Is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi relevant today? Or has the medallion of the Mahatma – which Gandhi himself never wanted – overshadowed the persona of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? It was Gandhi, who gave the world, the powerful weapon of ‘Satyagraha’ and eternalized the concept of ‘Nonviolence’?
Living in an independent India and glorifying the legacy of attaining 70 years of the Republic, does the name Mahatma Gandhi hold any significance to us? Or is it only on October 2, his birth anniversary, or January 30, the day he fell a martyr exactly 71 years ago in the heart of Delhi, that we remember him?
As the nation – and the capital city – observes the 71st anniversary of Gandhi’s martyrdom, unfortunately, there are still many who aren’t aware of the exact place where one of the most infamous assassinations in history took place on January 30, 1948.
Number 5, Tees January Marg – earlier known as Albuquerque Road – seems to hold very little or no significance for many people, who identify the place as one behind the ever-busy Hotel Claridges. Not surprisingly, the place is often confused with the Laxmi Narayan Temple, popularly called the Birla Mandir. The building which is today called Gandhi Smriti is the historical place where Mahatma Gandhi lived for the last 144 days of his life.
After his arrival from Calcutta (Kolkata) on September 9, 1947, Gandhi was motored straight to the then Birla House (today Gandhi Smriti). On his usual visits to Delhi, Gandhi preferred staying at the Harijan Basti (settlement), also called Valmiki Mandir at Delhi’s Panchkuian Road. However, as refugees from West Punjab had occupied the Basti after the partition of 1947, there were concerns for his security.
Birla House was acquired by the government in 1971, and it was converted into a national memorial and dedicated to the nation on August 15, 1973.
The imposing structure of the simple Lutyen’s style bungalow where the minimalistic man had occupied just a small room has been witness to developments in post-independent India. It was here, impelled by the communal riots, that Gandhi declared his intention to fast for an indefinite period. Only on receiving an assurance from all communities did he break his fast – the last one – by taking a glass of orange juice from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
Today, as a place of pilgrimage for millions of people from all parts of India and even beyond her shores, this is a place where humanity continues to come as if to atone for the sin committed by one of us on that Friday evening 71 years ago.
The preserves at Gandhi Smriti include the room where Mahatma Gandhi lived and the prayer ground where he held a mass congregation every evening. It is here where the Martyrs Column stands with the date and time of Gandhi’s death inscribed on a pillar and his last words Hey Ram! Just next to the lawns, a bronze flame – by sculptor Shankho Chaudhury – sends the message of continued hope and faith.
On the one hand, a larger than life statue of Gandhi at the entrance of Gandhi Smriti with a boy and a girl holding a dove in their hands standing on either side, emerging out of the globe, symbolizing his universal concern for the poor and the deprived, welcomes everybody, and on the other one can’t help but notice the three canons outside the National Defence College opposite, pointing in the direction of the memorial. The canons stand either in total defiance of Gandhi’s ideologies or can even be interpreted as a salutation in ‘silence’ to his eternal spirit.
The journey through the museum presents a holistic perspective of Gandhi’s enigmatic life with an understanding of the greatness of simplicity and truth, which he exemplified. The Eternal Gandhi Multi-Media Exhibition – an interactive and interpretative museum by nature and spirit – is an attempt to help children and youngsters understand Gandhi through the creative media. Gandhi had said: “Our education has got to be revolutionised. The brain must be educated through the hand. If I were a poet, I would write poetry on the possibilities of five fingers.”
Gandhi Smriti today is not just a heritage sight. It is an educational centre for people of all ages, especially for the children who are bound to take back good memories, which, when given to them in their formative years, will help build good citizens, make them strong and courageous and also full of compassion.
Every year, on October 2 and January 30, the evening inter-faith prayer meet begins with the children’s musical tribute to their Bapuji, highlighting the Mahatma’s eternal belief that “if we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children”.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in the Constituent Assembly on February 2, 1948 – two days after the Mahatma’s death: “Great men and eminent men have monuments in bronze and marble set up for them, but this man of divine fire managed in his life-time to become enshrined in millions and millions of hearts so that all of us become somewhat of the stuff that he was made of, though to an infinitely lesser degree.”
Sainthood often distances men from men, yet Mahatma Gandhi was for the poorest of the poor. To stand in silence at least one day in a year for a minute – leaving the daily life chaos behind – before the Martyr’s Column in Gandhi Smriti, where he once lived and died, will be a tribute to the man who helped us think as citizens. This would be far greater than the emotional homage that has obscured the thrust and significance of his teachings.
(Rajdeep Pathak is Programme Executive, at the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, 5 Tees January Marg)