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Mahatma's Disciples Work, Pray for India's Moral Revival

November 05, 1989|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEVAGRAM, India — Mohandas K. Gandhi would be aghast to see his old neighborhood today.

Less than a mile from the national shrine at the Sevagram Ashram, where Gandhi spent 12 of his last years developing the principles that made him India's enduring symbol of purity, simplicity and nonviolence, a pint of whiskey can be purchased illegally for 25 rupees (about $1.50), prostitutes sell their services for 50 rupees a night, lottery tickets go for half a laborer's daily wage and high-caste Hindus occasionally clash with the Untouchables to whom Gandhi dedicated his life to protect.

But there is more. Soon there will be a steel plant in Gandhi's old back yard.

The Indian government laid a foundation stone for the new steel plant in September despite a futile, yearlong drive by Gandhi's disciples to block it under Indian laws that bar the location of such factories near national shrines.

Now, it seems, the only thing that remains unchanged at Gandhi's historic Sevagram Ashram is Haribau Shende, loyal servant of the Mahatma, as Gandhi was known to his followers. Shende still sits outside Gandhi's thatched-roof hut as he has every day since his master was assassinated by a religious fanatic 41 years ago.

"Bapu's age is gone now," the toothless Shende sadly told a visitor recently, speaking of Gandhi with a word reserved for Indian saints. "Everywhere there is change in the way people are living.

"Bapu has not taken anything with him. It is all still here. His things are here. His ideas are here. But, if the people do not want to follow them, what can be done?"

Pointing to a nearby sign that lists what Gandhi called the Seven Social Sins, among them "politics without principles," "pleasure without conscience" and "science without humanity," Shende added: "Unfortunately those sins are still with us, too.

"But what is to be done?"

Four decades after Gandhi was instrumental in achieving India's independence from British colonial rule, the remaining handful of his disciples at Sevagram Ashram here in the heart of India concede that their nation has never been further from the principles he laid down.

Political corruption is widespread and reaches into the highest levels. Consumerism and greed have penetrated every level of society. Religious fundamentalism is growing among the Hindu majority and the Muslim, Sikh and Christian minorities. And Gandhi's formula for a simple life of self-reliance has been replaced with dreams of owning color TV sets, videocassette recorders and imported luxuries.

"We thought in the post-independence period, the government would work in the Gandhian model, but, of course, it did not," said Thakurdas Bang, president of the Sevagram Ashram Trust and a committed Gandhi disciple.

"In general, the way we have been going for the past 50 years is toward more and more materialism and more and more consumerism in the name of science or technology or whatever. So now we face rampant corruption, unemployment and destruction of our environment, and, what is worse, the evil of drink is increasing tremendously."

And the Gandhians, Bang conceded, are now in "a microscopic minority."

"If humanity is to be saved in our country, Gandhiji will have to be resurrected," Bang concluded, using a respectful form of address.

Bang conceded that resurrecting Gandhi's ideals will be difficult.

One need not look far from Gandhi's ashram for a case in point. The steel plant, Bang said, is a classic confrontation between Gandhiism and progress in contemporary India.

When the federal government endorsed a private-sector proposal to build the plant in the town of Wardha, which includes the Sevagram village ashram, Bang and other ashram trustees objected.

"We wanted only that the Indian government obey its own laws," Bang said, referring to statutes prohibiting industrial development within 15 miles of national shrines and monuments.

But the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid little heed to the protests. Wardha is the home district of a key member of Gandhi's Cabinet who was sponsoring the project to provide jobs and win votes in time for this year's national elections.

Still, the Gandhians continued their fight.

Threats and harassment soon followed. Sources confirmed that Bang and other trustees received death threats and, late last year, a fire was set near Gandhi's historic hut, apparently as a warning.

To bolster local support for the plant, the government ordered an environmental study of the steel project, which showed that little pollution would result. And officials produced maps indicating that the plant actually would be built just a few feet outside the protected radius for historic sites.

Encouraged by the survey and the government's promise of new jobs, the majority of the residents supported the project.

Alone in their resistance, the handful of Gandhians were forced to back down.

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