Saturday, October 03, 2009

What's Wrong With Working on Mahatma's Birthday?

I am surprised to note the buzz around Shashi Tharoor's Twitter comment. Dr Tharoor said that in Vietnam, people work on Ho Chi Minh's birthday. And, also, in a reply to a direct message, said that he thinks the Indians should work on Mahatma's birthday and not take a holiday. Amazingly, this is taken as a mark of disrespect to Mahatma. I could see Dr. Tharoor having to explain to someone that he meant that he would pay his homage to Mahatma in the morning but get on with day's work thereafter. Congress Party said that the comments were purely Dr. Tharoor's and did not reflect the party's, or government's stance - the sort of spineless, boring reply you can expect from career politicians. Overall, it seems that India's political class is yet to come to terms with Twitter openness, and Dr. Tharoor is getting into trouble ever so often because he is speaking his mind.

But, before we get into that, why it is so wrong to work on Mahatma's birthday? One can imagine the man himself would not have spent his own birthday in middle class idleness, cutting cakes and drinking wine. One would rather visualize Mahatma pacing up a bit more on every birthday, knowing that he has one less year to achieve equal rights or independence for Indians. He would have loathed to see a nation which stops working to pay homage to him, the man, and forgets his mission and the message. So, Dr Tharoor is indeed right on the money suggesting that Indians should work, not stay home, on 2nd October.

I think the reason we do not like this because we do not like Mahatma Gandhi in the first place. He spread a lot of uncomfortable messages. He was not a nationalist leader of any description, but he ended up becoming our national leader. I say this because my conception of Gandhi is that he was supremely committed to human rights and all he sought was dignity and equal rights of all human beings. This is possibly why events like the massacre in Chauri Chaura upset him so much, and he never talked about armed uprising. I also recall a story from Vijay Merchant, the famous Indian cricketer, who wrote about how Mahatma autographed on his sister's autograph book as the 13Th member of the English cricket team - symbolising that he is at peace with England as a nation though he must fight to earn the dignity and rights for all Indians. And, as an extension of this message, he was never cosy with our prejudices and divisions - he fought for the rights of the lower classes of India as much as he did for the rights of India as a nation - which makes us so uncomfortable.

I come from Bengal and I have seen Gandhi from Babu eyes, clear and pure. Babus were indeed committed to nationalism. This is natural, as every clerk wants his bosses job. It was not about changing the country or about human dignity. It was about getting a better position, doing less work, enjoying a holiday on and off. Gandhi was an uncomfortable figure, talking about fundamental social change and tearing down the world as they knew it. So, he was never the leader. Just that it dawned on the Babus, somewhat in the early twenties, that Gandhi had his magic and he could work the masses, including those who burn dead bodies and sweep the streets, rally for the cause of the Babus. No one else could do it; and, without it, there was no chance that Babus could stand up to their bosses but keep their job. So, Gandhi had to be tolerated, and disposed off when the British were ready to give up and do a deal.

I do think the English speaking Indians, the descendants of the Babus, wants to celebrate 2nd October in pointless idleness, toasting to Gandhi because he won them that holiday, a convenient extra day of drinking and gossiping. It is less about remembering Gandhi, and more about forgetting him - so that we can live in the same world as our colonial masters. If someone suggested that Babus get back to work - it is they who get the holiday and expect everyone else, shop owners, rickshaw pullers, train drivers, to work as usual - it is sure blasphemy. If someone went another step and suggested that - okay, let the offices and businesses be closed, but let everyone work to clean the roads, remove the swamp, help the street children - he would sure be expelled from the country.

Dr Tharoor is an idealist. I read his books before and I know he dreams of a free, resurgent India. He shares Mahatma's dreams, like millions of other hardworking Indians. But he forgot that millions of Babus stay at home on 2ND October and have nothing better to do than whipping up a storm in the teacup over his very valid comments.

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