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    South Asia
     Sep 29, 2006
The Mahatma goes hip
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Dismissed for decades by successive post-independence generations of Indians as a boring old man whose teachings are irrelevant to modern times, Mahatma Gandhi - the leader of India's freedom struggle against British colonialism - has suddenly emerged as a youth icon.

A runaway Bollywood hit Lage raho Munnabhai ("Carry on Munnabhai") has triggered among young Indians new interest in

Gandhi. The "Father of the Nation" has gone pop.

Lage raho Munnabhai is about Munnabhai, a small-time crook in Mumbai who tries to win the heart of a radio talk-show host by pretending to be an expert on Gandhi. He gets absorbed with faking expertise on Gandhi, and Gandhi's spirit soon appears to him, advising him to adopt Gandhigiri (or living life by Gandhi's principles such as truth and non-violence) as opposed to the dadagiri (a life of bullying and threats) that he is used to.

Gandhi's teachings of truth and non-violent resistance form the theme of the film, but it does not preach. It is a comedy with Gandhi speaking in a language that youngsters identify with. Lage raho Munnabhai has made Gandhi accessible to Indian youth. Ironically, it took a crook called Munnabhai and his sidekick to bring public focus back on Gandhi's long-forgotten ideals.

For decades, Indians were taught Gandhian principles through tedious textbooks and boring documentaries. Gandhi was put on a pedestal and revered as a saint. Visits to damp and dreary Gandhi museums were mind-numbing. Gandhi's relevance to Indians was that every city has a road named after him, currency notes bear his picture, and his birth anniversary is a public holiday. To many Indians, Gandhi was that old man who advocated self-denial and abstinence from the fun things of life.

Lage raho Munnabhai appears to have changed that. Commenting on the movie's role in reworking Gandhi as a contemporary, eminent sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan observed, "From distant myth, he [Gandhi] is now part of modern folklore re-engineered in a new role as agony aunt and management consultant. He appears practical, effective, gentle and professional. He is not mystical, religious or political. This new Gandhi is a pragmatic, 'art of life' man."

Outlook magazine points out that Lage raho Munnabhai "marks the magnificent, fun-filled return of Gandhi to mass consciousness".

Indeed, it has made Gandhi "hip", and such principles as Satyagraha (path of truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) that he espoused seem "cool". Gandhi is in fashion. Youngsters sport his teachings on T-shirts, Gandhi websites and fan clubs have multiplied, students are participating in quizzes, and debates about Gandhian principles and teenagers are putting those principles into practice. They are volunteering to work in villages and slums.

Drawing attention to the importance of using symbols and language that youth can relate to, Annamalai, a member of one of the scores of Gandhi youth organizations that have sprouted across India, said: "Young people may not be able to relate to a dhoti-clad Gandhi. But tell them how he was a millionaire London-returned barrister who threw away everything to fight for justice and equality, and they begin at once to appreciate him."

This new approach is working. The new Gandhian youth movement has spread across 10 of India's 28 states, with volunteers involved in such issues as communal harmony and land rights of dispossessed tribals. While students form the bulk of the volunteers, there are many young professionals too.

The heightened interest in Gandhi comes even as India commemorates 100 years of Satyagraha, the path of truth and non-violence as means of resistance. On September 11, 1906, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a barrister (lawyer) in South Africa, called on a gathering of 3,000 Indians in the Empire Theater building in Johannesburg to pledge to resist their white colonial oppressors without striking a single blow. The call for peaceful resistance was developed into Satyagraha, which was subsequently successful in ending British colonialism in India.

Even as the government is busy setting up committees to figure out how the centenary of Satyagraha should be commemorated in the coming months, the new young Gandhians are determined to wrest the concept out of the hands of the political establishment.

For decades, ordinary Indians watched quietly while politicians claiming to be Gandhians twisted his teachings out of shape. The Gandhi youth organizations are determined not to allow the political establishment to reduce the Satyagraha centenary to a farce. They have launched initiatives to make Gandhi accessible to youth.

The interest in Gandhi doesn't mean youngsters are accepting Satyagraha's relevance without questioning its efficacy in today's world. They are questioning whether Gandhian teachings would work with an Osama bin Laden or a George W Bush. Would a terrorist be moved by the moral appeal of ahimsa to give up his AK-47, or would passive resistance if adopted by Iraqis end US occupation of their country? They don't have the answers, but they are willing to explore the idea at least.

Many young Indians - their new interest in Gandhi notwithstanding - are still a long way from adopting Gandhian principles in their way of life. After all, this is a generation that is preoccupied with making money and with materialism - not quite the attitude for adoption of a life of self-sacrifice that Gandhian teachings demand. And this is an India that in its obsession with acquiring great-power status has moved away from several ideals that once formed the bedrock of its foreign policy.

This year another Bollywood movie, Rang de Basanti, caught popular imagination and stirred youth activism in the country. Parallels are now being drawn between Rang de Basanti and Lage raho Munnabhai. The first draws inspiration from another hero of India's freedom movement - Bhagat Singh.

But while Rang de Basanti calls for change through rebellion, Lage raho Munnabhai advocates this through peaceful resistance; the former deals with systemic change, the latter with change within the individual. Rang de Basanti sparked candlelight vigils and protest marches that focused public attention on the need for judicial reform.

Lage raho Munnabhai has renewed interest in a forgotten "Father of the Nation". But will the Mahatma mania sweeping across urban India today go beyond providing Gandhi with a makeover? India's political establishment appropriated Gandhi for decades, denying the common man access to him.

There are other sections - business for one - that are waiting to appropriate him now. They are already reaping profits from the merchandising of Brand Gandhi. Will the new Gandhians use Satyagraha to resist this takeover?

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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