A Gandhian from Gujarat: “Don’t take excessive pride in individuals”

by A.K Shiburaj/Jyotibhai Desai

Jyotibhai Desai

Jyotibhai Desai is a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi whose life is lived true to the principles of the Gandhian philosophy. Jyotibai’s life-work has evolved in a place that has seen the worst instance of communal violence in contemporary India’s history. Yet he wields with conviction the philosophy of Ahimsa (non-violence) in the midst of this violence. A conversation discussing Gandhi, the freedom struggle, and the philosophy of education.

Jyotibai Desai is one among the handful of contemporaries of Gandhi who survives today to give us a first-hand account of India’s struggle for independence. Born in Bombay, Jyotibhai was jailed till 1944 in the Byculla prison for his participation in the Quit India Movement. It was on the advice of Gandhians in Bombay that he moved to Vedchchi in Gujarat to work with the rural villagers, where he eventually met with the famous freedom fighter Jugatram Dave. With youthful exuberance and agility which belies his age of 92 years, Jyotibhai gets up at 4 am, cooks and tends to his personal activities, and proceeds to spend four hours spinning thread on his old charkha. He calmly spends the rest of his day indulging in reading, writing and in his political work. To the socio-political activists who visit him, he puts forward his views with uncompromising sharp conviction, but in his own characteristic mellow and gentle way

In his daily life, he follows the fundamental teachings of Gandhi with steadfast discipline. He is an ‘anarchist’ who proudly declares his freedom as an individual who doesn’t want to be fettered within any structure. He believes that our culture is not individualistic, but the ultimate consequence of a long series of selfless contributions by many. This belief is perhaps the reason why even with years of experience in the socio-political realm, he doesn’t still think it important to write a memoir. When one converses with Jyotibhai, we can discern in his words the strong core of liberation.

Firmly believing that a nation and its people can attain true freedom and autonomy only through education, Jyotibhai spent a lion’s share of his life pursuing activities and campaigns to bring into fruition the ‘Nai Talim’ educational philosophy of Gandhiji. Even today, it is very rare to find persons who have truly understood Gandhiji’s philosophy of education and have tried to implement that knowledge in practice.

In the 1950s, Jyotibhai worked as an educator in the Gandhian institute called ‘Lok Bharathi’ established for rural development and education in the Sanosara village in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. It was in the 1960s that he was invited by Jugatram Dave to join him in starting the Teacher’s Training Centre in the Gandhi Vidyapeeth in Vedchchi. Jugatram was the founding director of the Teacher’s Training Centre in the Gandhi Vidyapeeth. Jyotibhai was determined to bring to fruition Gandhi’s philosophical teachings in practice and was involved in this work with utmost diligence. In 1957, he completed his Masters in Education from the London University, and proceeded to complete an International Course in Education from Oxford University in 1975. He worked with the Gujarat State Secondary School Education Board from 1975-1982 and was a member in the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) from 1990 to 1994. He made important contributions and served in various key positions such as the President of Sevagram ‘Nai Taleem’ Samiti, the member of the Administrative Council of Sevagram Ashram, the member of the Kasturba Education Committee based in Indore, the member of the Administrative body of the Gandhi Vidyapeeth. He is a staunch critic of the current education system which is based solely on capital gain.

Jyotibhai was one of the main organizers of the popular movement against industrial pollution in the Thungabadra river in Dharwad. He is a strong presence in many popular protests fought for the protection of water, land and forests. He is also in the forefront of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In 1989, he was arrested along with Medha Patkar from the protest site of Narmada Bachao Andolan. He was also a volunteer in the International Peace Brigade. The Sathyagrahas organized on conflict sites in Central America, the battleground for war against American imperialism, had caught the world’s attention. For his participation in the protests and agitations against environmental degradation, nuclear weapons, big dams and anti-people development measures, he was jailed five times in post-independence India.

Jyotibhai never let age come in the way of his life-long participation in popular struggles and agitations against State-violence and its detrimental development measures. With an unfaltering belief in the pursuit of true freedom, justice and truth, he is leading a exemplary life with his life-partner Malini Desai and daughter Swathi Desai, while standing in solidarity with resolute social activists like Medha Patkar. He converses with us from the tribal village of Vedchchi, in Surat.

A.K. Shiburaj: Could you describe for us the context and circumstances that led to your participation in the freedom struggle?

Jyotibhai Desai: My father was an active participant in the freedom struggle. He took part in the Salt Satyagraha and was arrested for it.  I was six years then. Hence I didn’t have to face any

opposition while joining the freedom struggle. In fact, I left my schooling to join the Quit India Movement in 1942. At that time, I was very agitated and held dangerous thoughts. It is during this period that the then Chief Minister of Bombay Presidency, B.G Kher, persuaded me to go and work in the villages. That is how I reached Vedchchi and became active in the Non-Cooperation Movement. Otherwise it was   a   path   that   I   could   have   never reconciled to. Till then, I had firmly believed that those who committed mistakes should be strongly punished. Afterwards it was with the recommendation of the then Bombay Mayor, Yusufali Meherali that I secured admission in college. It was only because of his intervention that I was not denied admission in spite of my political activities.

A.K. Shiburaj: Did you proceed to Vedchchi soon after attaining your college education?

Jyotibhai Desai: The gentle persuasion and cooperation of Gandhiji’s followers in Khar were instrumental in my decision to work among villagers. At this time I had just begun to read about Gandhian thought. It took me 2-3 years to understand Gandhiji’s philosophy about education and his way of life amongst villagers. I had participated in the training camps organized in the Saurashtra region. I learned further about education in Balkanji Bari Training Institute established by Sevak Bhojraj. After reaching Vedchchi, I transformed completely from being a city- dweller from Bombay. The training received in the camps under the able guidance of Nana bhai and Jugatram held me in good stead. By then Jugatram, who was a trusted disciple of Gandhi, had assumed leadership in the ‘Swaraj Ashram’. He was also the undeniable leader of the tribal people in the South of Gujarat.

A.K. Shiburaj: You had grown up as a fearless and bold person. What made you gravitate with interest towards the educational philosophy put forth by Gandhiji?

Jyotibhai Desai: I never followed anyone blindly. I am not ready to think of any person as the last word- not then, not now. On reaching Vedchchi, I was made aware of the needs of children and students. In those days, Nanabhai and Jugatram used to talk about the significance of using Charka in Education. However it wasn’t a blind belief. They were ready to burn the Charka if it ever proved to be redundant.

It is true that Gandhiji had a deep impact on me. However, I don’t want to be known as a Gandhian educationist. I desire to live in freedom. It was to think and act in freedom that we fought for independence. I had to change my institutions of work at least seven times because of this firm belief in independent thought and action. I want to attain truth and justice at any cost.

Gandhiji had made it very clear that education meant attaining knowledge through praxis and through knowledge, forming a strong moral standing. But today, attaining at best shallow surface- level knowledge, we have become worse than being colonized.

A.K. Shiburaj: You believe that only through education can a nation attain true freedom and autonomy. What is your response to today’s educational system, its pedagogy, its content and aims?

Today’s educational institutions are destructive. There is no scope for children to attain knowledge or to think independently. The current educational system tries to systematically destroy the inborn talents of young minds. Parents need to think twice before sending their children to such institutions. Mainstream education is evolving without any regard to the inherent passion within children to seek and attain knowledge. What we need is not a national centralized educational system, but different indigenous, community level systems of education, formed with its core in truth, justice and freedom.

A child cannot be brought up by the parents alone. It takes a village to bring up a child. Today’s educational system makes children helpless and lacking in support. It ingrains within the child the extremely wrong notion that life is all about getting a job and earning money. Even attaining that has proven impossible. The world that today’s education promises cannot exist. This why people like Hardhik Patel are formed.

A.K. Shiburaj: You assumed the position of Guru among students by discarding all archaic and obsolete modes of teaching. The students in Gandhi Vidyapeeth weren’t learning mechanically by-rote. It is through an exposure to the real world outside that you formed a fertile ground for the consciousness of the students to evolve.    The efforts to eradicate untouchability among the Bundel faction in Madhya Pradesh and the endeavors by students of the Teacher’s Training College to rehabilitate the inmates of the Lakshmipur Open Jail in Panna had gained a lot of attention. I have read how these instances are taught as a part of the syllabi of training in UNICEF and Oxfam. Could you tell us more about this?

Jyotibhai Desai: These efforts in innovation were attempted in the face of huge hurdles and criticisms. The main concern for students was about the exams and certificates. Though they were anxious at first when these concerns weren’t given importance, in the longer run they recognized the benefits it brought them. In an educational system shrunk and limited to classrooms and textbooks, our umbilical cords to the society are being cut off. Students who will in the future have an important role to play in the political formation of this nation should mould their characters and develop their personalities with active engagement with the real socio-cultural environment surrounding their lives. The students volunteered in programmes for Cholera prevention in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Constructing homes for those affected in the Jaipur floods was not merely a charity, but a political act. Here lies the true goal of education.

A.K. Shiburaj: There were criticisms, even back then, that the Nai Talim educational philosophy which Gandhiji encouraged was not implemented in its proper essence. On many instances, productive work was being taught separately.

This is the negative consequence of a narrow understanding of education as knowledge gaining enterprise in different subjects. Teaching through an artificial separation of subjects is entirely wrong an approach! This is definitely not the goal of education.

When I sent my students to pick jamun fruits, they are in reality learning various things. This learning cannot be separated into categories like Language, Maths, Science, Social Science, Environmental science etc. This division of learning into separate subject areas has to be avoided at least in the beginning stages of education. Otherwise it will hamper the comprehensiveness of knowledge gaining. Real education lies beyond the walls of syllabus. In many schools of Gujarat, the Nai Talim is being implemented incorrectly. It is only because I had the support of strong leaders like Jugatram that I could implement Nai Talim in Gandhi Vidyapeeth without its true core seeping away.

Jugatram Bhai belonged to a different and exceptional species of leaders. He never followed anyone blindly, including Gandhi. He was always ready to apologize and make necessary amends whenever he found himself wrong.

A.K. Shiburaj: Did our political leaders and religious reformers of the time ignore the effects of colonial powers in the formation of our educational system?

Jyotibhai Desai: In India’s history, the only leader to voluntarily take the responsibility of the Education Department was B.J Kher, the Chief Minister of Bombay Presidency. The first central government of India entrusted Maulana Azad with the responsibility only because they didn’t consider education important enough. The importance of education in our country was thus ignored from the time of the first government of independent India itself. Everyone was interested in power.

A.K. Shiburaj: Did this neglect exist in the lifetime of Gandhiji as well?

Jyotibhai Desai: But Gandhiji strongly disagreed with this claim. Congress Working Committee, interested gaining in political power, also neglected Gandhiji’s opinions. The suggestion to disband Congress soon after independence was not heeded to. So naturally those who chased political power didn’t think twice to put his policies of education in the dustbin. A person, however powerful he might be, does not have the right to control another person’s life. I am against all acts of power. Education shouldn’t be the tool to deform the future generations to suit the interests of the ruling class.

A.K. Shiburaj: The 1938 Haripura Congress Session had decided to implement Nai Talim all over India. How did the Congress government which had come to power in post-independent India manage to scuttle this decision?

Jyotibhai Desai: We should remember that a good majority of politicians are shrewd nd cunning. Therefore, they execute their plans with caution. Most of their policies were regressive in nature. Khadi Commission was formed in the year 1950. Permission of the Commission was necessary to obtain grants. Gandhiji’s printer Swami Anand was aghast and had wondered aloud how a commission sitting in Delhi can certify the Khadi he produced inside his home. Why do you need certification for Khadi you have spun in your own home? Do you need certification for the ghee and milk produced in your home? What we need is good quality Khadi, not the salary and other emoluments from the Khadi Board. This applies to the UGC as well. Why do I need the approval and accreditation by UGC to run a college? Like how Khadi Commission has systematically destroyed Khadi, UGC is on the path to destroy education. A lot of such absurdities are taking place in independent India.

The State which is absolutely clueless about education and the needs of students are spending a lot of money and distributing certificates to some. Nai Talim was destroyed because of the faulty approach of the State. In their mad quest for power, our politicians have failed to understand the value of education and its impact on people’s lives.

A.K. Shiburaj: Are you suggesting that the State should not interfere in the area of education?

Jyotibhai Desai: Education has to be removed from the purview of the government. State’s role should be limited to providing the physical amenities required for education. It shouldn’t interfere in what the students should learn or how they should learn. But this viewpoint of mine will never be accepted nor implemented. A generation of students and teachers who can break free from the control of the State can only attain true freedom. This does not mean that education should be written off to the multinational corporations or that it should be open to reckless privatization. Sadly, this is exactly what is happening right now. In reality, in the disguise of the Right to Education Act, privatization of education is being carried out.

Education policies of the day are only strengthening the already existing skewed structures which marginalize many students while securing power in the hands of the wealthy few. There is no place for morals or values. It is also life-negating! It will jeopardize the wellbeing of people. Capital is the sole driving force behind this dangerous system. Students are not free; they are mould to be unquestioning and submissive. What await them are invisible prisons.

A.K. Shiburaj: With the intervention of private capital in education, there is a marked difference in the physical amenities available to students. The common belief is that technology has brought about a sea-change in the field of education. The role and responsibilities of teachers are being rethought. How do you perceive these changes?

Jyotibhai Desai: There is hardly any doubt that technology has brought about positive manifestations in our lives. However, to believe blindly in its powers will prove to be extremely dangerous. Most of the measures that boast of technical brilliance are in effect shortcuts to increase profits through quickening the pace of our lives and making us more competitive with each other. It is wrong and perilous to believe that technological advancement will be the answer all our social problems. In situations that demand decisions based on our moral consciousness, technology will be useless. I don’t think technology will pave way for justice and equality. An aimless life devoid of a moral compass will eventually lead to ruin. It is an annihilation of our life-force! Some of the measures adopted in educational institutions in the name of technological advancement are completely bogus!

A.K. Shiburaj: Your interventions in education came at a time when the caste system was extremely entrenched in India, marginalizing and inflicting grievous wounds on a section of our society through incessant acts of caste-based violence. How did you tackle the Savarna supremacy prevalent in this period?

Indian Brahmins were using Western modes of enslavement through the practice of untouchablity and prejudiced partisanship in the context of India. Slavery has been institutionalized within the Varna System. Gandhi was staunchly against the practice of this system within the Ashram. Maganlal, the manager of the Ashram who had not treated the Harijan family who had came to join the Ashram with respect, was shown the door. However, he returned back after six months, a changed man. Gandhiji had a clear vision of how to tackle the menace of the caste system.

Let me narrate another instance. The son of the village head in my school declared that the Harijan student in my class cannot drink from the filled pots. He also declared that no one else can drink from it other than him. I told him that he had no right to do this. At last, frustrated, he started breaking the pots. He broke almost seven pots. Eventually he stopped this prejudice. In a class excursion, he shared food with the rest of us as well.

I have never led a campaign against caste system. My way of life, my convictions and behaviour was my arsenal. There is always a space for those who have wronged to find their way back to righteousness. The unjust can always correct themselves and return to the path of justice.

A.K. Shiburaj: Ambedkar had found villages to be dens of ignorance, beset with the most brutal forms of caste oppression. The migration of Dalits to the cities was in fact a part of their liberation movement. Even today, the cities are safer spaces where the lower-caste people can live as ‘human beings’. What is your reaction to this?

Jyotibhai Desai: Firstly, the cities don’t have a new value system devoid of caste. Yes, it is practically difficult to follow the caste practices found in villages in the cities. Hence, the caste- system is comparatively weaker in the cities. However, there are still instances of providing or denying residence and food based on caste even in cities.

Speaking of Ambedkar, he is someone who had to go through a lot of negative life experiences because of caste. It had severely affected his life, causing personal turmoil. His emotional responses are a consequence of the continuing hurt he had to suffer. This is reflected in his philosophical and intellectual views.

A.K. Shiburaj: Gandhi and Ambedkar had differing views on the caste-system. Can we say that Gandhi failed in understanding Ambedkar?

Jyotibhai Desai: Gandhi never accepted the Caste system. The human being was the centre of Gandhi’s concerns. His aim was to bring together humanity irrespective of the various differentiations that exist among us. Gandhi did not ignore or neglect Ambedkar. Even though Ambedkar was not a member of the Congress, Gandhi recommended his name for the position of Minister. Gandhi also made sure of Amdekar’s participation and contribution in the constitution making process.

A.K. Shiburaj: Do you feel that currently the Indian constitution and the democratic ideals it puts forward are severely threatened? Are we forsaking our values of diversity and secularism at the feet of authoritarianism? The lack of open debates and conversation is troubling, isn’t it?

Jyotibhai Desai: Democracy had to face many attacks at various historical junctures in post- independence India. A nation and its people who dreamt of freedom in independence had found destruction and polarizing division and partition in its wake. The people were shocked to find that the leaders they had elected to lead the country were shamelessly running after power and wealth. I am afraid that today, authoritarianism is strengthening its stranglehold on our country. It is being decided that only one loud lone voice shall be heard, silencing the rest of our protesting lamentations. A nation that is helpless and afraid to question those in power marks the descent into an era of darkness. I again reiterate that we are paving way for a generation that will never experience true freedom .

Why is there a scheme for skill development of youth under the Central government? What message does it give to our youth regarding in whose service they have to work in the future? Where is the space for self-respect and freedom? The ultimate aim is to transform individuals into unthinking machines working in different industries. What we should remember is that our country has a rich resource of varied work skills. We hold a valuable repository of knowledge regarding preservation of seeds, soil protection, innovation and craft. These skills are not something we learned by enrolling in any institute of the state agencies. We have never had a dearth of skills in this country. The reason for unemployment is definitely not this.

A.K. Shiburaj: You have continuously resisted autocratic behavior of the powerful and fought against any attempts in silencing of the freedom of speech. Have there been frictions with other individuals because of this frank manner of yours? I have heard that you have openly disagreed with Acharya Vinoba Bhave.

Jyotibhai Desai: What is important is who is one fighting for? For whose rights are you raising your voice? It is when our responses reflect our egos that difficulties arise. Vinoba Bhave once asked me to involve myself in the educational activities of the Sarvodaya msiison in Orissa. He had put forward this instruction based on the request of the CM of Orissa. Vinoba was affected by the virus of Indira’s power and had forgotten that he was colluding with the same power that he had resisted against till then. I reminded him that Sarvodaya’s mission and the structures of power he was asking me to work with can never go hand in hand. When he coaxed me further, I told him he was speaking insanely. He was growing closer to Indira while keeping his distance from Jayaprakash Narayan who was fighting to uphold democratic values. Vinoba who went to meet Indira at the airport, refused to meet JP at his death bed even after repeated entreaties.

Power corrupts people. Gandhi who knew this didn’t go to Delhi but to Noakhali. Those who are in power in Delhi are the ones who should come to the people. I tell this to Medha all the time. That those in power in Delhi should be made to come to Narmada to understand the situation here. Otherwise the autocratic power of the State will eventually rob people’s rights to freedom.

A.K. Shiburaj: What was the circumstance behind your intervention and activism in Narmada? Have you felt crestfallen when you see people who protest following the path of non-violence and peace fail in reaching their objectives?

Jyotibhai Desai: How can I stand by and watch when people were fighting the oppression from the state machinery’s authority and arrogance? It is not easy to gauge the wins and losses in popular protest movements. The Narmada Protests led to vigorous discussions at the national level on the hollowness of developmental promises and the ensuing injustice on hapless victims and common man. The protest was instrumental in convincing the popular consciousness about the large scale destruction of environmental diversity and lives of common people as a consequence of large development projects. I think that this protest was successful in showing how the government was in reality supporting the interests of a minority of powerful groups and was paving way for the destruction of the nation’s resources.

A.K. Shiburaj: The 21st century is beset with concerns of environmental sustainability and various immediate challenges that attack the very survival of humanity. As global warming and environmental destruction is threatening the survival of whole life systems, the common man is still struggling to attain basic needs of survival. What is the way out?

Humanity is at the verge of a terrible crisis. But the solution to this problem cannot be found by one country. The whole world community has to come together, unified to find a way forward. This is not an easy task, but it also doesn’t mean that we should stay inert.

Relevance of Gandhi is increasing in this context where human communities are faced with severe environmental crises. His clairvoyant, foreseeing vision is epitomized in the Hind Swaraj. Gandhi was neglected in the race for power as I mentioned earlier. Gandhi had forewarned us that the consumerist greediness based on the temporary advancements of industrial revolution will prove very costly for our future. Can we still afford to ignore the importance of Grama swaraj? It is extremely stupid to mindlessly ape the cultures in America and Europe, A whole generation is being made a fool of by empty hollow promises of those in power. We are not in the position to follow the American model anymore.

A.K. Shiburaj: You hold a treasure trove of experiences dealing with the period of freedom struggle, your relationship with Gandhi, important contributions to the field of education, various efforts and movements that you were a part of in your pursuit of justice and democracy. So many varied experiences, visions, ideas… Yet why didn’t you think of penning it all down by writing a memoir?

Jyotibhai Desai: Look, Indian culture does not take pride in the individual’s contributions. It is a result of common and combined efforts of a multitude, and it involve a lot of mutual give and take. The person I am, the ‘I’, does not hold much significance. Even Krishna and Ram were evoked here to satisfy other reasons.

My life and my work is not a result of any special qualities in me. Instead it was all possible because of the confluence of the efforts and the complete support of different aspects of many individuals who stood together firmly for a larger cause. I wish to live in complete freedom. I am not a Gandhian or an educationist. I don’t to be shackled within structures. I enjoy the freedom that comes from standing apart from the corrupting desire and influence of power. I dream of a liberated nation of free citizens.

A.K. Shiburaj is an independent journalist

(Translated by Aparna Eswaran)

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