Thursday, June 26, 2008

How an interview with Gandhi was spiked

How an interview with Gandhi was spiked

The Asian Age India | H.Y. Sharada Prasad

Can you imagine a newspaper choosing not to publish an interview with Mahatma Gandhi, although it was an exclusive one obtained by a member on its staff? Yet that is what the Times of India did in 1945.

The Times must have had many reasons for deciding to spike the story. First of all, the report did not have anything that was politically important, anything that would yield an eye-catching headline. What it contained was only a reiteration of Gandhi's known views on certain social practices. There was in fact no scarcity value about Gandhi stories. He gave too many interviews and spoke too often on everything under the sun, the old bore.

Bennett Coleman, the publishers of the Times of India, were in business to serve the cause of the Empire, and Sir Francis Low had not gone native like Arthur Moore of Calcutta's Statesman. Furthermore, the reporter who had secured the interview had done it off his own bat and not on behalf of the paper, nor with the consent of his editorial seniors. Anyway he was too callow and inexperienced to be chosen by the office for the assignment.

The name of the young reporter who had interviewed Mahatma Gandhi on his own initiative was K.R. Narayanan. There would have been no soothsayer either in the newspaper or in the country at that time who would have predicted that this slight and rather diffident-looking 24-year-old would one day be the elected President of the Indian republic.

Even Narayanan's being on the staff of the Times of India was a chance occurrence. Son of a barefoot country doctor from a socially discriminated-against caste in Kerala, Narayanan had an unquenchable hunger for knowledge and had gone to college with the help of scholarships he had won. After getting his degree he taught in a tutorial shop and worked on an economics journal in Delhi for a few months. On an impulse, he shot off a letter to J.R.D. Tata seeking a Tata fellowship to study in the London School of Economics. It clicked. He could not believe it when he was asked to be in Bombay within a week to catch the boat sailing for England.

When Narayanan presented himself in the Tatas' office just a day before the date of departure, a further surprise awaited him. The secretary of the Tata foundation had one look at the flimsy cotton clothes he wore and told him he would die of cold. She decided to fit him out in a couple of woollen suits, but they could evidently not be stitched in the half-a-day left. The next boat would leave six months hence, but the same Tata executive again acted as the good angel by persuading the Times of India to hire Narayanan as a cub reporter during the interregnum.

It is then that he interviewed Gandhi. He was given an appointment on a Monday, the Mahatma's day of silence in the week. It turned out to be an advantage. Narayanan wrote down his questions to which Gandhi scribbled his answers in his own hand. The interview remains one of Narayanan's cherished possessions.

Although not published by the Times of India at that time, the full text of the interview is to be found in Volume 86 of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. It is also included in a biography of the former President, written by Alaka Shankar and published by the Children's Book Trust. The interview reveals the dilemmas troubling a young man from a socially persecuted background.

Q: Do you still hold that the Harijan problem is only religious and social and that it has no great political significance?

A: It has political significance but indirectly.

Q: The Congress as an organisation has not taken up the Harijan work. Will it not be better if that work is taken up by the Congress and not by the Harijan Sevak Sangh?

A: It is wrong to say that the Congress has not taken it up.

Q: But it seems that leaders like Jawaharlal and Rashtrapati are not keenly aware of the Harijan question?

A: Those two are immersed in that work.

Q: The Harijan Sevak Sangh after years of work had not yet produced even a dozen leaders from among the Harijans themselves.

A: That charge is only partly true.

Q: All great men have a passion for simplification. You have simplified the nature of human conflict as between violence and non-violence, truth and untruth, right and wrong. But in life, is not the conflict between one right and another right or between one truth and another truth? How can non-violence deal with such a situation?

A: That is a matter of application.

Q: The Hindu-Muslim question where the conflict is between the rights of the Hindus and the rights of the Muslims, what technique of non-violence can be employed to solve the problem, especially when these rights seem to be irreconcilable?

A: The awful situation can only be dealt with properly through Satyagraha.

Your questions show that you have not studied it. If I am right, Pyarelal will give you a list of books. My advice to you is that you should seriously study the literature on the subject.

Q: How can a Harijan who goes abroad best serve his country and community from abroad?

A: He cannot serve the one without serving the other. Abroad you will say it is a domestic question which you are determined to solve for yourself.

The exchange makes one feel that Narayanan's questions are earnest and pointed and that the Mahatma's answers do not provide much illumination. That was the feeling that the younger elements of the national movement often had while working with Gandhi. The Mahatma did not give all the answers. But the young realised as they grew older that he helped them and encouraged them to find their own answers.

Narayanan certainly found an answer to his dilemmas by not allowing a conflict to develop between the sectional and the national. That is what made him such a fine ambassador and representative of the Indian civilisation. That is what has made him an Ajaatashatru in our public life.

I opened this column with an instance of "Believe it or not." I shall conclude with another. While studying in the London School of Economics, Narayanan shared a room with a Mauritian who rose to be President of his country, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo. I do not know whether there are many instances of Presidents of two different countries having been roommates at school or college. The economist, K.N. Raj, was a third roommate of theirs.

© 2005 The Asian Age

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