MY INTRODUCTION to Mohandas K. Gandhi came through my grandmother, an orthodox Brahmin widow with a clean-shaven head. She had lost her husband when she was only 16.
Gandhi to her was an incarnation of evil who was destroying the country by creating unrest.
''The place where we live now,'' she told me, ''was a forest at one time where robbers roamed and pillaged every one in sight. The company man restored order and brought peace and prosperity to the region.'' The ''company man'' referred to the British, who ruled India at the time.
Equal to the "untouchables"
My mother and grandmother agreed only on one thing -- their hatred of Gandhi. They had a strong reason to despise him. Gandhi wanted the ''untouchables,'' the lowest caste among Hindus, to be treated as equals. He called them Harijans, ''men of god.'' ''How can those dirty beings be treated with any respect?'' my mother and grandmother screamed in unison.
My father who was a judge had a totally different opinion. To him Gandhi was a star guiding shipwrecked sailors to safety. He was, however, far too busy to argue with the two women in the house.
The majority of the people in India at the turn of the century echoed my grandmother's sentiment. Faced with this indifference, Gandhi had an extremely difficult task in bringing political consciousness to the people and making them realize that their salvation lay in self-rule.
He was, however, the right man at the right time. He led a civil-disobedience movement against the unjust laws enacted by the government. The bone of contention was the preparation of salt by the Indians from sea water; salt was a British monopoly.
Equally important was the manufacture of clothes, which were to be made either in Britain or by British companies in India. Gandhi entreated people to wear clothes made from yarn spun in Indian homes and woven at hand looms.
The government was visibly upset by Gandhi's nonviolent challenge to the British supremacy. He was imprisoned many times on various charges. In one trial the presiding British judge was so moved by the eloquent defense that he stepped down from the platform, held Gandhi's hands and apologized for sentencing him in accordance with the existing laws.
Within a few years the movement started by Gandhi was HTC gathering mass. His meetings often drew more than a million people. I vividly remember one such meeting in our school. As a volunteer stationed close to Gandhi, I had to keep the audience quiet and orderly by constantly appealing to them.
I was thrilled when he walked by within three feet of me. I folded my hands and bowed in respect. He smiled with such warmth of feeling that the entire scene stuck in my mind, never to be erased completely. His speech was fascinating. He expressed intricate thoughts with clarity in easily understandable language. Many years later, when I was reading ''A Letter from Birmingham Jail'' by Martin Luther King, I was astonished to find the same lucidity of style.
When I was 9 years old, an incident happened that deeply affected my assessment of Gandhi. Every day I used to cross the railroad track to go to the village nearby. One day the security police stopped me at the crossing. After waiting for two hours, I saw a glistening silvery train go by. When I went home, I told my father about the silvery train.
Next day he showed me newspaper headlines and told me that the train that I had seen the day before had been bombed. The viceroy, the chief executive officer who represented the British Crown in India, had escaped unscathed because he was traveling by a different carriage than the one reserved for him.
Many years later I read that the bombing was carried out by three people. Gandhi was so distraught by the display of violence that he appealed to the three to surrender to the authorities. They gave themselves up, and were summarily hanged. I felt that Gandhi's obstinacy in sticking to the concept of nonviolence was responsible for the death of the three patriots.
I was also not happy with the way Gandhi mixed politics with religion. Though he started all his meetings with prayers offered by people of different faiths, he created the perception in the minds of Muslims that he was essentially a leader of the Hindus. Many Hindus worshiped him as ''mahatma,'' the great-souled one.
In 1947 the country became independent after Pakistan, with a Muslim majority, was created as a separate unit. The separation led to a blood bath in which millions of Hindus and Muslims died. Gandhi was visibly shaken by the mass murders but he could not prevent them. He tried frantically to create harmony between the two communities. At a rally he was shot at point-blank range and killed by a Hindu who believed that Gandhi was giving away too much to the Muslims.
Bail L. Rao is a retired professor of chemistry.
Pub Date: 4/01/97