Rendition of Gandhi Katha at the age of 90

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist
Narayan Desai, at the age of 90 years, gave the 115th rendition of his Gandhi Katha in Varanasi at Kashi Vidyapeeth from 21st to 25th February, 2014. When most people at his age would be counting their last days or would be incapacitated, he is moving around and narrating Gandhi’s story in a popular format, usually used by religious people.

The narratives are punctuated by songs and bhajans conveying Gandhi’s message. In fact he first studied some of the popular saints from Gujarat who deliver sermons and then developed his Gandhi Katha. There could not have been a better service to the Gandhian cause in the last phase of his life.

He is probably among the last few people alive who got an opportunity to live and work with Mahatma Gandhi. His father Mahadev Desai happened to be Gandhi’s personal secretary and therefore child Narayan grew up at Gandhi’s Ashrams – Sabarmati in Ahmedabad and Sewagram in Wardha. Today he operates from Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya in Vedchi, Surat where he presents model of an alternative life style living with his medical doctor daughter Sanghamitra and IIT Kanpur educated Physicist son-in-law Surendra Gadekar.

All three of them are dedicated peace activists. They have been educating people about the dangers of nuclear power since much before it became a common knowledge after the accident in Fukushima that it is quite a dangerous thing. They have been part of national and international anti-war and nuclear disarmament campaigns. They pioneered a study to find the effects of radiation from nuclear power plant in Rawatbhata, Rajasthan on the health of adjacent population. Later they also studies the effects of radition from Uranium mining sites in Jadugda, Jharkhand on the local mostly tribal population.

Gandhi, with his own ideas about education, didn’t let Narayan attend a formal school. The man who didn’t attend a school is today the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth located in Ahmedabad. He has also won the Sahitya Academy Award twice. He is a living example of how a self-educated person can be more wise and grounded than highly educated people. The self propelled man is still motivated to serve humanity at such an advanced age.

In Gandhi Katha he doesn’t just narrate Gandhi’s story. He tries to convey the values lived by Gandhi. For example, talking of Gandhi’s visit to riot affected Noakhali he talked about the quality of fearlessness which was necessary to enter the communally charged atmosphere. Explaining fearlessness he said it is not just being not afraid of anybody but also not creating fear in anybody else’s mind. Such a person can only be described as truely brave. Intimidating people is not bravery.

Concluding the Katha he said that the purpose of the exercise was not just to hear the story. The purpose of the Katha would be fulfilled if we imbibed some values of Gandhi and tried to live them. As the humanity plunges into various kinds of crisis, the ways of Gandhi can redeem it. Gandhi stood for the values of truth and non-violence. When we are beset by problems of terrorism, maosim and separatism we are desperately trying to seek peaceful solutions to complex problems. Governments realize that dialogue and not the use of force are intelligent and humane ways of solving these problems. The campaign to uphold truth in the form of anti-corruption movement has caught the attention of people. Anna Hazare in the mould of Gandhi became the symbol of fight against the corrupt and Aam Aadmi Party too upholds the value of truth highly. These movements are trying to establish integrity in public life which had degenerated over years.

Through Satyagrah Gandhi has shown a way to fight against injustice. Today the method of Satyagrah is used by most political organizations when they register their protest against the government policies and actions. Even individuals and other non-political groups use the method of Satyagrah to attract attention of society. It is an effective method adopted by common people against powerful opponents. This is probably Gandhi’s single most important contribution to the fight for justice. World over Gandhi is known as a crusader against injustice and a became a hope for all struggling people. Leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who fought against inequality derived inspiration from Gandhi.

Gandhi had said that there are enough resources in this earth to fulfill everybody’s need but not enough to fulfill even a single person’s greed. At a time when threat to environment was not perceptible and the phrase ‘climate change’ was unknown to human beings, Gandhi foresaw the problems of over-exploitation of natural resources.

Gandhi was against the exploitative model of development based on blind industrialization. Today most of the modern development projects, whether they are big dams, mining projects or nuclear power plants, face local people’s opposition as they are perceived as a threat to their life and livelihood. People have also started questioning the promotion of inequity due to this model of development.

Gandhi’s best known book is Hind Swarajya. Arvind Kejriwal is invoking the same idea to capture people’s imagination. Anna Hazare is a votary of the same philosophy. Self rule is the best rule is an idea whose time has come. Last year Supreme Court allowed a group of tribals in Orissa to have the final decision on whether bauxite mining should be allowed in their area Niyamgiri by a MNC Vedanta. The tribals ruled against the mining project even though the company had already established the processing plant.

Gandhi was an ardent frugalist. He made good use of every resource and tried to use as little resources as possible. The idea of anathema against wastefulness is again gaining popular support. Arvind Kejriwal’s rejection of VIP culture is a current example. Gandhi was against sexual indiscreetness. Today when sexually transmitted diseases have become a major threat to human beings the importance of idea of restraint in sexual relationships is being realized. Hence we see that the ideas of Gandhi are probably more relevant today than they were in his own time. He was a visionary who could see many things beforehand.

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist
March 2014
(The author is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and a senior social activist. He is the Vice President of Socialist Party (India) and member, National Presidium, Lok Rajniti Manch. He has led National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and is a former faculty of IIT Kanpur. Presently he is a faculty at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) BHU. He did his PhD from University of California, Berkeley and is a visiting faculty for a number of US Universities and IITs in India. Email: