Forty-nine years after the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi, whom some would term the "father" of modern India, the forgotten remains of his ashes were finally ceremonially scattered into the river. On the eve of India's 50th year of nationhood, the ashes made their way to the crossroads of the Yamuna and Ganga on January 30, 1997, after months of Supreme Court hearings and government rulings. It was Tushar Gandhi, the slain leader's great-grandson, who finally ushered the remains through the bureaucratic process of authentication, and ensured that his great-grandfather's ashes finally found a resting place. Left to rest in a bank vault in Orissa, on the eastern coast of India, the ashes were the subject of an intense investigation, after many government officials believed that the remains were a hoax. It is as if the appearance of the ashes was perfectly timed to coincide with India's 50th anniversary, allowing us to reflect upon Gandhi's ideals, the state of India today, and whether it has lived up to the dream that Gandhi harbored and nurtured for so long.
For Tushar Gandhi, the ceremony was a matter of putting an end to unfinished business, and moving on. Others, though, questioned the motives and even the authenticity of the ashes. The two-year ordeal began when Tushar, after reading an article in the Times of India, discovered that there were remnants of his great-grandfather's ashes sitting in a State Bank of India vault in Cuttak, Orissa. The box containing the ashes had apparently been set aside, and then forgotten, after they were used at a memorial service. The bank managers and government contested for months that it was a hoax, blocking Tushar's access to the vault. After months of court hearings and a hunger strike (evoking Gandhi's favorite means of peaceful protest,) the Supreme Court finally ruled in December that they were authentic, and authorized their release to the Gandhi family. However, the decision by the courts has not silenced the cries of doubters. "If they were real, why weren't they scattered like the other remains (which were dispersed among each state to scatter in their rivers)...I have never heard of ashes placed in a bank vault!", remarks Mukerjee, a local man interviewed in Allahabad (Agence France Presse, Jan. 30, 1997). Some even called for DNA testing to be done on the ashes. These and other doubts cast a shadow upon the ceremonies, which were intended to honor and put to rest the architect of Independence and Indian political structure.
In 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist (for agreeing to the partition of India and the establishment of the Islamic nation of Pakistan), crowds turned up, en masse, to mourn his death, to touch his coffin, and lay flowers at the edge of the Ganges. In 1997, very few people seemed to care for the fate of this slain former hero. "Many Indians who revere Gandhi believe that the misplacement of his ashes symbolizes a decline in his relevance as a hero and model statesman" (NY Times, Jan 31, 1997.) In stark contrast to the first funeral ceremonies, and to the dismay of state leaders and families, the turnout to the ceremony marking the final passage of Gandhi was extremely low. With the exception of one staged photo opportunity in Allahabad by political party leaders, there were few crowds at the railroad stations along the path from Orissa to the banks of the Ganges. Noticeably absent from the ceremonies were state leaders, such as Prime Minister H. D. Deva Gowda, who issued no statement explaining his absence, and the top leadership of the Congress party. To Tushar, it seemed as if the politicians in New Delhi had shown their pettiness by staying away. It seems as though the nation has forgotten about this once revered man. To some, such as the Gandhi family and the supporters of the Gandhian ideals, it appears as if the country has turned its back on Gandhi, implying that he hardly matters to India anymore.
As people gathered on the banks of the Ganga, in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, to see the final remnants of one of India's most influential leaders, a varied span of opinions of Gandhi, his life and his ideals, emerged. The ceremony comes at a time in which Indian leaders, in their hurry to move forward, have more frequently questioned the ideals of the Gandhian movement. Lately, it seems as if there has been a sense of alienation from his ideals on the part of many influential and prominent Indian leaders. Politicians are ruled by calculations of political gain, and at this fragile time in Indian history, it is better to denounce Gandhi than to be seen supporting the ideals of this 'ancient and irrelevant' movement. In a speech arousing much controversy, Balasaheb Thackeray, one of the most powerful political leaders in Bombay, and head of the Hindu fundamentalist party, the Shiv Sena, made venom laced comments about Gandhi's practices, ideals, and the level of respect Gandhi should command in today's Indian society. He not only challenged the notion of Gandhi as the father of India, 'Bapu', but continued to say, "at the most, he could be India's son". He also made remarks about Gandhi's practice of testing his self control by sleeping in the same bed as a naked woman. Thackeray implied that there was something more to it than what Gandhi said. Prominent Islamic scholar Wahiduddin Khan and others have implied that Gandhi rushed nationhood. "They believed that if they threw the British out, they could usher in an evil free society. But the people of my generation would agree that the India of 1947 was a better India. There was peace, prosperity and brotherhood," said Mr. Khan. Khan also believes that independence should have waited until India, whose current literacy rate is about 60%, gained a better educated electorate (New York Times, Jan. 31, 1997).
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. It is imperative to look back and examine India's past, present and future, to see if it has lived up to the ideals upon which it was formed. As one of the foremost leaders of the push for independence, Gandhi's ideals in great part shaped the way the nation was supposed to function. Some question whether the Gandhian principles of nonviolence, simplicity and self-reliance still survive in a nation in the wake of an economic and industrial revolution. India is now armed with nuclear weapons. It refuses to disarm itself, and even threatens to use them on occasion. It is a nation trying to mold itself into a consumer society, almost aping the west in dress, music, and societal morals. India is not the utopia which its forefathers imagined it would become. In Tushar's words even Gandhi would have been disappointed by the "morally reprehensible" conditions of Indian society today. "What would he not have disapproved of: the casteism, religious divide, materialism, and abject aping of the west..." Gandhi worked for equality, unity and nonviolence, yet today, India still remains entrenched in religious warfare; and the
caste system, though not legally condoned, still persists in Indian society. It was Gandhi's dream to have a land where Hindus and Muslims lived together in unity and harmony. Case after case proves though that this has not happened, and does not appear to be happening anytime in the near future. In fact, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists, finding new fodder for the fire, have succeeded in gaining a new popularity throughout the nation. Politically, the system too is ailing, a far cry from the land which Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi envisioned. Bogged down in political maneuvering, the government's powers meld into one huge centralized bureaucracy in which the needs of the people are far from being met. Leaders of various parties, especially the Congress-I party, which Gandhi once led, stand accused of bribery, fraud, and graft in astounding numbers.
Gandhi's ideals are not all lost to deaf ears, though. He still serves as a pillar of the nonviolence, living on in leaders such as South Africa's Nelson Mandela. His visions of unity, prosperity for all, and most importantly religious harmony will one day come true. India too, has not grown into a monster of all evils in the last 50 years. It stands as the leader of the computer industry, the sciences, and many other consumer industries. Under the new open markets which have emerged, India is the new dreamland for multinational corporations seeking new endeavors and markets. The dramatic growth of India technologically too, is visible by turning on any TV set. You will see the beams of MTV Asia, Channel V, and Star TV, along with the old standards of Door Darshan 1 and 2. Socio-politically ,too, India has made great strides in extending education to the poor, the rural folk and the women. It seeks everyday to meet the needs of both its urbanized and nuveau riche, the new "middle class" and the rural poor. But it has taken India 50 years to become who it is today, and it will probably take at least another 50 years before all of Gandhi's ideals (or at least some of them) come true. At that point, he will regain the respect and admiration he once commanded, and still deserves. India is strong and she will prosper. The past 50 years have proven that.