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Speech by Ambassador Nirupama Rao at the Annual Martin Luther King Jr Mahatma Gandhi Lecture: \"Gandhi for our Century : the Message enduring\"

Howard University,
Washington D.C

Dr. Wayne Frederick, President, Howard University, \
Reverend Bernard Richardson,
Dr. Alvin Thornton,
Dr. Marie-Line Sephocle,
Dr. Lalita Kaul

I am so privileged and proud to be here in this beautiful and historic chapel at Howard University to deliver the Annual Martin Luther King, Jr.-Mahatma Gandhi Lecture.

I am going to approach the topic of my talk today from the situation in which we as humanity find ourselves today.  We live in a shambolic world and we often hear there is need to reinvent ourselves.  The question we must ask is:  do we have the talent and the imagination to do so?  The population of the world is close to 7 billion today and we have crossed the cusp of unsustainable development.  Is our model of economic growth based on unbridled consumption, sustainable?  Our resources grow more finite.  It is said that there are more people with access to telephones than toilets in Asia, today.

I heard a definition of sustainable development the other day; it said we “should treat the world as if we intended to stay”.  And that reminded me of Gandhi, and his life and message.  For that great soul, the Mahatma as he was called, the provision of water, basic education and food would have trumped technology, finance and open markets.  Not that he would have denied technology and business but he would have stressed fundamental freedoms in a borderless world where sustainability, the economy of life and good, open governance would provide the bench marks for gross transnational happiness on an inter-connected, integrated planet.

Montaigne once said, “Nothing human is foreign to me”.  Those words could have been Gandhi’s, too.  Standing here before you, in one of America’s renowned universities, I can assure you that Gandhi would have stressed that you should receive an education as I heard an expert say recently, that is ethical, that makes you exceptional, promotes critical thinking, enlightened public service and builds in you a sense of responsibility rather than entitlement.  I can almost visualize Gandhi speaking to you that while we live in a flattened world, and you must be a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, aware of the interconnectedness of global existence today, you must also be engaged closely with your local community – “the thinking globally but acting locally” principle or as Kwame Appiah calls it, “rooted cosmopolitanism”.

In a gentle way you can shake the world,  Gandhi said.  And, I think what he meant was that when you cultivate a sense of strong civic engagement, and follow the commandment of “do not do to your fellow man, what is hateful to you”, you have absorbed the meaning of the true rule of law.  The rest, as they say, is commentary.  

At the centre of my talk today is the example provided to us by two great lives, snuffed out by the bullets of assassins, sixty five and forty five years ago, but snuffed out only in the physical sense because their voices, their spirit, and the power of their example are all a force most powerful and infinite.  And like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi are lives to emulate in order to understand how each of them through years of solitude, sacrifice and suffering, learnt to adapt and act upon the example set by Gandhi.

Today, “the media, the mall and the multiplex” tend to determine the wave length of our times – the zeitgeist.  Should our young people, our demographic dividend, absorb their lessons for life through these three “M’s”?  Or, should their consciousness be shaped by issues of concern to plural societies such as ours; the environment and its increasingly challenged quality, gender violence, sustainable development, socially responsible entrepreneurship, the value of diversity and appreciating truth and goodness other than our own?  That would be the Gandhian way.  And, that is echoed in these words by Robert Nash; what he says (and I can hear the echo of Gandhi here) is that we need a “certain liberality of character, marked by the virtues of self-discipline, obligation, civility, tolerance, fairness and generosity”.

The concept and philosophy of non-violence espoused by Gandhi was a living construct and not a theoretical abstraction.  He applied it to the arena of India’s freedom struggle.  The words of the Sermon on the Mount and of the Bhagavad Gita inspired him together with those of the Russian writer Tolstoy to develop “Satyagraha” or Truth  Force – the introduction of truth and gentleness in the political, that is the national life”.   This was not a passive force – for him truth and non-violence “are perhaps the activist weapons you have in the world”.  Incidentally, how many of you know that Ahimsa – or non-violence – is also an important essential for the practice of yoga?

Today, we often relate the message of Gandhi to the lives of some great men and women who came after him – and once again, the powerful example of Martin Luther King Jr. with the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the march on Washington still fresh on our minds, comes before us.  So, you have the impact of Gandhi on the history of a nation, geographically distant from India, but a great democracy that has torn itself apart and healed itself again and again in a remarkable and perennial display of resilience.

But, how as individuals, in our own inner lives, do we learn from Gandhi?  For instance, Gandhi marked India’s Independence Day, August 15, 1947 though fasting and prayer.  Fasting was to him a symbol of purity and penance, it was also a political weapon.  It was “the order of a protest against the wrong done by society” - in this case, the violence unleashed by the partition of India.  Even if you do not use fasting as a political weapon, you can use it as an act of purification and self-discipline.  It can be your “nature cure” as James Matthews puts it in his book, “The Matchless Weapon, Satyagraha”.  The other weapons (also as James Matthews points out) are silence through which Gandhi felt he would cultivate the “Inner Voice”,  the taking of pledges or vows, (as for example, a vow to be strong or to abstain from or give up something you have made a habit of,) and the practice of austerity.  

Similarly, the word “compromise” has often controversial meanings attached to it, nowadays.  This should hardly be so, in a world beset by so much conflict and violence and deep divisions.  For Gandhi, compromise was the very essence of ahimsa or non-violence because it secured political advance without disorder and on the basis of mutual discussion and confidence.  In today’s world, this is a word we often treat dismissively when what it means is negotiating on the basis of mutual equality (treating the “other” as equal and not inferior) and in a democratic, constitutional manner.

Sacrifice and austerity were the other virtues dear to Gandhi.  In this as in the other qualities I have referred to, he drew from the Indian tradition.  A spirit of sacrifice and the pursuit of austerity in one’s life style helps increase the effectiveness of one’s mission or striving.  Gandhi’s genius was to delve into sources of the Indian tradition, sacrifice and penance/austerity and to transform them into powerful weapons in his battle for justice, equality and freedom.

Did Gandhi know America?  He had never visited your country but he had numerous American friends including the evangelist E. Stanley Jones to whom he said in 1947 or 48 “I have not seen the American people, but give them my love”.

Just the other day, during a celebration of Gandhi’s birthday at my residence in Washington a young Indian American brought to my notice how Gandhi discovered the genius of Leo Tolstoy through North America.  The Indian social revolutionary, Taraknath Das educated in California and then living in Canada wrote to Tolstoy in 1908 on colonial domination in India and how it had destroyed the country.  Das and his cohorts in the Hindustan Ghadar  (“revolutionary”) Party which had been formed in California  preferred to overthrow British rule through armed revolution.  Tolstoy’s advice was to the contrary.  He was a passionate advocate of non-violence believing it was through this approach that the people of India could discover their true soul and strength.  His “Letter to a Hindoo” was published in the “Free Hindustan” magazine run by Das and seen by Gandhi in South Africa some time later.  He sought Tolstoy’s permission  to run  the letter in his weekly “Indian Opinion” .  The rest is history.

From 1915 onwards, African Americans in the United States had begun to hear of and study Gandhi.  They included W.E. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.  In the late twenties (1929), began a correspondence between George Washington Carver in Tuskegee,  Alabama and Mahatma Gandhi (“my beloved friend, Gandhi” as Carver called him) on the kind of food that he, Gandhi, should include in his diet that would provide him with the nutrients essential to build his physical endurance as he embarked on his strenuous struggle for India’s freedom. In the early ‘40s’ the stream of African American visitors to India to see Gandhi and learn of his work became even more strong, together with the realization that non-violence offered immense possibilities for African Americans seeking to end racial discrimination and segregation. Benjamin Mays (who left such an indelible imprint on the life of your university), Howard Thurman and Bayard Rustin were some of these African Americans who went to India and came back truly moved by Gandhi and the sanctity of his approach to seeking the end of foreign domination in India.

It was around this time also that an Indian woman, then in her thirties,  named Kamaladevi Chattophadhyaya spent a few months touring America.  Kamaladevi was one of the greatest Indian women of the 20th century – a freedom fighter par excellence, close to Gandhi and Nehru, and a passionate advocate of the revival of India’s cottage and village industries which had been decimated under the British.  While in America, she encountered the injustice of segregation and racial discrimination while on a train in Louisiana.  She was asked to vacate her seat on the train by a conductor.  She refused to do so saying “I am a colored woman …. and  it is unnecessary for you to disturb me for I have no intention of moving from here”. The ticket collector after going back and forth for some time muttered, “You are an Asian” but did not bother her again. Kamaladevi had stood her ground, like Rosa Parks some fourteen years later.

How connected our histories are when I think of Kamaladevi on a train in the spring of 1941, in segregated Louisiana during a time of India’s freedom struggle separated by a few years  from the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks. From 1941, the mind fasts forward to the time in the late forties when a young Martin Luther King Jr. heard Howard University President Dr. Mordecai Johnson speak about Gandhi, an experience that led him to begin a lifelong study of the Indian leader.  Years later Martin King and his wife, Coretta spent a month in India touring the length and breadth of the country learning from the land of Gandhi and concluding that the choice for mankind was between non-violence and non-existence. In his speech to the people of India over All India Radio on the eve of his departure from our country, Dr. King spoke of the supreme sacrifice of life made by both Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi in order to heal the wounds of their strife-torn nations. Both these great souls, as Dr. King recalled, “belong to the ages”.

All this reminds me of the inescapable network of mutuality of our human existence and the fact that we are tied in a single garment of destiny also as Martin Luther King said.  The zig zag of interconnected existence between African American communities here in the United States and the people of India as we articulated the grammar, the idiom and the action to end discrimination and domination by one race against another makes for a fascinating and compelling history.

The influence of Gandhi has by no means ceased.  His political action strategy, the well planned and executed application of  non-violence continue to inspire struggles across the world.  The management of diversity with courage and foresight, is also an important lesson from Gandhi that we must learn.

As a Sri Lankan friend, Radhika Coomaraswamy rightly notes, in a post 9/11 world we see a great deal of strident masculinity in the responses to situations in need of solutions.  The art of negotiation and the spirit of compromise are given much less value.  We have come to celebrate violence.  Increasingly, the idea of a “commons” where people of the world share and include rather than exclude or marginalize has escaped us. Professor Vinay Lal of the University of California has written in fascinating detail on this aspect.   This is not the world Gandhi lived and died for.  We must address this deficiency, this shortcoming with a sense of urgency and seriousness.

Religion today often becomes the reason to divide people rather than unite them in a multiplicity of faiths that make us all better human beings.  Being a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Christian or Jew is what Gandhi would have wanted us to be; but being a “better” exponent of one’s religion does not mean that  must grow into fundamentalists or religious radicals.  Unfortunately,  the trend where religion divides rather than promotes harmony and provides a breadth of vision is becoming all too prominent. Gandhi would have fought such senselessness, and we must do so.  We have to cut off the chain of hate as King said.

I believe the best way to help ensure that the message of Gandhi would be enduring is to apply his thoughts and his principles in our daily lives because the shelf life of these principles is by no means limited.  The young bloggers who launched the Arab Spring two years ago were inspired by Gandhi.  It is unfortunate that their struggle has not yet consolidated its strength as it seeks more democracy, fundamental freedoms, and economic opportunities.  The fact that Gandhi still lives through his message is also borne out by the work of the American Gene Sharp whose study of Gandhi has been exhaustive and detailed as his manual “From Dictatorship to Democracy” translated into 30 languages would suggest.   Sharp lists “198 Methods of non-violent Action” for practitioners to follow.  These include prayers and worship, singing, assembling to protest.

In November 2010, standing before the Parliament of India, President Barack Obama spoke of how Mahatma Gandhi influenced and inspired him.  He 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.”

I hope Gandhi will inspire you young students in the same way and if you do choose career in public service, as I hope you will,  I am sure his precepts and his wisdom will guide you along your way in life’s journey.  Also, understand the productive and revolutionary potential of sharing your knowledge with generosity, as Gandhi would have.  Be votaries for development and practioners of peace.  And, let us therefore, offer constant prayer to what the Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, speaking of  Gandhi, referred to as the “ageless life” of this great son of humanity.

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