This year on January 30 will be exactly 75 years to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of those against his message of non-violence and fierce defence of a syncretic India. In a series of articles and videos, The Wire takes stock of Gandhi’s murder, and delves deeper into the forces and ideas behind independent India’s first act of terror. Recent years have seen another attempt to kill Gandhi, his ideas, spirit and message. We hope to help unpack where India stands today and its future, through the lens of how the Father of the Nation’s legacy is being treated.
Recently, hundreds of 9th graders at a workshop I conducted clapped and cheered while watching the assassination scene in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. This happened during a guided movie viewing session which a school, concerned about the rapid erosion of secular values in society, had requested me to conduct
Later via email, I asked the students why they had laughed at the murder of an old man. About a hundred students responded, the great majority of them apologetic for the macabre response of many of their peers. But a handful of students very proudly admitted to having clapped and said they were happy that Gandhi was murdered because, in their view, he was a bad man who deserved to be killed!
The following is the sequel to that incident, about which I had written on The Wire.
The principal and school heads, though very disturbed by the reaction of the students, asked me to show the movie once again the following week, this time to the students of class 8. This was a wise move, seeing how 8th graders are easily influenced by their seniors.
This time, however, I began the movie screening by asking the students, “How many of you are bothered by bullying?”
Practically all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many of them wished they had more courage to stand up to bullies and do the right thing even when everyone around them was doing the wrong thing. Again, practically every hand in the school auditorium went up.
I said, “Watch this movie carefully. You will learn how to stand up to bullies.”
This time, the students did not laugh and clap during the assassination scene.
I paused the movie at various points and discussed Gandhi’s life and the different phases of the Freedom movement. And then, as they watched the scene depicting the protest at the Dharasana Salt works, where rows of satyagrahis marched to the gate of the Salt Works and got mercilessly thrashed and beaten by the police but did not retaliate, an idea struck!
In the movie, the reporter Vince Walker (played by Martin Sheen) is shown calling in to his newspaper office what he has seen at Dharasana:
“They walked, with heads up, without music, or cheering, or any hope of escape from injury or death. It went on and on and on. Women carried the wounded bodies from the ditch until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on. Whatever moral ascendance the West held was lost today. India is free for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give, and she has neither cringed nor retreated.”
I paused the movie at that point, and asked the students, “Do you think it is possible to have a Gandhian movement in 21st century India?”
There was a thoughtful silence in the hall. They were not sure.
I then asked, ‘How many of you know that lakhs of farmers protested peacefully and non-violently for a whole year at the borders of Delhi against three controversial farm laws?”
A lot of students raised their hands. Many had heard about the protest, seen it on TV, or driven past it on the way out of Delhi. Some had even visited it with their parents.
After giving them a short backgrounder about the country’s terrible systemic agrarian crisis I showed them a brief news clip from November 2020, showing how farmers were beaten, water-cannoned and tear-gassed as they tried to enter Delhi to protest peacefully for a day at India Gate lawns.
I then told them how I spent nearly 150 days covering the year-long protest. There is something about being able to say, “I was there. I saw it happen,” that makes students sit up and pay attention.
Briefly recounting my first encounter with the protesting farmers at Ghazipur border in early December, 2020, I told the kids how the very first question one of the Sikh farmers asked me when I went to meet them was, “Have you eaten?”
I then showed the students a video clip I had taken that day of a farmer, one Manjeet Baba from Puranpur, who said, “Even if they beat us, tear gas us, or spray us with cold water, we will not retaliate. We will take the blows, but we will not strike back! We request you with folded hands not to be violent. We want to stay far away from any kind of violence. We will sit here peacefully till we get what is lawfully ours!”
At this point, a boy in one of the front rows suddenly and excitedly exclaimed, “Sir, Gandhi zinda hain!!” (Gandhi is alive.)
The entire school auditorium burst into loud and long applause. Only, this time it felt right!
It was as if Class 8 had suddenly realised the power and relevance of Gandhi.
A small group of students did laugh at the assassination scene replayed at the end of the movie, but quickly went quiet as no one else followed suit. After the movie ended, I asked the audience, “How many of you have a grandfather or grandfathers that you really love?”
Most raised their hands.
“God forbid something bad happened to any of them, how would you feel if someone laughed about it?”
No one said a word. The point was made.
After the movie ended, many of the students hung around in the auditorium and chatted for a long time about love, peace, and the need for non-violence.
As I packed up my laptop and got ready to leave, one 13-year old came up and said, “Those students who laughed, they’ll believe anything they read on WhatsApp. Me, I like to do my research thoroughly before I make up my mind on an issue.”
It is easy to despair at times like these, but as long as there are schools, teachers and parents determined to talk about constitutional values, and citizens like the farmers willing to do whatever it takes to follow that difficult path of satya and ahimsa, democracy has a fighting chance.
In Gandhi’s own words, ““When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it –always.”
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published on The Wire.