The voice of witness is now silent

Narayan Desai, veteran Gandhian and tireless campaigner for peaceful revolution, passes away

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Ashish Mehta | March 16, 2015 | New Delhi


#Narayan desai  

Narayan Desai, who passed away on Sunday, was arguably the last of the original Gandhians – original in the limited sense of the first batch. Born in 1924, the only child of Gandhi’s alter ego Mahadev Desai not only played in the Mahatma’s lap, but grew up before him to imbibe Gandhian lessons first hand.

‘Bablo’, as he was fondly addressed by Gandhi and others, spent first 20 years of his life mostly in the Sabarmati Ashram of Ahmedabad and Sevagram of Wardha.

“I have seen Gandhi. I have played, in his lap and with him. My first experience relating to him during childhood was as a friend,” Desai noted in his biography of Gandhi.

READ: Voice of witness

At the age of 12, he gave up formal schooling and joined his father, Mahadevbhai, becoming secretary to the Mahatma’s secretary. Desai was actively involved in the freedom struggle, and returned to his roots after independence, teaching in a school in Vedchhi village of south Gujarat.

Desai joined Vinoba Bhave and worked for the Bhoodan movement during 1952-60, walking an estimated 12,000 km and collecting some 3,000 acres of land that was distributed among the landless. During 1961-76, he was the national secretary of Shanti Sena – a post he took up at the insistence of Jayaprakash Narayan who was the chairman of the organisation. Desai worked largely in Chambal and Nagaland, propagating teachings of non-violence. He and his Shanti Sena colleagues also hit the streets in Ahmedabad and elsewhere during the times of riots, pleading the mobsters to come to senses.

Since 1982, he was based in Vedchhi, where he ran Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya, training youngsters in social work and non-violence protests. In the last decade he was the president of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad and chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth founded by Gandhi.

In the past decade or so, Desai was better known for an innovation through which he sought to make Gandhi accessible to more and more people: Gandhi Katha, a narration of Gandhi’s life and teachings over seven or nine days on the pattern of Ramayan Katha.

Desai did first Gandhi Katha in Kheda district of Gujarat in June 2004, two years after the communal violence in the state, and on the last count had crossed 100.

“As a citizen, I feel I am responsible for all the social injustice – or if we use a religious term, paap (sin) – taking place around us. If Gandhi were around, he would have said, ‘I am guilty’. I thought: how could this happen in my Gujarat, rather than ‘Gandhi’s Gujarat’,” Desai told Governance Now during the 88th edition of the Katha in New Delhi in November 2010.

Another achievement in his later years was the 2,300-page biography of the Mahatma published in 2003 (Maru Jivan E ja Mari Vani, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, and English edition, My Life is My Message, translated by Tridip Suhrud, Orient BlackSwan, 2009). Based on largely untapped sources like the legendary diaries of his father, the work has been hailed as one of the best among the 200-odd biographies of the Mahatma.

In his passing, we have lost one of the last people who not only knew Gandhi from up close, but also worked tirelessly to put those ideals into practice in an increasingly indifferent world. Gujarat lost another member of the tribe, Chunibhai Vaidya, only last month. After Desai’s demise, the challenge is for the next generation to continue that work.

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