Last week, India witnessed the power of Gandhi but I will also tell you about another leader who is as popular as Gandhi but who may be unknown to you. I will start from the afternoon when I was in Jantar Mantar, the area outside the 18th century solar observatory where Indians protest against injustice. About 30 people were raising slogans on the pavement. Cadres of a little known right-wing organisation called Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena, they were demanding the death of the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld.
Last month, Lelyvelds book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle stirred a controversy in India for a passing mention on Gandhis relationship with a man friend. Reviews in newspapers claimed that the author has called Gandhi a bisexual and a racist. The day I was in Jantar Mantar, the page one of The Times of India carried the authors interview with the headline: If its wrong to discuss sex and Gandhi, Im guilty.
One protester was holding a poster of Lelyvelds portrait; there was a noose around the authors neck. Others were displaying placards printed with these slogans:
Disgrace to father of our nation will not be accepted
Those who insult the National Father, the National Anthem, the National Symbol and the National Flag should be executed
Joseph should be sentenced to death
Jospeh is a Pakistani agent
Indians from the countrys most wretched and remote parts come to Jantar Mantar to raise their voices. This democratic venue was hosting a group that was intolerant of other peoples voices.
Fortunately, this anti-book protest went unnoticed. A few furlongs away, social activist Anna Hazare was performing a classic Gandhian protest. He was staging a hunger strike against corruption in Indias public life and all eyes including TV cameras of news channels were pointed at him. After five days, Hazare broke his fast by drinking a glass of water. The Manmohan Singh government had agreed to his demands of making a joint committee of civil society leaders and politicians to draft a bill that would create Lok Pal, an independent body with power to investigate corruption allegations against even the Prime Minister.
These two different agitations in Jantar Mantar illustrated that Gandhi is still relevant in the public discourse. But Gandhi died in 1948 and India has moved on since then. One leader that the well-heeled India and its upper-caste owned corporate media – doesnt much think of and who is hardly known outside the country is perhaps as popular among a majority of Indians as Gandhi. Wait, before I talk about him, I will have to tell you about an obscure saint of Hindu mythology.
His name is Guru Ravidas. I spotted his portrait last week near American Center in Connaught Place. He was polishing shoes. His hair was long and he had a flowing coal-black beard. Pasted on a pavement wall, the portrait was garlanded with plastic flowers. Ramesh Kumar, a 42-year-old shoe shiner, had purchased the poster from the Sunday Book Bazaar in Daryaganj. Pointing to Guru Ravidas, Kumar said, He is 634 years old. He is our saint.
Guru Ravidas, a shoemaker who belonged to the chamar caste, was a 15th century mystic and is the patron saint of menial shoemakers. The position of shoemakers a hereditary profession in the Hindu caste system ranks towards the bottom of the list.
Kumar told me a story about Guru Ravidas: One day a Brahmin was walking towards the holy Ganga when he passed by Gurujis hut. He was sewing a shoe. Guruji gave a coin to the Brahmin and asked him to offer it to the river. The Brahmin did just that and he got a gold bracelet from the river. It was encrusted with gems. The Brahmin gave the bracelet to the royal family. When the queen desired another such bracelet, the king personally went to Guruji to make a special request. The saint closed his eyes, mediated for a while and the river Ganga appeared in female form. She produced another bracelet and presented it to Guruji who gave it to the king.
The remarkable thing about the story is that a Brahmin and a Khastriya both being upper castes were obliged to a shoemaker, an untouchable.
Kumar, whose ancestors were ostracised as untouchables, hails from a village in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. His family has been in the leather footwear trade for generations. His father was the first member to leave for a city. The migrants son doesnt remember being treated as an untouchable in Delhi. However, when he visits his ancestral home, the high-caste people of the village do not come close to him.
Earlier, even in cities, people wont touch us, Kumar said, but this great man changed things for us. He pointed to a portrait next to Guru Ravidas. This great man was wearing spectacles. He was clean-shaven and his hair was short. Dressed in a suit, he looked like a strict professor. Born into a family of untouchables in 1891, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is an icon of modern India. He famously rebuffed Mahatma Gandhis patronising gesture of renaming untouchables as Harijan, meaning people of the God. Dr Ambedkar studied in the US and UK, practiced law in India, and inspired millions of his fellow low-caste Hindus to convert to Buddhism. The chief architect of Indias constitution, he was awarded Bharat Ratna, the nations most prestigious honour, 34 years after his death. Because of this man we are able to mingle with the rest of the society, Kumar said. Before him, people would not touch us. He spoke for our equality. I worship him.
Though Guru Ravidas looks content with the shoes, Kumar is more affected by Dr Ambedker. He does not want his children to follow the leather trade. Ive four sons and a daughter. I want them to study and get regular jobs. My life is over. They must have it better. In other words, Kumar doesnt want his children to be Ravidas the shoemaker and surely not Gandhis people of the God. Instead, they should be as educated and westernised as Ambedker. So, when you are trying to understand the new India, catching up on Gandhi is not enough. Google Ambedker too.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.