As usual, Gandhiji’s rules, sprinkled throughout his writings, speeches, letters, are an excellent guide, even though for us pygmies, trying to abide by them taxes one to the limit.
“I do not read newspapers as a rule, but look at the enclosed in The Leader...” writes Gandhiji answering a series of letters from C.F. Andrews against the Khilafat movement that Gandhiji has launched. Those first few words — “I do not read newspapers as a rule.. .” — are the gem that should be our first rule! For one thing, it is not just that the rule is much easier to follow than the others, it is something to which the media itself pushes us these days. In Gandhiji’s case the reason, of course, was that the newspapers dealt with matters so ephemeral that they had little bearing on his quest — of freedom for India, of the inner search. Today, obsessed with the “breaking news” of the moment; obsessed with any and everything that they can inflate into the sensation of the moment, the media deals in even more evanescent flickers.
Second, as for calumny, Gandhiji never answered it, his rule being, “Public men who wish to work honestly can only rely upon the approbation of their own conscience. No other certificate is worth anything for them. . .”
Third, as for criticism, a letter from him to Rabindranath Tagore at the height of the agitation against the Rowlatt Acts has a typical gem. It was well known that Tagore had not been well disposed towards the new methods that Gandhiji was introducing into Indian public life. Tagore had not been well. But Gandhiji had just learnt that he was giving lectures at Benares. Hence the letter requesting a message: “...I venture to ask you for a message from you — a message of hope and inspiration for those who have to go through the fire. I do so because you have been good enough to send me your blessings when I embarked upon the struggle. The forces arrayed against me are, as you know, enormous. I do not dread them for I have an unwavering belief that they are all supporting untruth and that if we have sufficient faith in truth it will enable us to overpower them. But all forces work through human agency. I am, therefore, anxious to gather around this mighty struggle the ennobling assistance of those who approve it. I will not be happy until I have received your considered opinion in regard to this struggle which endeavours to purify the political life of this country. If you have seen anything to alter your first opinion of it you will not hesitate to make it known to me. I value even adverse opinions from friends for though they may not make me change my course, they serve the purpose of so many light-houses to give me warnings of danger lying in the stormy paths of life. . .”
As for misrepresentation, Gandhiji’s rule is prudence itself. “I am used to misrepresentation all my life,” he writes in Young India in a typical passage. “It is the lot of every public worker. He has to have a tough hide” — and then the operational rule: “Life would be burdensome if every misrepresentation has to be answered and cleared. It is a rule of life with me never to explain misrepresentations except when the cause required correction. This rule has saved much time and worry.”
Given what we might call their “status”, the party spokesmen must have been mighty thrilled at the strong words they were launching. As the words I have used in the preceding part — “swine,” for instance — themselves indicate, I am as yet far from adhering to Gandhiji’s rules. Even so, the pejoratives of the spokesmen had absolutely no effect. And that for a reason. Since I began writing in India thirty-five years ago, at every turn, smears have been hurled at my associates and me: the result is that I no longer care for them. But it isn’t just that I have become used to them.
To begin with, I wear two thick layers of insulation.
The first insulation — the impenetrable one — is that very child; and his love which has made him the centre of so many lives; and his laughter which you can hear three houses away. I lose a job? I have but to compare my circumstance with that of our son — and I at once see the occurrence to be a trifling one in comparison. Someone hurls abuse? I have but to ask, “Does it affect this child’s love for all of us? Will it dim his laughter?”
Second, because of our circumstances, my wife, our relatives, and I lead cloistered lives. We get next to no magazines. As for Indian newspapers, we get just two, and we just about skim through them. We don’t, therefore, get to hear of or read most of what commentators and others have said. On occasion, some well-wisher will ring up and say, “Have you seen the vicious piece X has written about you? You really should read it.” But why should I? I am not looking for a job that I should worry about what prospective employers may think after they have read the piece. One of the greatest beings of our times, the Dalai Lama provides an excellent example even in so mundane a matter. In his instructive book, The Wise Heart, the American Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield narrates:
“A reporter once pressed the Dalai Lama about his oft-quoted statement that he does not hate the Chinese communists, in spite of their systematic destruction of Tibet. In reply, the Dalai Lama explained, ‘They have taken over Tibet, destroyed our temples, burned our sacred texts, ruined our communities, and taken away our freedom. They have taken so much. Why should I let them also take my peace of mind?’...”
When the Dalai Lama will not let even the Chinese communists rob his peace of mind even after the horrors they have inflicted, why should we let mere mouthpieces ruffle us with mere adjectives?
Mention of the Dalai Lama, of what has been done, and is being done to his people and culture and religion leads one to the next antidote: a sense of proportion, of humility. Recall for a moment the lives of the Buddha, of the Lokmanya, of Gandhiji, of Solzhenitsyn, of Mandela, of others who stood up. The worst kind of smears were hurled at the Buddha: those whose grip was being loosened by his teachings even got a young girl to say that the Buddha had made her pregnant; at least two attempts were made to kill him. The Lokmanya was not just traduced and reviled, he was sent off to Mandalay to spend six long years in solitary confinement, years that broke his health — so much so that when at long last he reached his abode, the watchman would not let him in, so unrecognisable had he become. The years and years that Solzhenitsyn and Mandela spent in prison, in the former case in deathly labour camps. Jesus and Gandhiji were not just reviled, they were killed. When this is what has been done to these giants, who are we ants to complain, and that too just because some adjectives have been flung in our direction?
A bit of conceit also helps! As the pejoratives are hurled one’s way, we are bound to ask, “Who are these persons who are saying all this?” Are they the Seervais of their field, of any field? That is, are they scholarly authorities so that one has to take their opinion seriously? Is a Baba Amte saying, “No, this was not expected of you?” — for then one would naturally have to reflect on one’s conduct. Quite the contrary. So many of them are lawyers — who will argue either side of the case, if the reward is right! Most of them are official spokesmen for political parties — they take it to be their duty, ex officio, to twist facts and turn out opinions that the party’s convenience requires. And when parties make lawyers their spokesmen? We are entitled to feel doubly secure!!
This time round, their mettle was put on display sooner than I could have expected, for they had but to hurl their epithets, and the unexpected happened! Shri Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak of the RSS, came to Delhi. The BJP was reeling from the aftermath of Jaswant Singh’s expulsion and the ban on his book. My interview with Shekhar Gupta had been broadcast. Newspapers predicted “strong action” against me; some forecast expulsion from the party. The RSS office announced that Shri Bhagwat would address the press. Hosts of journalists from TV channels and newspapers were present. It was one of the most widely watched press conferences. In my case, Mohanji was asked as part of a question, “. . .do you think it was appropriate for a senior leader of any party to speak in the language that he used against his colleagues?” The expectation — in several quarters that I know! — was that the sarsanghchalak would express strong disapproval, and that would give grounds for the leadership to act. To their great confusion, the head of the RSS pronounced, “You see, Arun Shourie is a very respected, senior intellectual. So I don’t want to comment on what he has said about others, he should think about that.” That certainly was not what the spokesman had been anticipating. Hence, their resolve to give me the opportunity for martyrdom, suddenly deferred! Should we be in awe of men with such stern resolve?!
There are two further facts that give one heart. First, people do not go by a single deed, and most certainly not by the single smear. If, after decades of work, the credibility of a writer is so fragile that a sudden smear can shatter it, then it isn’t worth worrying about in any case. On the other side, can the smearing of the one who has revealed the facts, suddenly burnish the image of ones whose misdeeds have been in the public eye for decades, the consequences of whose negligence are before everyone at that very moment? Second, even in a society like ours — one in which so many want to believe the worst about everyone else; one in which the media broadcast anything anyone says about anyone — people must at some stage see that smears do not refute facts.
For all these reasons, smears have little effect. I have come to conclude that, till we can learn to follow rules such as the ones Gandhiji prescribed, the best response to smears is the one that I was once told was the stock answer of a Marathi writer to his detractors’ vituperations: Believe every vile thing that they are saying about me, he would say; believe the worst about me, the very worst they say, the very worst you can imagine about me — but what about the facts?
Hence, to begin with, we must be right on the facts. Second, we must have that thick hide so that we are not distracted by calumny. Third, as the ones we are exposing are definitely going to strike back — on the count of my friend, S. Gurumurthy the number of cases, inquiries, raids, prosecutions, actions of various kinds that Rajiv Gandhi’s government instituted against The Indian Express exceeded three hundred and twenty — our conduct must be, it must for decades have been, immaculate. And the reason is not just that the Empire will strike back. The even more vital reason is that the issue will be decided in the public mind not so much by the minutiae of evidence as of the relative reputation of the writer and the ones he has written about. That is why we should always bear in mind Vinoba’s warning: “A single hole makes the pitcher unfit for holding water.”
But there is an even more significant positive reason also.
(To be continued)