Volume 4 Number 3
'Nobody's Idea of the Typical Politician'
01 March 1991

Rajmohan caused a national stir in November 1989 when he decided to stand in India's elections.

Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, has been one of the best-loved books of the century. It gained a new generation of readers from the epic Attenborough film of his life.

Its title is echoed by a new 40-minute documentary, Rajmohan Gandhi - Encounters with Truth, in which British film-maker David Channer probes what one of the Mahatma's grandsons has made of his heritage.

The Indian press has noted that most of Gandhi's grandchildren - academics, writers, civil servants. - have on the whole kept a low profile. Rajmohan caused a national stir in November 1989 when he decided to stand in India's elections, and his party, the Janata Dal, asked him to oppose the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in his constituency, Amethi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Despite their similar names, the two men are not related. Rajiv is the grandson of the other giant of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the clash between the members of the two families caught the country's imagination. This was accentuated because Rajiv had tried to make Amethi into a showpiece, and Rajmohan had virtually no campaign funds or time to get to know his potential constituents.

`It has become normal,' he said, `to believe that politics has become the vocation of crooks, criminals, gangsters and the corrupt - a situation which one just can't tolerate.' The press watched intently. One columnist commented, 'Rajmohan Gandhi is nobody's idea of the typical politician. His manner is pleasant and earnest, his speeches simple and free of oratorical flourishes, and his replies to the loaded questions hurled by journalists unexpectedly candid and direct. Why is a nice man like him fighting it out in Amethi against the vulgar might and money power of Rajiv Gandhi?'

In the end Rajiv won the seat, but only after major allegations of ballot-rigging. A number of polling stations were invaded by thugs and ballot-boxes stuffed with voting papers. Rajmohan himself was roughed up, and the Janata Dal state secretary was shot and seriously wounded. A few weeks later, the Uttar Pradesh state assembly voted to give Rajmohan a seat in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha.

Rajmohan Gandhi first made his name as a journalist. For ten years he was chief editor of a small but influential Englishlanguage weekly called Himmat (meaning `courage'). In the seventies this paper ran head on into government policy during Indira Gandhi's Emergency. Much of the national press was closed down, but Rajmohan kept raising questions no one else could, printing his paper on a series of presses, one of them operated by foottreadle. He avoided being imprisoned, though he was once arrested for some hours. But the struggle to keep publishing took its toll and not long after the Emergency the paper closed down.

This gave Gandhi time for more largescale writing. His first major book was a twovolume biography of his maternal grandfather, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, another great figure of Independent India.

He then turned his hand to a subject about which the Mahatma also felt keenly, Hindu-Muslim relations. `I knew that many other Hindus, the great majority, were as incompletely informed as I was.' So he studied the lives of eight leaders of Muslim India, some of whom, as he comments wryly in the film, are still regarded by Indians as demons. `I'm afraid we in India continue our conflicts over decades - over centuries: but I think the time has come now to end this chapter.'

His latest book, a biography of the Independence pioneer Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, was launched in Delhi on 20 January.

For two years Gandhi was editor of the Madras edition of the Indian Express, and has written widely in the national press of his concern that his countrymen keep a wide enough perspective. In a recent Express article, for instance, he deplores inward-looking attitudes in his own Hindu community and what he sees as unwillingness to live into the struggles the world is going through. `While failing to preserve works of art and architecture, we have protected and passed on from generation to generation the all-too-palpable hurts and hates of early ages; we make 500-yearold brutalities the staple of our streetcorner meetings; hard as stone over the suffering of a living neighbour, we may weep copiously over an ancient humiliation to a historical figure in our bloodline or of our race or tribe.'

In David Charmer's film Gandhi tells of his own memories of the Mahatma, his progress from his student days when he was 'marxist in a very intellectual armchair sort of way, content to drift, to criticize the world', to a sense of how to sort out his own dilemmas and do something about the injustice and corruption all round him.

When he was 21 he went to Edinburgh as a trainee journalist, and stayed as paying guest with a family involved in Moral ReArmament. `It was really through this encounter that I found a purpose in my life, the idea that each man or woman ought to do not just what he or she wants but what is right, what the inner voice, or God, may direct them to do.'

One immediate result of this decision was that when he got back to Delhi he went to see the manager of the Delhi Transport Service and paid back money he owed them. As a student he had from time to time travelled without paying his fare, or by bribing the conductor `so he made some money and you made some money, and we used to call that the socialistic pattern of society...'

Millions of switches
In 1989 he took a group of Americans to the Mahatma's ashram near the city of Ahmedabad. The film catches him responding to Larry Ellis, a black American who had done a thesis on the Mahatma's influence on Martin Luther King, and who had been upset to find that in India itself there was `so little heart-understanding of Gandhi'.

Rajmohan replies, `We need God's intervention as well as a mighty exertion on the part of us humans. Take any problem you have noticed in India: is there some switch you can turn on which will solve these problems? I don't think so. I think millions of switches must be turned on in millions of hearts - each heart saying, "My God, I'm doing so little, my God I'm hating so much, my God I don't care enough: I must change, and so must my neighbour." When we say that Gandhi and King have failed, we really are implying that they should have solved all our problems without our aid.'

The film's premiere took place in London in late January. One British MP who was there wrote rather wistfully afterwards that he wished there was `the like of Rajmohan Gandhi at the Palace of Westminster: he came over as a highly sensitive, articulate and genuinely caring politician'.

Several of Channer's films have been set in India. Every generation of his ancestors for 150 years was born there. His father was a general in the Indian Army and both he and his brother served with it. He is a man of strong convictions and quiet humour. He told an Indian paper in London, `We sailed from British shores as pirates, and finally became civilized.'

This background, and the artistry he has developed in a lifetime's work, make the film much more than an interview. Its atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the work of one of India's leading classical musicians, the fluteplayer Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, who composed and performed the music - and travelled from India to give concerts as part of the premiere showings.

Charmer was lucky in his other collaborators. The film was conceived at a conference in Atlanta, USA, to which he had gone with a young Indian, Rahul Kapadia, who wanted to learn the arts of film-making. Rajmohan Gandhi was one of the featured speakers. Channer was impressed by what he said, as was a New York advertising executive, Robert Dragotta, who introduced Channer to Clare Gartrell Davis, President of the New York Film and Video Council, a group of several hundred independent film-makers. She liked Gandhi's `values and views of the world' so much that she offered to be a co-producer.

Charmer and Kapadia went to India and filmed Gandhi and his associates. Then an experienced editor, Ian Corcoran, offered his services. The film was almost finished when they heard that Gandhi had decided to enter national politics. This meant another visit to India for Charmer and Kapadia, in which they visited ten cities in two weeks.

Channer senses Gandhi's selflessness: `He's not interested in promoting himself, but in contributing his experience to the life of India and the world.' Charmer surprised and amused the premiere audiences by introducing it with a personal statement of his own. `It is not intended,' he said, `that the ideas of this film be accepted too readily. Nor should they be rejected. Rather they are offered for your reflection and consideration.'

The film will be shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art in May and has been entered in seven film festivals. World-wide TV distribution rights are being negotiated, and film libraries are asking that it be included in their catalogues. It seems to have appeared at a moment when people will indeed give it `reflection and consideration'.

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