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Satyagraha

(This is only a poor translation of "Satyagraha", a humorous story by Munshi Premchand. The objective is merely to exhort readers to read the original or a better translation. It is a satire set in the pre-Independence era and in the heady days of the freedom struggle. The protagonist is Pandit Moteram Shashtri who enjoys a good life and good food. The Viceroy is scheduled to arrive on a visit to Benares, and the Congress has decided to protest against the visit by organizing a strike or "bandh". The Congress has requested traders and merchants to keep their shops and business establishments closed during the Viceroy's visit. It will be a slap on the face of the British government if the strike is a success. The government, therefore, wants the civil resistance agitation to fail. The supporters of the government devise a strategy and rope in Pandit Moteram Shashtri to assist them in this scheme; of course, he is to be adequately compensated for his assistance. The plan is simple: Pandit Moteram Shashtri should counter the Congress agitation by going on a hunger strike himself! The generally religious traders and merchants would be unwilling to support the Congress if they feel they were being compelled to perform an impious act. Does the plan succeed? Please read the story to find out)

The Viceroy was scheduled to arrive in Benares on a visit. All the governmenment employees - from the lowest to the highest-ranking officer - were engaged in making preparations for the honoured guest. The Congress, meanwhile, had declared its intention to observe a strike to protest against the visit. The Congress' call for a strike had created a stir among the employees. On the one hand, the city was getting cleaned, spruced up, decorated with flags and buntings, and pandals erected to welcome the important visitor; on the other hand, armed policemen paraded the streets to foil any Congress attempt to derail the visit. The government employees were leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the Congress agitation failed; the Congress, on its part, was resolved to make a big success of the agitation. The Congress was convinced that its moral strength was far superior to the government's muscle power; it was keen to take up the government's challenge.

From dawn to dusk, the district magistrate rode on a horse through the streets threatening shop-owners of severe punishment if they aided the Congress; He threatened to lock them up in jails and have their shops looted. The shop-owners met his threats meekly, and with folded hands. "What can we do? If we keep our shops open, the Congress volunteers will not leave us alone; they will hold protests inside our shops. They will go without food; who can say, but some of them might even fast unto death. If that happens, we will forever be stigmatised. We would be obliged, sir, if instead of sounding us, you prevail upon The Congress volunteers to forsake their agitation. As it is, we don't stand to gain anything if there is a strike; in fact, we stand to gain if there isn't strike because then the rich and important visitors will buy from our shops and we will get better deals. But we are helpless; the Congress volunteers don't listen to us."

Rai Harnandansaheb, Raja Lalchand, and Khan Bahadur Maulavi Mahmoodali were more uneasy than the government officials. They not only accompanied the magistrate in his daily rounds, but also tried to prevail upon the shop-owners not to participate in the strike in their own individual capacities. They invited shop-owners to their mansions and requested them, glared at them, threatened the coachmen, and coaxed the labourers; but the handful of Congress workers seemed to have such powerful influence on the common people that no one was willing to listen to the three. Even the woman who sold vegetables in the neighbourhood told them straight on the face, "Sirs, you may kill me if you wish but my shop will remain closed. I will not suffer humiliation."

The biggest concern was that if the labourers engaged to erect the pandals, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and others struck work then it would be a disaster. Raisaheb suggested to the magistrate, "Sir, appoint contractors from other towns, and establish a separate market exclusively for this work."

Khansaheb pointed out that there was not sufficient time to establish an exclusive market. "Sir, have the Congress workers arrested or have their properties seized; then they will come down on their knees," he suggested.

Rajasaheb saw a flaw in this strategy; the arrests will only incite the people all the more, he said. Rajasaheb suggested, "Sir, assure the Congress workers that they will be provided government jobs if they abandon their agitation. Most of the volunteers are unemployed, and the offer of a government job will certainly be irresistible for them."

But none of the suggestions appealed to the magistrate. There remained only three days before the Viceroy's arrival.

Rajasaheb, finally, thought of a stratagem: why don't we counter morality with morality? The Congress workers, after all, have taken up the mantle in the name of religion and ethics; we, too, need to follow suit and thrash the tiger in its own den. A man has to be found who would vow to die if shops do not remain open. The man should be a brahmin and a person who is well-known and respected in the society. Raisaheb, Khansaheb and the others liked the idea. "Yes, that will work wonders," Raisaheb said. "How about Pandit Gadadhar Sharma?"

Rajasaheb: Not him; who respects him? The man only writes articles in newspapers. Why should people heed him?

Raisaheb: Damari Ojha might fit the role.

Rajasaheb: No. He is known only among college students.

Raisaheb: Pandit Moteram Shashtri?

Rajasaheb: Yes! You have picked the right man! We must get him on our side. He is learned, and leads a moral life. He is also smart. If we get him, the game is ours.

Raisaheb immediately sent a message to Pandit Moteram's house. Shashtriji was engaged in his daily worship at that time; he completed the worship hurriedly and got ready to go. A call from the Rajasaheb! It seemed fortune was smiling on Shashtriji! "The moon appears to be shining with more brilliance today! Fetch my clothes; let's see why he has called," he told his wife.

"The food is ready. You had better have your meals before you go; can't say when you will return," his wife said.

But Shashtriji did not think it appropriate to keep the messenger waiting on such a cold winter day. He put on a knee-length green baize coat with red borders, wore a silk dhoti with broad red border, wrapped a woolen scarf around his neck, and slipped his feet into his sandals; a grand "Banarasi" turban sat on his head. There was a divine glow on his face; anyone, looking at him from a distance, would certainly have taken him for a saint. The people who met him along the way bowed down their heads in reverence; many shop-owners took the dust off his feet. It is owing to people like Shashtriji that Kashi could still preserve its spiritual sanctity; otherwise, who cared for the city? He was of such gentle disposition; he was childlike in the company of children!

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