Sunday, March 14, 2010

Updates from Gandhi Ashram

Hey all,

I’m still in Chhatarpur M.P., at the Gandhi Ashram. Life is decent here, threshing mustard and peas etc. for a few hours a day, eating and learning about Ghandi the rest of the time. Actually I’m fasting today because I find we indulge in good tasting food a bit much for my liking. I’m meeting lots of interesting people and having some good success finding what I’m looking for here. I’ll share with you some inspiring examples of success from non-violence.

On the right is a fellow who spent about 24 years in jail he was a violent criminal who robbed people (on the left is Anousha, another WWOOFer here at the ashram). His whole life he had been in and out of jail for violent crimes. While in jail he came across Gandhi’s book and philosophy. He was converted to a life of non-violence and now sells copies of Gandhi’s books for a living. I tried to ask what he thought would have happened to him if he had never gone to jail, but gotten away with his crimes but the language barrier was too much. It’s an interesting question to me, would he have stayed violent if it had not been for the violence of the state putting him in jail? Was being in jail and having that time an integral part in his philosophy conversion?

I have read about the Ahmedabad Labour Union, which was mentioned in Hind Swaraj. Gandhi uses it as an example of a labour union that has had gone from success to success using nonviolent means. I’d really like to know more about them.

The ashram that I’m at has a fascinating story behind it. The premise was originally owned by a king in the area, who in fact built the well in the 1400s (shown in the photo).

At some point it was forfeit to the British and used as a residence for a tax collector. The building we live in now was the home for the tax collector. It’s made of cement so must be relatively new. When India became independent the government gave it to the organization which was dedicated to carrying out Gandhi’s work after his assasination, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi.

What follows is what I suppose I should consider a failing of non-violent methods because somehow the ashram was lost. I’m not sure how, but Gandhi Smarak Nidhi seems to have had persistent financial problems. The ashram property, although still legally belonging to Gandhi Smarak Nidhi fell into the hands of the local mafia. For many years they used it as a gambling and drinking location although there are many parts of the ashram that were left untouched. Some people tried to reclaim the ashram for organic farming but were beaten by the mafia and apparently gave up.
Three years ago Gandhi Smarak Nidhi decided to reclaim the property and re-establish a real ashram. They recruited Sanjoy and his wife Damyanti, who at the time were living in Sevagram Ashram which Gandhi founded himself before his death. They reclaimed the property after substantial battle with the mafia during which the mafia used violent and coercion while Sanjoy and his team used non-violent methods. I would consider it a good victory except I don’t know whether the mafia still holds a grudge.

I met a man here who was some sort of official when India became independent and he was involved with the movement with Gandhi for independence. He is one of the few people still alive who worked with Gandhi. He told me about his involvement with the ‘decoirs’ who were essentially a band of violent bandits. They used to largely rule the are in Chhatarpur, making it practically impossible to live a normal industrious life in the area. He, along with others, brought a non-violent campaign against them and convinced them to surrender. In fact they laid down their arms right here in front of the ashram, at the library.
The nonviolent fighters received co-operation from both the police and the bandits, acting as effective go-between with a message that neither of them previously understood. They assured the bandits that if they laid down their arms they would be treated with respect by the police upon their surrender. Conversely of course they negotiated this treatment from the police. One of the nonviolent fighters offered to sacrifice his son if the police failed in treating them decently. This seems a bit weird to offer your son but understand that to such a fighter it is a higher stake than even his own life. Presumably the son was in agreement with the situation (???). The leader of the bandits would not have surrendered without this assurance as he had previously been abused by the police.
This sounds like an amazing campaign and I hope to learn more about it.

I was given a book called “Experiments in Moral Sovereignty; an American In Exile.” It’s about a man who after having much success with many entrepreneurial endeavors in the US decides that he simply cannot live with himself while paying taxes to the US government so that the government can kill people with his money. He sells all his businesses purposefully at a loss. This loss he is carrying over for the rest of his life. He is therefore no longer required to pay taxes but for some reason he has decided that he will also no longer file tax returns. In the US the IRS will harass you if you do not file your taxes, so he has moved to India to escape their harassment.

While I’m at it I might as well introduce you to one other fellow who won in a non-violent struggle. He is one of the few freedom fighters still alive, one of the people who spent many years in jail in protest of India’s enslavement by the British. He is wearing yellow as spiritual people often do, to indicate their inclination. Freedom fighters like him now receive a special pension from the government.

Despite these lovely examples, Chhatarpur still suffers from a lot of violence. This is why Sanjoy decided to set up camp here. The first thing successful farmers do if they have a good crop is to buy a gun. Guns are very much a social status symbol here. Two days ago we went out to buy some khadi from a nearby store and Sanjoy stopped to talk to the head of the leading local political party. He casually took out his pistol and was waving it about, who knows why. Last night there was a shooting at the market about 500 meters from the ashram and one person was killed. The past three days have each had a shooting in this city which really isn’t very large. The hits have all been performed by a motorcycle team targeting businessmen in the city. Sanjoy told me that last night the police station was overrun and the police fled. They have returned and established a kind of martial law ‘code 144’. All businesses are closed and people have been asked to stay in their homes.

At the moment my plan is to stay here until the 22nd at which point I’ll take the train with Sanjoy, Damyanti and their daughter Sri-Ja to Kolkata. There is a rice farm near there that I hope to see, growing about 540 different varieties of rice!

I read this today, and it seems so applicable to the concept of the tourist versus the traveller. Go out of the house to see the moon and you are like a tourist. Let it shine on your necessary journey and you become a traveller.

“Go out of the house to see the moon, and 't is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey.” - Emerson