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Following Gandhi's Path - Part 5

In Birla House with Gandhi

By Jan Oberg
TFF director 

The white, palatial house of the business dynasty, Birla, stands just a couple of kilometres from Connought Place, a well-known tourist attraction in the greenest area of Delhi. This is the place where Gandhi spent the last 144 dramatic days of his life. The museum in the building reflects his life and death.

In the park, the visitor can follow the steps of his last walk. From the door of the plain, white painted room with a glass veranda where he lived there are cement footprints across the park to where he was murdered. Here the visitors go barefoot and silent.

Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Gandhi's last steps - Birla House, Delhi

In the park, there are colossal trees with abundant birdlife, a sea of flowers, vast lawns, sculptures and a mural relief illustrating the history of India and the achievements of Gandhi.

Birla House or "Gandhi Smriti" is an oasis, which is run lovingly in the spirit of Gandhi. Its director, Dr Neelakanta Radhakrishnan, is one of the few genuine Gandhians in India. As the Birla House director, he is a government official, but he is also researcher, activist, writer and leader of the Japanese layman-Buddhist peace organisation Soka Gakkai. Together with his wife he manages an institute for non-violence in Kerala. He has written books on Satyagraha, non-violence actions and non-violence activists all around the world. This khadi clad nomad is always on the move, in spite of his fragile health.

Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Birla House, Gandhi's room is behind the blue windows - this is where he lived and
where he died after the dramatic shots in the garden


During his years as director he has mapped out Gandhi's last 144 days in life, hour by hour, something no one else had ever thought of doing before him.

"I don't belong to the mainstream Gandhians of this country, whose different sects guard their own "one and only true" interpretation of Gandhi and always without question fight that of others. How can anyone try to monopolize a person who was so aware of his own mistakes and always ready to question himself? The elite of this country probably has some respect for me as the head of Birla. The prime minister is de facto my chairman of the board, but considering that I take Gandhi seriously and propagate his ideas wherever I can, I guess I am a little bit dangerous," he says with laughter.

"The Congress Party knows only a vulgar version of Gandhi's ideas. Remember that Gandhi's last publication was about the dissolution of the Congress Party. He knew that corruption would spread if all the power to govern India was gathered in the hands of a little group. He wanted to have a kind of People's Front. Those who came after him were working in his spirit, indeed, but the problem with them was that they had forgotten Gandhi's constructive program. This is why there is no "buffer" or any social space for dialogue between the elite and the people in India".

Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Neelakanta Radhaskrishnan, Delhi 2001

Neelakanta Radhakrishnan continues:

"India was completely drained by the time it became independent in 1947. We should have understood that this was the start of India's own problems. Nehru was really a visionary. He wanted to combine Russian-inspired socialism with elements of India's own culture and reality, as well as Gandhian philosophy. After all, it was brilliant and perfectly right under the circumstances of that time.

"Today, however, everything is subordinated to THE MARKET. The only positive thing that happened is that the panchayat-system was introduced in some of the member states of the federation in 1995. It implies that every village has its own citizens' council, which also have meetings on municipal and higher levels. One third of them must be women. This is quite in Gandhi's spirit: grassroots democracy based on need, India built from below, upon its 700,000 villages! But how long can a country function with so much corruption and corporativism at the top?"

"But," I ask him, "what do you think of globalisation? What does it mean for India?"

"I look at it philosophically. During thousands of years India had been visited or, properly speaking, invaded by Greeks, Huns, Arabs, Mongols, Portuguese, Frenchmen, other Christians, Muslims, British. Many other countries would have let themselves be oppressed by the technology and the military power. But not India, it stands like a rock in this world. We have a cultural variety that permits us to absorb some penetration and we never fall. That's why today's globalisation is not a larger challenge to India as a whole, but of course it implies a certain amount of danger. Having said that, let's not forget that Gandhi himself was a product of globalisation. He was educated in London, lived in South Africa and was inspired by all kinds of religions and westerners like Jesus, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin".

Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Plaque on the wall of the Sabarmati ashram, Ahmedabad 2001

It makes me think of how Gandhi himself expressed the same thing, as can be seen on the wall of his ashram at Ahmedabad:

"I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any".
Unity in variety is an Indian ideal. Gandhi's words are pertinent to the current immigration debate. I would like to have it spread to all parts of the former Yugoslavia where the EU and NATO blow down as much as they can and to other conflict zones where those who are "different" are maltreated.

I tell Radhakrishnan that I shall travel through India in the footsteps of Gandhi. It makes him very glad.

"When you come back I wish to invite you to spend a couple of days in the guest room at Birla House. You can come and go as you wish, sit there early in the morning or late in the night. You will discover that there is quite a special atmosphere here".

No sooner said than done. He was perfectly right. I remember my three days and moonlit nights near Gandhi's life and death with deep gratitude.

Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

Birla House on a rainy night, Delhi

Photo Jan Öberg, © TFF 2001

The author at the Gandhi memorial in Birla Garden

Translated by Alice Moncada
Translation edited by Sara E. Ellis 

Other articles about India, "Following Gandhi's Path" and picture galleries

© TFF 2002 

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