As a building, the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan never really held a fascination for the Mahatma. He remained concerned more with the poor and the less fortunate than art and aesthetics. Author VS Naipaul in his collection of essays on India, contrasting Nehru and Gandhi, notes that Nehru considered the latter a peasant but on a heroic scale. Someone who, faced with the Taj Mahal, would have thought more of the forced labour that went into its building. Nevertheless, the Rashtrapati Bhavan has always had a strong association with the Mahatma.
Where can you find Gandhi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan? Well, in some rooms there is the familiar official photograph of the great man that hangs in government offices all across the country. Then there is the bust in the president’s study that you can spy behind the First Citizen when he delivers his televised address to the nation on the eve of Independence Day and Republic day. There is also a large bronze sculpture of Gandhi, created by the famous sculptor Ram Sutar, just outside the Banquet Hall declaring, “In the midst of untruth, truth persists — Mahatma Gandhi”. But if you really want to find him, look no further than the lives of the presidents who lived here.
The last governor-general to reside in Rashtrapati Bhavan, C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji, had a unique bond with Gandhi. Devdas, the youngest son of Gandhi, was married to Lakshmi, the daughter of Rajaji. But their relationship went beyond the ties affinity can create. Rajaji, whom Gandhi referred to as the ‘keeper of my conscience’, set up an ashram in South India where he popularised hand-spun khadi and the principles of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (civil disobedience). Following Gandhi’s call at Dandi, Rajaji organised his historic Vedaranyam salt march in Tamil Nadu in April 1930. Yet, Rajaji also never shied from disagreeing with Gandhi, as he most famously did by not supporting the Quit India movement. Acknowledging their close ties, Gandhi in a letter to Rajaji on July 16, 1925, wrote, “My position is this. My body and mind are living in a world by which I remain unaffected, but in which I am being tried. My soul is living in a world physically away from me and yet a world by which I am and want to be affected. You are a part of that world and perhaps the nearest to me.”
The first president, Rajendra Prasad, authored At the feet of Mahatma Gandhi while he was living in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The book chronicles his association with Gandhi beginning from the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917. He recounts an amusing incident when Gandhi visited his house for the first time. Forced to halt in Patna en route to Champaran in April 1917, Gandhi was escorted to Prasad’s house by his fellow traveller Rajkumar Shukla. Unfortunately Prasad, then a practising advocate at the Patna High Court, was away from home and a domestic help greeted the visitors. From Gandhi’s simple clothes and appearance, the help mistook him for a villager and forbade him from using the lavatory reserved for the ‘master of the house’.
The ‘Philosopher President’ S Radhakrishnan, during his time teaching at Oxford, edited a book, Mahatma Gandhi: essays and reflections on his life and work , which he presented to Gandhi on October 2, 1939. The eminent contributors to the book included Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore. In the introduction, Radhakrishnan noted that Gandhi was “not a politician or reformer, not a philosopher or a moralist, but someone composed of them all, an essentially religious person”. Deeply influenced by Gandhi, Radhakrishnan had, during the difficult India-China phase of 1962, accepted only a part of his salary and donated the rest to the PM relief fund.
Similarly, presidents Zakir Hussain, VV Giri and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, all began their public careers influenced by their encounters with Gandhi. Hussain, an eminent educationist who was the vice-chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia University from 1926 to 1948, had in his acceptance speech as president stated, “I began my public life at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi and he has been my guide and inspirer. I have endeavoured to follow in my life some of Mahatma ji’s teachings, and in this new opportunity of servicing our people that I got I shall do my utmost to take my people towards what Gandhiji strove restlessly to achieve.”
Giri abandoned his flourishing legal career to heed Gandhi’s call for the Non-cooperation Movement in 1920. Similarly, inspired by Gandhi, Reddy entered politics as a student in 1932. In a memoir, he recounts meeting the Mahatma for the first time in 1929 when the latter was auctioning some small things given to him at a meeting. The young Reddy bought a casket, a painting and a shawl. As he received the items from Gandhi, he remembers being embarrassed that he was not wearing khadi!
Although later presidents did not meet Gandhi in person, they have continually reminded us of his message of non-violence and ahimsa each time there are communal tensions or acts of terrorism. They have repeated Gandhi’s exhortation to adopt khadi and support local industries during difficult economic times. At nearly every university convocation, they have amplified his insistence on truth and service to humanity. They have reaffirmed his ideals of unity and brotherhood during every address to the nation.
And while art and aesthetics may not have been uppermost in Gandhi’s scheme of things, one president did try to get the twain to meet. APJ Abdul Kalam, who constantly cited Gandhi as his source of inspiration, hosted several exhibitions in the Rashtrapati Bhavan revolving around the theme of satyagraha. During one exhibition in 2006, he expressed his desire to have a painting of Gandhi on his Dandi March, which had impressed him from his childhood. A young artist, Sanjay Bhattacharya, translated his desire into reality and the large canvas now hangs in the Rashtrapati Bhavan museum.
President Ram Nath Kovind, whose birthday incidentally falls a day ahead of Gandhi’s, repeatedly states at forums in India and abroad that Gandhi belongs not to any one nation but to entire mankind. At the meeting of the national committee for the commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi on May 2, 2018 in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he said the Mahatma is “our past, he is our present and he is also our future.”
Praveen Siddharth is private secretary to the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan