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Byline: John F. Burns The New York Times

In a mood of reproachful retrospection, India turned the clock back nearly half a century last week with an emotional ceremony at a sacred Ganges site to scatter some of Mohandas Gandhi's ashes, long left forgotten in a provincial bank vault.

For a few hours, this city was host to events that seemed borrowed from the days after a Hindu nationalist assassinated Gandhi in New Delhi on Jan. 30, 1948.

Sealed in the wooden coffin where they had been placed after being scooped from Gandhi's funeral pyre, the ashes were taken from a special railroad car, honored by crowds of young and old shouting, ``Long live the Mahatma!'' and poured from an urn into the Ganges to the sound of ancient Hindu death chants.

The ceremony on the river came at a time of intense Indian debate over Gandhi. Among the thousands who lined the streets and the riverbank here Thursday, and millions of other Indians, he is still revered. But many say that his legacy has been mocked by events in India since he died, and that the country urgently needs to look anew at his vision for the country he led to nationhood.

As India approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain on Aug. 15, many have been unhappily scrutinizing the country they live in for evidence of Gandhi's ideals - among others, nonviolence, religious harmony, concern for those trapped by poverty and caste, and a life free of materialism.

These people point to India's covert nuclear weapons program, to soaring rates of crime and corruption, to political parties that appeal to divisions of religion, region and caste, and above all to the 350 million Indians who still live in poverty and conditions of endemic disease.

``We invoke Gandhi today as the Mahatma, the Father of the Nation,'' said Vandita Mishra, a columnist writing a week ago in The Pioneer, a leading newspaper. ``But the politician and social philosopher who articulated an alternative model of society is, by a curious sleight of memory and imagination, transformed into the presiding deity of a system that negates every conviction he stood for.''

Mishra's article was one of a torrent in Indian papers recently deploring what has been described as the country's passion for celebrating Gandhi in speeches, statues and books, and ignoring almost everything he taught. Many of these articles also have condemned some of the more radical figures among India's new generation of political leaders for using Gandhi as a political football, often denigrating him, and, his followers say, distorting his ideas.

One of India's most vociferous politicians, a woman who uses the single name Mayawati, has condemned him as ``the biggest enemy'' of the 150 million people who belong to the dalit, or untouchable, caste.

Gandhi's prescription for untouchables - that untouchability should be abolished, but that dalits should unite with Hindus of other castes in working for broad reform - was strongly contested in his lifetime by untouchable leaders who believed dalits should band together as a separate political force. But the arguments of Gandhi's day rarely had the venom of the recent ones.

Arousing just as much controversy have been the attacks on Gandhi by Hindu nationalists. Although never fully recovered politically from the fact that one of their followers, Nathuram Godse, killed Gandhi, they seem to have felt freer in recent years to challenge his legacy.

Balasaheb Thackeray, a nationalist who is the most powerful political leader in Bombay, suggested this month that Gandhi's habit of testing his asceticism by sleeping in the same bed with naked young women may not have been as innocent as Gandhi said. He also challenged the habit of referring to Gandhi as Father of the Nation. ``At the most,'' Thackeray said, ``he could be India's son.''

Some leaders have even suggested that Gandhi erred by pressing for independence too soon. One of India's foremost Islamic scholars, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, has said independence should have waited until India - whose current literacy rate is about 60 percent - had a better-educated electorate.

``Gandhi and his followers perceived the British as the source of all evil,'' Khan said. ``They believed that if they threw the British out, they could usher in an evil-free society. But people of my generation will agree that the India of 1947 was a better India. There was peace, prosperity and brotherhood.''

Partly, the ceremony on Thursday was a matter of unfinished family business, organized by a descendant of India's independence leader, Tushar Gandhi, 36, a graphic designer in Bombay. He learned from a report in The Times of India three years ago that a wooden coffin said to contain some of the ashes of his great-grandfather had been discovered in a branch of the State Bank of India in Cuttack, on the eastern coast.

After months of hearings last year, the Supreme Court authenticated the ashes as having come from the division that was made at the funeral pyre of Gandhi, who was cremated atop a pile of sandalwood beside the Yamuna River in New Delhi.

At least a score of urns were filled from the ashes and distributed across India for immersion in the country's rivers, but the urn sent to Orissa state, for reasons that remain obscure, ended up in the bank at Cuttack, which was Orissa's state capital at the time of Gandhi's assassination.

In the absence of any explanation from government or bank officials in Orissa, several theories have been advanced to explain why the ashes were left in the bank. One is that the Orissa government at the time planned to build a memorial to Gandhi, then forgot about the ashes when the memorial project was dropped. Another is that the ashes were simply overlooked in the confusion that developed in 1950 when the state capital of Orissa was moved from Cuttack to Bubaneshwar, on the Bay of Bengal coast.

As much as the Gandhi family - which is not related to the Gandhi political dynasty - wanted to give its famous forebear ``a final measure of peace,'' as Tushar Gandhi put it Thursday, the ceremony in Allahabad, an ancient holy site, also made a political statement.

Many Indians who revere Gandhi believe that the neglect of his ashes merely reflects the decline in his relevance since independence.

The sense of alienation from his ideals was not eased when Thursday's ceremonies were held without any of the country's best-known figures. Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda stayed in New Delhi, an hour's flight away, and instead sent a Communist Party leader, Chaturanan Mishra, who is agriculture minister in the 14-party coalition government. The top leadership of the Congress Party, which Gandhi led for three decades, also was absent, represented by a local leader from Uttar Pradesh state, where Allahabad is situated.

As he greeted local dignitaries visiting a tented enclosure in Allahabad where the ashes lay in state Thursday, Tushar Gandhi said politicians in New Delhi had shown their pettiness by staying away.

``The political atmosphere in India is so vitiated these days that our leaders calculate everything according to a narrow scale of gain,'' he said, adding that he thought leaders feared Gandhi. ``His very memory is a reproach to lack of leadership and vision.''

Among ordinary Indians, matters seemed different. Thousands lined up in the morning sun to throw marigold and rose petals on the coffin, or to cheer as it passed by.

Government officials, citing a Supreme Court ruling in November that the ashes be disposed of ``with dignity and honor,'' had blocked Tushar Gandhi's plan to display the urn on a road tour through north Indian states. Instead, they had ordered the ashes to be taken from the Cuttack bank to a train, guarded by a heavily armed contingent of the army's Rapid Action Force, and carried directly to Allahabad.

When a launch bearing the coffin reached a floating platform at the point where the Ganges converges with the Yamuna, there were moments that captured some of the hope Gandhi engendered as he crisscrossed India. A large crowd of pilgrims, breaking away from the soul-cleansing dips that draw millions of Hindus to Allahabad, waded waist-deep into the water and burst into a chant.

``As long as the sun and the moon rise,'' they cried, ``so will your name live, Mahatma!''



Photo: Helped by Hindu priests, Tushar Gandhi, center, immerses the ashes of his great-grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, in the Ganges river in India.

Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 2, 1997

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