01 January 1970

Book Excerpt: An Ode To Unsung Heroes Walking In Mahatma Gandhi's Footsteps


Book Excerpt: An Ode To Unsung Heroes Walking In Mahatma Gandhi's Footsteps

Using satyagraha and non-violence as their tools, 'Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma', an anthology of seven stories about the lives and work of unsung heroes, shows how these methods can still help effect real change and progress for the people most in need.

Excerpts from 'Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma'
Excerpts from 'Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma' PTI

Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma is an anthology of seven stories about the lives and work of unsung heroes who are powering social change. Teachings of Mahatma Gandhi are their moral compass. They have shown by personal example how adopting Bapu’s ideology as a way of life can be both enriching and socially beneficial. Using satyagraha and non-violence as their tools, they have proved that these methods can still help effect real change and progress for the people most in need.

Here are excerpts from the book co-authored by Barkha Mathur and Ashutosh Salil shared with permission from the authors. 

Mohan and Devaji

During the movement against the twin dams, two key things happened to Mohan. The first was his marriage to Savita Tare, a master’s-degree holder in anthropology and a fellow follower of JP.  The other was meeting Devaji Tofa of Mendha Lekha village, the sarpanch of Group Gram Panchayat Lekha that had three villages— Mendha, Lekha and Kanardola—as its members. Around this time, Mohan was reading Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave extensively. In 1942, when Vinoba Bhave was incarcerated in Nagpur Jail, he wrote a book, Swaraj Shastra. Bhave spoke about lok shakti, or power of the people. Bhave, however, admitted that this was utopian as he had not heard of such a system of governance being practised anywhere. Mohan wanted to venture into that heaven of freedom. He had to learn for himself if such a system—of decision by consensus—was being practised anywhere in the tribal world, the only place it could possibly exist, if it did. 

As the movement against the construction of the two dams spread in 1984, Mohan, who was part of the agitation, travelled across villages to create awareness about the ecological imbalances that the dams would create. Tribals from all the villages were coming together, with Devaji Tofa at the forefront of the movement. He would watch Mohan explaining to his people the significance of each and every tree that would be uprooted. Devaji remembers about the early days of his friendship with Mohan. ‘He was speaking about matters that concerned every Adivasi. The way he was explaining it all made me approach him, as there was so much to learn.’ 

Devaji Tofa, who was born on 20 August 1956, suffered for the ills that plagued tribal society, and that shaped his determination to work for the betterment of his people. Like many tribal men of his times, his father, too, brewed liquor and consumed it in large amounts. Devaji had an elder brother who was a daily-wage labourer too. He died of alcoholism. As Mendha did not have a school, Devaji studied in one at a village close by that had only up to Class IV. After that, like other boys of the village, Devaji grazed cattle and worked for daily wages. Right from childhood, Devaji took a keen interest in his surroundings. Having seen and suffered for the ill effects of alcoholism among his village and family, he kept away from the bottle. When he was growing up, two things that were extensively discussed in his community were the need for prohibition, and forest rights. From the age of sixteen, he began to take part in these discussions. ‘I realized that we will have to search for solutions on our own and no government body or organization could get us what we wanted,’ remembers Devaji, who now speaks with a smattering of English words. The arbitrariness of forest officials was always a cause for worry among forest dwellers, who depended upon the jungles for their livelihood and sustenance. There were always discussions about forest rights. 

Devaji was appointed a member of the gram panchayat of Mendha from 1979 to 1984, the year he was elected the sarpanch. 
When Devaji met Mohan during the anti-dam agitation in 1984, the two connected almost immediately despite their apparent contrast. ‘He was tall and fair and looked very different from us,’ remembers Devaji of Mohan, who is slightly over four feet tall. ‘Initially, we all were suspicious. But when we started having discussions, I realized how well-read and knowledgeable he was and how well he understood our needs and requirements.’ 

Matin Bhosle

Though he was making strides in his personal life, Matin Bhosle did not forget the miseries and sufferings other members of his tribe faced. A recurring question gnawed at him: How could he improve the lot of his people? One morning in 2009, as he was taking class, a phone call from a farmer in the adjacent village changed the course of Matin’s life. ‘The bodies of two boys have been found near a stream close to my farm,’ the caller told him. ‘I think they are of children from your tribe.’ A fortnight earlier, police had picked up a Pardhi couple for a robbery and arson incident in a village in the nearby district of Yavatmal. The husband and wife were taken away in a highway patrol van early in the morning. The couple had two sons, who, after the arrest of their parents, were staying with their uncles. The boys had gone to catch fish and crabs with the elders and were missing. Matin immediately left for the location. On arrival, his fears were confirmed. Lying on the sides of the stream, their bodies covered with mud and slush, were the two sons of the couple who had been arrested. The boys had slipped and drowned. Garbage was stuck on their faces and in their hair. As Matin bent down to pick them up, their limbs and flesh began to fall apart. The bodies had bloated and rotted. Martin was crazed with grief and anguish. He could feel the blood being squeezed out of his heart and air sucked out of his lungs. Something within snapped as he picked up what remained of the boys, one eight and the other ten years old. 

Matin Bhosle was no stranger to the unbearable tragedy of being marginalized, but this incident was not something he could reconcile himself to. As he went through the motions of giving the boys a burial, a resolve began to take shape in his mind. ‘My teaching job benefits only me and my family. My community is still suffering and I have to do something,’ he decided. Soon after that incident, Matin applied for a three-month leave without pay from the school. He asked the volunteers of his organization to head to different districts and survey Pardhi settlements. He visited railway stations and scouted around traffic signals to locate Pardhi children. He found many of them begging. Most were orphans, or their parents were in jail. The unkempt, half naked children would beg all day and hand over the earnings to their guardians. The children’s lives were hell. They never got enough food or clothing. Thrashings and insults were routine, as were substance and sexual abuse. 

Matin began to ask such children to come with him to his village. ‘I promise I will provide you food, shelter and education,’ he told them. Most of them refused and their guardians also violently opposed the suggestion. Born on footpaths and brought up in abject poverty, the children had never known a decent home, forget school. Hardened by life, they were insensitive to Matin’s pleas and reasoning. Not one to give up, he continued to persuade them. Yogita, a girl in Mumbai’s busy Dadar station, bluntly told him, ‘I will come with you if you give me tobacco and booze.’ She was just about eleven years old. It was the same story with most of the other children. Their parents were either dead, behind bars or ailing. When hunger pangs struck, chewing tobacco or liquor was easier and cheaper than getting food most of the time. 

Ashutosh Salil is a serving bureaucrat, a Maharashtra cadre IAS officer who is also an alumnus of National Law School and Harvard Law School, and a Fulbright Scholar.

Barkha Mathur is an award winning career journalist from Nagpur who has worked with leading news and media agencies for three decades and has covered the lives and work of the people whose stories appear in the book.