INDIRA Gandhi had many flaws but vacuous boastfulness was not one of them. She never growled at Pakistan; never shouted ‘I am going to fix you’. When the time came, however, no inveterate male chauvinist would dare insinuate that she led the 1971 war with Pakistan “despite being a woman”.
Mrs Gandhi is worshipped in Bangladesh but Prime Minister Modi omitted to mention her name in Dhaka recently. Instead, he dressed up Indira Gandhi’s Hindutva detractor as India’s hero of Bangladesh.
The world knows that Atal Behari Vajpayee’s only memorable role in the make-or-break conflict in South Asia was that he found himself compelled to liken Indira Gandhi to the victorious goddess Durga. One explanation could be that Vajpayee perhaps could not believe that it was humanly possible to defeat Pakistan, hence the lapse into religious invocation.
To project him as a symbol of Indo-Bangladesh friendship was another way of undermining Indira Gandhi’s memory in the secular Bengali psyche. I remember her rage and embarrassment during the Delhi Non-Aligned Movement summit in September 1983 where Gen Ziaul Haq was scrutinising her prima donna moment.
India Today had carried horrific pictures of the communal slaughter of Muslim (claimed by Vajpayee to be Bangladeshi) women and children in Nellie in Assam. Raghu Rai had taken vivid pictures of the horror that followed an Enoch Powell-like ‘rivers of blood’ speech Vajpayee gave around the time. Mrs Gandhi quietly got the magazine removed from the international media enclosure. She didn’t forgive Vajpayee for heaping shame on India. The fact that the octogenarian former prime minister became a mellow exponent of a less doctrinaire Hindutva could reflect his acceptance of the Nellie criticism.
Mrs Gandhi is worshipped in Bangladesh but Prime Minister Modi omitted to mention her name in Dhaka recently.
Not only did Indira Gandhi become a heroine for Bangladesh — while being a handful for Pakistan — she became involved in another tour of duty in her familiar understated way. That episode was to leave another lasting imprint on South Asia though it was frittered away by her successors. That event occurred in the summer of 1971. A few months before India’s Bangladesh outing, a friendly Sri Lankan woman leader faced a seriously existential challenge from a left-wing Sinhalese uprising.
Indira Gandhi became a bulwark of support for her harassed friend in Colombo. Sirimavo Bandaranaike told me shortly before she passed away in harness: “Indu clearly commanded me to not resign as prime minister, and then she helped me surgically turn the tide against the JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna].”
There was another posture Indira Gandhi became known for that her newest successor would do well to bear in mind. She was a diligent practitioner of yoga. But she kept it as a scrupulously private matter. If yoga flourished in India during her time, it grew as a gentle nudge from non-state gurus that doted on her, as a traditional Indian technique for meditation and good health. There was her yoga guru Acharya Dhirendra Brahmachari who might have used his proximity to the prime minister’s office for material profit or pelf, but there was no communal slant to send people into the yoga mudra.
Of course, Mrs Gandhi could not have been unaware that a landless peasant from Barabanki or a rickshaw-puller in Old Delhi would be too hampered by their material circumstances to be tempted to benefit from yoga. It was thus a middle-class thing then as it is today. And while India’s middle classes may have veered to the right in the last two or three decades for the teeming poor, yoga, unfortunately, remains a rich man’s fad.
Many of Mr Modi’s supporters are toxically projecting the June 21 mobilisation for the worldwide yoga day through the filters of narrow Hindu nationalism. They have also reportedly told those Indians who do not wish to follow the official fiat to go away to Pakistan. As happens often, the Muslim clergy has led the protests against yoga, citing Hindu motifs. In many ways the clergy are a wily if useful creation of Indira Gandhi. After all, she had selfishly set up the Muslim Personal Law Board as a fiefdom of India’s intellectually regressive Muslim leaders who in their turn anchored her political arithmetic.
I learnt a basic set of yoga exercises a few years ago. Among the pupils who were in my class supervised by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev were an advertising guru from Mumbai and a Delhi official of the Confederation of India Industries, a premier business club that influences government policy. Vasudev wears colourful gowns and headgear for his often-engaging discourses. Three chants with eyes closed pave the way for the Shambhavi mahamudra. The Sanskrit chants imbue the practitioner with high purpose.
Asato ma sat gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityur ma amritam gamaya roughly translate as lead me from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from death to eternity.
Part of the meditative exercises require practitioners to chant ‘om’ 21 times in the ardh-siddh asana, left heel stuck in the perineum, back of the hands resting on the horizontally folded knees with index finger and thumb forming a circle from each hand.
Muslim groups say the ‘om’ chant is a reference to a Hindu deity. This is may be so. But the chant is there in the Muslim playback legend Mohammed Rafi’s song in Raag Malkauns in the movie Baiju Bawra. Will the clerics have the guts to ban it among their Rafi-loving followers? Conversely, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang Hari Om Tat Sat. According to a story by his octogenarian female student Malti Gilani the ustad came back to India from Pakistan when Pakistani officials suggested that he switch to Muslim symbols in his music. Had he been alive would the portly classical singer have to go back Pakistan because he quite clearly didn’t practise yoga? Indira Gandhi was among his fans.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2015