Volume 2 Issue 33 | May 10, 2008 |


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From Noakhali

Living with Gandhiji

Rafi Hossain

In 1988, I visited the Gandhi Ashram with Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter, Tara Bhattacharya. There I met Jharna Dhara Chowdhury, and her hospitality touched me remarkably. Since I was young and with a big group of travelers who were only visiting for only one day, I did not get the chance to get acquainted with her properly. Her simple way of life caught my attention.

Life went on and I got busy with my life, and she became a memory. After a long 20 years, on a visit to Noahkhali's Gandhi Ashram with Chandra Shekher to collect information and research about khadi, and had the opportunity of meeting Jharnadi again. 20 years may have passed, and both Jharnadi and I may have aged, but her hospitality towards her guests was the same. Everyone still addressed her as Jharnadi. In 1938, Jharnadi was born to a very ordinary family in Laxmipur. In her earliest memories, she remembers a mourning procession for the death of Radindranath Tagore. At the time she had wanted to be a part of the procession, but her family did not allow her. She was always eager to study but there were no schools at that time in her village, which saddened her a lot. She and her sister went around learning whatever her family and neighbors could teach, and with the little knowledge that they both had, they would hold competitions against one another. But this did not satisfy her. In 1954 she and her sister opened a school in their village, Ramganj upazilla, Kalupur. They named the school "Kallany Shikkhayaton". This was a revolutionary act, for such young girls with no proper education to have opened a school. In spite of facing a lot of criticism and non-cooperation, they got immense responses from children in neighboring areas who were willing to join this school. For a few years the school ran quite successfully and surrounding villages also got to know about this school. With the news of this school spreading rapidly, the government education boards got to know about its existence and came to visit the school with the intention to recognize it officially and to fund it. At the same time, a man from another village had come to know of this school and the government's interest in recognizing and funding it. He took advantage of his educational degree and approached these government officials, requesting them to fund a school that he said he wanted to start instead. He showed them his land and space where he intended to start the school and got the government officers to funding and recognizing him instead of Jharnadi's school; on the basis that Jharnadi had no educational degree. This incident gave the two sisters so much disappointment, that they shut the school down in 1960. They took a vow together to get proper degrees and prove themselves. In the meantime they were aware of the Gandhi movement and they got to know of the arrival of Modon Mohon Chottopathay and Charu Chowdhury in Comilla. The sisters immediately went to meet with them at Abhay Ashram in Comilla and was highly impressed by them. They asked Charu Chowdhury if they could write to him, and he replied that for every four letters received they would probably get one reply. The sister remembered this and when they wrote to him, they sent out four letters on the same day and kept sending him letters. Charu Chowdhury replied to them shortly saying that they had defeated him into replying to them. Jharnadi then joined the Gandhi movement, and went to Dhaka, leaving her sister behind. She boarded the house of Suni Boshu in Dhaka. Next she went to Chittagong and joined Prabartak Shangha, a charity organization. She took a leave from there to go back to Comilla and complete her matriculation under Victoria College.

The arrival of Gandhi took place in 7th November 1946. Gandhi believed in the wholeness of human life and the sanity of society. He wanted to get rid of poverty, bring peace into people's lives and make it simple. He stresses on the restructuring of villages. He wanted to get rid of people's narrow-mindedness from villages, and he wanted villagers to be knowledgeable, brave and honest. He wanted the whole village to be one family.

Jharnadi never met Gandhi in person, but his philosophy had touched her so deeply that she started to be a firm follower of his movement. Barrister Hemanta Kumar Ghosh had given Gandhi 2500 acres of land in Noakhali for making an Ashram. Charu Chowdhury, one of the nine followers of the peace and non-violence movement of Gandhi decided to stay back in the Noakhali ashram where Jharnadi later joined. Ever since then she has been in that ashram and after the passing of Charu Chowdhury, she became the head of the ashram.

The basics of Gandhi's teachings were non-violence, peace and harmony in humanity but Jharnadi and the ashram has faced a lot of criticism, violence and disputes over various issues from the start. Jharnadi's strong belief in Gandhi's principles has kept her strong till today at the age of 70. She has given her life to serve humanity and following the movements of Mahatma Gandhi and when asked if she has any regrets in her life, she replied “I wish I could have studied more”.

Homage to Shattanarayanji
Jharna Dhara Chowdhury

In the year 1946, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi visited Noakhali on a peace march to spread compassion in the community. On this trip, Shattaji was accompanying Gandhiji. After Gandhiji left, nine people remained in the area to continue his work; Shattanarayanji was one of these nine.

She never liked to work in a group. To her, groups meant conflict, and so she worked alone. She practiced homeopathy and treated the illnesses of many. She devoted herself to social and community work with the modest amounts she earned from a few of her wealthier patients. She has built innumerable cane bridges and many tin-shed and leaf-shed houses for the poor. She has also built eight concrete bridges. She lit up dark street corners with hundreds of oil lamps so that people could move easily. Shattaji devoted her life to the betterment of the society and the lives of people. She never discriminated against people. She used to treat all of creation as the same and respect them all.

She would provide three meals every day to mice, birds, ants and even flies and insects. She used to revere even the smallest of all creations. She used to speak to everyone with the highest respect and used the term “apni” and never “tui” or “tumi”. She respected all religions equally and followed the Gita in every aspect of life. She never over-consumed or spent too much, and gave up eating anything that tasted salty or hot, or was cooked using oil. Her usual meal consisted of boiled potatoes and pulse with a small portion of rice.

In 1972, she took a homeless family under her protection. She helped the children of this family in many ways. She transferred the leased property of Paniala Gandhi Ahsram to their name. She made the boys independent. She paid for the marriage of the girls including the money required for dowry. Eventually the boys got married as well. Even though she lived with them as one family, she always maintained her solitary lifestyle and independence. She always tried to understand her inner self. She did so much for the family, yet she used to tell herself that even if they don't take care of her in the future she will never be disheartened with them.

The family had actually forgotten all Shattaji had done for them and took advantage of her even in her last years. Since she never expressed her discontent, they never bothered to take care of her or to keep her clean. But Shattaji never lost her senses, even when she was lying in her own feces. Towards her end, Sri Biswa Ranjan Sen of Joyag Ghandhi Ashram had to intervene in order to take care of Shattaji. He used to travel the bumpy path from Joyag to Paniala almost everyday to look after her. He even spent a few days there, when she was nearing the end of her days. Just a few days before she passed away, Biswa Ranjan Sen sent his caregiver Shikha Biswas to Paniala to take care of Shattaji. She took utmost care of Shattaji for ten straight days before she passed away. Even in her deathbed, Shattaji used to pray. She exhaled her last breath in full consciousness, even her last prayer. This proves that her shadhona was successful, this proves that her faith was true.

Mahatma Gandhi's significance in the current world
Syed Abdul Maqsood
Most people have no clue that Gandhiji's given name is actually Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. To hundreds of millions of people from one corner of the globe to the other, he is known as Mahatma Ghandhi. In this part of the subcontinent, people of every cast address him as “Gandhiji”. To the masses, he is “Mahatma”, and to his followers, he is “Bapuji”. He is father of the nation-state of India. He not only spread his beliefs about non-violent war, but has proven through prolonged dedication that even unarmed nations can make non-violent war to win freedom.

The struggle against colonial dictatorships lead by Gandhiji stood on the revolutionary theory of non-cooperation and protest without envy. Although, the struggle was not always without violence as the colonial government's dominating policy was responsible for violence. Besides, many armed movements were carried out besides unarmed and non-violent ones in the struggle for freedom. From ancient times, elders have held non violent methods of war in high regard. The futility and purposeless bloodshed of war and violence have been well documented since the earliest of times. India's major contribution to the global thought process regarding war is its policy of nonviolent behavior. Gandhiji's achievement has resurrected the policy of nonviolent behavior that has transpired through the ages.

Gandhiji extensively thought about how to instill the idea of non-violent behavior and compassionate thinking into every sphere of life from day to day interactions of personal life to the broader political arena. He has emphasized specially on the moral discipline and self-realization of an individual. Just as everything is a mixture of black and white, life itself is a mixture of good and bad: self-inquiry, sacrifice, self-indulgence and sin simultaneously exist in a person's psyche. He has stressed the need for improving perfectibility rather than perfection.

Gandhi says:
The road to self-edification is always difficult. In order to become pure and righteous, one must attain a state of mind without temptation in thought, word and deed. His entire consciousness must be above love or hate, emotion or sentiment. I know that I myself have not attained such a state, regardless of my tireless efforts. That is why the appreciation of the masses do not affect me. It does not affect my pride; rather such materialistic praise only wounds me. It is so much harder to conquer our own impulses and restlessness than to dominate the world with arms. Even after my return to India, I could feel the effects of my inner impulses from within. Such experiences has made me aware of my own shortcomings, but I wasn't disheartened, I was only elated. I learnt from them, I realized I still a long arduous road laid out ahead of me. I have to turn myself into a clean slate. Unless and until a person can set himself behind everyone's needs and prioritize others first, he will not be free. The ultimate state of this mindset is a state of non-violence.

Economic inequality, discrimination and political conflict is more pronounced than ever before. There are global conflicts today between different castes, creeds, religious groups and nations. The strong continue to take advantage of the weak. The developed world is developing better and more efficient killing machines. Some countries have such weapons of mass destruction, 2 or 3 of which can wipe out all of humanity. Those who are poor, backward, and those without wealth and education may not have bombs and nuclear warheads, but are nonetheless engaged in social conflict. After the fall of communism and the USSR, capitalism has reached its peak. There are no limits to luxury and consumption anymore. There exists such degradation of humanity in some societies, that happiness and prosperity of the people is being demeaned and progress is being diminished. Whatever the system, socialist or capitalist, a system without humanity and morality cannot ensure social progress. In this context, the significance of Gandhiji's teachings and philosophy should not be forgotten.

Three independent nations have been established in the same subcontinent where Gandhiji's influence was spread. But, economic inequality or social castes could have not been eliminated from any of these nations. Millions of people still live under the poverty line. Recent times have only given birth to more stems of problems. Gandhiji's commitment was to ensure the betterment and happiness of the people of this sub continent. Gandhiji's philosophy may not be the same as modern political icons or economists, but there is no doubt that Gandhiji's beliefs led person to peace.

Gandhiji has stressed the need for self-dependence and even created an 18 fold list: 1. Social unity, 2. Eradication of social caste system, 3. Prohibition of addictive substances, 4. Self-sufficiency in clothing, 5. Growth of arts and crafts, 6. Betterment of health status, 7. Primary education, 8. Adult education, 9. Women's education and empowerment, 10. Health education, 11. Improvement of regional languages, 12. Improvement of national mother tongue, 13. Economic equality, 14. Farmer's growth, 15. Labor's growth, 16. Growth of indigenous people, 17. Treatment and eradication of leprosy, and 18. Growth of the student community.

Economic and administrative decentralization could be achieved easily if the policies above were implemented. The government's responsibility to develop the grassroots would be reduced. Gandhiji himself was an extremely industrious man. He believed that individual growth and growth at a national level is possible only through hard work. He used to roam from one corner of the country to the other spreading his message of hard work and growth to the masses. This is the very reason why he emphasized weaving one's own garments he wanted people of all classes to respect physical labor.

In his political life, he followed competent people to spread moral education: Jatindramohon Sengupta, Shuvashchandra Bashu, Kazi Nazrul Islam, etc. He once made a very valuable statement about Bengal: “The Bengal that has given birth to Ram Mohon Ray, Keshobchandra Sen, Ramkrishno Pormohongso and Swami Bibekanondo; the Bengal that has been purified by the Ganges and Brammaputra, if that Bengal engulfed all of India, I would not mind at all.” Every great personality needs to be judged in context. Many thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi regarding the economy and financial matters may seem irrelevant today, but his moral teachings and philosophy are timeless. His ideals are evergreen. When we speak of individual freedom, human rights, social justice, non violent protests, and religious harmony we speak Gandhi.

Photographs by: A.M. Ahad

Erratum: The photographs used in the last two cover stories were also taken by A.M. Ahad. His name had not been mentioned.


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