Sunday, Mar 18, 2018 | Last Update : 10:47 PM IST
The problem is that we cannot preach to individuals on personal dignity.
It is indeed laudable that on Bapuji’s birth anniversary, national attention is focused on the need to make India cleaner and healthier. Who doesn’t know that hygiene was a priority with Gandhiji? But what needs to be known better is the fact that for Bapuji, hygiene was as spiritual as it was physical. He insisted that conscience, not less than street corners, should be clean. His genius lay in discerning the necessary connection between the two.
The applied spirituality we see in Gandhi’s vision for society is the nexus he intuited between poverty and hygiene. Unfortunately, this sliver of truth too is distorted by stereotypes. We only think, somewhat unthinkingly, of the poor as a stumbling block, as Sanjay Gandhi did in an eminently forgettable context in recent history, to beauty and hygiene in our cities. Seen as reductively as this issue then was, cleaning and beautifying the city became a cruel anti-poor atrocity. It sought to banish the poor out of sight, which is the very opposite of banishing poverty.
Basic to making India cleaner and brighter is the duty to question the stereotype that sees the poor as polluters. This stereotype stands rooted in slums, which are not a creation of the poor. We rarely ask why millions of our fellow human beings have to live in conditions that are unhealthy even for animals, right under the shadow of metropolitan affluence. It bypasses the question if slums should stay as slums, as we know them, in the Swachchh Bharat that we dream of?
The question that confronts us on a day like Gandhi Jayanti pertains to the need to link Mr Modi’s Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan with Gandhiji’s Talisman. If the PM were to listen to Bapuji, and not merely pay lip-service to him, he would surely hear the Mahatma (a title he felt uneasy about) telling him, “Beta, poverty is the dirt that should concern you the most. If you want to see how clean and beautiful each Indian is, wipe the dirt of poverty from each face, give each one a chance to be dignified and self-reliant. This one thing alone will make you an icon in the history of India.”
What about open defecation, then? What should we do to tackle this problem? The ready-made, stereotypical answer is: “Name and shame them!” It is pathetic that we cannot look beyond “shame” when it comes to solving our basic issues. All right, then; let us name and shame them. But whom?
One thing is easy to see. There is a link between personal dignity and open defecation. No one, mindful of his or her dignity, will continue with this practice, if there is an alternative. If so, the key to a breakthrough is not merely in erecting toilets, which, of course we must. It must also involve in enhancing the dignity, personal worth, of the human beings involved. There is a world of difference between requiring all to desist from open defecation, and individuals renouncing this practice, realising it to be awkward for their dignity. But, for that to happen, we must erect their dignity even as we erect toilets.
The problem is that we cannot preach to individuals on personal dignity. Words may resound in the ears, but they are irrelevant to living conditions. No exhortation, howsoever stirring, will do. Even when hygiene is minded in respect of animals, it is for our sake mostly that we do so. We can’t expect people to be clean without upholding and respecting their dignity. Personal dignity needs to be seen as the key for opening the toilets provided, or to be provided. So long as human beings continue to live in animal-like conditions, the laudable goals of Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan will continue to elude us.
It is pertinent to mention in this context that Bapuji kept not only toilets but also his own conscience clean. In his understanding, the cleanliness of the mindscape preceded the sweeping of the landscape. Fasting was his spiritual broom. Brooms, as symbols of our commitment to Swachchh Bharat, need to be held in hands guided by clean and clear consciences. This brings us to the war that the PM has declared on corruption, with domestic black money as its symbolic target. It is impossible for any responsible citizen to disagree with the PM on the need to save the soul of India from the toxicity of corruption. But is this mission pursued with an adequate vision?
How significant is black money per se vis-à-vis corruption? Black money is only one of the symptoms of greed. Greed fuels obscenely affluent and wasteful lifestyles with ill-gotten wealth. We cannot forget that Gandhi, who kept his toilet and conscience clean, was the ridiculed by Churchill as the “naked fakir of India”. Surely, we don’t expect Churchill or any of the monarchs of materialism to realise that justice is the spiritual expression of inner cleanliness. Exploitation and subjugation of the powerless is unclean. More importantly, only a man whose conscience is clean like the tears of gods can be free from awkward self-consciousness about one’s body. Those who are bloated with unjust affluence need to drape their existential nakedness, their moral un-hygiene, with dazzling apparels and sparkling ornaments.
We hope that the Prime Minister will realise, sooner than later, that the best he can do to create a clean and beautiful India, and to immortalise himself in our hearts, is to challenge the national conscience with a culture of spiritual hygiene. Physical cleanliness will take care of itself.
Swami Agnivesh is a politician and a former MLA from Haryana, an Arya Samaj scholar, and a social activist.
Revd. Valson Thampu is an educator, Christian theologian, who was a principal of St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi