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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  • nother

    Thank you for this enlightening hour. In the imagined meeting of Gandhi and Obama you spoke of, I envision the President walking Gandhi down Wall Street (literally), and doing his best to describe the impact of this money industry on the world economy. My dream would be for the President to defend the bailout to Gandhi – to explain to him how -with his actions – he was thus thinking of the “neediest people of the world.”

    In response, I have a feeling Gandhi might lay a little Ruskin on the Prez. In Gandhi’s autobiography he talks about the influence of Ruskin’s book “Unto This Last.”

    “I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. A poet is one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast. Poets do not influence all alike, for everyone is not evolved in a equal measure. The teaching of Unto This Last I understood to be:

    1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

    2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livehood from their work.

    3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

    The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occured to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.”

    I looked up “Unto This Last” on Wiki:

    Ruskin “attacked laissez faire economics because it failed to acknowledge complexities of human desires and motivations. Ruskin believed that jobs should be paid at a fixed rate, so that the best workmen got employed, instead of those that offered to do the job at a lower price:

    ‘Nay, but I choose my physician and my clergyman, thus indicating my sense of the quality of their work. By all means, also, choose your bricklayer; that is the proper reward of the good workman, to be “chosen.” The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed, and the bad workman unemployed. The false, unnatural, and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half-price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum.’ – Ruskin

    Ruskin argued that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of such higher values.

    So Gandhi might ask Obama on their walk on Wall Street: “Where are the craftsmen in the global economy? Where is the appreciation for their work? And Is there room in your global economy for the supply and demand of higher values?

  • Potter

    I began your India series with this just as we hear Obama’s revealing speech at the Nobel ceremony.

    I would love to hear a discussion about that.. about Obama,… his wishing to meet Ghandi…. his admiration for ML KIng, and alternatively his embrace of American exceptionalism, the rationale, his ideas of the responsibilities and abilites/inabilities of leadership.

    I am glad also that you refer to Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” on another thread.

    Although I think passive resistance does not/did not/would not work in many situations (Tibet seems to be one, Myanamar?) or may take way too long and result in equal or more losses and harm done than violent revolution in certain situations, I am convinced that passive resistance will work now ( after so much violent conflict) for Palestinians. And it may work for the Iran’s green revolution.

  • Excellent talk. Small quibble though that has nothing to do with Mr. Gandhi. I was at TED India and my experience of it doesn’t line up with what you have heard. While there were a few truly remarkable speakers – Anil Gupta, Anupam Mishra and Thulasiraj Ravilla burn most brightly in my mind – I felt they spoke against a prevailing wind of corporate globalization perhaps best personified by the cricket commentator who happily showed footage of the new NFL-style cheerleaders at cricket games as if their presence were a sign of progress.