Friday, March 25, 2016

The last day in Gandhiji’s life – 30th January, 1948

Bapu attained martyrdom this very day – 68 years ago.

Let us for a while go back to the day, 30th January, 1948. History testifies to the fact that till the moment he was assassinated in cold blood which led to a time freeze and cast its shadow of gloom all across the world, it was like any other day for Gandhiji at his temporary residence in New Delhi – the then Birla House, now re-christened Gandhi Smriti – that stands on Tees January Marg, named in the poignant memory of his martyrdom.

Gandhiji awoke at 3:30 am and as per daily routine, did his prayers and worked on his desk for three hours before going back for a short nap. He got up again at 8:00 am and had his first nourishment in the form of goat’s milk, raw vegetables, oranges and a concoction of ginger and sour limes, a repast he would repeat in the evening. Then followed another nap before he was up at 2:00 pm when select visitors were allowed right up to the open space behind the Birla House to meet with him. When free of these engagements Gandhiji would be at the spinning wheel. This had been his routine ever since he had arrived in Delhi to restore communal amity.

At 4:00 pm arrived Patel with whom Gandhiji had decided to have a serious talk on how best to have a truck with Nehru. The post of Deputy Prime Minister did not sit easy on Patel’s shoulders. The presence of Nehru stymied his efforts in any direction as ideologically they had differences on almost every issue. Patel had offered to resign but it was Gandhiji’s firm belief that both Nehru and Patel had to work in unison. The discussions between Gandhiji and Patel extended to more than an hour, beyond his scheduled prayer meet at 5:00 p.m. It had gathered such intensity that neither Manu nor Abha could muster the courage to interrupt.

At around seven minutes past five, it was Manu who dropped a silent message by gesturing at her watch. Gandhiji instantly took leave of Patel and was ready to begin his last walk to the prayer ground. Throughout the short journey he was supposed to have reprimanded his grand-nieces, ‘Why should I keep an eye on time? You are my time-keepers. I cannot tolerate even a minute’s delay at prayer’.

Gandhiji hurriedly climbed the five shallow, semi-circular steps that led to the raised part of the prayer ground, where the crowd opened out to allow a free passage to the moving cortege. This is when Nathuram was supposed to have rushed out of the crowd and bowed before Gandhiji as a token thanksgiving for whatever useful service he had rendered to the nation. As Manu tried to nudge him gently telling him that Gandhiji was already late for the prayer meet, he pushed her aside violently and in a split second fired the shots from an Italian Baretta pistol. The three bullets tore into the chest of the slender advancing frame. Gandhiji collapsed instantly and life ebbed away within minutes.

As blood oozed out and made Gandhiji’s homespun shawl turn a crimson red, Manu stole a glance at the Ingersoll watch that hung below his waist. The time of the second crucifixion in history, after that of Jesus, was recorded as seventeen minutes past five.

Support to Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] in the maintenance of monuments

Life teaches us to build on old foundations while being responsive to newer influences. Most of us however, appear insensitive to the timeless embrace of the past inasmuch as a prospective handshake with the future when it comes to safeguarding our cultural heritage. The misplacement of the original character of our ancient monuments indeed, makes for sad commentary. Many reasons could be attributed to this : human vandalism, rapid urbanization, use of improper materials, unauthorized excavations by ambi-sinister hands to illegal constructions in and around the premises.

The Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] has done a commendable job in preserving the awesome variety of India’s archaeological riches, which has helped prevent several monuments from being defaced by the ravages of time. Yet, despite the efforts, there is always a shortfall in terms of manpower and resources and therefore, the need is for a more robust participation of private business houses as also, NGOs, conservators, tourism authorities, even eminent historians and archaeologists for the results to be more prominent and visible.

I had once spoken to the ASI about the participation of private groups and donors in the maintenance of monuments and the process works out something like this. It involves contributions of the donor to be sent to the National Culture Fund (NCF), managed by an executive committee and a council chaired by the Union Minister of Culture and under which, several such projects can be sponsored. This form of cultural funding is to increase the participation of private entities in the decision-making process. 

The NCF is accountable to each donor in respect of the funds donated and facilitates all necessary clearances to them for the project that they choose to support. The donor has the right to appoint agencies to carry out the project work subject to pre-defined conditions laid down by the ASI which also specifies the activities permissible within the sites. There also is a project implementation committee to monitor the execution part while a project advisory committee looks after the overall functioning of the project.

Repair or restoration of course, is the first priority but it has to be conducted within a well-formulated set of archaeological principles, one of primary importance being the retention of the authenticity of the monument. In some cases the settlement of the foundation too has to be examined. However, only in extreme cases should steps be taken to restructure the monument, in part or in entirety. The participants, besides contributing to the actual maintenance, can also help in environmental development around the sites, up-gradation of existing museums in the vicinity and commissioning of new ones, proper illumination of the structure and distribution of relevant literature. They can also be a part of organized concerts, lectures, community festivals, permitted as per ASI regulations.

India has been known for its architectural heritage over several centuries. The purpose is to keep it relevant to the society, thus prudence dictates that we play the role of guardians and not oppressors. Supporting the ASI’s efforts assumes greater significance as all of us are stakeholders from a humanitarian perspective and need to forge a new relationship between the people and their heritage with a collective sense of ownership. Individually, let us create at least a ripple of consciousness even if not a mighty upsurge towards the preservation of a monument(al) legacy, lest it ends up languishing in the reflected glory of the past.

China surreptitious moves – a bitter offshoot of the 1962 war

China is at it again. Not long ago, there was news about its encroachment in Demchok in the Western sector and now soon after Xi Jinping’s offer of palliatives on maintaining the sanctity of the LAC, the Chumur region, 300 kms. North of Ladakh, is witnessing hectic movement of the PLA. The dispute over the LAC has raged for years on end, primarily because both in the Eastern and the Western sectors lie regions that have affiliations to India as well as China. Thus, territorial integrity from each others’ perspective is always brought into question.

Looking back over the years, China had begun the construction of a Western highway in the Aksai Chin region as early as 1954, to connect the Xinjiang region with Lhasa, thus providing it the only direct link with Tibet. The point of dispute was that Aksai Chin lay in the North-Eastern corner of the Ladakh region, claimed by India as its own legitimate territory.

Amazingly, even as late as 1959, Nehru willingly acknowledged in the Parliament that China had taken over more than 12,000 square miles of Indian territory in the process of constructing the highway, yet was unwilling to accept that they would ever resort to full-scale war, given India’s warm relations with the USSR and the implicit support of the US that was ready at hand. Ironically, both the US and the USSR were at that stage, engaged in the Cuban missile crisis and even as China was nibbling away at Indian territory, none of the two superpowers appeared upfront in coming immediately to India’s aid.

What began as small scale incursions led to a full fledged conflict in eastern Ladakh, stretching from the Karkoram Pass in the North to Demchok in South East. In the Eastern Sector, where the first firing occurred on 20th of September, 1962, the reverses were as bad, for China advanced right up to the Namka Chu river across the Thag la ridge, decimated the 7th brigade and went on to capture Bomdi La in the Kameng Division, the headquarters of the NEFA
Eventually, with the fall of the 48th brigade on 20th of November, no organized Indian defence was left either in the NEFA or the disputed territories in the Western sector. Clever as they come, the Chinese announced a cease-fire on 21st of November, soon after the US and the USSR came to an agreement to resolve the missile crisis, thus rendering their own version of a fait-accompli on India. While China withdrew in the eastern sector, it refused to give up on the 38,000 sq.kms. of disputed Indian territory that it over-ran in and around the Ladakh region. Even as it maintains an eye of avarice over the NEFA, China remains a proverbial predator on the prowl in the Western sector, where the conflict of interest still relates to Aksai Chin, crucial to its continued hegemony over Tibet.

While both sides are sabre-rattling, where China holds an edge is that militarily its forces are far more expedient to patrol the frontier regions that have trills of vast, uninhabited areas. With their forces stationed in Tibet since years, they are physically better attuned to fighting at higher altitudes quite unlike their Indian counterparts. This was as bitter a truth in 1962 as it is today, even as the border stand-off appears all set for a longer haul.

A Mahatma’s tryst with martyrdom - an assassin’s moment of infamy

History records that on this day, 66 years ago, a most brutal of attacks by a fanatical Hindu took away from our midst one whom half the world venerated as a Saint – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who in death as in life, attained the cult status of a ‘Mahatma’, a pious soul.

Such was the inevitable fallout of the act that Nathuram Godse, the killer, deposed, ‘With the shots I fired at Gandhiji, my own life too came to an end’. An act of violent aggression followed by meek submission makes one wonder as to what exactly was the mind frame of the assassin prior to the killing. What exactly embittered his wisdom, his prudence to completely forsake his identity, his respect among his peers and resort to an act that would invite nothing but plain hatred from members of his own community?

That Nathuram was a bigoted Hindu is universally accepted. Belonging to a clan of Chitpawan Brahmins, the descendants of the mighty Peshwas, he was one among many who subsisted in the throes of a radical Hinduistic cult. But it is also true that he was not a history-sheeter and apart from a few alleged speeches that bordered on the vitriolic, did not have a criminal background. In fact, he was believed to have been a follower of Gandhiji once, but his views underwent a change once he became a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and came into contact with Savarkar. Soon it led to utter dissent from a disapproval of the very foundation of Gandhiji’s policies.

The fact that independence came at a price was something the militant Hindu groups, including Nathuram, were unwilling to accept, morally or politically. They believed Gandhiji’s cult of non-violence was tantamount to a kind of ‘violent pacifism’ that ran concomitant with his soft-pedalling a sensitive matter, leading to untold calamities on thousands of innocent members of their clan. Nathuram was to say, ‘It is absurd to expect 40 crore people to regulate their lives on such a lofty plane as non-violence’.

Truth to tell, it was Gandhiji’s teachings of absolute ‘Ahimsa’ that Nathuram was strongly opposed to as according to him, it was so detrimental to the cause of the Hinduism as to make it incapable at resisting inroads by other religions, thereby leading to its possible emasculation. It was a thought totally out of place but during the 1940s when the Hindu Sangathanist ideology had taken roots, a militant school of thought had emerged which propagated the view that for a true Hindu, the first duty was to serve Hinduism as a patriot as it constituted the well-being of one-fifth of human race. It called for all like-minded Hindus to fight as soldiers under a pan-Hindu flag and Nathuram, as one of its chief protagonists, believed that in his act, he was only serving a larger issue of ‘organized Hindu discontent’.

Nathuram had made a quizzical attempt at vainglory, ‘I have no doubt that honest writers of history will weigh my act and find its true value some day’. Well, in the six decades that have passed since, Gandhiji continues to be the supreme most symbol of our National unity while historians still find the act of the assassin as little more than the offshoot of a fanatical mind that had gone beyond the pales of rational thought or understanding.

Nehru and Patel – An Uneasy Alliance

Even as Sardar Patel has become a subject of frenetic discussion, his relationship with Nehru has kindled the imagination of overwrought historians and writers. While earnest efforts have been made to buttress the theory that despite ideological differences Nehru and Patel remained on the most affable of terms, the fact of the matter is quite different.

A throwback on the incidents reveals that in the 1929 Lahore session of Congress itself, Gandhiji had made clear his proclivity for Nehru as he bypassed Patel’s stronger credentials for the post of President. This may or may not have been a genesis to the feud that developed between Gandhi’s two most trusted lieutenants but the die had been cast.

When the idea of a Constituent Assembly was mooted in 1935, Nehru was supposed to have solicited Patel’s counsel in deciding upon the members of Congress’ Working Committee to be nominated for the Assembly. A corollary to this was Nehru’s socialist slant calling for non-acceptance of ministerial responsibilities in the provinces, as enshrined in the Act. Such socialist ideals were anathema to Patel’s rugged realism which called for an open stance on the acceptance of prospective minister-ships. A compromise was hatched and Congress did take up ministerial posts in 06 of the 11 provinces where they won in the provincial elections.

In 1946, with the formation of a provincial government at the Centre, Nehru inherited the responsibility of office and Gandhiji was there again to override the attempts of the Working Committee at canvassing for Patel. Whatever may have been his claims to down-pat neutrality, Gandhiji’s fondness for Nehru was palpable. Despite that Patel remained in his preferential upholstery too and Gandhiji’s rationale was that both Patel and Nehru were like ‘two oxen yoked to the governmental cart, one will need the other and both will pull together’.

Patel’s integration of the princely states was a gargantuan feat though Nehru with his fervid diplomacy was none too upfront at his Deputy’s direct military action to liberate Hyderabad from the Razakkars, the Nizam’s private army. Contrary-wise, when the demands for an autonomous Pakhtoonistan came up in independent Pakistan, Patel questioned Nehru’s impetuosity in visiting the frontier, thus playing into the hands of the anti-Congress forces who wanted it to be kept out of the Indian union.

Nehru’s political edifice stood on a socialist & secular plinth and he was weary of Patel’s allegedly rightist tilt, fuelled by his courtiers who made him believe that reactionary forces were being sheltered under Patel’s beneficent plumes. Though Gandhiji’s assassination brought them back together, the Nehru-Patel feud resurfaced during China’s invasion of Tibet. Nehru vacillated on whether to support China while Patel was insistent that India recognise Tibet’s bona-fides as an independent buffer so as to stymie China’s attempts at establishing hegemony in SE Asia. By 1950 Congress seemed divided ideologically into 02 camps but Patel’s death in December paved the way for Nehru to take full charge of the affairs.

Nehru and Patel did suffer from a clash of ideals, which did not make for felicitous tidings when it came to establishing a harmonious working relationship. Yet, their mutual respect and a reaffirmation of faith in each other were indisputable facts and given their irrefragable stature as individuals, both Patel and Nehru occupy a zenithal space in history as the ones who, for a major part shaped our nation’s collective destiny.

China’s Latest Incursions – A bitter testimony of Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’

China’s incursions in the Ladakh region are the latest in its slew of border transgressions since 1962. What gives China the edge is its continued control over Aksai Chin, a significant area North of Ladakh, which allows it easy access to the India territory across the border.

If one were to look back, the fact is that by September 1962 itself, China had begun to make deep inroads in the North-Eastern territory, following their crossing the MacMohan Line. Through the mid to the late 50s, the Chinese were surreptitiously constructing a highway linking the provinces of Sinkiang and Tibet, through Aksai Chin. The Indian position in Ladakh was insecure as in those days, there was no road link to Leh.

The amazing part was that even as early as 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru, while presenting a ‘white paper’ in the Parliament, conceded that China had taken over more than 12,000 square miles of Indian territory but tried to assuage feelings by claiming that the Aksai Chin area was untenable where ‘not a blade of grass grows’. Still with growing demands for action, Nehru rather tremulously embarked on a ‘Forward Policy’ whereby, small posts with 5 to 10 men were to be set up in the areas claimed by the Chinese as theirs, more as a surveillance measure.

Nehru went on to say that any bit of aggression by the infiltrators would be given a befitting reply by the men commanding the posts. China took this as a sign of hostility on India’s part and mounted an insurgency that caught everyone off-guard. The posts proved unequal to the task of pushing back the infiltrators.

To divert the Chinese attention, the government struck the Chinese forces across the NEFA where they believed they were better placed. But this was a tactical blunder for the heavy casualties suffered by the Indian forces here led to China’s capturing the crucial Bomdi La in the Kameng Division, the headquarters of the NEFA command and coming close to taking over Chushul in the Ladakh valley which would have led them right up to Leh, the headquarters of Ladakh. Then all of a sudden China did a volte-face by withdrawing troops without of course, losing hold on Aksai Chin, where it still maintains hegemony.

The embarrassing reverses faced by the Indian Army in 1962 brought to cruel focus that for all of Nehru’s foresight, defence measures in terms of deploying adequate forces to safeguard the sensitive North-eastern sector where the Chinese always had interests, was never high on the list of priorities of his Government. Nehru believed in peaceful overtures to settle border disputes and had a perfect ally in Krishna Menon, his Defence Minister, who too believed in conservative use of forces.

Besides a loss of face, the war showed up how a marked dependence on diplomatic maneuvers at the expense of military preparedness could have the most disastrous of consequences. The failure of Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ continues to haunt India even as China, much to everyone’s embarrassment, continues with its surreptitious deeds.