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Is Gandhi's legacy dead?

Soutik Biswas | 12:15 UK time, Monday, 27 April 2009

A man washing a statue of Gandhi in IndiaIs Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's legacy dead in his land of birth? I gently put the question to 75-year-old Amrit Modi, the caretaker of the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad. The ashram - a hermetic community - was home to Gandhi for 13 years, from 1917 to 1930. It was at this 2.5 acre patch of land on the banks of the Sabarmati river that he undertook his experiments in self reliance and community living. It was from here that he also stirred a nation against its colonial rulers.

We are sitting in Mr Modi's quiet office behind a thriving shop which sells Gandhi books and memorabilia to visitors. He looks at me and shakes his head in disagreement. I push on. What would Gandhi have made of the deep religious divide in today's Gujarat? Would he have endorsed the unabashed consumerism in one of India's best-developed states? Aren't the Gandhian values of non-violence and frugality dead here?

"No, no, you are mistaken," the avuncular Mr Modi finally answers, rather feebly. "There is no decline in Gandhian values in Gujarat."

So what about the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 1,000 people? What about the increasing ghettoisation of people along religious lines?

"People are quarrelling. They quarrel over money and politics. There are such tensions all over the world," Mr Modi says, avoiding a direct answer.Gandhi's house at Sabarmati ashram

In the well maintained brick and mortar buildings of the Sabarmati's ashram, Gandhi's legacy is alive and well. More than 1,000 people, Mr Modi informs me, still flock to the place every day, checking out its museum and its activities. It is alive in the way 500 poor tribal girls live and study here. It is alive in the 150 families who still live in the ashram, making handmade paper, cooking oil and khadi, the coarse handspun cloth favoured by Gandhi.

In modern India's collective consciousness, Gandhi, I believe, is struggling to stay alive. Non-violent protests are an exception to the rule. The great man hardly tops any youth icon polls; he enjoyed a brief spurt of popular adulation a few years ago when a Bollywood comedy had as its hero a bumbling, affable toughie who is transformed into a bumbling, affable advocate of non-violence after an encounter with the ghost of Gandhi.

Mr Modi, who has been lovingly looking after the ashram for 36 years without a break, does not believe in the slow death of the Gandhian legacy. "Lots of youngsters," he says, "are inspired by Gandhi even today."

Outside, near Gandhi's residential quarters, sits a lonely Gandhian at a spinning wheel. Kishor Bhai Gohel is a retired income tax inspector who has been coming to the ashram regularly for the last six years. Here, he spends seven hours spinning thread and teaching children. In three hours, he says, he spins 500 metres of thread into garlands. "I come here to spend my time. I feel relaxed."

Sabarmati ashram is a humbling experience. "Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test," writes Gandhi in a typewritten manuscript displayed at the ashram. "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it?"

It is time to leave. I try Mr Modi again.

"Don't see Gandhi through the prism of India," he says. "Gandhi belongs to the world."

But what if India forgets him? "I have to be optimistic," says Amrit Modi. "I cannot give up hope."


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