Visiting India’s grieving families

India

October 2nd is a holiday in India. It’s the day Gandhi was born, in 1869.

In India, we'd say, ‘it was written on his forehead’, that he was destined to change the course of Indian history, bring down a mighty empire, and lead the way for the rest of the world to shake off the shackles of colonialism.

In every corner of the nation, people roll out the usual platitudes. In schools, colleges and government institutions, for sure. But in many parts of India, Gandhi’s real legacy is forgotten or even disparaged. Increasing numbers of Indians feel he was a doddering old man who didn’t get it right. Or he is outdated and old fashioned. His creed of sustainability, village based economies, and need not greed, leaves us out of the modern 21st century, they feel. They are happier with the new economic model, glass and concrete Bangalore, grid-locked traffic, urbanisation of the worst kind imaginable.

I was privileged this year to be in Porbandar, Gandhi’s birthplace, on his birth anniversary. Far more frightening than the dismissal of Gandhi’s economic idea of India is the fact that there is presently a systematic dismantling of the very idea of free and secular India. The very philosophy of love, equality and fraternity, the idea of a secular India enshrined in our constitution, where every Indian regardless of their caste, religion or gender, is equal. The India that Gandhi lived for, fought for fiercely and finally died for.

There have been numerous lynchings – murderous hate-filled mobs have converged on individuals, mostly Muslims, with Dalits and Christians next in line, to viciously beat them to a pulp. Beat them to death. Muslims and Dalits have been lynched, ostensibly for the crime of killing cows or merely transporting them, by a new breed of cow vigilantes, with the tacit support of the current political regime.

A group calling themselves the Karwan e Mohabbat, or Caravan of love, led by a former senior civil servant turned activist, Harsh Mander, began a yatra or pilgrimage, to grieving families across India who have lost their sons, husbands or fathers to these hate attacks.

I’d planned to spend most of the yatra with the group, but couldn’t. So I was grateful to finally be with them on the last day, a fitting finale to end the Caravan in the room where Gandhi was born. People poured a handful of flower petals near his picture. We stood around in silence. It was an immensely moving experience to be there at that moment in history, remembering the history of our country, the freedom movement and Gandhi’s role in fighting for India’s independence.

The Karwan went from house to house, starting on 4 September in Assam, where two Muslim boys, cousins, on an ordinary day off, went fishing and were hunted down as cattle thieves, brutally beaten to death and then in an orgy of hate, had their eyes gouged out. Most victims were disfigured and dismembered. The pattern has been repeated at different points in India. It’s the legacy of the Sangh Parivar, the groups which want to make India a Hindu state where others become second class citizens.

‘Gandhi was not in Delhi on our first Independence day.’ Harsh Mander reminds us. ‘He went instead to Kolkata where the killing and rioting was frightening. His fast silenced everyone. The riots stopped. Legend has it, ordinary housewives refused to light their chulas [charcoal stoves] to cook food for their families. “How can we eat while he starves,” they protested.’

That was Gandhi’s finest moment. Lord Mountbatten, India's last Viceroy said, ‘What 55,000 armed soldiers could not do to quell the riots in Punjab, one man, single handedly, armed merely with his belief and moral courage achieved.’

The Karwan has gone on a pilgrimage of atonement, apologising for the hate crimes, to the bereaved, grieving families. It also gave hope to the survivors, and offered tangible help: free legal aid, giving the chance to fight for justice and bring the perpetrators to prison.

‘There is an evil stalking our land,’ Mander says. ‘To counter act this, to save India, each of us must find the Gandhi within ourselves and have the courage and the conviction to speak up against injustice and hate. We must say, “hum sab Gandhi”: we are all Gandhi. It's the only way we can save India. The India whose freedom Gandhi and millions of freedom fighters fought for.’

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