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The Relevance Of Mahatma Gandhi

 By Dr. E. S. Reddy

(Dr. E. S. Reddy :- Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. He advises the department of information of South Africa in connection with their website.  His primary interest is in research and writing in the area of history of the struggle for the freedom in South Africa, Gandhi and America and foreign friends of Gandhi.  He has written and edited a number of books, to name few (wr). Gandhi's vision of a free South Africa, (co-ed)-Gandhi and South Africa (1914-1948) and The Mahatma Gandhi-Letters to Americans.)

The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi is, in a sense, only an incident in his life. His presence is still felt in many countries and many movements.  Gandhi now belongs not only to India and South Africa, but to the world.

I am amazed at how many high school and even primary school students in the United States are writing papers and working on projects on Gandhi in this country.  I get e-mails from some of them asking for information and they are very serious. They ask searching questions and want to do a thorough study.

I tell them that the essence of Gandhi’s life - life, because he said “My Life is my message” - is truth and love. From that comes nonviolence, shedding of all hatred, and spirit of revenge - the prescription of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.”

Today, when the world is full of hatred and threats of devastation of countries in revenge, - it is no more just one eye for an eye - when truth has been submerged by psychological warfare, when some people even in India, with hatred in their hearts, try to crucify Gandhi again and again, it is heartening to know how much he is inspiring people and movements around the world.

I try to follow the news relating to Gandhi, especially in the United States.  I want to draw your attention to some news items in the last couple of months, instead of making a speech.

In United States

There seems to be a renewed interest in the United States in Gandhi and nonviolence. A few days ago, on January 21st, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Gandhi, spoke in Michigan on Gandhi and King. The Michigan Daily News reported that the auditorium was full and hundreds of people had to hear him on a live television screen outside. (Michigan Daily online, January 24, 2003).

Three weeks ago – on 11 January – the governor of Illinois, George Ryan, commuted the death sentences of all the 167 persons on the death row in his state.  In his speech, he quoted Gandhi’s remark against revenge: “an eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.” He said he was inspired, in coming to his decision, by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu – two winners of Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the Gandhi award in India. -(The Telegraph, Kolkota, report from Washington dated January 12, 2003)

Ten days ago – on 20 January – as you know, there was a large anti-war demonstration in Washington. Sister Carole Bialock, a 73-year-old Roman Catholic nun from Houston, Texas, said she was there because “I strongly believe in non-violent protest in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.” (Associated Press, January 20,2003)

I am sure that many others in that demonstration shared that faith.

You may have seen the small advertisement in the New York Times on December 24th that Global Interfaith Peace, a new organisation of peace activists, had been formed for peaceful resolution of global conflicts and that it was organising the King-Gandhi Peace Brigade to go to Baghdad to shield innocent civilians.

This kind of movement has been developing in several Western countries. New York Times reported on the 25th that a busload of volunteers left London for Iraq to act as “human shields” to protect civilians. That was organised by “Human Shield Action Iraq” which says it has many more volunteers (New York Times, January 26, 2003). The volunteers risk their lives to protect civilians because it has been estimated that in recent wars, 80 percent of the casualties were not soldiers but women and children.

I heard from a friend in Oslo that an Institute in Norway is training peacekeepers in Kosovo and Bosnia: the training includes a course on Gandhi. The Institute had been founded by a Bishop who had gone all the way to India in 1923 to see Gandhi. Unfortunately, he was disappointed as Gandhi was in prison.

Gandhi is not only a peacenik. He was very much concerned with protecting the environment.

You may have seen that John Quigley, a 42-year-oldteacher, chained himself to a tree in Santa Clarita, California, and has been living on a platform from November 1st last year to prevent the removal of a 400-year-old oak tree by developers. Hundreds of people used to visit the site and show their support.  Finally on January 11th, he was forcibly removed from the platform by sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles. Quigley said: “I did all I could… I was there to the end. I practice nonviolent principles, Gandhi’s principles.”  (Associated Press, January 11, 2003)

We can discuss whether and how he could have succeeded in preventing the removal of the tree. His action is similar to the movement by women in India to protect forests - he may have been inspired by them - and this, I suppose, is only a beginning in the United States.

Gandhi discovered and refined Satyagraha to defy discrimination against Indians in South Africa because of their colour. He represents opposition to all racial discrimination and that is very much in the consciousness of African-Americans. It was announced on December 27th that on April 4 this year - the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - a permanent Gandhi exhibit will be opened in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, on the site of the motel where Dr. King was assassinated.

Dr. Benjamin Hooks, the chairman of the Museum’s Board, said that the Board unanimously decided on this exhibit, recognising Gandhi’s philosophy as the “pre-eminent gospel of the non-violent movement.”

( http://www.gomemphis.com)

Last year, the school board of West Chester in Pennsylvania decided to name a new high school after Bayard Rustin. But there was some opposition because Bayard, an African-American from West Chester, was a Quaker and a pacifist who refused to serve in the army in the Second World War. He spent three years in prison. The Board reconsidered the matter after thorough research on his life, and reaffirmed its decision in December. Bayard Rustin, who was greatly influenced by Gandhi, was one of the giants of the civil rights movement in the United States. He was one of the first to lead anon-violent movement – the Freedom Riders – well before Dr. King came on the scene. He was one of the mentors of Dr. King and organized the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. ( http://www.towntalknews.com, December 23,2002)

Gandhi is, of course, freedom for oppressed people.

The South African government recently set up a prestigious national award, named after the former President of the African National Congress, Oliver Tambo, for people from other countries who have shown solidarity with the people of South Africa   during their struggle for liberation or after the attainment of democratic rule. The first awards were announced last month – and they were given to Mahatma Gandhi, Olof Palme of Sweden and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

I wondered why Gandhi was chosen for the award as he had died before the liberation movement actively sought international solidarity – but then he was a force even after his death. Whatever India did in support of freedom in South Africa was, of course, inspired by Gandhi. The most prominent leaders of the solidarity movement - I can name many, apart from Palme and Kaunda -were inspired by Gandhi.

Gandhi is being increasingly recognised in South Africa – by all sections of the people, not only people of Indian origin. The Phoenix Settlement or Ashram, founded by Gandhi has been declared a national heritage site. An exhibition about Phoenix is now being prepared for the centenary next year.

I hate to read the next item, but it would not be right to hide part of the truth. Some people are insensitive and take pleasure in making sick jokes about Gandhi.

The latest issue of the magazine “Maxim” has an article asking readers - I suppose the gymnasts – to teach pacifists a lesson about aggression - and to ask Gandhi if he can see a change in their physique. It has 21 pictures of a man kicking Gandhi. That is supposed to be a humorous article - and this is not the first time that the magazine resorted to such nasty depiction of Gandhi.

Finally, an item which exploits Gandhi’s image, but not in such bad taste. The Hindu carried a report from London on December26th that a British company had produced a football T-shirt with Gandhi’s image on the chest. It is being sold for 20 pounds or about 30 dollars. The company – calling itself http://philosophyfootball.com (it has a website with that name) – said it had chosen Gandhi as a means of promoting non-violence on the football field – “winning a tackle” through “non-violent methodology.”

It is unfortunate that Gandhi’s image is being exploited commercially but British football fans – who are notorious for rowdy behaviour – do need some education in non-violence. I suppose that this company does not know that Gandhi was fond of football – and was head of football clubs in Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa, almost a hundred years ago.

We tend to forget that Gandhi was fun-loving! Well, that is Gandhi for us today - peace, equality, freedom, protection of environment, and healthy sports.

Gandhi is, of course, of special significance to India because he meant much to us during his lifetime and continued to mean much to us since independence.

The enormous admiration he evoked in the world, especially in Britain and the United States, enabled us to achieve freedom without a violent conflict with Britain. We did not need to spend a penny on foreign propaganda and lobbying. The heritage of Gandhi was an enormous asset to India after independence. We are in danger of losing this because of the short-sighted actions of people who are consumed by hatred and an urge for revenge.

I hope our politicians will be persuaded to understand the dangers and stop using hatred for political gains and stop trying to defame. 

(Speech on Mahatma Gandhi’s Punya Tithi Sponsored by Consulate-General of India, New York, and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, USA ,New India House, January 30, 2003)


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