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Saturday, Oct 05, 2002

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October 2 and all that

THERE was a time when Gandhi Jayanti, on October 2, was observed in the country as a day of rededication to the teachings and ideals of the Mahatma. Admittedly, the day is still observed as such, but the difference is that, today, it has become just another red-letter day on the calendar instead of one that has a great deal to do with the Indian nationalist movement and the gaining of Independence. In other words, the "holiday" aspect of October 2 has become more important to the people than Gandhiji, whose birthday falls on that day.

The obvious question is: what does this mean, if it means anything at all? Certainly, at a very superficial level, the change in the way October 2 is observed today signifies that Mahatma Gandhi has become less important to a large part of the population. Why? There can be at least two possible reasons for this.

First, people no longer look up to the Mahatma in the sense that his ideals are still considered relevant in the contemporary Indian socio-cultural-religious milieu. Second, because of demographic mechanics, a large part of the Indian population today considers Gandhiji just another figure from the past and not one whose shadow continues to fall on the 21st Century.

In a mechanistic sense, this is a very normal development, because the Past is inexorably overtaken by the Present, as the Present will, in its turn, be eclipsed by the Future. This process also suggests that Gandhiji has not been able to leave lasting footprints in the evolving history of post-British India in the way he appeared to do in the first three decades following his assassination in January 1948.

Again, why? Is the weakening a result of something being basically wrong with the tenets of the Mahatma as applied to the evolving social milieu in recent times? Or is it that all that the Mahatma stood for still applies to the Indian situation but is falling victim to the lack of a reassertion? Briefly, it is difficult to accept the first point because of the Gandhi credo's universal acceptance, both temporally and spatially. The second proposition is much more attractive because it lends support to an important principle of contemporary Indian political behaviour.

It is this: the quality of Indian politics and politicians has declined steadily since the 1980s and the teachings and example set by the Mahatma have also been devalued. With this progressive devaluation, the need for a reassertion of the message has risen, exponentially. The tragedy is that the "reassertion" can be made only by committed politicians and social activists, whose numbers have, however, been fast dwindling because they are being effectively pushed out of the social scene by other, interested groups.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many youngsters today are really aware of happened on October 2, 1869 and what happened subsequently for which the day is observed as a national holiday?

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

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