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In 2009, on the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s pilgrimage to India, the late Congressman John Lewis — an icon of the Black civil rights movement — led a congressional delegation to India to commemorate King’s visit. Inspired by his visit to the country which birthed non-violent resistance, Lewis created The Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative Act. 

Congress passed Lewis’ act a few months after the civil rights activist died on July 17, 2020 at the age of 80. Former President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 28, 2020.

The new law authorizes $1 million a year through fiscal 2025 for the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative. It also sets aside $2 million for just FY 2021 for the Gandhi-King Global Academy, and $30 million for 2021 for the US-India Gandhi-King Development Foundation.

Non-violent civil disobedience was a tactic used effectively by Gandhi and then Martin Luther King to fight powerful oppressors: the British in India, and segregationists in the U.S. A cross pollination of ideas, strategy and tactics that work in the face of a strong enemy helped strengthen civil rights movements. 

Inaugural group of young leaders for the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange are pictured, along with faculty, on the campus of the University of Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Demitrius T. Barksdale)

On June 15, 20 young civic leaders from the US and India met in Alabama for the first-ever Gandhi- King Scholarly Exchange training session. They explored the histories and legacies of Gandhi and King. The nascent activists exchanged both knowledge and skills in the fight for justice and equality. 

The 20 participants were recruited from historically underserved and disadvantaged groups.They are undergraduate and graduate students, 18-25 years of age with a record of academic achievement, and have demonstrated leadership experience in their communities. 

The exchange started with a one-week virtual program and orientation followed by a two-week academic residency hosted at Alabama A&M University — a Historically Black College and University — and the University of Alabama. 

Pictured from left to right are participants with faculty member: Roydon Dsa, Kyle Holland (UA Faculty), Demitrius T. Barksdale, Ishan Khetan, Wilson Pate, and Michael Gullakunta. (Photo courtesy of Demitrius T. Barksdale)

Demitrius T. Barksdale, a doctoral student at The University of Alabama, joined the program looking forward to learning leadership skills and the tools and networks to support and advance civil rights, social justice as well as inclusion on the local, national and international levels. 

What he found was an unexpected experience. 

“When I started engaging with the participants from India I could not understand what they were saying. I asked a lot of clarifying questions as to where they were coming from. I did not just assume their meaning.” 

“After four weeks of being together we now follow and understand the true meaning of our exchange of ideas. By pausing and stopping to ask questions, we understand each other,” he told India Currents in an interview.

“In our every day lives we are inclined to put ourselves first and think of ourselves first. This exchange helped us to be self aware, culturally aware and sensitive,” said Barksdale.

“Words, their meaning, intent and delivery impact the pursuit of justice. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. followed the path of non-violence in deed and thought. We in our woke state must understand words are powerful. They have within them the power of life and death.”

Pursuit of inclusivity, diversity and equity done in goodwill and good intent should be our goal. The converse would result in a horrible predicament if it is not done with non-violent means. Individual voice must be heard but it should not be hurtful,” said Barksdale. 

We can hurt people verbally more than with violence. We must continue the non violent approach in our choice of words, he said.

Dharani Kasavaraju, a social studies student from Hyderabad had little to no difficulty understanding her American brothers and sisters. She had watched American television programs like The Good Doctor and Friends growing up. 

America amazed her with its spectacular Fourth of July celebrations. The uplifting music at the amphitheater, the anthems of the three branches of the armed forces, the prayer before the amazing dinner at a faculty member’s house and the finale of the fireworks raised the spirits of the people to a crescendo of greatness. Pride and joy filled their hearts, inspiring them to achieve great things.

“The museums were so well laid out and explained acts of individual heroism that had led to vast changes in people’s lives, said Kasavaraju, noting the Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating. The boycott that followed from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 20, 1956, led to the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation. 

“We learned that small acts of courage snowballed into big movements,” said Kasavaraju.

The late Congressman John Lewis with Martin Luther King III, right, and his wife Andrea Waters King at the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on February 20, 2009. (http://twitter.com/officialmlk3)

“As the longest serving Indian American Member of the United States Congress, I am very excited that the U.S.State Department has officially launched the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative, which was championed by the late great Congressman John Lewis.” said Rep. Ami Bera, D-California, who co-sponsored the bill along with Reps. Ro Khanna, D-California, Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois.  

At a time when values Gandhi and King espoused are under threat, “This legislation will help those values endure and remind us that by holding true to them, we embody and live up to the best of our two nations,” Bera said in a press statement.

The philosophies of Gandhi and King, and their conflict resolution strategies have permeated the fabric of civil and social rights movements. 

Days of visits to the sites of protest and Martin Luther King’s life, were interspersed with days of class work and discussion on social justice, civil rights systems in India and US as well as the similarities and differences of the histories and politics of the two nations. “After visiting the site where Martin Luther King lost his life we were all very emotional,” said Kasavaraju.

Barksdale  speaks with his new friends, who have since returned to India, sometimes twice a day. The students continue to engage through summer through zoom. The Exchange has highlighted an understanding of foreign relations and engagement. 

“They have become my dear friends. I did not expect to value the relationships the most. I’m learning how to say brother and sister in Hindi but there are so many languages in India,” he said.

In January 2023, the Indian and U.S. participants will reconvene in India to visit important sites, communities, and organizations centered around the academic themes of peace, nonviolence, and conflict resolution.

The Exchange will include a multi-day closing forum that connects Exchange participants with experts, professionals, and civic leaders from the United States and India. 

“Gandhi and King could compose themselves under pressure. I hope to be that type of leader,” says Barksdale.

India Currents’ Stop The Hate campaign is made possible with funding from the California State Library (CSL) in partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs (CAPIAA). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by India Currents do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA or the California government.

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Ritu Marwah

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. A California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health...