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The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 9

Gandhi invites untouchable family to ashram

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The story thus far…. Gandhi went to Rajkot and Porbandar to meet his relatives and then went on to Shantiniketan. There Gandhi met poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore for the first time, as well as C. F. Andrews. Andrews, who came to India as an Anglican priest in 1904, was one of the very few people respected both within Indian nationalist circles and official British ones. A close friend of Gandhi, Tagore and other eminent Indians of the time, Andrews never ceased to champion the Indian cause for independence and, in a broader sense, the cause of all the downtrodden.

During his short stay at Santiniketan Gandhi heard the sad news that Gokhale had passed away. He immediately left for Poona, with C. F. Andrews accompanying him up to Burdwan. Andrews asked Gandhi whether India would ever experience satyagraha, and when.

“It is difficult to say,” replied Gandhi. “For one year I am to do nothing. Gokhale made me promise that I would travel in India for one year to gain experience, and that I would express no opinion until I had finished this period of probation. So I do not think there will be any occasion for satyagraha for five years.”

After attending the shraddha ceremonies for Gokhale, Gandhi met the leaders of the Servants of India Society. Out of respect for Gokhale he would have joined the Society, but there was opposition from some members. Gandhi visited Rangoon, in Burma, for a short period and on his return he went to Hardwar during the time of the Kumbha Mela. About 1.7 million people attended the festival. Volunteer corps from different organizations had gone to Hardwar to be of service to the big crowds that thronged the riverbanks. Gandhi was invited to join the Phoenix party to help the volunteers. Gandhi was deeply disappointed at the many happenings and shortcomings at the great religious fair. There was corruption, cheating and many other unsocial activities. Scant care was taken about sanitary arrangements. All this saddened Gandhi. He thought a great deal about the problem of how to improve the Indian character.

In May 1915 an ashram was established in a village near Ahmedabad. The city was an ancient centre of handloom weaving and Gandhi thought the place was suited for the revival of the cottage industry of hand- weaving. Gandhi named the new institution Satyagraha Ashram.

“Our creed is devotion to truth, and our business is the search for and insist on truth,” he said.

A simple uniform style of clothing was worn by all who worked  together in a common kitchen as all strove to live as one family.

 “If you want to serve the people, it is essential to observe the vows of truth, ahimsa, celibacy, non-stealing, non-possession, and control of the palate,” Gandhi told inhabitants of the ashram.

One day Gandhi informed the ashram dwellers that he had received a request from an ‘untouchable’ family to move in. He said he had responded favorably. This created quite a stir. Even Kasturbai had her misgivings. Gandhi’s mind was made up, however, and there could be no objection from anyone in the ashram. But the patrons of the ashram did not like the idea and they stopped funding the ashram.

The ashram was suddenly faced with an acute financial crisis, but help came from an unexpected source. A rich man came to the ashram and gave Gandhi Rs. 13,000 and urged him to continue running the ashram.

In February 1916, Gandhi was invited to speak at the laying of the foundation-stone of the Banaras Hindu University. The Viceroy and many of the most important people of India were there. Gandhi, clad in a Kathiawadi long coat and a turban, rose to speak. The police arrangements, and also the pomp and luxury around him, hurt him deeply. Turning to the audience he said, “I want to think audibly and speak without reservation.” His first words froze the audience.

“It is a matter of deep humiliation and shame for us,” he said, “that I am compelled this evening under the shadow of this great college, in this sacred city, to address my countrymen in a language that is foreign to me.”

It was a bombshell. Nobody had ever dared to speak against the English language. The British officers, then friends, and the important Indians who had gathered there were furious.

But Gandhi went on, “His Highness the Maharaja who presided yesterday over our deliberations spoke about the poverty of India. But what did we witness? A most gorgeous show, an exhibition of jewelry…” Gandhi gave a long speech that covered many topics. His was outspoken in his criticism.

Annie Besant, who was one of the organizers of the function, was horrified and urged Gandhi to sit down. But Gandhi went on. Some people went red with rage, but others listened to Gandhi with great interest.

“Here at last is a man telling the truth,” they thought. “He is the man to raise India from the mire.”

They applauded him and shouted joyfully. Gandhi turned to them and said, “No amount of speeches will ever make us fit for self-government. It is only our conduct that will make us deserve it.”

Gandhi told them that they take up the work of self-government. Finally, Gandhi, the man who had supported the British in their war efforts, said, “If I found it necessary for the salvation of India that the English should retire, that they should be driven out, I would not hesitate to declare that they would have to go, and I hope I would be prepared to die in defense of that belief.”

The people were amazed at Gandhi’s frankness. It was Gandhi’s first great political speech in India. Years later, Jawaharlal Nehru described what the coming of Gandhi meant to the Indian people.

“We seemed to be helpless in the grip of some all powerful monster; our limbs were paralysed, our minds deadened. What could we do? How could we pull India out of this quagmire of poverty and defeatism which sucked her in… And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths, like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes, like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds,” said Nehru.

Several conferences demanding home rule were held in India during the latter half of 1916. They marked a new wave of political life under the leadership of Tilak, Mrs. Besant, and Jinnah.

— To be Continued next week

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