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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

YouTube testing new video recommendation format: Report

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San Francisco, Jan 16 : Google-owned video sharing platform YouTube is testing a new video recommendation format that displays blue bubbles on the screen with relevant keywords and related topic suggestions, facilitating easier browsing, media reported.

“The screenshots obtained show these blue bubbles just underneath the video player showing more specific video recommendations,” The Verge reported on Tuesday.

The video-sharing platform is currently testing the feature with some users on its main desktop page as well as on the mobile app.

For sometime now users have been complaining that the videos recommended on the side on YouTube’s interface often have little to do with the current video, making recommendations a point of contention for the platform.

“It’s unclear if the videos that populate from the new recommendation bubbles will face similar algorithmic issues that YouTube’s recommendation feed currently suffers,” the report added.

There has not been any word from YouTube as of now on the working of these blue bubbles and whether or not they will roll out the test feature to a bigger group in the coming months.

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Analysis

2002 Gujarat riots: Judge P.B. Desai ignored evidence, says activist Harsh Mander

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Harsh Mander

New Delhi, Jan 9 : Special SIT court judge P.B. Desai “ignored evidence” that former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in a mob attack in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Housing Society during the 2002 riots, did all that was possible within his power to protect Muslims from the “rage of the mob” and instead echoed the position of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi that his killing was only a “reaction” to his “action” of shooting at the mob, says human rights activist Harsh Mander.

He says that “the learned judge”, who retired in December 2017, overlooked statements by surviving witnesses that Jafri made repeated desperate calls to senior police officers and other persons in authority, “including allegedly Chief Minister Modi”, pleading that security forces be sent to “disperse the crowd” and rescue those “against whom the mob had laid a powerful siege”.

Mander, who quit the IAS in Gujarat in the wake of the riots, makes these observations in his just released book, “Partitions of the Heart: Unmaking the Idea of India”, published by Penguin.

The 66-year-old activist, who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger as well as homeless persons and street children, goes on to quote the late journalist Kuldip Nayar to establish that Jafri had desperately telephoned him, “begging him to contact someone in authority to send in the police or the Army to rescue them”.

Mander says Nayar rang up the Union Home Ministry to convey to it the seriousness of the situation. The Home Ministry said it was in touch with the state government and was “watching” the situation. Jafri called again, pleading with Nayar to do something as the mob was threatening to lynch him.

In the chapter titled “Whatever happened in Gulberg Society?”, Mander contends that Jafri did everything within his power to protect “those who believed that his influence would shield them from the rage of the mob”. Mander says Jafri begged the mob to “take his life instead” and in a show of valour went out “to plead and negotiate” with the angry crowd.

“When he realised that no one in authority would come in for their protection, he also did pick up his licensed firearm and shoot at the crowd…,” Mander notes, describing it as the “final vain bid” on behalf of Jafri to protect the Muslims in the line of fire.

The author notes that in describing Jafri’s final resort to firing as an illegitimate action, the judge only echoed the position taken repeatedly by Modi, who had given an interview to a newspaper in which he had said that it was Jafri who had first fired at the mob.

“He forgot to say what a citizen is expected to do when a menacing mob, which has already slaughtered many, approaches him and the police has deliberately not responded to his pleas,” says Mander.

He says that it was as if even when under attack and surrounded by an armed mob warning to slaughter them, “and with acid bombs and burning rags flung at them”, a good Muslim victim should do nothing except plead, and this would ensure their safety.

Ehsan Jafri’s wife Zakia Jafri, according to Mander, was firmly convinced that her husband was killed because of a conspiracy that went right to the top of the state administration, beginning with Modi. The author notes that the court, in its judgement running into more than 1,300 pages, disagreed.

“It did indict 11 people for the murder but they were just foot soldiers,” observed Mander.

He further says that the story the survivors told the judge over prolonged hearings was consistent but Judge Desai was convinced that there was “no conspiracy behind the slaughter” and that the administration did all it could to control it.

“Jafri, by the judge’s reckoning, and that of Modi, was responsible for his own slaughter,” he laments.

Mander also argues in the book that recurring episodes of communal violence in Ahmedabad had altered the city’s demography, dividing it into Hindu and Muslim areas and Gulberg was among the last remaining “Muslim” settlements in the “Hindu” section of the city.

He says that Desai also disregarded the evidence in the conversations secretly taped by Tehelka reporters, mentioning that superior courts, according to Desai himself, have ruled that while a person cannot be convicted exclusively based on the evidence collected in such “sting operations”, such evidence is certainly “admissible as corroborative proof”.

“But he chose to disregard this evidence, not because there was proof that these video recordings were in any way doctored or false but simply because the Special Investigative Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court of India chose to ignore this evidence,” says Mander.

According to Mander, the Tehelka recordings “certainly supported the theory that there was indeed a plan to collect, incite and arm the mob to undertake the gruesome slaughter”.

The SIT was headed by R.K. Raghavan, today Ambassador to Cyprus. Mander contends in the book that just because the investigators did not pursue Tehelka recordings in greater depth, Desai concluded that the “recordings cannot be relied upon as trustworthy of substantial evidence and establish any conspiracy herein”.

In the book, Mander takes stock of whether India has upheld the values it had set out to achieve and offers painful, unsparing insight into the contours of violence. The book is now available both online and in bookstores.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])

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Analysis

Number of suicides highest in Army amongst three services

In the Air Force, the number of suspected suicides was 21 in 2017 and 19 in 2016. For the Navy, these numbers were 5 and 6 for 2017 and 2016, respectively.

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Ajit Doval

New Delhi, Jan 7 : The number of defence personnel committing suicide was highest in the Army amongst the three services in the last three years, data shows.

In 2018 alone, as many as 80 Army personnel are believed to have committed suicide. This number is 16 for Air Force and 08 for the Navy, Minister of State (MoS) for Defence Subhash Bhamre told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply on Monday.

In 2017, the number of Army men who are suspected to have committed suicide was 75, while in 2016 this number was 104.

In the Air Force, the number of suspected suicides was 21 in 2017 and 19 in 2016. For the Navy, these numbers were 5 and 6 for 2017 and 2016, respectively.

In his reply, the Minister said that various steps have been taken by the armed forces to create healthy environment for their officers and other ranks.

“Some of the steps include provision of better facilities such as clothing, food, married accommodation, travel facilities, schooling, recreation etc and periodic welfare meetings, promoting yoga and meditation as a tool for stress management, and training and deployment of psychological counsellors,” the reply read.

It said mental health awareness is provided during pre-induction training.

Besides, institutionalisation of projects “MILAP” and “SAHYOG” by the Army in Northern and Eastern Commands to reduce stress among troops has been done.

A helpline has also been established by the Army and the Air Force to provide professional counselling.

IANS

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