Reflections on Bestu Varas: Gandhi and His Values Are Now Unwanted in Gujarat

"True light comes from within. It is the duty of everyone to banish hatred and suspicion from his heart in order to establish peace and goodwill in the country," the Mahatma had said.

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Saal Mubarak. This is how we Gujaratis used to greet each other on New Year’s Day – the Gujarati new year, called Bestu Varas, which falls on the day after Diwali. Times have changed, rather rapidly in the past decade or so. Saying Saal Mubarak is getting unpopular with the tongue-twisting ‘Nutan Varsha Bhinadan’ increasingly becoming the preferred salutation. This has very much to do with the polarisation which has taken place in Gujarati society all these years. A simple customary greeting like ‘Saal Mubarak’ is now seen as hostile.

I still have childhood memories of Bestu Varas fresh in my mind. My neighbours and I used to visit Sheikh’s shop in the evening of the day for a scoop of ice cream. Mostly plain vanilla, as there were not many flavours available those days. Time passed. We migrated to a bigger city; after many years, I heard the news that Sheikh’s disabled son had been killed by a mob during the post-Godhra riots of 2002.

I can hear the sound of crackers in the background while writing this piece. Diwali time is when Gujarati families get busy cleaning their homes. They rid themselves of unwanted things from the house – from the past – as they enter the New Year.

Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous Gujarati of all time, spoke about Diwali during his prayer meeting on November 12, 1947. Three months after India’s Independence and partition, and in the backdrop of bloodshed, he said:

“Today is Diwali and I congratulate all of you on the occasion. It is a great day in the Hindu calendar. According to the Vikram Samvat, New Year begins tomorrow on Thursday (Gujarati New Year). You must understand why Diwali is celebrated every year with illuminations. In the great battle between Rama and Ravana, Rama symbolised the forces of good and Ravana the forces of evil. Rama conquered Ravana and this victory established Ram Rajya in India. But alas! Today there is no Rama Rajya in India. So how can we celebrate Diwali? Only those who have Rama within can celebrate this victory.”

He added, “Crowds of people go to see artificial illumination but what we need today is the light of love in our hearts. We must kindle the light of love within. Then only would we deserve congratulations. Today, thousands are in acute distress. Can you, every one of you, lay your hand on your heart and say that every sufferer, whether Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, is your own brother or sister? This is the test for you. Rama and Ravana are symbols of the unending struggle between the forces of good and evil. True light comes from within. It is the duty of everyone to banish hatred and suspicion from his heart in order to establish peace and goodwill in the country.”

Within three months of this speech, on January 30, 1948, the Mahatma was assassinated by the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse on his way to his prayer meeting at Birla Bhavan in Delhi. 

Gandhi’s words for India stand true even today, seven decades after his assassination. For the ruling dispensation, unfortunately, Gandhi and his values are not wanted. And hence, as a pre-Diwali Gujarati routine, unwanted things are getting cleaned out. The government’s takeover of Gandhi’s Gujarat Vidyapith has almost been completed this week. Chancellor Ela Bhatt and as many as eight trustees gave in their resignations and protested by being absent from the 68th convocation day which took place this week at Ahmedabad. It’s a case of too little, too late.

Another shameful revelation came this week about how swiftly the approval for the release of Bilkis Bano’s ‘sanskari rapists’ was given by the ruling dispensation. A few Muslim families from Bilkis Bano’s village of Randhikpur felt compelled to flee after the release of 11 convicts by the Gujarat government in August this year. The public welcome and the garlanding of the rapists after their release was clear evidence of the polarisation of Gujarati society today.

Gandhi interrupts us here again. Let’s go back to his Diwali speech of November 1947. He had further said, “Diwali cannot be celebrated till you bring back all the Muslims who have fled in fear. Pakistan also would not survive if it does not do likewise with the Hindus and Sikhs who have run away from there… May you and all India be happy in the New Year which begins on Thursday (i.e. the Gujarati New Year). May God illumine your hearts so that you can serve not only each other or India but the whole world.”

Mehul Devkala is a poet and an award-winning filmmaker. His short film Kaun Se Bapu is based on Mahatma Gandhi.