x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Recapturing the lost art of providing for India's landless

A walk across India five decades ago, in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, offers a modern day lesson in the grace of giving.

'Can we give him a cup of tea? Your Ashram's (place for meditation) rules forbid it but he is unwell and the doctor has advised it," requested Jankideviji Bajaj, wife of Jamnalal Bajaj, one of India's ardent freedom fighters. Acharya (teacher in Sanskrit) Vinoba Bhave nodded his permission. Thus I received a cup of tea at Paunar Ashram.

The Acharya's permission was mandatory because his "pad-yatra" (journey on foot) team had to abide by the ashram's rules. Some of the rules were: wear only "khadi" (hand-spun) apparel; wash your own clothes; sleep on floors in village huts; and eschew stimulants like tea and alcohol. Walking 5 to 8 kilometres daily in the dust of village streets in 1964 dehydrated me. Hence, I needed an invigorating cup of tea by the third day.

Acharya Vinoba Bhave, an ardent disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, had made it his life's mission to seek surplus agricultural land from the rich in India's villages and gift it to the landless poor. He started the movement after interacting with 40 landless "Harijan" ("children of god") families. He walked across India persuading people to consider him as a son and donate one-seventh of their land to him. For 14 years, dressed in a simple "dhoti", shirtless like his spiritual guru Gandhi - sunglasses, a cap covering his head and a staff in hand - he pursued his passion. His movement gathered impetus. Inspired by this spiritual social activist, I joined his "padyatra" for a week.

We commenced our day at 4am with prayers and a light breakfast of "poha" (rice flakes). Our group of 15, led by Acharya, reverentially addressed as "Baba", walked to a village. Baba would address local meetings, crowded by poor landless peasants and the landed gentry. He beseeched affluent landowners to donate surplus land to his "Bhoodan" (land-donate) movement. Lunch comprised of rice and dhal offered by local villagers.

Baba was successful in securing land for the landless. His integrity was unimpeachable. He was considered a true disciple of his mentor Mahatma Gandhi. Baba lived with Gandhi in his ashrams from 1917 to 1921, and had been enthused.

After resting for about 30 minutes, we would march to another village. Again, Baba would persuade the rich to donate surplus lands. By dusk we reached a third village. We bathed by the village well and then participated in Baba's evening prayers. By 9pm, we were exhausted and fell asleep on the earthen floors of village huts.

Baba was always greeted reverentially as we walked through small hamlets. Groups of people stood by the mud paths, with folded hands, seeking his blessings. Many wanted to touch his fingers and hands. He was their only hope - a 70-year-old spiritual man trudging kilometres daily to serve the poor.

On our last day, we halted at Gandhi's "Sewagram" Ashram, in Wardha. It was my last day at the "padyatra". I went to pay my respects to Baba. It was his day of the weekly "monvrata" (silence) when he meditated. Baba sat on the ground and worked on his "charkha" (spinning wheel). I handed him a note, with my gratitude written on it: "A blind man has found his eyes in your ashram."

Baba wrote: "Although you stayed for a few days, it made me happy. Follow the path of "Sarvadoya" (welfare of all). Baba's blessings are with you. 8/11/1964." I have treasured Baba's note for the last 48 years.

When a country grows rapidly, land becomes a prized asset. In many places in India, the price of land has spiralled five-fold in a decade. There is frenzy among the powerful to buy or grab it. Scams abound. The lack of land and livelihoods among many villagers sparked the violent Naxalite movement in 1967, which has grown stronger. About 199,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2008 frustrated by indebtedness.

I am reminded these days about my "pad-yatra" 48 years ago with Vinoba Bhave. He walked 64,000 kilometres, and received 5 million acres (20,000 square kilometres) of land as donations from the rich and distributed it free to landless farmers between 1951 and 1965. He gifted a livelihood to the poor, they could sow and reap.

The Acharya bequeathed to the affluent also taught them the grace of giving. India needs to rediscover this lost value.


Hari Chand Aneja is an 90-year-old former corporate executive based in Mumbai who now keeps busy with charity work