Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

We must have no price…

...and everyone must know that we have no price....

Conduct above all

In one who will stand up to power — not just to those who happen to be in office at a particular moment,but to establishments that embody power: like the establishments of entrenched religions — conduct and character are everything. I remember how struck I was thirty years ago when I inquired from the Navjivan Trust the circulation figures of Gandhiji’s writings. The figures nail the point even today,and are worth pondering over,especially in this day of sound-byte journalism and the “breaking news” of this shift,to say nothing of the day.

The english version of Gandhiji’s autobiography was first printed in 1927. The print order was a mere 6000 copies. The next printing was not needed till 1940,thirteen years later. This was the period when Gandhiji was quite the undisputed leader of the national movement and yet less than 500 copies of one of his most significant books were being absorbed by the market in a year. Hind Swaraj,which he often insisted was his testament,did no better: between 1925 and 1941 only 7000 copies of this little book were printed. His Satyagraha in South Africa was an indispensable account for understanding the evolution and conduct of the techniques of political action that were then moving the country. This account fared even worse: only 3000 copies of it were printed in 1924; a second printing was not needed till 1940.

Even in the journals which he began and on which he relied,Harijan and Young India,saw their circulation dwindle. In the early stages the circulation of Harijan had reached 40,000 and that of Young India 30,000. For a country of millions,these were not earth-shaking numbers. Moreover,the circulation did not always remain in the 30-40,000 range. In 1925,Gandhiji was concerned that the circulation of Harijan had dropped to 6000 and that of Young India to 5000. True,the Gujarati editions of his books sold a larger number of copies. Between 1927 and 1940,against the 6000 copies of the English edition of his autobiography,50,000 copies of the Gujarati edition found buyers. But even 50,000 copies over the 13-year period — less than 4000 copies a year — in the language and region of the Mahatma himself is not a very impressive figure.

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Why then were authors like Gandhiji so effective? Clearly because of the authenticity of their lives. In societies such as ours,one’s life,one’s deed,one’s practice is the most effective medium of communication. The writings of Tilak Maharaj and Gandhiji were influential because they were a part of and not a substitute for their authentic lives.

We perceive the same phenomenon at work in reverse by looking at the politicians and leaders of today. Whatever they may write; howsoever eloquent their speeches might be; howsoever they may strain to invoke the name of Gandhiji and others — it all sounds so hollow. In fact,each time they invoke the names,people are reminded of the vast chasms between those great leaders and these puny and dishonest men who are trying to snatch the names to mislead the people. Hence,just as their authentic lives served as the communication of Tilak Maharaj,Gandhiji and others,the authentically dishonest lives of our current leaders rob their words and promises of all meaning.

Hence,conduct above all.

Learning to eat that gruel

Nor is the matter just one of the writer’s conduct in the past. Nor is the reason for spotless conduct merely the negative one — to withstand the whip of those in authority.


There must be nothing that the subject of his exposures,or indeed anyone,can give him that would deflect him from proclaiming “truth to power.” When their calumny does not work,this is what those who are being exposed look for desperately. What does this fellow want? What does he need? An exalted position? An honour? A luxurious vacation? Help for buying an apartment? Money? Expensive whiskey? Women? What,for heaven’s sake?

It was in the office of my dear friend,Samiran Nundy,one of India’s pre-eminent surgeons,that I first came across the scroll with that story about Diogenes. A burning hot afternoon. Diogenes is sitting as usual beneath the tree,sweating,scooping pasty gruel from a weathered bowl. At a distance,the court philosopher is being carried home in a palanquin for his lunch and afternoon siesta. He lifts the curtain. “Who is that beneath the tree?” the richly robed philosopher asks his bearers. “No one of any consequence,Sir,” they answer. “A fellow called Diogenes. A waster. All he does all day is sit under that tree,and yap with whoever comes along.”

“Take me to him” the philosopher directs.

He is lowered. He addresses Diogenes: “What are you doing,Diogenes?”

“Why,I am eating this gruel” Diogenes answers.


“You fool. If only you would learn to get along with the King,you wouldn’t have to spend the rest of your life eating that miserable gruel.”

“My dear Sir,” answers Diogenes,“If only you would learn to eat this gruel,you wouldn’t have to spend the rest of your life trying to get along with the King.”

We must learn to eat that gruel.

We must have no price.

And everyone must know that we have no price.

When the issue is joined

In regard to issues,the first thing to do is to avoid: to avoid the activists’ virus — one that attacks newspapermen as much as activists. There is a real injustice,a real case of wrongdoing. The activist or newspaperman chances upon the evidence. He takes up the issue. As he succeeds,more and more persons reach out to him,and point him in the direction of other wrongs. More and more information about such issues comes to him. He takes up issue after issue. One campaign of his succeeds after another. He now feels compelled to live up to the reputation he has acquired. So,he goes looking for issues. He discovers some,though they be of dwindling significance. When he can’t discover them,he invents some…

Two consequences follow. First,people begin to think of him as a professional agitator. They come to conclude that pursuing issues is a profession with him. Second,as he rushes from one issue to the next,he is not able to pursue any one of them to a conclusion. His targets cease to fear him: “Just lie low for three-four days,” I heard a politician tell another one about whose wrongdoing a newspaper had published evidence. “They will be after someone else soon.”

I am not a knight-errant,Gandhiji said once. My job is not to redress every wrong.


We must not be grasshoppers. We should be crocodiles: If someone is so foolish as to put his leg — his wrongdoing — in our jaws,we must not let go — till the reader has been brought to a conclusion,a matter about which,as we shall see in a moment,Gandhiji is again an excellent guide. For the moment,Lenin will do: “Fewer,but better.”

Second,we must never take up an issue because we think doing so will please our employer or leader,or our party or group. Nor should we take up an issue out of the politician’s disease: “We must stall the House today on fertiliser shortage. It will send a good signal to farmers.” The reason is simple: the calculations of the employer,of the leader will change; the interest of the people will shift. For us the tests should be two — both are ever so visible in Gandhiji’s campaigns. First,the issue,to use his phrase,is “an intolerable wrong.” Second,we are personally committed to undoing it. “Committed” not in the sense that we are prepared to shout slogans about it. Committed in the sense that we are prepared to shoulder the consequences of taking a stand on it.


Third,Gandhiji insisted that we must pitch our demand at the minimum. In Champaran,his demand was merely that the government appoint a committee to look into the distress of the indigo cultivators. That was enough to put the British rulers into a bind. If we set up the committee,they reasoned,everyone will conclude that we cannot stand up to this little troublemaker. When,on this reasoning,they don’t set up the committee for months,the people get to see the nature of the British government in India: if they won’t even set up a committee to examine our condition,how can we believe their professions about being our concerned guardians? All that was necessary this time round was to request that an honest,open appraisal be undertaken,one that fixes responsibility for the electoral outcome. The leaders were immediately in the same dilemma: If we concede the demand,went the rationalisation,we will be seen to be weak,and everyone down the line will conclude that we can be bullied. How will the party be run once that happens? But by not agreeing to that simple request,they proved the point!

Fourth,and we have all read about the infuriating lengths to which Gandhiji went on this,every non-confrontational avenue must be explored before a confrontational course is adopted.


But once the conciliatory avenues have been blocked by the rulers and controllers,all options that one may personally have must be closed. Vinoba characterises this as rassa kaat dene ki neeti — “Cutting the ropes policy.” He recalls an incident. With their band,two brothers have stormed the adversary’s fort. The battle is about to go either way. One of the brothers runs over the ramparts — severing every rope that the band had used to climb into the fort. Neither the brothers nor their followers now have any way to escape. They fight as if to death… They vanquish the foe.

Implicit in this is the comment (of Emerson?) that the editor of one of the world’s leading journals cited to me while asking me to be absolutely explicit in the article that I was to submit against the Emergency: “When you strike at a King,you must kill him.” None of the usual,“On the one hand,but on the other.” The first blow must itself be nearly fatal. But it must never use up all of the evidence we have. As he is bound to deny the truth,we must be able to launch successive sorties with equally irrefutable facts.

Little can be accomplished without associates and colleagues: even a Solzhenitsyn needed,to use the title of his memoir about them,Invisible Allies — the ones who copied his manuscripts,who secreted them,who smuggled them to the outside world; every one of those actions,if discovered,would have entailed cruel imprisonment for indefinite periods,at times even torture and death. The next lesson,therefore,concerns not issues and evidence but associates and colleagues. They are indispensable,and ever so often the cause of the greatest anxiety.

The first step must be to expect the least of anyone else: if others join,good; if they don’t,well they don’t. I remember how very upset I used to get,and soon learnt how needlessly I was upsetting myself,when I saw life continue as usual in Delhi’s social circles during the Emergency.

The second element must be continuous,incessant,uninterrupted communication with colleagues. Many are liable to be geographically dispersed. Each will be undergoing experiences different from the others,and will,accordingly,be reaching different conclusions about what should be done next. In any case,each will be completely preoccupied with his special responsibility. Most important,those who are being inconvenienced by the work will spread rumours about each associate to the others — to foment suspicion and doubt,to sow discouragement,to trigger discord. Only incessant communication can forestall the disruption.

But communication is not going to be enough. There must be at all times be trust — the presumption that our colleague is doing only what is best for the cause. This is the point that my friend,Gurumurthy has emphasised the most during 30 years of our association. Upon hearing the suggestion that one’s colleague has said this or that about one,done this or that which was contrary to what had been agreed upon,one’s reflex must be,“No,that just can’t be the case.” And one must firmly put down the tale-carrier. When I first joined an organisation in which tale-carrying was endemic,I found a device to be decisive,so decisive that after I had used it twice,I was spared tales about what others were saying and doing. A colleague came and told me in great confidence that another colleague was spreading such and such rumour about me. Even as he was narrating his tale,I picked up the phone,dialed the colleague’s extension. “X is here with me. He says you are telling people that I am doing Y,Z…” The tale-carrier was startled out of his wits: “For heaven’s sake… put the phone down…” I had to do this just twice.

But the greatest bitterness comes not from backbiting. It erupts when a colleague leaves the endeavour. When he “deserts”. That is the bitterness one must shield oneself against most of all — for in a protracted engagement,some will leave. The model is again Gandhiji. He took up the cause of the Khilafat convinced that it was an issue that was of immense concern to every Muslim. He also felt that as the British were doing everything possible to divide the freedom struggle by widening the Hindu-Muslim divide,the taking up by Hindus of an issue dear to Muslims would counter British stratagems. He alighted upon Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali. He projected them on every occasion. He “sold his heart” to them. He would insist that they be invited to meetings that he was to address. He had Mohammed Ali anointed the president of the Congress. The agitation could not restore the Khilafat,of course. Turkey itself had gone beyond it. Soon enough,the Ali brothers concluded that they had no further use for Gandhiji. They would not answer his messages. They would not turn up for public meetings. .. Soon Gandhiji was being told that they were using dismissive words,even words bordering on the contemptuous,for him. His close associates were very upset. Gandhiji counseled them to shed bitterness. “We must not be upset that they are no longer with us. On the contrary,we should be thankful that they travelled with us this far…” Necessary insulation.

(To be continued)

The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

First published on: 18-09-2009 at 03:44:35 am
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