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Lessons From Bapu

By Tushar Gandhi

If a civil society wants to prosper and advance it will only happen when the contribution of every citizen is acknowledged and honoured, observes Tushar A. Gandhi.

“No matter how insignificant the thing you have to do, do it as well as you can, give it as much of your care and attention as you would give to the thing you regard as most important. For it will be by those small things that you shall be judged.”

— Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mahatma. 

One day Napoleon Bonaparte was out on a stroll with his generals. They came upon a very narrow bridge which allowed only one person at a time to cross. When the Emperor and his entourage reached the bridge, a labourer carrying a heavy load had just got on to it from the other side. This meant that the Emperor would have to wait. One of the Generals accompanying Napoleon shouted at the labourer and ordered him to get off the bridge and allow the Emperor to pass. Napoleon reprimanded the General and asked the labourer to continue crossing the bridge. While waiting, Napoleon told the General, “This man is working, no matter how insignificant his task, the fact that he is performing it, is working, makes him important. I may be the Emperor, but at the moment I am not working and hence the labourer has priority over me, at this moment his time is more precious than mine. I can afford to wait, he must not.” This was the quality of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, which made him great and ensured his success on the battlefield.

Great people have always understood the dignity of labour and the dignity in labour. Dignity of labour is recognising the nobility of performing a task and not demeaning it, it is the quality of recognising the importance of labour and not classifying it by its nature. Dignity in labour is recognising and honouring the task one is performing. If performing a task is seen as one’s duty (dharma), if it is performed as a form of worship, then every task becomes important and sacred. Then one will never allow it to be corrupted or become a subject of contempt or do it inefficiently. Many great people who have become immortal are remembered more for their humility and ability to honour and respect the weakest of the weak and the poorest of the poor. A successful General is one who looks after and respects his foot soldiers and recognises their importance, one who instils a sense of pride and a feeling of importance amongst the lowest ranks in his command and not one who treats his troops as expendable cannon fodder.

In Bapu’s ashrams, the first task entrusted to new entrants was the cleaning of latrines. In those days there were no flushing toilets. Latrine duty meant emptying and washing chamber pots and toilets. Since toilets were buckets in those days they had to be carried and emptied into cesspits and cleaned frequently. Bapu’s reasoning for this kind of initiation was that this would strip the person of any residual ego and make them humble enough to be able to recognise truth and be prepared to serve the weakest and the poorest. Every Satyagrahi went through this initiation, which is the reason why even today when one meets a freedom fighter or a true Gandhian the first thing one notices is their dignity and humility. There is a story from Sevagram Ashram. One of Bapu’s close associates, a rich industrialist one day brought his son to meet Bapu. The young scion had just returned from abroad after completing his studies and was brimming with ideas. He expressed his desire to do something for his country before he joined the family business. His father felt that Bapu would be able to utilise his son’s services, so he took him to meet Bapu. The young man told Bapu he had many ideas and wished to solve the problems facing India and asked that Bapu assign him a task. Bapu accepted him into his ashram and told him that he must clean the latrines from the next day.

Being obedient the young man performed the task assigned to him. A week later he went to Bapu and said, “I have cleaned latrines for a week now can I move on to bigger more important tasks?” Bapu shook his head and asked him to continue cleaning latrines. Thus a month passed, the youth felt his talent was being wasted, but he could not disobey Bapu so he obediently continued to clean the toilets. Finally he asked Bapu, “I have become used to cleaning the latrines, initially I felt it was demeaning but now I have got used to it. But Bapu I think I am capable of doing better work, I want to know when you will allow me to address the problems faced by India?” Bapu told the young man, “I know that you have been educated abroad and so you feel that you must address the bigger issues plaguing India, like reducing poverty, speeding up development and eradicating illiteracy, but as long as you don’t have the humility to do the humblest of jobs you will not be able to recognise the real problems that beset our motherland. If you really want to make a difference you will have to first get rid of your ego, only then will you be able to understand that it is essential to recognise the importance of the seemingly insignificant, menial tasks and have the humility to perform them, if you learn to do them with dignity and honour, the bigger tasks will become easy.”

A few years back on a trip to the US I met the young son of a white American acquaintance. As is usual I asked him what he wished to become when he grew up, “I will become a garbage collector.” I was shocked to hear the reply and felt concerned that the young boy was being such an underachiever. But today when I think back, it was I who was inconsiderate and elitist. Just imagine a world without garbage collectors and street sweepers, and one immediately realises how vital and important their labour is. Then why do we consider their task demeaning, undignified?

In Young India of September 1, 1921, Bapu wrote, “Our children should not be so taught as to despise labour. It is a sad thing that our school boys look upon manual labour with disfavour, if not contempt.” I was fortunate to have studied in Adarsh Vinay Mandir, a school run by a freedom fighter couple, Dhanuben and Prabhubhai Upadhyay, who alas are no more. Our school was based on the Montessori system and aspects of ashram life were incorporated in our curriculum. In high school, maintaining the cleanliness of the school was our responsibility. Every class was assigned one day of the week when they swept and swabbed the lobby and classroom floors and washed the toilets. We diligently scrubbed and cleaned the toilets, till they sparkled. This instilled in us the importance of cleanliness too. Since we cleaned the toilets, we ensured that they were kept clean and we also learned to use the common facilities with responsibility. But the most important value that it instilled in us was to respect labour and have the humility to recognise the importance of the most menial of jobs and to honour those who performed them. Today, if students are asked to maintain the cleanliness of their schools, I am sure parents would take out a morcha and seek the dismissal of the Principal or paint his or her face black.

Madeline Slade, was the daughter of an Admiral of the British Navy. She came under the thrall of Bapu, renounced her affluence and came to India to live in Bapu’s ashrams. Her transformation into Meerabehen, the name given to her by Bapu, began by cleaning bucket latrines and emptying chamber pots. There is a photograph of Ramkrishna Bajaj, of the rich Bajaj family, shaving Bapu, he performed the task with joy and pride. While walking through riot ravaged Noakhali and Tipperah districts of East Bengal, many a times the narrow footpaths were dirtied by Muslim League fanatics with human and animal faeces, to sabotage Bapu’s peace pilgrimage. The first couple of times, as soon as Bapu came upon the filth in his path he did not side step and avoid the filth, he did not change his route or cancel his padayatra, nor did he order his workers to clean up the path. On seeing the filth Bapu picked up palm fronds and swept off the filth and then walked down the clean footpath. Seeing this, after a few attempts, the miscreants desisted. This is Satyagraha at work, this is also an example of the power of dignity in labour, the quality of considering no work below one’s self.

Today we see rampant corruption everywhere; it is only because we have forsaken dignity in our work. Instead of work being our duty (dharma), it has become a tool of commerce and so the credo is to make money by any and all means. When one sells one’s profession, when one performs one’s duties purely for commercial consideration, one prostitutes one’s self and one’s ability, then all dignity is lost. If we were to do our duties honestly, and perform them with honour and pride one would not be able to demean one’s self by becoming a saleable commodity. In the Harijan of September 8, 1946, Bapu wrote – “I am a firm believer in the educative value of manual work. Useful manual labour, intelligently performed, is the means par excellence for developing the intellect. One may develop a sharp intellect otherwise, too. But, then, it will not be a balanced growth but an unbalanced, distorted abortion. It might easily make of one a rouge and rascal.”

Bapu believed that it is the duty of every individual to perform physical labour everyday. He called it bread labour, paying for what one consumed by way of physical labour. He himself would not eat unless he spun one hundred and fifty yard lengths of khadi yarn everyday, no matter what. Bread labour was only suspended by him during his fasts, but till his death, he performed bread labour everyday without fail. During his last days when there was tremendous pressure put on him, on a few occasions he forgot to do his daily quota of bread labour. But, when he remembered, just as he finally lay down for some much needed rest, the 79-year-old would get up and perform the stipulated bread labour and only then allow himself to rest. In one of the editorials he wrote for the Harijan, which was published on February 8, 1948, after his murder, he said, “We are all labourers. In honest labour lies our salvation and the satisfaction of all vital needs.”

Many a times we fail because we do not realise the importance of the small tasks and do not give enough thought and importance to them. Members of the team performing unimportant tasks are not given their due respect and importance, and therein lie the seeds of failure. Dishwashers in a restaurant are considered to be on the lowest rung, their task is considered to be menial, they have no say in the running of a restaurant and seemingly make no contribution to its success. But one of the first things that a diner at a restaurant notices is the cutlery and crockery, if they are not squeaky clean, no matter how good a chef the restaurant boasts of, no matter how tasty its food, it will quickly lose its clientele and will soon go out of business. If the dishwashers are given the necessary dignity and made to feel that they are important cogs in the success of the restaurant, they will perform their tasks with a sense of honour and pride and ensure that the restaurant does not suffer on their account. But always when we have a good experience in a restaurant, we tip the waiters, we compliment the chef but we fail to compliment the dishwashers, our apathy robs the dignity from their work. A person who cleans operation theatres and sterilises operating instruments is as vital for the success of an operation as the surgeon. If the operation theatre is not absolutely clean and the instruments cent per cent sterilised, no matter how skilful the surgeon may be, operations will never be successful. Patients will develop post-operative infections, which in turn will cause complications and retard their recovery or even endanger their lives. The cleaner will only perform with dedication if he or she is treated with dignity and honour. These are examples of a restaurant and hospital, but the same principle is applicable to every field, be it menial or high tech, shoe making or rocket technology.

If a civil society wants to prosper and advance it will only happen when the contribution of every citizen is acknowledged and honoured and when every citizen in turn recognises and performs with honour and a sense of duty even the most menial and insignificant looking tasks. If we want to live in a clean locality we must be prepared to clean our neighbourhood and take pride in doing so. If we consider cleaning our locality below our status we will end up at the mercy of others or we will be forced to live like pigs in a sty. In the same manner when we don’t respect the importance of a sweeper, a garbage collector or a cleaner of drains, we demean their tasks and in turn expose our ingratitude.

If a small screw in a giant machine comes off and falls into the mechanism, it may not shut down the machine immediately but overtime it will cause so much damage that the machine itself will have to be junked. Yet it is only when the machine crashes and the cause of the crash is attributed to the tiny screw, that we recognise its importance.

I conclude with a quote from Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi — “Just as there is no shame in being a labourer for one’s self, so also is there no shame in labouring for others.”

The writer, a social activist, is the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the Managing Trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, Mumbai.

Source :  This article published in 'One India One People' Magazine.

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