(Gandhi Memorial Center
2 October 2012)
It gives me great pleasure to join you all on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary at the Gandhi Memorial Center.
The Gandhi Center has been a long standing partner of the Indian Embassy, and our association over the years has proved to be an enduring partnership rooted in the shared goal of promoting Gandhiji’s message and legacy that has grown from strength to strength. For me, it is also a personal association, because the Gandhi Center and Srimati Kamala ji are very special to me, because of my interaction with the Center from my days here as Minister at the Embassy almost two decades ago.
I would like to thank and congratulate Carrie Trybulec, Director of the Gandhi Center for her profound commitment and immense dedication to the lofty cause of furthering Gandhian ideals and philosophy in this country. And, I have the deepest admiration for Kamala ji, the founding president of the Gandhi Memorial Foundation, who has been a driving force in this effort. Her lifelong devotion to Gandhiji's ideals and to this Center is truly unique and unparalleled.
As we remember Mahatma Gandhi and recall his principles and ideals today, one question that crosses our mind is – how would Gandhiji have viewed the world of the 21st century? What would he write today in the Indian Opinion or the Harijan – journals where he often expressed his inner voice? Can you visualize an electronic version, or a Facebook or Twitter account for these journals? I certainly can, because Gandhiji was a communicator par excellence. How would he have reflected on the Euro-zone crisis, or the Arab Spring, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in this country and of 26/11 in Mumbai? What would he have to say about the information highway, hyperlinks, social media and internet search engines which pretend to “think like God”?
How would Gandhiji apply the precepts of his ideals and values in explaining, or searching for an answer, to these and myriad other challenges the world confronts today? How do we establish the relevance of his thoughts and ideals in this new century?
That is not to say that they are not relevant; or, that we doubt that they are not. But looking to answer that question will perhaps tell us how we can discover new paths to global peace and human progress, navigating through the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Let me begin by recalling five iconic individuals, who have believed in Gandhiji’s ideas. They were and are inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of humanism, compassion and non-violence. They showed courage and conviction in standing up to adversity and embracing the truth. They, in their own way, became the change they wanted to see in the world.
And they did so decades after Gandhiji had lived and walked on our planet. One of them dared to “have a dream” – of equality, opportunity and liberty, and to heal a nation wounded by racial segregation. Inspired by Gandhiji, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the spirit of the historic Salt March at Dandi resonating in his own courageous Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King said, and I quote - "As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform."
Another man, lovingly called Madiba by his compatriots, and whom the world knows as Nelson Mandela, emulated Gandhiji in choosing to suffer a long incarceration in order to humble a tyrannical regime. He empowered his people, but told them never to hate their oppressors. He ended apartheid by showing the power of courage and truth, as he laid the foundations of a new era in South Africa and promoted a path of reconciliation.
The third icon, who is admired in both India and the United States, and across the world, for her fearless non-violent resistance is Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who I was privileged to personally meet when I visited Yangon in June last year, when I was the Foreign Secretary of India. She has often acknowledged Gandhiji’s influence in a life she has dedicated to freedom and democracy. Referring to the impact that Gandhian values have had on her own life, Suu Kyi asked students while speaking at Columbia University last month to “remember that change through non-violent means was not ever thought of before Gandhi. He was the one who started it, he was the one who decided that it is possible to bring about revolutionary change without violence… the more you read Gandhi, the more impressed you are by who he was and what he was”. From Gandhiji, she learnt that for a doctrine of peace and reconciliation to be translated into practice, one absolute condition was to be fearless. One of the essays Aung San Suu Kyi wrote begins with the sentence: "It is not power that corrupts, it is fear." She was, and remains, the beacon of peace and hope for her compatriots as Myanmar embarks on a new and historic journey.
Gandhiji has been a great light for another great spiritual leader, who, much like the Mahatma, uniquely blends spiritualism with humanism, religiosity with courage, and faith with conviction. His Holiness the Dalai Lama views the success of Gandhian philosophy in its most tangible outcomes. He says, "Many ancient Indian masters have preached ahimsa, non violence as a philosophy. That was mere philosophical understanding. But Mahatma Gandhi, in this twentieth century, produced a very sophisticated approach because he implemented that very noble philosophy of ahimsa in modern politics, and he succeeded. That is a very great thing."
And finally, President Obama. Speaking before India’s Parliament in November 2010 about how he was influenced and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, President Barack Obama said, "I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared with and inspired America and the world".
It is no coincidence that all these five personalities, who embodied in one way or the other Gandhiji’s ideas and ideals, were recognized – long after the death of Mahatma Gandhi – for their contributions to global peace and harmony. Each of them went on to be a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Each of them, in his or her own way, also proves the relevance of Gandhiji and his philosophy in the modern world in most incontrovertible ways. They demonstrate that Mahatma Gandhi has inspired and will continue to inspire, political, social and religious wisdom over and over again to successive generations all over the world.
Indeed, I would dare say that there is hardly any country in the world where Gandhiji’s passion for non-violence and his supreme humanism is not inspiring people, transcending the divisions of race, religion and ethnicity.
If the 21st century is the century of the common man and woman, then Gandhism has even more relevance in inspiring individuals wanting to be agents of change, as they strive to make their societies and this world a better place. Always leading by example, Gandhiji taught us to stand strong in the face of fear and hold fiercely our faith in truth and freedom even when confronted with extremism, brutality or prejudice. Gandhiji once said, “a small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”
Today, more than ever, because of the world we find ourselves in and the many instances of violence we have seen in recent times, many around the globe feel the need to remember and implement, yet again, Gandhiji’s message of peace and non violence. Gandhiji said, "Once we recognize the common parent stock from which we are sprung, we realize the basic unity of the human family, and there is no room for enmities and unhealthy competition."
As we deal with the threats and acts of terrorism and violent extremism in the world today, we need to look for effective ways and solutions as that truth force to urge humankind away from mindless vendettas, bloodshed, retribution and conflict. Here lies the critical relevance of Gandhiji’s message in the contemporary world. Let us not forget how he inspired Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or the Frontier Gandhi as he is lovingly known, to advocate and practice non-violent resistance among the Pathans of the NW Frontier. Today when we contemplate the troubled border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we scarcely realize that the history of these areas, offers as Karl Meyer has noted, "an extraordinary precedent for peace" besides a legacy of war.
At the United Nations General Assembly last week, rejecting religious and cultural intolerance, President OBAMA said, “It’s time to heed the words of Gandhi: Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit. We must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them”.
Gandhiji led a life suffused by simplicity and marked by his acute sense of self-awareness - ridding himself of unnecessary possessions and turning simply to the basics and to value them. His ways show us the power of the immeasurable reserves of humility and compassion that exist within the human mind. His respect for diversity and the human in all of us led him to work tirelessly for the upliftment of the weak as part of the larger nation-building exercise.
As the Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha said in his address to the UN General Assembly last year to mark Gandhiji’s birth anniversary and I quote, “Gandhi was and remains a genuinely trans-national figure. He was trans-national in the range of his influences and in the reach of his thought”. Gandhiji believed in many ideas inherent in a globalised world order. He stood for connectedness and connectivity, for openness and transparency, for simplicity of communication, for sharing of knowledge, and for the cross-pollination of thoughts and ideas – all of which he saw as essential ingredients for nurturing diversity, pluralism and common prosperity. He abhorred closed minds and ghetto mentalities. Instead, he believed in synergy and cooperation – even with adversaries. He saw the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, to paraphrase William Blake.
But, he did warn us of blind emulation and of making choices without judging the merits of each idea. He said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Ladies and gentlemen:
There is, therefore, an undeniable and essential universality about Gandhian ideas and ideals that were, are and will remain relevant across generations. Some of them, perhaps, will be even more relevant today and in future than they have been in the past. Let us pledge today to try and live by those principles and ideas to make this world a better and happier place for coming generations.
I leave you, today, with Gandhiji’s own words: “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” We live in hope of a better world and we strive for peace through our actions. No one better exemplified this than Gandhiji himself, and as we gather here today to celebrate his life, let us take the time to reflect and move ahead seeking this reality.
I wish the Gandhi Memorial Center every success in its continued endeavour to enlighten our friends in America about the timeless importance of Gandhian thought and values in our daily lives.