In the wake of a raft of inspirational articles popping up in the media during the worldwide lockdown offering lessons from the lives of great men while they were in jail, renowned Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud says that the greatest inspiration that needs to be learnt from the father of the nation is that “we should all be prepared to go to jail, which most of us are unwilling to do”.
Suhrud doesn’t have anything against anyone seeking tips from the lives of tall leaders of yore while they were in jail to tide over the monotony of the current COVID-19 lockdown, but the provost at the Ahmedabad-based CEPT University, notes, “The current lockdown is not comparable to a jail term. I don’t think the life in the prison and the life at home are comparable at all. There is a vital difference between the two.”
Yet, it is noteworthy that sometimes Mahatma Gandhi prepared himself for prison life when he anticipated that he was going to be arrested, Suhrud says. “He would usually chalk out a study programme for himself that was largely around books. It involved either writing or reading, usually combining both,” explains Suhrud, adding “Every major prison term of his got us a book.”
Formerly professor and director of CEPT Archives and director of Sabarmati Ashram, Suhrud, 53, is a multilingual scholar and translator renowned as an authority on Gandhi and his intellectual tradition. While he was director at Sabarmati Ashram, he had helped create the Gandhi Heritage Portal, a free digital archive running into over 1.4 million pages.
Suhrud has written extensively on Gandhi, including an annotated and contextualised edition of Gandhi’s An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth and the first volume of The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944. The second volume of the diary of Gandhi’s constant companion which will feature more of Gandhi’s sexual experiments is yet to be published. Suhrud, who speaks and writes in all the languages that the Mahatma spoke – English, Hindi and Gujarati – has been collaborating with several scholars on various other Gandhi books, including testimonies of over 7,000 indigo cultivators recorded in Champaran, Bihar, by Gandhi and others.
Suhrud adds that intellectual pursuit while in prison is not only true of Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, but it was true of all intellectuals who went to jail. “The amount of prison literature that came out during the struggle for freedom is staggering. Everybody who went to prison used their time there to write and reflect.” He hastens to add that even during Gandhi’s term at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune where he was imprisoned from August 1942 to May 1944, all the usual rules of imprisonment applied and therefore cannot be compared with the current COVID-19 lockdown.
“It was not as if you could do what you liked. You could not have visitors. You could only do certain things. Whether it was a palace or not, it was an act of imprisonment and there was no difference there. In the Aga Khan Palace, as you know, his wife Kasturba and closest associate Mahadev Desai both died. And they died as prisoners.”
Suhrud suggests that the game of comparison is far-fetched although people are free to learn from anyone at any point of time. “In a lockdown, we are allowed to communicate with the world. It is what the prisoner is not allowed. There is nothing that stops you and me from making a phone call, lockdown or no lockdown. Newspapers are not allowed in jail. Communication with the world outside and information from the world outside are always filtered. There is restriction on your movement in a far more serious sense. It starts with when you will eat and when you will sleep and wake up,” he points out.
Gandhi, a tireless writer and communicator, had served several jail terms in South Africa where he spent 21 years and later in India where he was destined to become the most iconic leader of the country’s freedom struggle. His writings and letters have been compiled into 100 volumes, titled The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.