Gandhian ruler’s biography is a portrait of Raj Dharma in action
Ashish Mehta | April 29, 2015
Not many people, even in Gujarat, would have heard of Gopaldas Desai (1887-1951), the ruler of a tiny place in Saurashtra. Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of the ‘prince’ should cure not only our collective amnesia, but also the despair at the way politics has been conducted for long.
Desai was a rare ruler of a princely state in that he joined the freedom movement, and became a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. He, however, was not interested in a political office, even if four of the leaders he mentored went on to become chief ministers of (then) Saurashtra state and Gujarat – one of them the president of the Congress during Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime years.
READ: Excerpts from an interview with Rajmohan Gandhi about his latest biography
Here was a ruler, who did not need any tampering from any other organ of the state to uphold equality of all – caste, religion, gender. Three examples should suffice. When women were even more oppressed than today, in the early decades of last century, he would defend their rights even in the face of ridicule.
When his wife Bhaktilaxmi was pregnant with their last child, he had said if it was a girl he would marry her to a Harijan (the Gandhian term for the lower castes). When Muslims in Vaso were attacked in late 1947, he not only left his Constituent Assembly work in Delhi to rush to his village, but also rebuked the perpetrators and arranged relief and compensation for the victims.
But above all, the most unbelievable thing he did, for a ruler of early 20th century, was to lay down a procedure through which his subjects could punish him if he crossed a line.
Rajmohan Gandhi has used a variety of sources, from letters and documents to recollections of Gopaldas’s family members, to put together a portrait of a rare political leader. He must have been giving finishing touches to the manuscript around the time he contested Lok Sabha elections again, and watched the rise of another leader from Gujarat. In the introduction he writes, “I should confess that it was impossible, while preparing this study, not to wonder about political personalities from today’s Gujarat. How does their flexibility compare with Gopaldas’s integrity? How does their double-speak look when placed next to Gopaldas’s consistency? Their oft-agitated language next to his calm confidence? How do politicians today deal with the hugely rich and powerful, and how did Gopaldas deal with their counterparts in his time?”
And yet the lives of people like Gopaldas at least help us imagine and expand the boundaries of the possible.
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