Realising the essence of the Sarvodaya ideal

By Rajni BakshionMar. 04, 2024in Learning and Education
Jyotibhai had been a firm practitioner of Gandhi’s Nai Talim all his life

Jyotibhai Desai, veteran Gandhian worker, was living proof of the truth that freedom always is. He found countless ways to defy the constraints imposed by soulless systems by creating alternative paths that gave meaning and joy to a wide range of people — from political activists to children and ex-dacoits in prison.

Jyotibhai, who passed away last Tuesday in Baroda, would have scoffed at anyone who lamented his departure or called it the passing of an era. Indeed, the most powerful way to honour his memory is to recognise and celebrate how his creative defiance lives on — both inspiring and provoking those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the darkness of our times.

Born in 1926, Jyotibhai grew up in what was then Bombay. As a teenager he began going to the local RSS shakha and soon rose to become shakha sanchalak. Throughout his life Jyotibhai remained grateful for what he learnt in the shakha’s community— live frugally and work for the good of the nation. Then one day, sometime in the early 1940s, Jyotibhai was invited to attend a private talk by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

During the talk, Savarkar said that Muslims must leave India. Jyotibhai immediately raised his hand and asked how this could be? After all, in the shakha, the teenager had been told that all are welcome. Jyotibhai’s intervention enraged Savarkar and led to an uproar in the gathering. Fearing a violent reprisal, Jyotibhai fled from the meeting. He never went back to work in the shakha.

As the struggle for freedom gathered momentum, Jyotibhai became a satyagrahi, joining the Quit India movement and embracing Gandhi’s philosophy and ideals. In free India, the young Jyotibhai became a full-time worker of the Sarvodaya movement and also qualified to become a teacher-trainer. Above all, for more than half a century, he was a mentor, supporter and inspirer to a wide range of people of all ages. This was primarily because he marched to the sound of his own conscience, not the drummer whom the crowd was following.

In the late 1980s when many of Gujarat’s Gandhian-Sarvodaya leaders opposed the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), Jyotibhai doggedly supported this movement. He did this not only because the homes and lives of over a million people were at stake, but also because he felt the NBA was necessary to challenge the definition of development which, in an outdated and short-sighted manner, equated big dams with progress.

Through the 1990s he was an active member of various activist networks striving for a more humane and ecologically sustainable form of development. His calm, smiling presence in these forums brought a unique quality of wisdom and dry humour. Countless younger friends and admirers benefited from Jyotibhai’s confidence in himself and the values he had tried, tested and proved as a practitioner of Gandhi’s Nai Talim (new education). His own learnings will remain true across the ages.

One, true education is a process of self-discovery. Thus, the purpose of a teacher is to foster self-confidence in the student rather than focusing on the accumulation of information or knowledge.

Two, it follows that no one can be taught. All a teacher can do is to enable pupils to tap their inherent strength within. As Jyotibhai liked to say — a mother does not teach a child to walk, it happens on its own though she gives a finger to hold or a helping hand.

Thus, inevitably, Jyotibhai never saw a person’s character as being something fixed or unchangeable. He was always seeking to know the other person in all their changing colours and as yet unexpressed potential.

Sometime in the 1960s, Vinoba Bhave tasked Jyotibhai with teaching dacoits, who had surrendered, how to reintegrate into society. Jyotibhai bluntly refused. After all, he had an inkling of how complex and diffi- cult the dacoits’ lives had been. Who was he to tell them what to do? What I will do, he told Vinoba, is go and spend time with them in jail — let’s see what happens. For several years, every summer, Jyotibhai and his BEd students spent several weeks getting to know the imprisoned former dacoits. The result was a process of mutual discovery and the forging of bonds that, in some cases, became lifelong.

All this was possible because Jyotibhai knew that it is not enough to raise a challenge, one must have faith that a change of heart in the other is possible. Non-violence, he often said, is not an inborn quality of anyone’s character, it can be cultivated. It is the courage and capacity to say no to that which harms other living beings.

Jyotibhai remained engaged in resisting hatred and violence that became pervasive in his twilight years. His doing so till the very end leaves behind a wealth of confi- dence and inspiration. Honouring such a life means remembering that, regardless of dis- appointments, the capacity of living beings to care for other beings is ever alive.

First Published by Hindustan Times on 04 March, 2024.

You can download the PDF and read the article here.

You can also watch this interview of Jyotibhai Desai as part of Ahimsa Conversations founded by the author, Rajni Bakshi

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