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A Conversation with Gandhiji at the time of the Pandemic...

(The Federal is a news portal I didn't know existed till they called me a couple of weeks ago and asked to write on this subject. Sharing this article that went online today. The article is available online here. )

Writing about Gandhian ethics in the time of the pandemic can be both problematic and irrelevant. Irrelevant, because Gandhiji himself may not have been “writing” on anything, and problematic because it will not adhere to the regulatory needs of only saying positive things. So, I have restored to fiction here. A telephonic interview with Bapu by a young podcaster.

“So Bapu, what do you see today, where are you?” I asked Bapu in my imagined conversation when we started off. I was sitting in my studio recording the telephonic interview for a podcast in which I imagined Gandhiji speaking from somewhere in India.

“When thousands of people are abandoned on highways by a society, I see in their long walk a renewal of freedom struggle, freedom for dignified livelihoods. I am with some of the poorest people, walking with them to their native place.”

Of course, you will be with them, I thought. “Who do you see as responsible for their plight?” I asked him.

“It is easy for people to blame the government for the lockdown. Of course, they should have given more time for people to decide and get to their villages. But it is also a problem of our economic organisation fundamentally. How can a country like India have a 100 million people as migrant labourers? That is risking the industry altogether.”

“Well Bapu, that is a different way of putting it. No one has said it that way before!”

“It occurs to me that this is a good time to revisit our economic organisation back around our villages and small towns rather than in cities. I had said this about 10 years before we became independent. Now I feel this pandemic has given us another chance.”

“But Bapu, what will happen to the industries? These large ones that have been built in the cities? After all they have been invested upon heavily by people and governments?” I asked rather awkwardly wondering if he will dismiss my question.

“That is another problem. There are already several thousand people living in the cities, the industries and people in the cities must see how they can be of use to each other. If the industries are unable to employ people in the vicinity, they may have to establish townships to have people who work for them settle down in the vicinity of the industry and become local citizens.”

“That may require people to re-settle elsewhere! That may be expensive for the industries.”, I opined, “It may even render the industry non-profitable.”

“Now you are talking about the real problem. Profit cannot be the sole purpose of the industry. If they are not able to take care of their own staff and labourers, they may as well shut down. The purpose of wealth is to care for people, be as trustees.”

Gandhiji went on talking about one of his core economic concepts. “Just imagine even for a moment if these 40 million people currently stranded or walking on highways feeling abandoned were really cared for by the industries and provided with adequate housing and land close to their industry, do you think we would have any difficulty in re-starting these industries after the lockdown?”

“Of course not,” I had to concur. “But Bapu we don’t have such industrialists, definitely not all of them. Majority of them are using the cheap labour to offer their services and products at a lower price in the global market to stay competitive. Any extra perks to the labourers will make it expensive for them to stay competitive.”

“But  why should we compete? We are one of the biggest markets for all products and services in the world. Can’t we produce and market whatever our people need within the country? Why cater to the outside markets in the first place?”

“Ha, you are talking about Swadeshi I think. But we are a global power today Bapu, we are seen as a global economic power. Why can’t we produce for the outside markets to improve our economy?” I queried again.

“You tell me then, what is the purpose of such an economy?” retorted the barrister at law. I realised I better come up with some smart response.

“The purpose of the economy is to create wealth, provide money to people to give them a sense of security for their life and livelihood, Bapu. That is what the jobs do; it provides them with an opportunity to earn money and in the process take care of their families. Many of the migrant labourers do so because their life in the villages cannot any longer provide them with the opportunity to earn,” I said congratulating myself for having stated things clearly.

“If the nature of business itself requires the labourers to be kept in poverty, it is called slavery, not an economy. Slavery is also providing employment, but without dignity.  A Nation that cannot assure dignity to its workers cannot be a free nation!”

“Bapu like I said, people were unable to get dignity of work in the villages, that’s why they migrated to the cities,” I protested.

“Sure, I am not saying that everything was rosy in Indian villages. It never was and it will always be a challenge. The problem was not inadequacy of work. Villages continue to have a lot of work. When I walk with these people through many villages, I see people are working in the fields without any problems. Many of the people who have migrated and with whom I am walking say that if they only had land, they would rather stay put in the village and work. The problem is ownership of land and access to resources.”

This is deeper waters, I realised. I was worried my listeners will switch channels at this time. After all the purpose of getting Bapu was to evoke curiosity and improve the listenership rating. Now he was talking way too seriously for the casual listener. I had to turn it quickly into something light.

“Bapu, during your walk, what is the one thing that made you smile?” I asked a lighter question.

“The walking itself is bringing me so much smile. It is good for the body you know. You should try walking a few hundred kilometres some time,” he chided me back and then continued, “I realise that the ordinary people haven’t given up the capacity to empathise and share whatever little they have. I see everywhere people feed us, give us place for night stay and talk to us. Tea shop owners who don’t charge us, women who give us water and food, roadside vendors who give us whatever they are selling, truck drivers who give us lift in some places, this is like the times of independent struggle and much before that. This is the ethos of the people of this land, to share in abundance with everyone without question, despite being poor themselves. Every time I experience this warmth, I smile and know that nothing much has changed.”

“That’s true Bapu, even in the cities we are all living spartan like you, purchasing our needs from the local vendors, ensuring that we maintain discipline in public spaces, not unnecessarily spending. Don’t you think all these were desirable for the citizen of the free country?” I continued, with optimism.

“No one is doing it because they have recognised the value for such a life. There is no moral superiority in leading such a life just now out of fear,” he said not budging an inch.

“Bapu haven’t you heard? Even if we are doing out of fear, it has its impact. The rivers have become clean due to this. The air is supposed to have become clean. In many places, wild animals are roaming more freely because of the lessening of pollution. Don’t you think that finally the world is realising due to this pandemic that we have perhaps not been good to the planet and that we can now make a change?” I persisted.

“Hmm…I only see the deep-rooted malaise in the entire scheme of things. We have as a Nation moved far away from the ideals of Swaraj. What did you or anyone do to stop the pollution? Not doing anything is not “doing” something. It is not satyagraha. To assert what we believe to be truth in action is satyagraha. If we understood the true nature of river and air and adhered to that, we would have been doing satyagraha in current times. Doing so out of fear is a false positive, and not reliable.”

“Clearly you are not impressed with us I realise Bapu. We have been moving as a nation away from your ideals. Just now the fear of falling pray to the virus has made many of us question the way of life more seriously. Doesn’t it count for something?”

“You see fear is amplified if one is feeling isolated or alone, this could also lead to violence. Many people today in this country are feeling isolated and marginalised. That aggravates fear further. A body that is afraid is weakened in its capacity to fight an alien body with immunity. To ensure we are strong is to make no one feels ignored, marginalised or lonely. I have always held that working from a position of strength is the real Swaraj, not from a position of weakness.”

I realised that arguing with a visionary like him was pointless. He was way too sharp for my millennial questioning. So, I asked a direct question. “Well during your time, satyagraha meant non-cooperation with the British government policies. Do you want us to not cooperate with our own elected government today then?”

“Of course not. Satyagraha was not only non-cooperation. Today you should do satyagraha of over-work. You should work with the government to change their ways to provide for the poor, just like you should work with the industrialists to provide for their labourers. Adherence to truth and non-violence is the first quality of satyagraha. The truth is that we need to take care of our people and do so without abusing their self-worth and sense of purpose in life. To do so, people like you need to do more work in strengthening the life of our labour force. That is Satyagraha today.”

That gives a lot to think about and perhaps work on. So, we may take up a conversation with Bapu another time soon. But for the moment, we stop.