IT IS A STRANGE coincidence that online and print media flashed the two news items on the same day: one about the Nagpur Mayor, Dr Nanda S. Jichkar, BJP, taking her son to
the US as her private secretary and the other about former minister Kapil Sibal deriding a little known Bharatiya Janata Party worker for washing the feet of a party MP.
Sibal strongly reacted to the later – and reports that the worker also drank the water with which the feet were washed. He immediately related it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the man every Congressman loves to hate (though the PM had nothing to do with it). Sibal forgot to mention that the first political leader to hit headlines for similarly washing the feet of his mentor was none other than a Congress leader, Dr Shrikant Jichkar.
The late Dr Jichkar, whom I knew personally, was not some illiterate unknown worker but a former Maharashtra minister, once India’s youngest MP and one reputed to be the most educated politician in India as he has the largest number of degrees.
In Maharashtra, the second initial is usually the father or husband’s name and some may have wrongly thought the two Jichkars, both from Nagpur, were related, just as many may have thought that S. B. Chavan, whose feet Dr Jichkar had washed, was the borhter of Y. B. Chavan, the state’s first and most famous Chief Minister. But I knew Dr Shrikant’s wife was Rajashree. A little search revealed the Mayor’s husband was an RTO named Sharad.
And neither Kabil Sibal nor any other Congress leader was outraged about Dr Shrikant’s act. None of them issued statements condemning him. What prominent Congressmen do becomes reprehensible if done by an unknown, lowly, BJP man!
An office-bearer of the Congress Party killing his wife and trying to burn her in a hotel tandoor (a furnace) or youth Congress workers in a special train looting shops at stations along the way are their own actions and the party chief has nothing to do with them, but if a BJP man violates traffic rules, Narendra Modi is to blame for it.
Whether owing allegience to a leader simply because he belongs to the dynasty and wagging tails everytime his/her name is mentioned is any less than washing feet is for people to decide.
But before anyone from another culture is shocked or surprised at these Indian traditions, these oriental customs have to be understood in their context. There is someting oriental about them, alien to the occidental mind. A Chinese-American teacher in my journalism school six decades ago said that a floor has to be kept “so clean that you can eat off it.” Then she would explain that people don’t eat off the floor in China. I told her I undeerstood what she meant, as I was an oriental too.
In Uttar Pradesh state of India, someone passing by a Brahmin known to him on foot or a bicycle, used to say “Pai lagoo panditji” (I touch your feet, learned one). This verbal feet touching – whether the Brahmin was really learned or not – comes from generations of customs that have lost their original meaning and have been ritualised – like most of Hinduism.
I do not know whether the custom, even in its ritualised form, continues or not, but I do remember the days when Pandit Kamalapati Tripathi, then Chief Minister of UP, used to meet visitors with a single chair for himself in the room. Every visitor had to touch his feet first. It is said Tripathi used to remember months later a visitor who did NOT touch his feet and hold that against him.
He was a Congressman but Jawaharlal Nehru was not blamed for it. Feet touching is one of the first such rituals Modi stopped after becoming India’s Prime Minister, a fact never acknowledged.
Feet touching or prostrating on the ground at the feet of a learned and revered person was considered a mark of reverence for hundreds of years in India. At a parents’ day in a school just 30-35 years ago, I used to see an eminent scientist in full suit prostrating before the swamiji (post on June 30,2017: A Spiritual Space Scientist) who ran the school. It was a sign not only of respect but also humility, a virtue regarded highly in Indian culture.
The story of Dr Nanda taking her son to USA as Secretary though he was not an employee of the Municipal Corporation of which she is the Mayor also seems to have got a big play in the media because she too belongs to BJP.
Without defending her, I am reminded of the story of the first Chief MInister of Andhra Pradesh, Tanguturi Prakasham (being a Brahmin, he was always addressed as Pantulu or Panditji, as Nehru too was). The first linguistic state of India, Andhra, had Karnool as its interim capital, with many offices in tents.
Like all Congress chief ministers, he too faced opposition and ouster moves by factions in the party itself, one led by Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who later became India’s President. In the state legislature there a no-confidence motion was moved against Prakasham for appointing his own son as his PA — just what the BJP Mayor of Nagpur did.
The Opposition had Communist stalwarts like P. Sundaraiah and Nagi Reddy. My friend the late G. Krishna, who had covered the legislature, told me of the fiery speeches of the comrades, the machinations of Sanjiva Reddy in engineering the no-trust move and the moving reply to the debate by Prakasham Pantulu .
Prakasham had earned millions as a Mylapore lawyer in Chennai and sacrificed all the wealth for the freedom struggle (travelling in what Congress leader Sashi Tharoor called the cattle class with followers and asking if someone had bought a ticket for him as he had no money to buy). He was called Andhra Kesari (Lion of Andhra) by Gandhiji as he bared his chest to British bullets during the freedom struggle.
The Chief Minister told the legislature that he had appointed his son to take care of him as his PA because he was a patient of prostate enlargement, as a result of which he had no control over bladder and bowel movements – a condition in which no outsider appointed as his PA would care for him.
The speech, according to Krishna, was so touching that it literally brought tears to the eyes of the Opposition leaders who crossed the floor to the CM’s seat, held his hands and said sorry to Prakasham Pantulu before withdrawing the no-confidence motion.
It is not known under what circumstances the Mayor showed her son as her PA. She did not even appoint him as a PA formally. Her act cannot be equated to that of Prakasham Pantulu, but it does remind me of a Chief Justice of AP High Court who, just days before his retirement, wanted to go to some place in the USA for medical treatment (of course at government expense). This was challenged in a public interest litigation.
But none was filed against many Indian leaders going abroad for treatment even though Indian hospital standarads have improved so much that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj opted for a kidney transplant in India
Sibal, in his tirade, asks if BJP members of Parliament would wash Modi’s feet and drink that “dirty water”. Whether Jichkar, who drank the water off Chavan’s feet, drank ‘dirty’ water or clean water after washing the feet clean first is not known. The same is also not known in the case of the BJP worker.
But what is known is that washing feet clean before any ritual is very highly valued in Indian traditions — something even Kapil Sibal cannot find fault with.