“We Don’t See Our Self-Image in Modern India”

Hind Swaraj Journey: September 2002

They were  Kohl tribal in a four-day study camp organized  by social worker Shri Shamshad khan in September of 2002 at village Sukada, Dist Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh and adjacent to Sonbhadra district known for Naxalism (armed Maoist insurgents). Hind Swaraj was introduced in the first session in the light of the issues of justice and dignity faced by the tribal people. A question was raised about what can protect their rights and dignity and seeming advantages of violence as against nonviolence.  At the root of the issue of protection of dignity, as pointed out by “Pradhanji”, a semi-literate Muslim gentleman and Chief of the village Panchayat (Local Self Government unit), was the question of their own self-identity as a peasant community. He was supported by the entire group of more about fifty men and ten women in one voice. It set the tone for exploring the meaning of ‘Swa-raj’ with reference to meaning of essential identity; and the identities we acquire.

The discourse became easy and intense in the company of people who understood the meaning of moral self-identity. To the question “do you see your self-image in the image of modern India” the spontaneous answer was a loud collective “No”. This is what Hind Swaraj essentially explores through defining the meaning of civilization. Everyone was intensely riveted to the discussion on civilization as defined by Gandhiji in Hind Swaraj. To understand meaning of ‘duty’, ‘rights’, how one can best perform his/her duty;  ‘swadharma’ or the Law of being and what derails one from the path of morality; how ‘swadharam’  and moral conduct are coextensive; and how fulfillment of desires and freedom are related as complementary or contradictorily — how a village, indigenous social structure , if reformed of its defects is a harbinger of moral conduct–   all these and related issues were not only  easily graspable but they said that was their line of thinking. But, when they think and act like that they are called backward!  “Our languages speaks of these thoughts, but the educated modern people do not speak our language… they speak of rights for example , not of duty; they speak of themselves as being the center of every consideration and not of others for whom there is no consideration; we say ‘pranam’ , fold our hands before elders, they say ‘hello’ and take every one elder and younger as if they are all of the same age. They do not respect age and experience, the norms of  tahjeeb, sanskriti , civilized conduct, and principles of life …..”  One by one they came out with what we may call evidences of the fact that norms and values are built into language and that language is changing. Gandhiji’s definition of ‘civilization’ ‘good conduct’  not only appealed to them but they it satisfied their moral, political, intellectual and spiritual understanding of self, duty or “dharma” and “swadharma” as the immutable Law of Being; society,  and as the way of  harmonious co-living.

Next day a lady, about thirty, came over to the front row; and, before we began, she stood up to say that she wanted to say something. “I didn’t come yesterday. I work here, in the front ground with small hand- operated tool to make jute ropes. I could not hold back as I was told you were speaking about our dignity, culture and honor. I want to sit in the front because I can’t write and take notes as many of you are doing. But I have powerful brain. I will register every word there.” The assembly welcomed her with a big clap. I was owed at her willingness to forego day’s earnings  and her clear, forthright articulation.  Pradhanji became so involved that on occasions he would respond quoting from Ramayana, Mahabharat and the Holy Qurran. As a young man he always took part in Ramleela. Everyday the number of participants would swell as they would bring their neighbors and friends. Hind Swaraj gave them insight into understanding the changes around them that they thought were sinful, involving destruction of nature, their forests;  unjust involving them; and, immoral with respect to people’s conduct and relationships – between man and man; man and nature and man and God. They confessed they would not have courage to say so, because they are ‘backward people’.. “Gandhiji speaks for us and also shows our weaknesses.”   “The inward and the outward are not two separate struggles” said an elderly man.  

A few weeks later I received a phone call from the organizer of the above discourse, Shri Shamsad Khan. He said there were some young people from the adjacent Sonbhadra district who sent him a message if “Rajivbhai sahib will come to their jungle area and take a similar shibir camp) “We want to listen to him and talk to him. We will not harm him. But…. From some spot near Mirzapur onwards we will take him blind-folded to our place, and alone. Please convince him. It is our request.”  I instantaneously agreed and told Shamsad Khan to fix dates after about two months as I was preoccupied.” My life partner Niru though conscious, was clrear being aprt of this journey “we have to take consequences of walking on the path we have chosen”. I was much looking forwards to such an opportunity to talk to the dreaded Maoists.  Shamsad met with a bad accident, could not follow up on that. Time passed and the opportunity was lost. Providence had it that I was to get engaged with such youth, though in a different area, part of the same Naxal belt or the Maoist corridor in Bihar.