the US where he researched and worked on subjects related to political freedom and social issues.

Though Arun was born in South Africa in an ashram set up by Bapu, in his later years he refused to follow a rigid, austere life compared with his grandfather or father Manilal. Nonetheless, he valued Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and picked up cosmopolitan values. Yet, from Tushar’s ways, it is clear that it isn’t easy to kick the habit of being austere. After all, he says, gorging on Bapu stories from school textbooks and listening to relatives and comrades-in-arms speak about him did leave a deep impact. When he was in Class V, he was put in a school run by a Gandhian couple where the idea of cleanliness—including of toilets —was a routine affair.

It is natural that he was groomed to celebrate simplicity, especially because he comes from the lineage of Manilal, who also bore the brunt of Bapu’s numerous experiments with life in silence. Manilal’s elder brother Harilal had strained ties with the Mahatma because he was the son who rebelled. Later, in his letters, Mahatma Gandhi accused Harilal of being an alcoholic and a debauch.

Bapu’s relationship with him was a subject of books and plays, including Gandhi, My Father. Though Harilal had fathered five children, he led a miserable life towards the end. At Gandhi’s funeral, nobody recognised him, an incident colourfully described in the book, Freedom at Midnight, and he died within months of his father’s assassination, from tuberculosis.

Manilal, on the other hand, questioned his father at times, though he was mostly taciturn and accepted Gandhi as his guru. He did defy Bapu more than once, Tushar remembers. The first time was in Allahabad when his father demanded that he and some other members of the Phoenix Settlement (an ashram he had set up off Durban, South Africa) pledge themselves to brahmacharya (celibacy). Manilal refused, but offered to stay celibate for 15 years, not beyond. His two younger brothers were Ramdas Gandhi and Devdas Gandhi.

Bapu also experimented with commune members, including at Phoenix, Tolstoy Farm off Johannesburg, and later in India in the ashrams he had built after he took his plunge into the freedom movement. Tushar feels that since family ties were obliterated by Bapu to make room for a larger family of followers, the satyagrahis, the kin had to endure rigorous discipline and sometimes suffer humiliation and rejection.

That’s why he attributes much greatness to Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, who some would look down upon as ‘Bapu’s illiterate wife’. She was a revolutionary in her own right, says Tushar, who has named his daughter, a first-year MA student of Public Policy at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, after ‘Ba’. His daughter’s name is Kasturi, and his son Vivan is a lawyer for an NGO that works to rescue and aid trafficked women.

Tushar feels that he was demonised for his 2009 deal with Mont Blanc. He still receives flak for it. How can a man born to the Gandhi family—as opposed to the ‘pretend’ Gandhi family that holds the reins of the Congress party and has ruled the country for decades—sell out Bapu? Under the agreement, 241 handcrafted Mont Blanc pens were to be priced at $25,000 apiece and a ‘Limited Edition’ version at Rs 1 lakh. Tushar became a villain for editorial writers overnight when he accepted a Rs 72 lakh donation for his Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in lieu of it.

Tushar’s argument is that throughout the controversy, he had no remorse because the deal was not intended to make him rich, buy a luxury home in a posh area or an expensive car. “Bapu’s image was being used for commercial purposes and that was why I took money from them,” he maintains, emphasising that the whole sum of money was used for buying five acres of land in Kolhapur and to set up a home and school for rescued child labourers.

The Foundation, he says, has no building, and it comprises just a group of members of the family and NGOs. When people began to say that the Foundation was his and that any proceeds of such a transaction would benefit him, he added representatives of new institutions to its board. As of now, to support his family of four, he gives talks in India and abroad; his sole consolation, he says, is that his wife is employed with Bank of Baroda and earns a steady income.

TRAINED AS A printer, Tushar took a dive into politics in the mid-1990s after he felt his life was going nowhere in business and other activities, somewhat like Gandhi’s predicament in his Bombay days as an unsuccessful lawyer. He thought he was a failure on all fronts because he didn’t have a financial brain. He was the third of the family to enter politics. The others are Sumitra Gandhi Kulkarni and Rajmohan Gandhi.

Tushar joined the Samajwadi Party in the late 1990s and contested as a joint candidate of the Congress and SP in 1998, the year they had an alliance in Maharashtra. He was friends with Raj Babbar, who was then an SP leader. It was Babbar who persuaded him to join the party. In those days, Tushar held that the party had a “grassroots” leader who could take on communalism. During the poll campaign in his Bombay North West Lok Sabha seat, he told Rediff.com in an interview that he entered politics out of “a simmering desire to fight the killers” of his great grandfather.

Around then, he had already made a name for himself fighting a prolonged legal battle to recover an urn containing the Mahatma’s ashes from a State Bank of India vault in Orissa. The ashes were later immersed in the Ganga at Allahabad. Jaunty and defiant, he made it a point back then to take potshots at anyone who attacked Gandhi. He had famously said that unlike Bapuji, he wouldn’t turn the other cheek when slapped.

Looking back, he is glad he got out of the dangerous world of power politics after he lost the polls by a relatively slender margin. It was then that he felt a diligent study of Bapu was in order. Armed with new knowledge, he analysed various phases in Free India’s history.

First was 1948, when the Mahatma’s martyrdom reined in communal sentiments that were running high, even neutralising for several decades forces that wanted India polarised along religious lines. Unfortunately, after January 30th, 1948—when Gandhi was assassinated by a right-wing zealot, Nathuram Godse—his ideology also began to stagnate because his teachings became a kind of gospel.

“This was a gross injustice to a great man who had always experimented with life and politics.” Then in the 1970s and 1980s, senior Gandhians within and outside Congress began to either retire or die, leaving a spiritual vacuum in politics. The 1990s ushered in a politics of divisiveness, which, according to him, institutionalised a weird political policy for the first time in Independent India. It was then that he earnestly decided to rediscover the “cement that Gandhian thought provided to stop Indian society from completely being fragmented”.

It was around then he realised that merely being a descendant didn’t make him an expert on Gandhi. “Being taught Gandhi by others is different. I had to understand him myself,” he remembers. It was at this juncture that he began to take an interest in politics, and later, gradually exited it only to focus full-time on spreading the word of the Mahatma through various means, including the Foundation.

In the late 1990s, the internet took urban India by storm. The Government, too, woke up to its power. With the help of a handful of early local internet buffs, the late Vijay Mukhi, Miheer Mafatlal and others, he set up a website called Mahatma.org.in. Initially, Tushar wanted to create a CD and his friends laughed at him for being outdated. Mafatlal had a privately- leased broadband line in his house and often hosted single-page websites for others. Tushar wrote a one-page brief on Bapu and it was posted on Mahatma.org.in.

Early the next morning, Mafatlal called him in what he thought was a state of panic and anger, saying that his broadband line was out of order and the website had crashed. When Tushar began to apologise for the trouble he thought he had caused, Mafatlal said in a serious tone before breaking into laughter, “Do you know what you are sitting on and the kind of appeal it has to the world?”

However, he says, unlike various other websites, especially those abroad that sell old images of Gandhi at steep prices, he does not use his digital platform to make money. As for the Mont Blanc deal, he says, “I would go for such deals again in which I take not a penny. That is my consolation, and my conscience is clear.”

AS SOMEONE WHO has lived with the Gandhi surname and studied him, especially after he quit politics, Tushar regrets that Bapu is a whipping boy for both right-wingers and leftist thinkers. He feels that it is because Gandhi was brave enough to experiment and never codify his teachings.

Even gau rakshaks quote him because he had said he worshipped the cow. But let’s not forget that when demands for a ban on cow slaughter grew intense, he resolutely opposed it, avers Tushar. The Left, which occasionally lauds his vision and his understanding of India, blames him for far too much even as it slips into a morass itself.

He feels that understanding Mahatma Gandhi needs an open mind because his experiments were meant to improve upon himself, figure out his limitations and go beyond them. For instance, he says, the Swadeshi movement started as a boycott protest, and later, it became a ‘Made in India’ movement. From boycott of foreign goods to reinventing Indian crafts and industry, it had myriad dimensions, and proved that even an ordinary individual could become an industrialist.

Gandhi always learnt to unlearn.

However, the man who transformed a Lion’s Club-of-sorts Congress into one of the world’s largest mass movements has been the butt of jokes and target of ridiculous research papers.

According to Tushar, the greatest quality of the Mahatma was that he could make himself dispensable—this could be a case study for management students at any good university. Tushar argues that whenever the movements he launched acquired a national character, Bapu was in prison. He strategised movements in such a way that his presence at their forefront wasn’t required at all. This was how the salt satyagraha continued for three years after his arrest. “Even in his absence, he was the leader. None of the war generals in history was able to replicate that model ever in any of the wars,” says Tushar.

He contrasts Gandhi’s modus operandi with that of leaders of the first War of Independence in 1857, when a desire for freedom spread far and wide but it still proved easy for the British to quell the uprising once they nabbed its leaders. Gandhi understood this and created disciplined volunteers who could work tirelessly among the people to sustain the momentum of any movement he had launched over long periods.

The Mahatma also planned his mass movements in such a way that he allowed long gaps between various countryside agitations. “I think he was a master of the public psyche. He understood that people will take time to comprehend the importance of a movement,” Tushar says.

For example, the Salt March of 1930 had multiple objectives. Many of Gandhi’s well-wishers had discouraged him from embarking on a movement of that scale. Gandhi had himself planned a smaller agitation to break the stringent law that imposed punitively high taxation on salt production.

When he started off from Ahmedabad in March 1930, the British authorities treated it as a joke. Even Indians weren’t terribly impressed. Gandhi himself had decided to collect salt and defy the law within four days of the march at the Mahisagar estuary. But he soon realised that world opinion on Britain was changing too. After all, World War I had sounded a death knell for unipolarity by carving out a multipolar world. He invited “world sympathy in the battle of right against might”. Then it became larger and larger.

Says Tushar, who authored the book, Let’s Kill Gandhi!: A Chronicle of His Last Days, The Conspiracy, Murder, Investigations and Trial: “He was a master strategist. He employed all the strategies of a battlefield general. His core team came from his ashrams or communes, where he replicated many facets of training in a military academy—austerity and devotion—for the cause, topping all other priorities.” He feels that those who criticise Gandhi over his attitudes towards the Varna system, race and religion, haven’t properly studied how his approach to these issues evolved over time.

Meanwhile, Tushar had questioned the motives of those who wanted to reopen the Gandhi assassination case, arguing that it was an attempt to glorify some men who had plotted his killing.

Gandhi, Tushar believes, didn’t want Indian villages to stay the way they were, as some people tend to project now. Rather, he wanted them to change and eliminate biases of caste and religion and lead a rural renaissance. Fulfilling his dreams remains a far cry in India, unfortunately, because this country is so full of his blind followers and sworn haters. And, as Gandhi T-shirts say, ‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like Him Anymore’.

Tushar can’t agree more.

First published in Open magazine

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