Gandhi's hidden ashes stir communal tension

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FOR A MAN who championed the rights of India's downtrodden millions, it seems a bitter irony that the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi should end up locked in a bank vault.

The revelation on the 125th anniversary of Gandhi's birth, earlier this month, that some of his ashes had been hidden for 44 years in a bank in the state of Orissa attracted unsavoury attention. The brother of Gandhi's assassin announced this week that he wants custody of them.

In a move that could stir up tensions between India's Hindu and Muslim communities, Gopal Godse, the brother of the fanatic who shot Gandhi on 30 January 1948, has demanded that the government hand over the remains to be sprinkled - along with the assassin's - in the Sindhu river, which now belongs to Pakistan. A Hindu extremist who thought Gandhi was too pro-Muslim, Na thuram Godse killed the man considered India's spiritual founder as he was greeting well-wishers in a Delhi garden.

'My brother's ashes along with Gandhiji's should be immersed in the Sindhu when India regains possession of this holy river from Pakistan,' Mr Godse said. The last thing that Gandhi, who preached communal harmony, would want is for a tussle to erupt over his remains, poisoning relations even more between India and Pakistan. The Godse brothers belonged to an extremist Hindu organisation opposed to Muslims and the creation of Pakistan in Britain's carve-up of the old empire in 1947.

It is a mystery how Gandhi's ashes came to be hoarded in a small bank.

Although he came from an affluent Gujarati family, Gandhi lived an ascetic's life, wearing cotton garments he had spun himself. He ate like a sparrow and travelled third-class on the trains. He had little time for bankers.

Before Gandhi died, he wished for his ashes to be scattered in India's many holy rivers. After cremation, they were scooped from the burning embers by devoted mourners and separated into small piles. One pile was dissolved into the holy Ganges, while others were scattered in the Yamuna, the Brahmaputra and the Narmada rivers. Through carelessness, covetousness or bungling, the ashes meant for Orissa were never given back to nature. 'It's surprising, but not unbelievable,' said Gandhi's grandson, Raj Mohan Gandhi. 'Maybe somebody wanted to retain them as a relic.' An urn full of Gandhi's ashes, protected inside a wooden box, was sent to the Imperial Bank of India's Cuttack branch on 29 November 1950. Some of the ashes were immersed in the sea at Puri, a Hindu temple in Orissa. But the discovery of the urn raises the intriguing possibility that what was used in the Puri ceremony were not Gandhi's ashes after all. Or, if they were, why were some of his remains pocketed and shoved away in a bank?

The bank stopped asking the state government to remove Gandhi's ashes long ago. The Orissa government never answered the bank's many pleas. 'If we can prove that these are indeed his ashes and don't belong to someone else or to some thing, we must honour Gandhiji's wishes,' his grandson said.