The Voice of Gandhi in this "Year of India"

It’s the audacity of Mahatma Gandhi‘s non-violence, and the radical priority he gave to social justice, that Gandhi’s grandson stresses in a sort of keynote conversation at the start of Brown University’s “Year of India.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rajmohan Gandhi (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3).

Rajmohan Gandhi in Bapu’s lap, Delhi, 1936

Short form: The skinny brown man in the traditional loin-cloth would be a thorn in the side of power today — more perhaps than ever in nuclear-armed India and in a world more concertedly hostile to Islam even than India was in 1948.

The father of his country would be attacking “smug self-satisfaction” among the new rich in India. “He would be unhappy about the continued oppression of women,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of the man that his family and nation called “Bapu,” or father. He’d be attacking “the worship of money” with his deepest conviction, as Gandhi once wrote to a young American seeking Indian wisdom, that “life is not for indulgence but essentially for self-denial. Would that the students of America could imbibe that one lesson.”

If Barack Obama could fulfill his spontaneous, touching wish for dinner with Gandhi, he would find the Mahatma “as interested in Barack Obama as Barack Obama in Gandhi.” But the American president should be prepared, says Gandhi’s grandson, to hear the grand strategist of India’s independence “say to the Americans what he said to the British: who asked you to be the guardians of the whole wide world? And why do you think you know better than the local people what is best for them? Relax! Trust those people. Yes, they may make mistakes, but they’re entitled to their freedom, to their independence.”

If, as I suppose, President Obama asked the great Gandhi to “help me with Islam,” his grandson believes:

Gandhi would say: “well, you, too, have your links with Islam, through your forebears. You have a tremendous chance…” He would tell Obama, of course, about his friend Abdul Gaffar Khan, his Pashtun friend. And he would say to Obama: “there are today in the Islamic world so many thousands of women and men who are fighting for the very things you are fighting for. They are the immediate victims of terrorism. Look at the numbers of Pakistanis and Afghans killed every single day by the extremists in their midst. Now that Fort Hood has happened, we’re all moved by these poignant descriptions of every single life that perished there. But the Pakistanis, the Afghans who also perish because of suicide bombings, because they’re ambushed by extremists, they died unknown, unrecognized, unsung…”

Also, and this is what I think Gandhi would say: “you in the United States for the last 40 or 50 years have been drawn into the Muslim world. Ask yourself whether you really have been always fair and just to the Muslim world, and if you haven’t acknowledge the places where you haven’t. Because the anger in the Muslim world — although it is unwise, it is foolish, it is harmful above all to the Muslim world — does it have some basis in their experience with the Western world?”

Rajmohan Gandhi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 11.15.09.

And if, I suppose further, Gandhi said to Obama in some fashion: you’re a young idealist with a global imagination; your military chief has asked for 40,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan and your ambassador in Kabul has said: don’t send them, it’s a dead end… how might I, Gandhi, help you, Obama, think through another way? What then?

Sure, I can imagine that. And I think Gandhi would also relate that to the situation in the United States where there is unemployment, there is suffering, there is sadness. Gandhi would readily acknowledge that Obama’s challenge is immense. And Gandhi would also be perfectly ready to say “I don’t know what you should do.” But he would also say that if you truly reflect and you think of the neediest people in the world and what will help them, then you will know what you should do.

Rajmohan Gandhi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 11.15.09.

He would not be prescribing remedies, in short, but he’d been keeping a universal standard of social justice at the top of all of our agendas.

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