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‘Vaishnav Jan To’: Song that fuses spirits of Gandhi and Narsinh Mehta

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Gandhiji's Wardha ashram

Born over four centuries and 300 kilometres apart, a single song fused the spirits of Narsinh Mehta and Mohandas Gandhi.

By the time Gandhi was born in 1869, Narsinh had already been a figure of great reverence in Gujarat for over four centuries. Regarded as Gujarat’s “Adi Kavi” or pioneering poet, he not only invented the Gujarati poetic form but raised it to the level of the highest musical and philosophical expression.

Although much of what Narsinh wrote as poetry, songs, ballads and verses was popularly known, his one particular creation, “Vaishnav Jan To” (The Truly Righteous One) became widely feted, celebrated and embedded into the popular consciousness of the people of Gujarat. There was no way Gandhi could have been living in Porbandar, some 300 kilometres west of Narsinh’s birthplace of Talaja, and not known about it. The bhajan had pervaded the air of the Saurashtra region for centuries, handed down the generations as a collective treasure that was never guarded but somehow always secure.

The idea of who a truly righteous person is, without ensnaring its definition in religious dogma, was something that was likely to have appealed to Gandhi. While there is not much on record from his very early life that may have drawn Gandhi to the song, it is clear that it was during his long years in South Africa that it really became a moral marker for him. Perhaps the earliest recorded reference to the song was sometime in 1907, when Gandhi had already been a resident of the country for close to 14 years. He was a very well-known figure not just to South Africa’s Indian community but also far beyond to its English rulers at home and in England.

Gandhi’s 1907 calendar reads like that of a seasoned political campaigner operating on an unusually broad canvas as someone who had already become a leader of extraordinary consequence. From pushing for civil rights for Indians to malaria relief for the larger Durban community to being immersed in the activities of the Natal Indian Congress and to opposing the discriminatory Asiatic Registration Act, he led a wide variety of campaigns. It was in that political, legal and cultural hubbub that he began to turn to “Vaishnav Jan To” as his moral compass.

Narsinh may not have travelled much more than a few hundred kilometres in his life but one of his songs was now in the heart of a man who was at the heart of an increasingly significant political campaign over 7,000 kilometres away. The song became an important part of a collection of medieval and other poetry that Gandhi prescribed as a set of hymns to be sung in his commune in Phoenix.

“Vaishnav Jan To” never really left Gandhi from his childhood but it became truly intrinsic to his worldview in South Africa. After he returned to India in 1914, his preoccupations became much larger as he went about planting himself into the country’s independence movement against colonial British rule.

There is no specific record of Gandhi making any particular public reference to the song for quite some time until he came to Ahmedabad to first establish an ashram in Kochrab village in 1915 and then finally on the banks of the Sabarmati river at its current location in 1917.

The anthology of medieval and other devotional songs, whose singing was the daily ritual at his ashram in Phoenix, South Africa, also became a part of the Sabarmati Ashram. It was sometime around 1920 when the song was set to a tune that became the fountainhead of dozens of other versions that have been sung for 95 years now.

The original composition by an inmate of the Sabarmati Ashram is rendered austerely with a single-string instrument and a pair of Manjeera or small hand cymbals playing along. It has the feel of dawn breaking with the singer voicing Narsinh’s immortal words with a touch of stirring rusticity. It was this version that was heard throughout Gujarat and beyond for the better part of over four decades after 1920, even though its many reworked versions had also started gaining popularity.

The way Mehta composed the words orally — he was reputedly an unlettered man — has the metric cadence that necessarily lends itself to being sung by its creator, whose penchant it was to sing anywhere and everywhere without any inhibition. Although born in the Nagar community, which even today is regarded as the top of Gujarat’s social totem pole by those who believe in such absurd ideas, Mehta chose to defy its conventions with such abandon that he was cast out by the orthodox leadership of the community. That did not prevent him from pursuing his noble impulses and, in fact, intensified them.

“Vaishnav Jan To” is a remarkably modern, non-religious and non-dogmatic benchmark for human conduct that prescribes in simple terms how to lead a dignified, compassionate life. It was hardly surprising that Gandhi, not known to engage with great literary figures with any particular scholastic passion, recognised the extraordinary quintessence of this great song. Although before Gandhi it was widely revered in Gujarat, it was his patronage from 1907 onward that resulted in it becoming one of the world’s most widely sung songs.

Apart from “Vaishnav Jan To”, Gandhi also assimilated another term coined by Mehta — Harijan. Although Harijan has largely fallen from political grace in recent decades, in its original Gujarati coinage “Hari na jan to…” (Children of God…) it encapsulated what was most noble in humanity. Given Mehta’s more obscurantist times and the often ugly community pressures he was up against, it was historically remarkable that he used it to emphasise equity among people.

As India prepares to celebrate the onset of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, it might do itself well to also acknowledge Narsinh Mehta (1414-1480), the profoundly philosophical articulator of the values he stood for.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist and writer whose documentary ‘Gandhi’s Song’ explores the theme of this article. He can be contacted at [email protected])

Analysis

The US presidential elections and future of India-US relations

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Donald Trump Joe Biden

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates global news in the United States, progress toward the next presidential election scheduled to be held on November 3 moves slowly forward. President Donald Trump had no real opposition in the Republican party and is running for re-election. And it has now become apparent that former Vice President Joe Biden will be his opponent as the Democratic candidate for president.

What would a Trump victory bode for the future of US-India relations? What would a Biden victory bode? Let me answer each of those questions in turn.

Given the love fests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in which Trump participated in September of 2019, and Trump’s ‘Namaste Trump’ event hosted by Modi in India in February of this year, it might be assumed that the future for US-India relations is a splendid one. This would be an incorrect assumption.

Both of these events were more symbolic than substantive. Trump’s participation in them undoubtedly helped to persuade some — perhaps many — Indian American Modi supporters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Trump’s campaign team took steps to ensure this by holding an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in which a group of prominent Indian Americans announced their plans to work for his re-election and to mobilize Indian Americans on his behalf.

To understand the future potential of India’s relations with the US. with Trump as president, however, it is necessary to look beyond these political moves and to examine the present state of those relations and Trump’s personal style.

In a word, the best way to characterize the current relations between the US and India is “functional”. The relationship was relatively good for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. In fact, near the end of 2018, Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was quoted in the media s saying: “This has been a landmark year for US-India ties as we build out stronger relationships across the board.”

Then, in 2019, the relations went off the track in the first half of the year after the US and India got into a tit-for-tat tariff war after the US terminated India’s Generalized System of Preferences which allowed India to send certain goods to the US duty-free. There have been continuing efforts to structure a “modest” trade deal since then. It was thought there might be some type of deal done in September of 2019 while Modi was in the US by year’s end, and then during Trump’s India visit. But, as of today, there is still no deal.

This inability to get any meaningful trade agreement in place speaks volumes about India’s potential future relations with India with Trump as president. So, too does Trump’s style.

Trump’s campaign slogans this time around are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” Trump is not a policy wonk and most of his effort will go toward “America First”. This involves making the US more isolated by withdrawing from international agreements, restructuring trade agreements, emphasizing building walls to stop immigrants at the border, using tariffs to block trade with countries who are taking away American jobs, and confronting businesses who are allegedlly stealing American trade secrets.

This perspective suggests what India can expect for its relations with the US if it has to deal with Trump for a second term as president. The relations will stay functional at best. As I have said before, that’s because the words partnership, cooperation and collaboration are not in Trump’s vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.

Joe Biden stands in stark contrast to President Trump both professionally and personally. Biden is a strategic thinker and doer with a solid eight-year track record of leadership experience as Vice-President in forging alliances that have made a difference around the world and he has also been a long-standing friend of India.

He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the Congressional passage of the Indo-US civic nuclear deal in 2005. At a dinner convened 10 years later in 2015 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Biden discussed the tremendous joint progress that had been made by the two countries in the past and declared “We are on the cusp of a sea change decade.”

Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in July of 2019, in laying out his foreign policy vision, Biden stated that the US had to reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The items on Biden’s foreign policy agenda for strengthening which are of importance for India include climate change, nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare.

During his vice presidency, Biden worked side by side with President Barack Obama to do things that would contribute to achieving Obama’s vision stated in 2010 of India and America being “indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.” In 2020, those challenges are even greater than they were a decade ago.

That is why it is so essential that India and the US develop a strategic relationship that enables them to become those indispensable partners. That can happen if Biden assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021. It cannot happen if Donald Trump remains as president for a second term.

The results of this upcoming election in the US matter greatly for the future of the United States. They matter greatly for the future of India-US relations as well. Time and the American electorate will tell what that future will be.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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Analysis

Covid-19 toll across world crosses 35,000

The COVID-19 is affecting 132 countries and territories around the world.

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Patients infected with the novel coronavirus

New Delhi, March 30 : The death toll around the world due to coronavirus crossed 35,000 on Monday evening, with Italy heading the list of 35,097 deaths with 10,779, while the number of cumulative cases rose to 737,929, with US leading with 143,055 of them, as per data from the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

Spain was second with 7,340 deaths, followed by China with 3,308 (3,186 of them in Hubei where the outbreak was first recorded), Iran with 2,757 deaths, France with 2,606 deaths, the US with 2,513 (776 of them in New York) and the UK with1,228 deaths.

In number of cases, Italy was second with 97,689, followed by Spain with 85,195, China with 82,198, Germany with 62,435, Iran with 41,495 and France with 40,747.

Meanwhile, 156,652 people around the world had recovered, with nearly half of them (75,923) in China, followed by 16,780 in Spain, 13,911 in Iran and 13,030 in Italy.

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Analysis

45% of Indians do not back up their data, files: Survey

The survey was conducted among 728 Avast and AVG users between February 20-March 25.

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Data Privacy

New Delhi, March 30 : Nearly half of Indians do not back up because they think their data or files are not important enough and most of those who back up their data, do it once a month, a survey said on Monday.

Other reasons cited by the respondents for not backing up their data included not knowing how to do it, not having time and forgetting about it, according to the survey by cybersecurity company Avast.

“It could be that many aren’t aware they are backing up, as it could be happening automatically, in the background, however, others really might not be backing up at all, thinking it is not worth it,” Luis Corrons, Security Evangelist at Avast, said in a statement.

“Losing personal documents, photos and videos can be a painful experience and it’s not until this happens that they realize how valuable it actually is,” Corrons added.

Of those who do back up their data, nearly 42 per cent Indians back up to a cloud storage, 36 42 per cent back up their data to an external hard drive, 23 42 per cent back up to a USB or flash disk, 18 42 per cent back up their phone to their PC, and 10 42 per cent back up to a network storage drive, the results showed.

Corrons recommended to back up data to two different locations, like the cloud, and a physical storage, like an external hard drive.

When it comes to iPhone and Android phone owners, the percentage that backs up is nearly the same, 69 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.

The percentage of smartphone owners that don’t know how to back up their data does not vary much between iPhone and Android owners, with 13 per cent and 17 per cent claiming not knowing how to, respectively, the study revealed.

Data loss can be caused by users accidentally deleting their data themselves, hardware damage and failure, as well as malware, causing valuable data such as photos, videos, documents, and messages to be lost forever.

Ransomware and other malware, such as wipers, can either encrypt or completely destroy files, and there is no guarantee that files can be decrypted if a ransom is paid.

The survey was conducted among 728 Avast and AVG users between February 20-March 25.

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COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalization.