Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Readers' Responses - Yes to Decriminalization, No to Legalization

I am really honoured by the seriousness with which Manushi friends have responded to the debate on legalization of prostitution. You have raised important issues for which I do not have readymade answers. I too am grappling with this issue and therefore welcome your critiques and inputs. My main concern is that the ground realities in each society be taken into account while we propose solutions. What works in Sweden may not be practical in India. I hope this debate will enable us to work towards a more rational, humane and practical approach and legislation on this issue. Madhu Kishwar

Kamal Jaswal

Very well argued. I am not sure though of the validity of the argument against legalization, which is a prerequisite of the regulation of any profession.

Inder Malhotra

Dear Madhu: I read it in the IE yesterday with great interest. Thanks also for sending me the recommendations of your seminar.

Sankrant Sanu

Dear Madhu,
Great to see you write on this issue. We had discussed this in person once, but I do not really get the differentiation you are trying to make between decriminalization and legalization-how can something be decriminalized without being legalized?-either the it violates the law or it does not. To legalize does not mean that it automatically becomes socially respectable either-the respect we accord to different professions varies among all the activities that are perfectly legal even now. However, rather than get into a dispute over terms, it may be easier to find common ground on specific issues on policies. 

Some women (and men) may choose to sell their bodies for money and others men (and women) may choose to buy this. At some level this is a transaction between consenting adults, one that has existed in various forms in different societies. If we agree that criminalizing this transaction is neither useful nor effective, then we can focus on the other issues that this brings up: 
1.       Are the parties involved "consenting"? Rather than become a moral police, which is a dubious idea at best when used for the Indian police force, law enforcement can focus their energy on cases of coercion and trafficking and on those below the age of consent. In the absence of this, the legitimate parts of the trade just become an additional bribery stream for the police force. Allowing consensual sex transactions will help the protection and emancipation of women who are being coerced against their will as well as provide recourse to women who are practicing willingly where they are currently at the mercy of the criminal mafia for enforcement of their rights, including the right to get paid for their work and for medical and legal services. 
2.       How should the marketing and availability of the services be regulated? Just like advertising for cigarette smoking or alcohol is regulated, it would make sense to heavily regulate the marketing of these services. 

3.       How should establishments that ply this trade be regulated? Here we are going beyond consenting adults to a commercial setup where many such sex-workers may be employed. Other than the regulation on marketing and solicitation, as in (2), there should be regulations on where they may open "parlors" and what kind of medical services and screening must be provided to the workers. Perhaps we can also propose that the establishments that employ these women be women-owned and managed; similarly for their male counterparts. 

4.       Make it illegal for foreigners to avail of these services. This may seem bizarre, but given that prostitution is legal only in certain countries, these place end up being a magnet for sex-tourists. Keeping it illegal for foreigners would keep a lid on the influx of sex-tourism. 

The question whether this trade demeans men or women more is not something that has any objective answer.  Whether trading money for sex is more or less moral than, say, trading money for other menial work on the one hand, or say,  religious conversion, on the other, can be  debate for the philosophers. (Is it more morally culpable to sell one's soul, than to sell one's body?) In the meantime it is better to deal with reality, and human nature, as it exists.

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Thanks for an interesting article. I have made very similar arguments in my book with Indrani Sinha. It is about mothers who are involved in the sex trade. May I draw your attention to it?
Indrani Sinha & Shamita Das Dasgupta. (2009). Mothers for sale: Women in Kolkata's sex trade. Kolkata: DasGupta Alliance (
I hope you will get a chance to read it and let me know what you think of it.

Answer by Madhu Kishwar

Dear All,
Many thanks for your feedback and critique of my article on legalizing prostitution. I agree that my attempt to differentiate between decriminalization and legalization is confusing and may even seem fuzzy. But I am not convinced that brothels of the kind one sees in Bangkok or Amsterdam are the best way to deal with this problem. I am not the kind who wants to meddle in matters of consensual sex for money if the transaction takes place under conditions of free choica. The real issue is that the vast majority of women are trapped into the flesh trade under the most inhuman circumstances. Even in countries where sex trade is legalized, the entire trade is dominated by criminal mafias. In such countries, there is enormous amount of trafficking of women across national boundaries--with most women brought in from poorer countries on false pretexts. I would hate to live in a world where men dont even feel guilty about buying the services of such victims. Sex is not just a biological urge or a mechanical act --it is also a sacred trust between two human beings. Even at the risk of sounding prudish, I have no hesitation in saying that I m unable to accept it as just another transaction--like selling your services as a taxi driver. Those who think it should be treated at par with any other transaction--should answer the question: Would they be as cool about it if their daughter or sister took to this profession? Would you be able to accept her 'choice" openly and introduce her to your friends and colleagues as a sex worker with as much ease as you do when introducing a member of your family as a school teacher or doctor?

Alka Kurian

Dear Madhu,
I am sorry I have only just joined the thread of the conversation and hope that I am not repeating what has already been discussed. What I would say is this:
Parents have very high career aspirations for their children and are often disappointed by the choices that their children make. My mother, for example, told me in front of a female doctor how she was disappointed that her daughter had chosen to be a university professor rather than a doctor. So in her eyes, I had failed. 

The key is to figure out the extent to which parents should determine what their daughters / sisters choose for their career. What if tomorrow I decide that I am a lesbian / bisexual after all (I am not) - will I worry about my parent's disappointment? In Iran I can be publicly executed for this. Also, why blame the children for making these choices. And choice is the wrong word here as they are not free agents if freedom is what we are talking about. Aren't they products of their environment? I am sure even though some women may choose to prostitute their bodies, it must have been a difficult decision for them. We need to find out who failed them, how, and where. What role did parents play in raising them? What was their moral framework? Did they not teach their daughters the right from wrong (if we are dividing the world in these black and white categories). Did they not lay emphasis on education? We have also heard about parents who sell their daughters to men from the middle east to pay off debts etc. What role did the society play? Why did it lose its civic responsibilities? 

I think by referring to prostitution as a shameful profession, we are once again blaming sex workers rather than ask difficult questions.

K.V. Bapa Rao

Some of the abortion debate in the US might provide  parallel clues on the matter of decriminalization / legalization. Even those who favour criminalizing abortion don't (usually) talk about penalties for the woman who undergoes the procedure; their focus is more on the providers. Technically abortion is legal in the US, but there is a steady stream of limiting laws being passed that regulate the procedure without necessarily making it criminal. 

Also instructive is the debate about homosexuality vs. pedophilia in India. The two are often confused, but one can be made legal or decriminalized without sanctioning the other. 

I think we need to be creative about situating the prostitution problem in the gray area between "decriminalized" and "not legalized". Perhaps in communicating the issue, more emphasis can be given to the perversity of the way in which criminalization of prostitution is enforced in India--exploitation, harassment by police etc. The crux of the matter is, we want crimes like kidnapping, imprisonment, exploitation etc. in the context of prostitution punished, but not the prostitute herself / himself. What to do with the customer is another matter. I don't think it is correct to argue that, kidnapping etc. can only be prosecuted in the context of a fully legalized activity (mafia boss Al Capone was prosecuted and convicted for tax evasion--not paying taxes on his criminally received income, but he was never prosecuted for the criminal activity itself, clearly it didn't mean that the crimes were not crimes or they were condoned; for some good reason (inability to find witnesses etc.) it was decided to not prosecute those crimes.). 

The easing of pressure of the law on prostitutes themselves can be a matter of policy, or it can be written into law carefully incorporating these kinds of nuances. Question is, does it make more sense to push for a policy change (is that reliable?) or is a change law the only course to pursue?

By the way, I hope it won't be considered contempt of court, but I thought the court's remark on legalizing prostitution was facile, there seem to be a spate of such remarks from the apex court these days.

K.V. Bapa Rao to Alka Kurian

Hi Alka, my guess is that the proportion of women who freely choose to become prostitutes is relatively low in India. So, it is probably ok to see the prostitute generally as a victim, lacking in autonomy, at least at the point of entering the profession. So, then, the focus could be placed on how to prevent the victims from being victimized even further by the legal system as is happening now. I feel that some such framing would have the maximum appeal, without getting into moral judgments about the act of prostitution or philosophical debate about free choice etc. about which there can be a lot of view points, few of them relevant to the reality of a girl sold into prostitution, who needs urgent relief as a first step.

Siddhartha Shome

Maybe a practical way to "decriminalize but not legalize" is to do something along the lines of what Sweden has done. In Sweden it is a crime to pay for sex, but it is not a crime to sell sex. The idea is that the prostitute, who is often a victim in this situation, should not be further victimized by the law. But since buying sex is illegal, the prostitution business itself is illegal.
This law has received mixed reviews. See this, for example

Veena Oldenburg

As Oliver Goldsmith said: That *virtue* which requires to be *ever guarded*is scarcely *worth the sentinel*. I have worked and visited tawa'ifs in Lucknow and published a scholarly piece on them. It certainly speaks of the respect that society, and the court--for they were courtesans--received from the public at large. This was true of Hindu and Muslim courts.  Prostitution really came into our cities via the colonial government--who needed every cantonment, there were 110 of these purpose-built spaces in the major cities of colonial India. (vide, my *Afternoons at the Kotah* in Shaam e Avadh: Writings on Lucknow, Penguin, 2007). A prostitute was the debased version of the tawa'if, with none of her control over her own body, her earnings and her property. They were also the only educated women who weiled influence in the court. The kothas were owned and run by women--not mafia dons and the pimps we see today, abducting and brutalizing women.

I think the high class call girl is a return to some of the older traditions of this social institution. (*Laga Chunari Mein Daag* has Bollywooed's fairly enlightened take on this that leaves us in utter sympathy and even identification with the woman who has had to prostitute herself. Films like Benazir and Pakeezah are also respectful of their prostitute/singer/dancer women. I think the root cause of not respecting a prostitute goes along with men and even not respecting women. Women have been so socially and legally constructed to be the dependents of men that the respect for a woman trying to make her own way in life without becoming the wife or रखैल of one man. I know this is changing in very small ways in cities, but the the prejudice against single women is enormous. Given the mainly sexual nature of a prostitutes livelihood--prudish and prurient societies have no place for such women. For this reason it is imperative to legalize the trade--which will allow prostitutes to seek justice in law courts and from exploitation from pimps and gun-toting politicians/clients. I think a couple of very shabby and unhygienic kothas in Lucknow might bloom again. De-criminalization is only a half-hearted gesture.

Hiranmayi Bhatt

Hello Madhuji and all,
Madhuji, as always I've enjoyed reading and understanding your perspective. I clearly see why you have taken the views you've shared.

I also want to add that in western European nations where prostitution is legal, most of the women prostituting themselves are from poorer eastern European nations or women of color who've been trafficked or immigrated into the country in hopes of having a better life. If these nations saw prostitution as a truly ‘respectable choice’ than how come the profession has been reserved only for the most oppressed women within these countries? Clearly western European nations (Sweden and Amsterdam specifically) lack a class and race analysis of their laws, of the men who travel to their nations specifically for sex, and of the women in the sex trade. Legalizing the profession had nothing to do with 'respectability' and supporting women's sexual 'choices.' Rather it was done for capitalistic reasons (to amp up tourism and increase taxes of sorts) and to show the rest of the world that these nations are more ‘liberated’ than other places. What great things has legalizing prostitution done for the women? White western countries are very good at displaying a liberal message without truly following it, as we already know, and this is just one more tactic. I don't understand why Indian and other feminists, or for that matter other nations, look up to these European countries on most things but especially on the topic of prostitution when their analysis is weak and the motivation has an awful hidden agenda.

Questions for Sankrant Sanu: In your response you said, “Perhaps we can also propose that the establishments that employ these women be women-owned and managed" and "Make it illegal for foreigners to avail of these services."

1.)   What difference would it make to have ‘prostitution establishments’ as woman-owned and run businesses? Is this suggestion made to ensure that only women will profit from the profession? Why open up this specific profession to just women when there is little effort to include women in professions from which we are currently being excluded? Is the underlying assumption here that women will be more humane than men at running the show because women are inherently more humane? I think it would place an unnecessary expectation on women to humanize an inhumane profession (an impossible task). There are many brothels that are owned and operated by women where you can see the same atrocities as in those run by men. Even in other areas of life we see women committing similar abuses onto women that men commit. Do we want to legally embolden this under the guise of economic empowerment of women? If women’s economic empowerment is the central goal of this suggestion than it needs to be recognized that it is every society’s responsibility to create livable wage employment for all women and not doing so is the reason many women resort to prostitution in the first place. Legalizing prostitution is a cheap and easy way to absolves countries from taking any responsibility of educating women and creating jobs for them.

After all, why bother providing subsidized education and vocational training for poor women, why bother strengthening employment equality laws for all women, why bother leveling the pay gap between men and women in general when omen have their ‘natural assets’ to follow back on? I believe we can do better then legalizing prostitution to help economically empower women and in many ways we have done so in the past. We need not aspire to follow in the footsteps of western countries for when it comes to respecting and protecting women, they lost their way a long time ago (some may even argue that these countries were never on the right track to begin with).

2.)   I completely understand the desire to protect Indian women from being exploited by foreign men but making it illegal only for foreign men to solicit prostitutes has many problematic implications. First, this would imply that the Indian female body (prostitute or not) is reserved only for Indian men (to exploit or not). And second, this notion sends the message that the real threat to Indian women is solely foreign men (the stranger danger rhetoric). Similar arguments have been made when discussing sexual assault and sexual abuse scaring women from strangers when the real threat is closer to home. Furthermore, this law would be difficult to regulate and the only people who will lose money are the poorer prostitutes since slightly more privileged call girls will continue to have rich foreign clients. Also, how will we determine who is considered a foreigner? Will NRIs, who have foreign $ and live outside of India, be considered in this category? I foresee the strengthening of militant nationhood through “protected womanhood” here and we know that this has taken a dangerous turn in many parts of the world including India.

I agree and understand that legalizing prostitution has many pros, including those mentioned by others. However, rather than wasting energy and legislative time to legitimize prostitution we should be creatively working to educate and employ women in other fields. We know that exploitive measures can be curtailed when alternative viable options are given to marginalized women. This has been the argument from transgender activists who are working to end employment and housing discrimination for transwomen so that they can find work other than prostitution. There are better ways to empower all women and we will surely find them when we stop wasting energy on things that ultimately divide us. Thanks for reading, responding, and engaging.

Sandhya Jain

 Dear friends
It seems that Madhu Kishwar has now jumped on to the prostitution bandwagon - from the failed Dialogue on Kashmir! Does this mean that these NGO types will now move directly into the Brothel Business? Certainly there will be more money here than in just distributing condoms. I do not know about 'Respect' though. May you will all like to send your comments to Shekhar Gupta, Editor, Indian Express.
Response of Aalok Aima to Sandhya Jain
Dear Sandhya Ji
You obviously have not read the article by Madhu Kishwar otherwise you would not have commented in the manner you have.
Madhu Kishwar has written AGAINST legalising prostitution:" no self respecting society can afford to "legalise" the dehumanisation of millions of those who have been coerced into flesh trade through force, fraud, abduction or violence."
" While there is need to decriminalise this activity and free sex workers from the terror and the extortionist grip of the police, to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanising circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies "
You might have reservations about Madhu Kishwar's attempt at organising the "Dialogue on Kashmir". That does not mean that everything she writes has to be viewed with suspicion and worse still that her views should be misrepresented/misquoted.
Best regards
PS. 1. Above is not to be construed as either my agreement or my disagreement with Madhu Kishwar's views on legalising prostitution.
PS. 2. Your language is shockingly intemperate.

Yes to Decriminalization, No to Legalization

Posted on: December 15, 2009

Sex Trade Demeans Men more than Women.

    First Published in : The Indian Express December 15, 2009

While dealing with a PIL filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan about large scale child trafficking in the country, a bench of Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice AK Pattnaik are reported to have advised the Solicitor General, “When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws. Why don’t you legalize it.?”

It is noteworthy that the judges were not dealing with those women who take to this profession as a choice but children who are abducted, trapped, bought and sold by criminal mafias to be inducted into the flesh trade.I am left wondering whether the Hon’ble judges of the Supreme Court intend to legalize child trafficking as well—all because our government agencies are unable and unwilling to curb the criminal mafias who are pushing vulnerable children from impoverished families into the flesh trade.

It is extremely misleading to describe prostitution as one of the "oldest professions" in history. Even today there are numerous communities world over, including in India, which have no history of prostitution. Many do not even have a word to describe it. This demeaning form of transaction between men and women is characerstick of those societies which take a very perverse view of male sexuality. The assumption is that men being men, they are unable to control their sexual urges and therefore they need all kinds of avenues for satisfying their insatiable hunger for sex with mutiple partners.It also assumes that men should not be expected to take responsibility for out of wedlock progeny. Women have to bear the brunt of "illegtimate" births. This perverse mindset that takes a very lowly view of male sexuality and moral fibre and expects society at large and women in particular to be 
indulgent towards their irresponsible behaviour. Using this logic even rape is often justified on grounds that the man concerned was unable to control his sexual urge or that a woam asked for it. I am convinced no self respecting man will use such a cynical view of male sexuality which amount to declaring men unfit for socially responsible behaviour. Most self respecting men view sex trade being more demeaning for men than for women. That is why some of the strongest voices against prostitution in literature, cinema and in social reform movements have come from men.

There are compelling reasons to decriminalize prostitution for the following categories of persons: 
a) Those that enter the sex trade voluntarily—as do many high society call girls—simply because if a person wishes to enter into a demeaning relationship with another for monetary or other favours, there is no way the government can stop the practice because it is enacted in private; 
 b) Those that gravitate towards this profession due to poverty related reasons or abusive family circumstances because such victims of circumstances ought not be treated as criminals.

It is well acknowledged that arrests and rescue operations by the police are mostly a theatrical exercise to keep the terror alive so that the sex workers and pimps dare not resist paying bribes. Therefore, draconian laws put in the hands of the police add to the problem instead of curbing prostitution. 

However, no self respecting society can afford to “legalize” the dehumanization of millions of those who have been coerced into flesh trade through force, fraud, abduction or violence. 

Till the early 1990’s defense of the right of prostitutes came mainly from feminist groups and those gender sensitive men who argued that laws penalizing prostitutes amounted to punishing the victims while letting off their male clients who exploited their poverty and vulnerability.  Many of them demanded laws that punished men who trafficked in women as well as men who live off prostitutes as pimps and those who visit them as clients.

However, in recent years the discourse on the subject have undergone sea-changes due to the scare of AIDs in first world countries. This has led billions of dollars, pounds and Euros as well as other resources being directed towards “safe sex practices”, with special focus on condom use among sex workers.  From Prince Charles to Bill Gates to Hollywood stars as well as some western government and major donor agencies have all joined the campaign to legalize prostitution because they feel that is the only way condom use, regular health checkups including HIV tests can be promoted among sex workers and their customers. 

Earlier sleazy lawyers helped sex workers get bail when arrested. Today, with the availability of massive international grants for this work, some of the best lawyers in India have emerged as defenders of the rights of prostitutes.  While some still stay with the old-fashioned view that sex workers are trapped in the profession due to poverty related circumstances, many argue that renting out one’s body to a customer for a few hours is no different from a doctor, teacher or an architect renting out his intellectual skills to an employer for a 
monthly salary.  Therefore, they demand that sex work should be legalized and treated with the same dignity and respect as any other profession. 

However, those who demand that prostitution should be “legalized” and treated with “respect and dignity” at par with all other professions and occupations need to answer a few basic questions:

 What does the term “legalize” actually imply? Does it mean that a prostitute can open a sexshop anywhere she likes and advertise her services? Does it mean men or women supplying call girls should be able to set up an office in any neighborhood they like, just as doctors set up their clinics, proclaiming that call girls are available between such and such hours? How many of us are willing to let our young children grow up amidst an atmosphere where renting a woman’s body for sex is considered a perfectly legitimate activity?

If people come to know that a mafia don has set up a call-girl racket in their neighbourhood, do they have the right to seek its removal or does it mean other citizens have to suffer the presence of such activities in the name of “respecting” the rights of sex workers to an occupation of their choice and thereby endanger their own lives?

Those who demand that sex work be given the same “respect” as any other profession, need to explain whose duty it is to give or ensure “respect” for prostitutes and pimps? Is the government expected to enact a law requiring people not to shun prostitutes, as for instance it did to ban the practice of untouchability?  One can prove that one does not practice untouchability by freely intermixing and inter-dining with castes condemned as untouchables.  How does one prove one’s “respect” for a prostitute? Do we have to send our children to brothels to intermix with the children of sex workers or do we hold special functions to socially honour the most successful among them?  If prostitutes cannot win the respect of the clients they service, how can the rest of society be made to respect them?

We are told that at least feminists have a duty to respect women for making this choice. If feminism is about respecting each and every choice women make, then why are we not willing to respect women who choose to worship at sati shrines or those who abort female fetuses because they prefer being mothers of sons rather than daughters?

Countries where sex work is legal are not free from dehumanizing forms of sex slavery and prostitutes do not command social respect. Therefore, copycat solutions will not work. While there is need to decriminalize this activity and free sex workers from the terror and extortionist grip of the police, to make it respectable and socially acceptable would mean turning a blind eye to the dehumanizing circumstances through which the vast majority of children and women are trapped into trading their bodies.

The author is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and founder editor Manushi. She 
can be reached at

completely agree with your argument
Posted By : satya prakash mishra, On Date: Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"Do we have to send our children to brothels to intermix with the children of sex workers or do we hold special functions to socially honour the most successful among them?" - Dear Maam, while I agree with some of the points made in your article, sentences such as this come across as exclusivist, tinged with a superiority complex and unwillingness to accept children of sex workers as human beings, which I hope, is not the case. Regards.
Posted By : d, On Date: Thursday, April 08, 2010

prostitutes are made prostitutes because of bored respectful powerful men.they highly demand of to this demand act the pimps i.e.the criminals.we have to show the history of prostitution in india to indian women particularly and to everyone in general.we have to tell them that "izzat" is a patriarchal them the picture of a somewhat better life for women in matriarchal society.example of khasi matriarchal society can be given.all arguments should be presented to rescue people's mind with the clutches of religion.after all temple prostitution is due to the contractors of religion only.when women will come to know that they are victims of a hegemony honour which all the shrewed men play upon to trap them......women will themselves try to come out of this.society will accept them when it also comes to know izzat as a patriarchal construct.once being in the hell of the brothel most of the women would long for escaping from there but since society acts towards them as a pariah and shrewed men of all occupations make benefit of the sorry state of affairs....these women cant escape.when knowledge is circulated far and wide even in regional languages..things would change somewhat for the better.thanks.
Posted By : swarn rekha, On Date: Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How Not to Remember Bapu - Some Thoughts on Gandhi Jayanti

There could be no greater insult to Mahatma Gandhi’s memory than the fact that the Government of India enforces a compulsory national holiday on 2nd October, his birthday. Among other valuable lessons, Bapu taught us that it is our dharmic duty to disobey bad laws. Therefore, every single year since Manushi was founded in 1978, we have kept the Manushi office open and functioning on Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, as a tribute to the memory of Bapu – the greatest karmayogi of our epoch. I even keep my own office at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies open and working on Gandhi Jayanti even though the rest of the institution is closed that day.

On this issue, I am willing to accept whatever punishment the Government wants to impose on me for violating this enforced holiday.

Gandhi once wrote: “I have a horror of all isms, especially those that attach themselves to proper names.""I have no doubt that of all isms, he hated "Tokenism" most. If the Government must indulge in tokenism on Gandhi Jayanti, it would be more appropriate if it encouraged government employees to spend that one day cleaning up their filthy offices and toilets with their own hands and observe a maun vrat (silent fast) on October 2. If those in power learnt to pay tribute to Gandhi’s life by simple gestures like inculcating respect for physical cleanliness and encouraging their employees to keep their tables, their office rooms, corridors and toilets clean and orderly, it might trigger off a transformation in their mindset. A person who spends long hours every day of his or her working life amidst the squalor, disorder and filth that have become the hallmarks of our sarkari offices is bound to have very low self-esteem. And people with low self-esteem easily become petty tyrants and extortionists.

It is unfortunate that very few in the Congress Party take Gandhi’s philosophy seriously enough to make it a guide for action in their political lives. Instead, it has become fashionable to cynically use his martyrdom as a sword to fight self-serving, partisan political battles with one’s opponents.

After Gandhi’s image had served their purpose, most Congressmen who took over the reins of power found his service, his philosophy, and his ideas altogether redundant and dispensable. Had Gandhi lived longer, he would have probably been prevented from playing a meaningful role in the nation’s affairs — just as he was pushed aside on the issue of Partition and the kind of Constitution India needed and deserved after gaining political Independence.

The conduct of the Congress Party had so begun to depress Bapu that he recommended it be disbanded as a political Party and its workers spread out to villages for rural reconstruction so as to give way to new political formations. Many of those who genuinely believed in Gandhi's vision actually opted out of electoral politics and set up institutions devoted to rural reconstruction and work for gram swaraj. But most such people were systematically marginalized by Congress Party leaders who assumed power as inheritors of the British Raj. Similarly causes dear to Gandhi’s heart, like the need for probity and transparency in public life, decolonizing of our education system as well as our machinery of governance suffered neglect after Independence. Most depressing of all, since Indira Gandhi’s days, the Congress party often resorted to the politics of engineering inter-community conflicts, including riots, to polarize communal vote banks in their favour. Consequently, the image of Congressmen took a nosedive in post-Independence India. In the heyday of the freedom movement, Indian films would depict a khadi-wearing person with a Gandhi cap on his head as a symbol of the spirit of freedom, a belief in swadeshi, a commitment to selflessly serving the poor and the deprived. However, in today’s Bollywood films, a person sporting these symbols is commonly depicted as a figure embodying hypocrisy, greed and corruption.

It is because his own Party stopped taking him seriously that most young people in India grow up thinking of Gandhi as a pious crank with very little relevance for the modern world. Even though many of the most important world leaders, statesmen and women who have played a creative ethical role in shaping world history – be it Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel, Aung Sang Sun Kui or the Dalai Lama – draw inspiration from Gandhi or feel connected with his worldview, in our own country Gandhi is either worshipped in caricatured form or used as a meaningless icon.

The neglect of Gandhi’s ideas and philosophy is also evident from the fact that we do not have even one world-class institution in India doing solid research in Gandhi’s philosophy. Institutions built in Gandhi’s memory such as the Gandhi Peace Foundation were hounded and virtually destroyed by Indira Gandhi for having opposed the Emergency. Many others are dying from callous neglect, indifference or active hostility as happened with Gandhi Vidyapeeth in Kashi. Compare the facilities Gandhian institutions collectively offer with those named after Jawaharlal Nehru (such as the Nehru Memorial Library and Research Centre and Jawaharlal Nehru University or even Nehru Park in Delhi!) and you realize how little Gandhi matters for today’s Congressmen. Let the Congress Party do a rough and ready survey to find out how many young Congress members – municipal councillors, district chiefs, even the new generation of ministers – have ever seen, leave alone read a book on or by Gandhi and whether they believe his ideas have anything to offer them in their own battle for survival within the Congress Party.

Instead of taking pot shots at the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha for their role in the murder of Gandhi, the leaders of the Congress Party owe them a debt of gratitude, because had Gandhi stayed alive, he is likely to have led satyagraha after satyagraha against the Congress government’s policies in post-Independence India. The Pakistani ruling establishment could get away with jailing their Frontier Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, for most of his life. However, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi could not have been subdued by such means. Therefore, his assassination turned out to be a timely favour to the Congress Party. By making him a martyr, Godse helped the Congress set him aside, put him up on stone pedestals, pay token tributes to his memory once or twice a year, and occasionally use his quotations in speeches delivered in international forums to try to convince the rest of the world that the Indian government occupies a high moral ground.Those of us who take Gandhi seriously should focus on imbibing in our own lives some of the basic principles that would show that we respect Gandhi’s message and methods:

Adopt, as far as we are capable of them, truth and non-violence as the guiding principles of all our actions and thoughts. This includes avoiding exaggeration, and refraining from overstating our case. Most important of all, we must refrain from demonizing our opponents.

Ensure that the gap between our practice and our precept is as narrow as possible. If we lead by example, rather than sermons, people will more readily forgive us our mistakes, especially if we have the humility and honesty to openly admit them rather than adopt an offensive or defensive strategy to cover up for our errors.

Build a politics around consensus as far as possible, and try to win over our opponents with sound reasoning, by grounding our politics on principles of fair play and justice, rather than trying to browbeat them into submission or silence by virulent attack.

Strengthen the culture of treating politics as a sacred mission, rather than as a means to acquire the power to manipulate and subjugate fellow citizens. Power should be perceived as a limited and sacred trust rather than a means for self-aggrandizement.

Weigh each issue on its own merit and come up with creative solutions to problems, rather than judging each issue through the prism of deadening ideologies, which become a substitute for creative ideas and promote servility of thought and emotion. The dead hand of ossified ideologies only creates stalemates and civil strife, which prevent India from moving along the path of progress and prosperity.

Work towards bridging the growing urban-rural, rich-poor divide as well as the new divide created by the dominance of English and the marginalization and neglect of all our regional languages.

Dismantle the existing colonial machinery of governance and build institutions that put real power in the hands of people to make governance accountable to citizens and transparent in its functioning. In short, steer our democracy towards “swaraj”.

Gandhi’s remained a seeker of “truth”, not in any abstract philosophical sense but in order to understand and be finely tuned to the needs and aspirations of his people with "Satya and Ahimsa" as his guiding lights. That is why his life and his message continue to inspire the best among politicians, thinkers, writers, artists, philanthropists and all those engaged in making our world more compassionate and just.