Many voices were heard after the Prime Minister of India in his extempore speech on the 15th August 2014 on Independence Day spoke of 'Swachh Bharat'. Independence Day speech of the Prime Minister of India carries a message not only for the countrymen but is also a statement to the international community too, being widely reported across the world. The message in the speech was loud and clear. On Mahatma Gandhi's birthday i.e. 2nd October 2014, the campaign was launched with much fanfare. Mahatma Gandhi whom the nation had relegated to archives, came alive on his birthday this year.
Many have appeared on the print and electronic media, holding a broom for a few minutes shown sweeping the already sanitised streets in ’swachh uniforms'. These swachh uniforms remained spotlessly swachh after the ritual was over. The 'elite sweepers' were smilingly sweeping in the company of dozens of other men and women, when photographed. Sweeping public places is a very tedious and back breaking business; it is no smiling business, since sweeping public places brings forth dust allergy, running nose, watery eyes and smelling uniforms. And why our public spirited men and women should sweep only ’symbolically’; why not as a daily routine, if they took the pledge to clean India in earnest and with conviction.
Swachh Bharat scheme is launched with Mahatma Gandhi as its inspiration. I wonder, how many people have read what Gandhi has to say on the subject? This brief write up below is but a glimpse of some of Gandhi's views on cleanliness and how he personally went about doing it with no camera in attendance.
This essay contains several thoughts and anecdotes from Gandhi’s life, extracted from several books, including his Autobiography. This write up may work as a refresher on the subject topic.
The first glimpse of Gandhi’s rejection of Hindu orthodoxy finds mention in his Autobiography, when he questions his mother, who forbade him to touch an 'untouchable'. He was instructed to have a bath if he had touched an untouchable in his school or seek out a Muslim and touch him, for two 'untouchables' cancel each other in impurity. Once, a scavenger by name Uka, whose duty included clearing out night soil of the house hold and clean the court yard came in physical contact with him, which his mother saw from a window. He was asked to go through the ritual of cleansing himself. Young Mohandas remonstrated and argued and quoted passages from scriptures stating that the sacred scriptures did not approve of treating some human beings as untouchables. Though he would have to obediently comply with the orders of his mother or other elders, his inner being never accepted their logic of some being treated as 'untouchables'. He would argue with his elders but he would do their bidding, reluctantly. The rebellious spirit would grow stronger with the advancing years, till it became the voice of his conscience, transforming itself as the voice of the nation. (Reference: Speech at Suppressed Classes Conference, Ahmedabad, Young India (27.4.1921 and 4.5.1921) CWMG 19:570
In South Africa, he took up the cause of the Indians against racial discrimination. He however observed that while the Indian merchants and other free Indians felt humiliated at their ill treatment by the White Europeans, they as a class were no better in their relationship with the illiterate Indian indentured labourers, who were working in semi slavery conditions in the Natal plantations. When Gandhiji took up the Indian cause, he was painfully made aware by the Europeans of the unclean habitats in which the Indians lived and their shabby treatment of their own illiterate brethren.
While defending Indians against false propaganda, he accepted such criticisms, which in his opinion were true. He spoke to the Indian community on the urgent need to improve their public image on sanitation and untouchability. It was further alleged that the indentured Indians who had migrated and settled in Natal were pariahs in their own country; the poor, the downtrodden and of low caste. If their own countrymen treated them as pariahs, why they should seek parity in an alien country? “The truth burst upon his mind with the force of revelation that so long as India allowed a section of her people to be treated as pariahs, so long must be her sons prepared to be treated as pariahs abroad. To destroy the twin evil of untouchability and insanitation became his passion. So seared was his soul that as a token of expiation for the treatment meted out to the outcastes, he ultimately took to scavenging, declaring that India’s independence could wait but not the eradication of the curse of untouchability." Writes Pyarelal in his biography of Gandhi. (Reference: Mahatma Gandhi Volume 1 Page 478)
Gandhiji records, "The charge had often been made that the Indian was slovenly in his habits and did not keep his house and surroundings clean. . . . But I had some bitter experiences. I saw that I could not so easily count on the help of the community in getting it to do its own duty, as I could in claiming for it rights. At some places I met with insults, at other with polite indifference. It was too much for people to bestir themselves to keep their surroundings clean. To expect them to find money for the work was out of the question. These experiences taught me, better than ever before, that without infinite patience it was impossible to get the people to do any work. It is the reformer who is anxious for the reform, and not society, from which he should expect nothing better than opposition, abhorrence and even mortal persecution." (Reference Chapter XI of Part 3 of Autobiography)
When plague broke out in Johannesburg in the Indian settlement, the municipal authorities were furious and in panic. It was no ordinary plague; it was the deadliest plague known then, the Black or pneumonic plague. The twenty three affected Indians were moved to a vacant house by an Indian worker. He informed Gandhi of the outbreak of plague. Gandhiji on hearing cycled to the location and took charge of the patients. A European nurse who was attending the patients recalls," ...in the evening, a small figure appeared at the door. She shouted, Get out. This is plague. But the man (Gandhi) quietly replied, "It is alright. I have come to help."
Gandhiji along with his associates nursed the patients risking their lives. The severity of the plague could be gauged by the fact that all but two died in a couple of days. Two could be saved who were treated by Gandhiji on mud therapy. Seeing his fearlessness and devotion some Europeans also joined with Gandhi for nursing the patients, being fully aware that their lives were in real danger. The cause of the plague was attributed to the neglect of sanitation by the Indians but in this case heavy responsibility lay at the doorstep of the Municipality too.
Gandhiji did not seek any publicity for the public works that he undertook in his life; for him 'service to humanity was service to God'.
Gandhiji visited India in 1896 after three years stay in South Africa. In June, plague broke out in Bombay. Gandhiji was in Rajkot then. He was inducted in the Sanitary Committee of Rajkot. The committee went on daily rounds to inspect the houses of the residents with special attention to latrines. It was found that the latrines of the rich were the most unclean. "They were dark and stinking and reeking with filth and worms.” To improvements suggested by the Committee, “The upper classes raised numerous objections . . . . And in most cases it was not carried out."
Gandhiji further records, "The committee had to inspect the untouchables’ quarters also. Only one member of the committee was ready to accompany me there. To the rest it was something preposterous to visit those quarters, still more so to inspect their latrines. But for me those quarters were an agreeable surprise. . . . I asked them to let us inspect their latrines. 'Latrines for us!' they exclaimed in astonishment. 'We go out and perform our functions out in the open. Latrines are for you big people". Gandhiji records that the houses of the poor were clean and tidy compared to the houses of rich. In Rajkot people knew him as a son and a grandson of the Dewans (Prime Minister) of the State and yet for Gandhiji this was neither a hindrance nor a shame.
In the year 1901 while on his second visit to India, Gandhiji attended the Congress session in Calcutta. He found the same indifference for sanitation. There were only a few latrines and the rush was big. He records, “I pointed it out to the volunteers. They said point-blank: ‘That is not our work, it is the scavenger’s work.’ I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder. I procured one and cleaned the latrine." He however could not persuade others to do the same. The delegates were even using their residential quarters as their toilets without the latrines. The sad experience of Calcutta Congress session burnt into him. Later when he had taken control of the Congress, he organized a party of two thousand volunteers for doing scavenging work in Haripura Congress session, which had men and women from all castes, including upper caste. He had finally torpedoed the caste barrier at least in one area; others bastions of age old evil practices were to fall one by one in the years to come. (Reference: Bahuroopee Gandhi by Anu Bandopadhyay page 24 edition 1964)
In 1915, Gandhiji had returned to India for good. He visited Shantiniketan of Rabindranath Tagore in February and March 1915. Below is an extract of an interview given by Rabindranath Tagore to Shri SK Roy in 1920 explaining the impact of Gandhiji on the inmates of Shantiniketan. Rabindranath Tagore says,
“What I could not accomplish in years, he did in a few days.
I always held that the boys of my school should themselves clean their rooms, make their own beds, cook their meals and wash their dishes. But our boys came from such families that I could not make them do these things. The trouble was that I did not clean my own room, nor make my own bed, nor cook my own means, nor wash my own dishes. Consequently the boys did not care to take me seriously. I simply lectured; so the boys just listened."
“But when Gandhiji came he at once won the hearts of our boys. He mixed with them as one of them. He told them that it was improper to have servants do the work they themselves should be doing. And he himself cleaned his own room, made his own bed, washed his own dishes and he even washed his own clothes."
“The boys were ashamed of themselves; and they at once began doing all these tasks most joyously. I at once knew how Gandhi won the hearts of the students."
“In the meantime Gandhi asked the scavengers not to do any work for a few days. The high caste boys could never think of doing the work of untouchable scavengers .Life in the school became almost impossible with the odour of night soil."
“Then Gandhi himself carried the pots on his own head to distant fields and buried their contents underground. This superman act was contagious. Soon the boys of the highest castes and rich families were vying with one another to have the honour of doing the work of the outcaste scavengers."
“And I was speechless with wonder and admiration for this great man from Bombay. I bowed to him in humility and with the utmost reverence my heart and mind could command. And I saw in this almost unknown man the making of a truly great man of major importance. I am most happy that all India now calls him Mahatma (Great-Souled-One). If anyone ever deserved this title, he does. And it should be known that this title is the spontaneous gift to Gandhi from the hearts of our people.”
“He came to our school at Bolapur and lived there for some time. His power of sacrifice becomes all the more irresistible, because it is wedded with him with paramount fearlessness.
“Emperors and Maharajas, guns and bayonets, imprisonments and tortures, insults and injuries, even death itself, can never daunt the spirit of Gandhi.
“He is a `Jivanmukta’, in other words, his is a liberated soul. If anyone strangles me, I shall be crying for help; but if Gandhi were strangled, I am sure he would not cry. He may laugh at his strangler; and if at all he has to die, he will die smiling." (Reference: This was Bapu compiled by R K Prabhu Page 135 -138 edition 1959)
In one small interview the poet had summed up the enormous influence Gandhiji could exert on his fellow beings.
Remember, the barrister M K Gandhi who had made such a fuss on travelling in First Class on his arrival in Natal in 1893, which led him being forcibly thrown off the carriage by a police constable. This incident at the Martizburg Railway Station started a chain of events, which we are all aware of. Now as the Mahatma, he would travel on his own volition in third class railway compartments in India. He shed all that separated him from the common masses; he had completely identified himself with the teeming millions of Indian population.
On his second visit to India he spent about a month in the company of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a much respected leader of India. Despite Gokhale's dissuasion, he decided to travel in India in third class in the railways, in order to be associated with the common people of India. This was in 1902, a still four years before the advent of Satyagraha in South Africa. In Natal he had visualised that his next 'karma bhoomi' would be in India. It was essential that he must have a firsthand acquaintance with the masses of India. He wanted to experience India not in the fashionable society of Calcutta or Bombay but in the small towns and villages of India, where the real India resided.
Here is how he describes the travel in a third class railway compartment in India. “The third-class compartments are practically as dirty and the closet arrangements as bad, today as they were then. . . . . Third-class passengers are treated like sheep and their comforts are sheep's comforts. . . . These unpleasant habits commonly include throwing of rubbish on the floor of the compartment, smoking at all hours and in all places, betel and tobacco chewing, converting of the whole carriage into a spittoon, shouting and yelling and using foul language, regardless of the convenience or comfort of fellow-passengers. . . . I can think of only one remedy of this awful state of things that educated men should make a point of travelling third class and reforming the habits of people ...."
At another place Gandhiji writes, "The woes of third-class passengers are undoubtedly due to the high-handedness of railway authorities. But the rudeness, dirty habits, selfishness, and ignorance of the passengers themselves are no less to blame. . . . The pity is that they often do not realize that they are behaving ill, dirtily or selfishly." Gandhiji suffered but did not give up travelling third class. Once he was asked why he travels third class. Smilingly he replied, "Because there is no fourth class."
Gandhiji travelling in third class was not a onetime affair. It became a religion for him. He was probably the most travelled amidst leaders of those times, travelling the length and breadth of the country, delivering messages to his countrymen. Many leaders attempted to follow his example but gave up intermittently; the hardships of third class travel was unbearable. There were times when Gandhiji would be travelling in third class, while some others of his party would be travelling in a higher class in the same train. Gandhiji would send someone from his compartment to enquire into the comforts and conveniences of those travelling in higher classes. It was his belief that the leaders must live the life of the men and women they wish to lead and cheerfully accept their sufferings as their own. The public men and women of today might like to take a leaf from Gandhiji in simplicity and frugal spending of national resources when discharging public duties.
Gandhiji records two visits to holy places in India. In 1902 he visited Kashi Vishwanath temple in Kashi. Here is a graphic description by Gandhiji in his autobiography, "The approach [to the temple was through a narrow and slippery lane. Quiet there was none. The swarming flies and the noise made by the shopkeepers and pilgrims were perfectly insufferable. . . The authorities should be responsible for creating and maintaining about the temple a pure, sweet and serene atmosphere, physical as well as moral. Instead of this I found a bazaar where cunning shopkeepers were selling sweets and toys of the latest fashion. . . . I went near the Jnana-vapi (well of knowledge). I searched here for God but failed to find Him. . . If anyone doubts the infinite mercy of God, let him have a look at these sacred places. How much hypocrisy and irreligion does the Prince of Yogis suffer to be perpetrated in His holy name?" He found greedy pandas everywhere, who shamelessly extracted money from the devout pilgrims. The ungodliness of the practices in Kashi touched him deeply, which got reflected in his writings and his reforms at a later stage. He simplified religion in his Ashrams and elsewhere, where singing of devotional songs / hymns of all religions and simple Aarti would substitute the elaborate Hindu rituals performed by the pujaris and pandas.
His next visit to a Hindu holy place was to Kumbh Mela. This was in 1915. Nothing much had changed as far as Railways were concerned. The passengers at times were huddled in the goods or cattle carriages which had no roof and they travelled in the blazing sun on their head. Thirsty they were but would not accept water unless it was a 'Hindu Water'. Gandhiji writes, “These very Hindus, let it be noted, do not so much as hesitate or inquire when during illness the doctor administers them wine or prescribes beef tea or a Mussalman or Christian compounder gives them water." Here also Gandhiji with his party who had arrived from South Africa volunteered to do the scavengers job in the camp area where the tents of volunteers were pitched. The volunteers had assigned themselves such jobs as fitted their status; covering up the excreta was not one of them. That was left for Gandhiji and his party.
Gandhiji would live in a sweeper’s colony when in Delhi while Jinnah stayed in one of the fine sprawling bungalows in Lutyen's Delhi. Jinnah would not visit Gandhiji in the sweeper’s colony while it is recorded that Lord Mountbatten did visit Gandhiji in the sweeper’s colony on June 4, 1947. He was given a chair to sit, while Gandhiji continued to sit on the mud floor to discuss state matters. Gandhiji was at home in his half dhoti with the King Emperor George V ,while visiting him in Buckingham Palace in London in 1932 as was he with the Viceroy Mountbatten in his mud hut in sweepers colony in 1947. To be and live the life of the poorest of the poor of India was a matter of deep conviction with him; there was no shame to it. The public men of today live in sprawling bungalows with a large retinue of servants allotted to them for the upkeep of their official bungalows. They would not vacate the official residences for years, even after they ceased to be public servants. Gandhiji had advised that all government bungalows should be converted into public offices after independence. His advice was ignored.
In 1946 Gandhiji visited Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) to bring peace in the communal strife district. He would walk from one village to another on his mission. An incident is recorded of one of his tours by his biographer Pyarelal .In the words of Pyarelal:
“The footpath was narrow so that the (Gandhiji's) party could walk on it only in single file. All of a sudden the column came to a dead stop. Gandhiji was removing the excreta from the footpath with the help of some dry leaves!
“The footpath had again been dirtied by some Muslim urchins.
' Why did you not let me do it? Why you put us to shame like this?' Manu asked. Gandhiji laughed: ' you little know the joy it gives me to do such things.' Lots of village people had stood complacently by while Gandhiji was engaged in cleaning the footpath. .........
If the path is still dirty (tomorrow), I shall clean it myself. Cleaning up, in the widest sense of the term is my profession."
" Before setting out the next day, Manu remembered Gandhiji's directions and went back to inspect the path which Gandhiji had cleaned on the previous day. It was dirty as ever. She cleaned it herself. Other people seeing her do so joined and the whole thing was finished in less than fifteen minutes." As Pyarelal records, an object lesson was given to the villagers. They would see that scavenging is not derogatory. (Reference: Mahatma Gandhi, Volume IX Book Two Page 152 -153. Edition 1956)
Gandhiji was once asked by a foreign correspondent in 1946 that if he were to be the Viceroy of India for one day, what he would do. He replied that he would spend the day cleaning the Augean stables of the scavengers near the Viceroy's House, and that he would do the same the next day and then on the next day. (Reference: Bahuroopee Gandhi by Anu Bandopadyaya page 29)
Well, that was what he had been doing all his life ; 'scavenging India' of all that was not right.
Gandhiji was not only cleaning latrines in South Africa and in India, he was cleansing humanity of prejudices, hatred and violence. His mission was spiritual cleansing of not only India but of the world. His was a message of peace, nonviolence, love and brotherhood. When he spoke for the meek and the poor, he embraced the world; for the unprivileged in the world have no national boundaries. His presence was hailed by some as the second coming of Jesus. His fight for the oppressed was without bitterness, unlike the class war. In his war, the adversary was disarmed without a duel.
Returning back to the subject; Gandhiji being chosen as an inspiration to Swachh Bharat, we have once again reaffirmed our faith in the legacy of the Father of the Nation. But do we have to invoke him for simple acts of cleanliness only. He was a revolutionary par excellence in every way, without the tempest that a revolutionary likes to be associated with. Every act of Gandhiji was a rebellion against unsustainable age old practices yet his methods were gentle, persuasive and patient. His simple advices were rooted in truth - the truth that is eternal and does not change with the change in the government.