What would he have thought of the world today?
In India, October 2 is celebrated as Gandhi Jayanti -- Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary -- and this year it is the 151st. In 1969, Gandhi Centenary Year, I happened to be working as an agricultural volunteer based at a Gandhian ashram in Bodh Gaya -- the birthplace of Buddhism -- in Bihar.
This particular ashram had been founded by a dedicated follower of Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, and it was set up to study all religions. At the early morning prayers, we would have a reading from the Qur’an one day, the Bible the next, and then on successive days from the Gita, the Granth Sahib (the holy book of the Sikh religion), the Torah (sacred to the Jewish people), and readings from Buddhist scriptures.
From this experience, I have absorbed the teachings of all religions and I follow what Gandhi used to say: “Let the doors and windows of my house be open and let all the religions of the world blow through my house.”
In 1969, there was a big Gandhi Centenary gathering at the ashram in Bihar founded by another follower of Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan. Many followers of Gandhi came to that celebration including the much admired “Frontier Gandhi,” Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan from Pakistan.
With the Samanvaya Ashram in Bodh Gaya, I was working in a village development project funded by Oxfam, an organization founded by members of the pacifist Quakers in 1942. Gandhi had, over the years, developed a close association with the Quakers’ “Society of Friends.”
And the Quakers had taken on and accepted Gandhi’s non-violent protests as the most successful forms of protest.
Gandhi is, of course, remembered for his marches and fasts for peace in both parts of Bengal -- he spent many days trying to stop the communal killings in Noakhali and Kolkata in 1946, prior to the independence of India.
Gandhi’s walks or “padyatras” for peace inspired Vinoba Bhave to walk all over India in the 1950s and 1960s, persuading big landlords to donate land to the “bhoodan” (land gift) movement, the land then being distributed to the landless and the lowest caste communities.
Where a significant amount of land was donated in a village, it was declared “gramdan” or village gift, and so it was that the Oxfam Gramdan Action Program (OGAP) was initiated in 1968 in Bihar following the Bihar famine of 1966-67 and this program was based on four Gandhian ashrams in Bihar. When we had quarterly progress meetings of OGAP, occasionally, Jayaprakash Narayan would attend both to inspire us and make sure we were on the right track.
Later, of course, he strongly supported Bangladesh’s War of Independence. Another Gandhian leader who supported the formation of Bangladesh and Oxfam’s work with the refugees was the late Narayan Desai, whose father had been Gandhi’s secretary.
My other connection to the memory of Gandhi is that when the film Gandhi was being made in New Delhi, India in 1981, I participated in the enactment of a regimental cricket match which took place in 1917.
An order was, at that time, issued to terminate the match so that the soldiers could proceed to Champaran in Bihar to quell the riots between the local peasant farmers and the foreign indigo planters. Gandhi also visited the area and led non-violent protests.
My life and work has definitely been changed and been benefitted by the influence of Gandhian thoughts and beliefs. And it was at the Samanvaya Ashram at Bodh Gaya that, as a young man of 23 years old, I was influenced by the ashram leader Dwarko Sundrani, now at 98 years old, the last living disciple of Gandhi.
He is very critical of the way in which Gandhi’s birthday is celebrated. Last year, Dwarko said in an interview: “Celebrating Gandhi’s birth anniversary and then forgetting him till his next birthday is not a way to express our gratitude and respect for him. We are not going to organize any event on Gandhi Jayanti this year; rather, we will serve the helpless and needy people in flood-stricken Bihar. Why? Because this is what Gandhi would have done if he were alive.
“Instead of celebrating Gandhi’s birth anniversary, we will be serving people. What is the use of organizing seminars and workshops and reading his autobiography if we do not implement the teachings of Gandhi in our daily lives?” he asked.
It is very appropriate to ask what Gandhi would have done in today’s tension-filled world. He would be aghast and very sad to see the tensions between the US and China, the multi-country tension in the South China Sea, the border tension between India and China, the never-ending tension between India and Pakistan, and the tension within the Middle East.
Gandhi would also be surprised to see the breakdown of trust between European neighbours, and the fact that, since the 1960s, racism, particularly in the US, has not disappeared. There are many reasons that Gandhi would have been prepared to go on fast in order to bring people to their senses.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.