Since the grandees of India’s two main rival political parties, namely the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are trading barbs on whether the country needs more toilets or temples, let me quote from a speech by Gandhi on February 4, 1916, in Banaras. Gandhi was fresh from his remarkable activism in South Africa and had returned to India only the previous year after being away for over two decades.
This speech was on the occasion of the opening of the Banaras Hindu University. Here are the relevant excerpts:
“I want to think audibly this evening. I do not want to make a speech and if you find me this evening speaking without reserve, pray, consider that you are only sharing the thoughts of a man who allows himself to think audibly, and if you think that I seem to transgress the limits that courtesy imposes upon me, pardon me for the liberty I may be taking.
I visited the Vishwanath temple last evening, and as I was walking through those lanes, these were the thoughts that touched me. If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple, and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly, as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be? Shall our temples be abodes of holiness, cleanliness and peace as soon as the English have retired from India, either of their own pleasure or by compulsion, bag and baggage?
I entirely agree with the President of the Congress that before we think of self-government, we shall have to do the necessary plodding. In every city there are two divisions, the cantonment and the city proper. The city mostly is a stinking den. But we are a people unused to city life. But if we want city life, we cannot reproduce the easy-going hamlet life. It is not comforting to think that people walk about the streets of Indian Bombay under the perpetual fear of dwellers in the storeyed building spitting upon them.”
It was quite an indictment on quite a platform even as a momentum in India’s freedom movement picking up pace. The broader point Gandhi was making was there was no sense to self-government for the sake of self-government if it did not mean perceptible improvement at the ground level, including the way people conducted themselves. To him it was much more than just about replacing the leadership in Delhi. It was about transforming the whole culture.