April 05, 2020
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Paternity Of Peace

Gandhi's view finds new takers in South Africa and Bangladesh

Paternity Of Peace

For us, here in India, it might be a moment of oedipal conflict-rejecting the Father's message as nothing more than a lot of old-fashioned humbug. But there are places where people are rediscovering in Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence and communal amity a salve for their battered existence. In South Africa, for instance, Gandhi's newspaper, The Opinion (earlier The Indian Opinion) was resuscitated on October 11 by the country's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, 39 years after it stopped publication. Closer home, in Bangladesh, its president, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, inaugurated a Gandhi museum at Joyag, an obscure village in southeastern Noakhali, Bangladesh.

Says Mewa Ramgobin, chairperson of the Phoenix Settlement Trust, which is publishing The Opinion biligually in English and Zulu: "Placing the two languages side by side is symbolic of our attempts at unifying a society previously ripped apart by racial and ethnic tensions."

The Opinion has been revived in a semi-symbolic attempt to restore the Phoenix settlement which had been gutted during the apartheid violence of 1985. Located 30 km north of Durban in what is now the sprawling township of Bambhayi (a variation of the name Bombay), the settlement was restored and officially reopened by South African leader Nelson Mandela earlier this year. The Opinion was located here.

Founded in 1903, The Indian Opinion (Indian was dropped from its masthead in 1954) sought to mobilise South Africans of Indian origin against the injustices imposed upon them by the governments of Britain and, later, South Africa. Says Ramgobin: "It used to be published in four languages-English, Hindi, Tamil and Gujarati-and even though it enjoyed a tremendous growth in its readership, financial constraints forced its closure in 1961."

And now, 39 years later, revenue will still remain a problem. For, the Trust will not publish advertisements on liquor, cigarettes, meat or sex. No wonder The Opinion's plan is realistic-its first three issues will be published monthly; thereafter bi-monthly and hopefully, within six months, weekly.

But then The Opinion isn't a commercial venture. As Ramgobin says: "Apart from being a voice to the poorest of the poor, the newspaper is attempting to bridge the gap between an apartheid-devastated society and a democratic order in the making."

The museum at Joyag in Noakhali seeks to commemorate the life of a man who had tremendous impact on the place, apart from bringing it into the map for the rest of the subcontinent. This sleepy hamlet had a glimpse of Gandhi's courageous ways on November 7, 1946, when he came here alone to douse the communal conflagration that engulfed the district before the Partition.

Gandhi's presence had such a long-lasting influence that Joyag and its surrounding villages even now stand out as symbols of communal harmony in Bangladesh. Impressed both by his philosophy of non-violence and compassion for the downtrodden, the villagers then established the Gandhi Ashram Trust (gat) with the property gifted to Gandhi by Hemanta Kumar Ghosh, the first barrister from Noakhali. The gat has created several small-scale projects which aim to make people self-reliant and has had a positive impact on the lives of the poor in Joyag and over 100 other villages in Noakhali.

That was precisely the reason for so many people, dressed in their best, to turn up at the inauguration of the Gandhi Memorial Museum. Among others, there were Mahbubur Rahman, Anukul Das, Kala Mia Sheikh and Chan Mia Sheikh-the four surviving disciples who had the privilege of working with Gandhi in the riot-torn Noakhali in 1947. "I'm elated that a memorial museum has finally been set up," says Rahman, the toothless, 85-year-old former college teacher who walked four kilometers to attend the ceremony.

The display of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood moved Manilal Tripathi, the Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, to remark: "Gandhiji, in case he's watching us, must be a very happy soul."

"We believe the museum would help inspire the future generations to work selflessly for spreading Gandhiji's message beyond Joyag," says Jharnadhara Chowdhury, director of the trust. But others like Shahidul Haq Munshi, professor of political science at Dhaka University, are not so optimistic. "Gandhi's teachings appear to have been proved ineffective as underlined by the rise of communalism even in India." But for Joyag and 100 other villages, Gandhi remains their symbol of hope and love.

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