This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.
After he was killed by an assassin’s bullets almost 73 years ago on a cold January day in Delhi, the locals found a decapitated statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Davis, California’s Central Park. The 6’3” tall, 950-pound bronze statue that once stood in the same park was mutilated and disfigured on January 27, 2021. The statute of Gandhiji “appeared to have been sawed off at the ankles, and half its face was severed and missing,” reports said. The statue was installed in 2016, a gift from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.
Iconoclasm is an expression of fanaticism and intolerance, and images are often destroyed for religious and political purposes. The destruction is a crude reminder of a weaponized intolerant ideology currently sweeping through the American landscape and elsewhere. However, the ideology of such brutality has its antecedents in history, which is replete with examples of iconoclastic destructions. Catherine Nixey’s ‘The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World’ describes in eye-popping graphic details the destruction and gore of the ancient temples of Serapeum in Alexandria and the Parthenon in Athens.
Chairman Mao Zedong of China ordered the destruction of countless historical monuments and works of art during what is known as the Cultural Revolution. In 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, ordered the Bamiyan Buddha’s blowing up in Afghanistan. Initially sculpted in 507 CE, this ancient sandstone carving was once the world’s tallest Buddha. Taliban fighters fired at the Buddha with tanks and artillery shells. When that failed, they ordered the planting of explosives to destroy it. Taliban fighters drilled holes into the statue to plant the dynamite. The process of drilling holes blowing up the Buddha image took 25 days to complete. The Islamic State did the same to the temples of Palmyra.
For Indians, Hindus specifically, the massive destruction of temples and the desecration and dismemberment of their deities throughout the past millennia have been an acute source of transgenerational trauma. Among thousands of silent yet an in-your-face reminder of that trauma is the ruins of 26 Jain-Hindu temples in Mehrauli, near Delhi. The Muslim ruler destroyed the temple complex to erect a victory tower and the Dome of Islam Mosque. Meenakshi Jain’s book ‘Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples – Episodes from Indian History’ details Hindu deities’ desecration, destruction, and preservation at significant risks by the faithful.
Iconoclasm is, primarily, an instrument of power. Its gore intends to instill an element of fear among the masses. Those who desecrated the Gandhi statues had every intention to terrorize the members of the Indian diaspora (and beyond) and exert political pressure. They did just that. Some of these terrorism techniques manifest themselves into blatant Hinduphobia.
Members of the diaspora across North America and Europe have also received physical and sexual violence threats from the groups behind the desecrations. A Hindu doctor in California received threats for her strong opposition to the Khalistanis.
“I am increasingly alarmed by the bloodcurdling sectarianism against India. Particularly against Hindus, for whom empirically the VAST majority support pluralism, progress, and peace,” tweeted Shuvaloy Majumdar, a Senior Fellow with MacDonald-Laurier Institute, the Ottawa, Canada-based think tank.
Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Hindu advocacy group Hindu American Foundation (HAF), also tweeted that HAF “had to shut down offices in DC in 2019 after multiple threats when Sikhs for Justice rallied there. “Leave this country or we’ll take care of you,” they said.” Another member of the diaspora was reported in a newspaper saying: “Hinduphobics now have political shelter. Our safety is in jeopardy.”
Beyond some half-hearted press releases and Twitter statements, some very late, most Western leaders, including many high-profile US politicians, including those from the Indian-American community, have remained mute spectators to this barbaric onslaught on Western values of democracy.
Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.
On January 26, 2021, someone vandalized the Mahatma Gandhi statue in the City of Davis, California USA. The statue in Davis’ Central Park of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the independence leader and father of India, was found vandalized on the grass next to its plinth. It was a tragic act to destroy the Gandhi statue in Davis. Gandhi stands for love and nonviolence and justice for all. The world needs Gandhi’s message now more than ever with wars raging in so many parts of the world.
A large number of peace-loving community members choose peace over violence, love over hatred, and rallied at Central Park at City of Davis California on Sunday, Jan 31st, 2021 in support of Reinstating the Gandhi Statue & condemning the hatred. This car rally and peace vigil was co-hosted by Gandhi Statue for Peace Committee Davis, India Association of Davis (IAD), Indian Association of Sacramento (IAS) & the peace-loving community at large. Hundreds of people urged the City of Davis Administration to find the culprits and bring them to justice and call upon the entire world to rise as one entity and destroy the nefarious designs of these hate mongers. They also urged the City of Davis Administration to reinstate the statue at the earliest and provide adequate protection in the future.
The Government of India and the City of Davis have both denounced the vandalism of the Mahatma Gandhi statue. A statement released by the Indian government’s Ministry of External Affairs said “it strongly condemns this malicious and despicable act against a universally respected icon of peace and justice” and has called upon the U.S. Department of State to investigate the incident.
The White House condemns the recent vandalism of a Mahatma Gandhi statue in California’s Davis, said Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday. “We would certainly have concerns about the desecration of monuments of (Mahatma) Gandhi. We would condemn the desecration and watch it closely,” Psaki said during a briefing on Monday.
Davis mayor Gloria Partida attended the Gandhi Statue vigil along with vice-mayor Lucas Frerichs and city council members Dan Carson and Will Arnold. The City of Davis issued a statement on the matter that “The City of Davis condemns the vandalism that destroyed the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Central Park. We do not support any actions that include the destruction of property. We sympathize with those who are grieving the destruction of the statue and promise a thorough investigation and full accountability for those who committed this crime.”
If we have learned nothing from the tragic events of recent weeks it is that senseless acts of hatred and violence are never the answer, which Gandhi and my father affirmed through fasting and their lifetimes of struggle. The statue that was desecrated in Davis symbolizes the truth Gandhi expressed: “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” Let us reject this act of intolerance and vandalism, said Paul F. Chavez, President, Cesar Chavez Foundation & Son of Cesar Chavez.
“In California, Davis is a mega college-town dominated by bright students and scholars. Such sudden insurrection and the vandalizing statue of national importance is quite disturbing, highly unacceptable, especially during these unprecedented times. We want perpetrators of this criminal act to be brought to justice”, said Vikram Rao, President of Student Association at UC Davis.
It is shocking and disappointing to read of the vandalization of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi by unknown assailants in Davis, California. Gandhi was a man of peace and goodwill who inspired millions of people around the world — including Martin Luther King Jr. — to practice nonviolence. For a gifted monument to his memory to be violently debased and destroyed is a cowardly act of ignorant people. It is a shameful mark against the good name of the community of Davis and the perpetrators should be found and punished. The Mahatma was cut down by a violent man in 1948, and now once more he suffers the ignominy of a mindless and irresponsible attack, noted Professor Robert Sellers, former Chair of World Parliament of Religions (the same organization that was addressed by Swami Vivekananda in 1893).
“I am shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the desecration of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Davis, California. Gandhiji is universally known and revered as one of the great icons of peace and harmony, and the fine statue erected with the help of the Government of India and the city of Davis was a civic reminder of his timeless importance and relevance. It is not just the Indian community in the USA and the world who feel violated by this senseless act of hate and of violence. All lovers of peace and civic order have also been attacked. It is my fervent hope and prayer, as a longtime student and admirer of Gandhi, that the perpetrators of this crime will be apprehended and brought to justice. But beyond that, I hope that this vandalism will serve as an occasion for making his universal message of peace and love better known. As he himself famously said: ‘When I despair, I remember that all through history, the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall’ ”, said Joseph Prabhu Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus) at California State University, also Los Angeles Trustee Emeritus – Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Sham Goyal, a retired UC Davis professor who has lived in Davis for 52 years, is the man behind the installation of the Gandhi statue. At the vigil event, several aggressive young members appeared arguing with 70 plus-year-old Goyal. A police complaint has been logged with Davis Police Department, citing an aggressor from the opposing group for behaving inappropriately with event organizers.
The 6-foot-tall, 950-pound bronze Gandhi’s statue was gifted in 2016 to the City of Davis by the Government of India. After a public comment period, the Davis City Council voted 3-2 to move ahead and install the statue. “It’s a symbol of peace,” Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson said at that time. An unveiling ceremony was held on Oct. 2, 2016, Gandhi’s birthday, which is commemorated each year as an International Day of Nonviolence. Since then, the statue has been a target of repeated protests and vandalism.
Many local volunteers and supporters have helped in conducting Gandhi’s Statue Reinstatement Rally & Vigil event successfully at Davis. Organizers thank all who have come to rally and visit for reinstating Gandhi Statue rally and vigil. Organizers appreciated the participants for maintaining peace, calmness & professionalism despite aggression by violent forces.
Gandhi is our national figure, world figure. He was for peace, he was for non-violence, and he is the father figure for India. We ask for the denouncement of the vandalism against our Patriarch.
Swadeshi in Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking is a moral value and a practice in socio-economics and intrinsically linked to svarāj (self-rule), satyāgraha (truth-force), ahimsa (non-injury), and sarvodaya (welfare for all).
The British Government in India stood for the capitalists and big business in Britain, and this determined the commercial, industrial and financial policies, such as paying for British war efforts and dispersing her debts. So big Indian industry was not fostered, and instead, exploited India’s immense resources and labor markets.
Gandhi sensed that by patronizing indigenous industry, big and small, work could be made available to the unemployed masses, and thereby they would not be ruthlessly exploited. What was foremost on his mind was the stark poverty of the masses. Gandhi advocated the revival of cottage industry such as khadi, which became the symbol both of the rejection of foreign-manufactured goods and the embracing of indigenous industry in microscale forms, symbolized by the charkha.
In the 1930s, 73% of the population were dependent upon agriculture; other than being engaged in harnessing raw material for the factory mills in England; industrialization could not reach nor benefit the masses. There could be no svarāj unless a way was found to ameliorate the hardship and horrors of the masses. Gandhi’s vision was that of a free India where a mobilized peasantry in the rural area would resist the spread of industrial capitalism and, instead, were empowered toward their own means of production.
The second divide was internal, namely, the growing urban-ruraldivide. Urban industrial schemes used the villagers for their cheap labor and raw material. Furthermore, the introduction of urban values, economy, and way of life in the villages led to the destruction of traditional forms of sustenance, way of life, and the values that go with it. Gandhi was keen to free the village economy these yokes. So the idea of progress and reform had to be circumscribed within the context of the rural environment and rural needs, not wants.
Swadeshi became popular in India after the Partition of Bengal. As Sushila Nayar notes, ‘Gandhiji made a distinction between “political swadeshi” and “genuine Swadeshi”. Political Swadeshi meant an artificial barrier on the flow of goods from one place to another and imposed by political division of the world. It could not contribute to world peace.
Gandhiji felt the need for “genuine Swadeshi” – which meant denying ‘to ourselves the enjoyment of goods not manufactured with our approval and within our knowledge’. Only thus would human beings become fully sensitive to the social repercussions of their transactions, and pave the way for world peace. Gandhi’s appointed economist, the Columbia University-trained J C Kumarappa, called this the ‘economics of peace’ and led the All-India Village Industries Association established by the National Congress in 1934.
The concept of swadeshi coupled with svarāj had a universal appeal outside India.
In the southern parts of America where the descendants of the slaves were searching for a scheme that would empower their industriousness in agriculture and crafting of small goods, Booker T. Washington, a black social reformer, set up the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in regional Alabama; he learned from Gandhi’s emissary, C F Andrews, how the rural and unemployed work towards self-sustainability in Gandhi’s ashrams. Tuskegee deployed a similar scheme to cultivate skills such as carpentry, printing, brick making, agri-and-pharma culture, soil care, waste management, and home economics. This was an experiment in self-sustainability that drew wide attention across America; two American Presidents visited Tuskegee and helped raise endowments.
In more recent times, African nations such as Botswana and Swaziland have adopted the Swadeshi model.
While I was a Fulbright Scholar in India, I came to realize the realities and hardships of the rural workers who migrate to urban areas for work. They face many challenges, not least in the areas of food security, poverty, literacy, sanitation, health, and immune deficiencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted a large number of precarious and vulnerable families. Many slum families have lost their livelihoods. Some are gradually trying to recover, and many are forced to sell vegetables or other eatables or take up whatever short-term daily wage labor they are able to garner; while others have returned to native villages and may return when the livelihood prospects improve.
Families who possess food grain storage are able to cope better; however, most have exhausted their grain reserves. Families without grain storage suffer badly during the lockdowns and depend on a supply of free food items from Government or civil society sources. These families run a high risk of facing food insecurity, undernutrition, and non-immunity against the rapid spread of COVID-19 in regional areas.
It is obvious that tradition meets with difficulties when it attempts to negotiate the demands of a democratic, open, and pluralistic modernist society. A holistic and de-hierarchized model of life and the world, where duties, roles, and functions are stressed within an overarching order of right, is a better model when social and moral ideals – such as freedom, justice, and equality – are relativized to this larger order.
As Gandhi stressed, ‘Economics is untrue which disregards moral values. This extension of the law of nonviolence in the domain of economics means nothing less than the introduction of moral values. I use the adjective moral as synonymous with spiritual.’
In the Gandhian model of economics: exploitation is replaced by service; acquisitiveness by renunciation or minimalism; global by the local; and centralization by self-regulation. ‘The economic system, politically nonviolent and democratic, should be cooperative and constructive instead of [being] exclusive, competitive, and militant.’ Gandhi eschewed reliance on luxurious and superfluous goods and the entertainment fetishism that provides no moral or intellectual succor and does not help with the development of character. This does not preclude public utilities on larger-scale plans nor centralized and capital-intensive public services for other needs, provided there is a measure of balance with small-scale, labor-intensive, decentralized, and village- or community-based service portals that provide for the diverse needs of human beings and animals in a protected ecological environment.
There have been a few bold thinkers who have delved into moral and legal texts in order to distill ideas into what the Kolkata-based theorist S. K. Chakraborty has dubbed “Spiri-nomics” (shorthand for “spirituality” + “economics”). This is a timely scheme, making an impact on India’s management and business arenas.
Milton Singer offered valuable insight. In looking for new spiritual incentives to help modernize India’s economy, he commented: In their indigenous ‘materialism,’ as well as in their philosophy of renunciation, interpreted by Gandhi as a discipline of action in the service of others, may reside the psychological and moral motive forces needed for a democratic and nonviolent industrial development of India. Gandhi sought to lay the basis for redistribution of wealth that would be consistent with a sacrificial moral order (ṛta/dharma) of the cosmos.
Where to with ātmanirbhar bhārat abhiyān?
Today, Indiaas a hub of outsourcing for foreign corporations holds some promises, but there are also issues. The new Indian entrepreneurship might not augur well for swadeshi; perhaps it may when redirected by the dynamic spirit of atmanirbhar abhiyān. But if the Gandhian principles and experience of Swadeshi are not followed it may end up rehearsing the old pattern of dominance in the race towards globalization, both economic and political.
Even as India’s global outreach brings its GDP growth rate close to 6.0 percent, there is a lack of adequate infrastructure for proper redistribution and utilization of state funds toward microsocial programs and empowerment for the precariously disadvantaged. The bureaucracy given to excessive red tape and middle-management, impacts on helpless farmers (who have been taking themselves to suicide), also on women farmers, or the powerless vegetable vendor in the local market. As the Berkeley economist, Pranab Bardhan, points out, this is India’s postcolonial tragedy, in contrast to China’s much better-organized infrastructure and distribution systems.
Dr. Purushottama Bilimoria is a Research Fellow with the Center for Dharma Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley; a visiting professor of the University of California; and a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is co-Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Dharma Studies.
Uma Majmudar’s Gandhi and Rajchandra shine a light on the seminal yet often overlooked influence of Shrimad Rajchandra— a Jain mystic, poet, and businessman—on Mohandas Gandhi.
Neither his critics nor his admirers would dispute that Mahatma Gandhi’s status as a historical figure is virtually godlike. As Lord Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, said in his tribute, “Mahatma Gandhi will go down in history on par with Buddha and Jesus Christ.”
Given such standing, it is hardly surprising that the human side of Gandhi has largely been downplayed in discussions about his life and message. It is easy to get the impression, after all, that Gandhi came into the world already as a Great Soul. Clearly, there is a tendency for us to presume that he was free of the internal struggles and challenges which so commonly characterize the lives of us “everyday people.” These kinds of impressions are unfortunate; they ultimately keep us from seeing that Gandhi’s life story includes much that we all can relate to as well as successfully apply to our own life situations. In Gandhi and Rajchandra: The Making of the Mahatma (Lexington Books) Uma Majmudar does much to fill this dearth of insight.
In Gandhi and Rajchandra, Majmudar explores the distinctive, indeed unparalleled, influence of the great Jain businessman, mystic, poet, and scholar, Shrimad Rajchandra, on Gandhi. She, in fact, compellingly makes the case that without Rajchandra, the man who the world would eventually revere as the Mahatma could never have come to be.
In discussing Rajchandra’s influence, Gandhi wrote, “I have met many a religious leader or teacher . . . and I must say that no one else ever made on me the impression that Rajchandbhai did.” While many scholars have emphasized the significance of Western intellectual giants, such as Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin, have had on Gandhi, the impact of Rajchandra on his life is not as well known. Though it is indisputable that Gandhi’s influences were eclectic, this work shows that he was, above all, groomed and fermented by cultural currents that were distinctly Indian.
Majmudar comparatively discusses the role that various “heavyweight spiritual champions” played in the Mahatma’s development and concludes, “Rajchandra alone would have the distinct honor of winning Gandhi’s heart and soul.”
She states: “The distinct contribution of Rajchandra as a teacher was to be the first faith figure to recognize Gandhi’s yet unarticulated spiritual aspirations and to help them grow… By his own example, Rajchandra taught Gandhi how to conduct one’s business with truthfulness. Also, from the poet, Gandhi first learned the art of integrating the spiritual, ethical, and worldly spheres of life with equilibrium and without sacrificing the main goal of Self-realization.”
Majmudar nicely provides a comprehensive historical narrative of the evolution of Gandhi’s relationship with his beloved teacher and mentor. Along the way, she illuminates particular struggles Gandhi coped with while he was on his way to becoming one of the greatest, most influential spiritual and social leaders in human history.
Members of the Indian diaspora can find, in these pages, a genuinely relatable Gandhi who (particularly when in South Africa) encounters serious difficulties in maintaining his own cultural identity, while at the same time seeking to incorporate the best aspects of the dominant colonial culture that was aiming to change him.
Majumdar cogently shows the indispensable place Rajchandra had for Gandhi in resolving such challenges. In the first of the two Appendixes provided, she reproduces 27 questions, along with the responses they evoked, which a religiously conflicted Gandhi posed to Rajchandra. These exchanges occurred after Mohandas had arrived in South Africa and encountered relentless pressure from non-Hindu friends to change his religion. Majmudar shows the vital significance this dialogue had for the formation of Gandhi’s identity by citing his own assessment of it:
“(Rajchandra’s) replies were so logical, appealing, and convincing that I regained my faith in Hinduism and I was saved from the conversion of religion. From that moment onwards, my respect and admiration for Rajchandra increased by leaps and bounds and I considered him to be my religious guide till he died and even after.”
In addition to underscoring points related to inter-religious dialogue, this Appendix provides a helpful context by which the reader can better understand those aspects of Gandhi’s life (most notably his attitudes toward human sexuality) that have long struck others as eccentric.
While the area of Gandhi studies has been saturated by many great works that are worthy of our attention, Majmudar gives us a genuinely unique and valuable addition to this always relevant field.
Sanjay Lal, author of Gandhi’s Thought and Liberal Democracy (Lexington Books, 2019), is a senior lecturer of philosophy at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia.
Every October 2nd, August 15th, January 26th, I fondly remember Gandhi Ji.
I was twelve – a young idealist with big dreams for my own life and a compelling desire to see India as a free and prosperous nation, free from the bondage of two hundred years of subjugation by the British.
Then in one of the rarest moments of my life, I had the good fortune to meet the most admired person in India, and the world –the Apostle of Peace and Non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi. The revered Father of India!
On massive, public grounds called the ‘Maidan’, a crowd of thousands had settled down on the ground. All from far and near were there. I sat along with my sixty schoolmates and teachers, anxiously glancing in every direction to catch the first glimpse of this magnificent hero of mine. I was viewing over a sea of Muslim caps, Congress Party’s Nehru caps, turbans of every color, shape, and size. Occasionally, heads popped up here and there. A bunch of people would stand up abruptly, as if aware of an arrival.
Then, as if magically, there appeared a diminutive figure, sparsely clad in a white home-spun cotton ‘Khadi Dhoti’, tucked in between the legs, giving the appearance of a loincloth. His narrow shoulders were wrapped around in a white, home-spun shawl. I was immediately reminded of Gandhi’s image, sitting on the ground with folded legs, spinning cotton yarn at a Spinning Wheel. He inspired Indians to be self-reliant, so as to be independent of the need to import cotton from the mills of Manchester, in Great Britain. Gandhiji’s images had inspired me, as they had done millions of others. I looked around at my friends. We were all wearing white saris with blue borders – a fabric of five and a half yards of hand-spun cotton. I was proud of myself.
As he got seated on a small, raised platform in the middle of the vast grounds, there was a hush, a deafening silence! Could this be Gandhiji? The same towering figure, which had shaken the foundations of the British Empire? Where was the augur who had incensed the Rulers to a fiery rage? Could this slight, slender frame endure all the hardships of endless imprisonments – sleeping on cold, cemented floors; fasting endlessly to make a point, and subjugate the mighty master’s will?
Yet this was Mahatma Gandhi, whom I had heard again and again over the loudspeakers, who had endeared himself to me, as to millions of others!
He spoke. Stillness prevailed. From microphones all around, his every word rang loud and clear – entering my consciousness. The echoes rolled from soul to soul.
As he spoke, I did not hear a lion’s roar. Yet, this calmly persuasive, magnetic voice was energizing and compelling:
“Arise, my children, rise!
Rise to your soul’s call!
Rise in Freedom, every waking moment!
Remember. When India introduced Zero to the Science of Mathematics, the possibilities became infinite, unlimited, un-limiting!
One small zero – one individual at a time, small or big, can magnify the possibilities a thousand-fold.
Each small voice, when joined by millions of your heroes, can reach across seven seas.
Do not underestimate the power of zero. The power of even the smallest, the gentles of you.”
The crescendo of his tone and message rose from perceptibly calming to invigorating, to uplifting. It was a magical moment; a mesmerizing experience! I was awed by the strength of Gandhiji’s convictions; the appeal of his persuasion across a wide spectrum of society.
“Follow you Dharma, your moral duty.
God’s truth demands Liberty and Justice for all.
We all are the children of one God. We Hindus, and we Muslims invoke the one and the same God, whether we call Him Ram or we call Him Allah.
We, all Indians, deserve the right to be in charge of our own destiny.”
Gandhiji’s inspiring, invigorating word liberated the downcast souls and challenged the masses. Even the faint-hearted, the indifferent felt an enthusiasm to take up the cause.
“There are times when you have to obey.
A call which is the highest of all, that is the voice of conscience.
Even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear,
And even more, separation from friends,
From family, from the state to which you may belong,
From all that you have held as dear as life itself.
For this obedience is the law of our being.”
A fine mix of elation and enthusiasm hung in the air. I was witnessing a rare moment in eternity, a moment bigger than life, infinitely bigger than myself!
Gandhi Ji’s message rings just as true today.
On becoming citizens of the United States of America, by birth or adoption, we have pledged to uphold the principle of ‘Inalienable rights of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for All’. In expressing our voice by casting our vote to elect the President and Congress, we fulfill our civic duty. Follow our Dharma. Our decisions on societal issues have an impact on our lives. They give direction to the destiny of the Nation too.
Remember, your one powerful vote has the power to change the course of history!
Usha Dhupa has lived extended periods of her life in Africa, India, England, and America. Her rich experiences over eight decades give us a panoramic view of her life. Find the rest of this story in her recently published book ‘Child of Two Worlds‘.
A decade ago, when I was a first-year medical student, I worried that modern medicine and pharmacology were based on animal products. I had been raised in a strictly vegetarian Jain household and had been taught to respect all living things. Thus seeing monkeys and dogs in cages used for experiments and dissections disturbed my belief system.
Fast forward to 2020. First the good news: physician training in American medical schools no longer requires animal dissection. But with the tragic coronavirus pandemic, my old concern about animals seems quite trivial. It seems that we should do anything and everything to save humans from suffering.
Because I practice sports medicine, I’m not with the frontline of clinicians tending to those with COVID-19. As such, I’ve been struggling to understand what Gandhiji would be doing if he were alive today. What should I be doing?
Here are a couple of quotes from Gandhiji that you might find of value. My own sense-making of Gandhian principles follow the quotes.
“There is a divine purpose behind every physical calamity.”
“I do not want my house to be walled in all sides, and my windows to be closed. Instead, I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet.” (M. K. Gandhi)
Thank you for this opportunity to consider Gandhiji’s response to the coronavirus. I imagine that he would have taken a multi-disciplinary approach.
Young Mohandas Gandhi had been both a trained and untrained nurse. As a child, he had tended to his ill father by sitting at his bedside and perhaps massaging his father’s head and legs. As a young man returning to India at the end of the 19th century, he confronted the Bubonic Plague and served his brother-in-law; while the ayurvedic treatments could not save his sister’s husband, he learned something about himself: “my aptitude for nursing gradually developed into a passion.” He famously used this aptitude for the healing profession during the Boer War in South Africa as the founder of the Indian Ambulance Corps. And through the rest of his life, he nursed himself through many fasts and served those with serious illnesses. His patients ranged from his wife and other immediate family to members of his ashrams and lepers whose stigmatized condition he championed. I recall this medical biography to suggest that, as a man of science, Gandhiji would have surely been at the frontline today serving COVID-19 patients in the ER or the ICU.
But Gandhiji understood that science has its limits. He wrote, “To state the limitation of science is not to belittle it.” I imagine that he would have recognized this crisis as an opportunity to head off larger crises. To be sure, he would have used his political talent to support organizations like W.H.O. to mitigate the socio-economic risks of future pandemics. But I believe that Gandhiji’s greatness lies in his multi-generational vision for humanity. The earth – all of it, and all of its creatures – was a Gandhian home. Not only would Gandhiji have directly faced the respiratory challenges of the coronavirus, but he, also, would have used the present danger to open windows and minds to confront even greater ecological, social, and spiritual catastrophes like climate change, enduring inequality, and cruelty to animals.
Using his tools of satyagraha, swaraj, sarvodaya, and ahimsa, Gandhiji would have encouraged us to be in satyalogue with each other, in truthtalk, about what we’ve learned about ourselves and each other during this pandemic.
Regarding your question about what you should be doing, I suggest using all of the gifts bestowed upon you from your religious upbringing and your medical studies; kindly consider how you can use that knowledge for your private spiritual growth and our public universal uplift.
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza has published a compilation of similar Q&A pieces addressing dilemmas that we face in the 21st century. His book Satyalogue // Truthtalk is available on Amazon.
On January 28, 1900, Swami Vivekananda looked out at the white audience at the Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, and spoke out against anti-Black racism. “As soon as a man becomes a Mohammedan, the whole of Islam receives him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does … In this country, I have never yet seen a church where the white man and the negro can kneel side by side to pray.
Half a century later, a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.
Why would a Hindu monk speak out against anti-Black racism? Why would a gay African American civil rights leader repeatedly face arrest fighting for India’s independence? South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. Our histories are deeply intertwined, even if our communities don’t always know it.
I don’t know if Vivekananda was scared to condemn American anti-Black racism. But I heard fear, or at least a great discomfort, when I talked to a young Desi activist speaking out against anti-Black racism. She wasn’t scared of engaging in civil disobedience, but the thought of talking to her parents left her speechless. “When I act in solidarity with Black people in this movement, I want to call my parents into the struggle,” she explained. “After an action, when Ma calls and asks if I’ve eaten and if my health is well and how is school, I want to tell her everything … Instead, I say, ‘My health is good, Ma.’ And it breaks my heart.”
South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. If we knew our shared history, would it make the conversations easier?
The Black Bengalis of Harlem: 1880s-1940s
Growing up in California, many of my South Asian friends were instructed by their parents that they weren’t allowed to marry someone African American—racism cloaked as “tradition.” But over the last several years, historian Vivek Bald has uncovered a history we were never told: when we were new to the United States, we were welcomed by African American communities, to intermarry, and built rich mixed lives together.
Between the 1880s and 1940s, two waves of South Asian men came to the United States, marrying and building new lives in African American, Creole, and Puerto Rican communities. Bald traced the story of these men and their lives in a strange new country in his groundbreaking book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
The first wave of these immigrants came to the United States from the Hooghly district of Bengal between the 1880s and 1910s. They worked as peddlers across the East Coast and the South, selling embroidered silks and “Oriental” goods from Bengal. These dark-skinned Muslim immigrants found homes in communities of color, with many settling in New Orleans. Bald found records of about two dozen South Asian men in New Orleans who married African American and Creole women.
Moksad and Elizabeth Ali married in 1895 and had six sons and a daughter. In 1900, they were living in a joint family in New Orleans’ Third Ward: Moksad, Elizabeth, their children, Elizabeth’s sister, and brother-in-law, and her 80-year-old grandmother, a freed slave from Virginia. The Alis later moved to Mississippi, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Alis had moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where a new Black Bengali community was about to form.
From World War I to the 1940s, the second wave of working-class Bengali ex-seamen was finding their way to New York, often settling in Harlem, the heart of African American New York. Vivek Bald, an intrepid history detective, scoured New York City marriage records to uncover the stories of Harlem Bengalis marrying African American and Puerto Rican women.
The community eventually spread outside Harlem, but the Bengali men, their wives, and their mixed-race families would continue to come together to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, and host an annual summer celebration bringing together hundreds of members of the scattered community.
Dreaming of Freedom, Standing Up for Civil Rights: 1920s-1947
From the 1920s onward, Indian and African American freedom fighters started recognizing the links between their struggles against colonial rule and racist oppression. Gerald Horne, Sudarshan Kapur, and others have written extensively about this history, often focusing on African American scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who corresponded with Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, and others.
By 1942, Horace Cayton, Jr. would write “it may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but India and the possibility of the Indians obtaining their freedom from England by any means has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” The NAACP, the prominent African American civil rights group, passed a resolution supporting Indian autonomy that same year, with accompanying statements from major African American artist-activists like Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.
African American poet Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote eloquently about the shared struggle of Indians and African Americans. “It just does not make sense,” he wrote, “for the Allied leaders of the Western world to make beautiful speeches about freedom and liberty and democracy with India still in chains and Negroes still jim-crowed.”
One of Langston Hughes’ several poems about Indian liberation, “How About It, Dixie” connected Indian political prisoners and African American victims of racist police brutality. It reads, in part:
“Show me that you mean / Democracy please— / Cause from Bombay to Georgia / I’m beat to my knees / You can’t lock up Nehru / Club Roland Hayes / Then make fine speeches / About Freedom’s way.”
Jawaharlal Nehru was devoted to solidarity with African America, connecting both with friends like Paul Robeson, and through intermediaries like Cedric Grover. After India gained independence, solidarity was complicated by the need to maintain good relations with a white-led American government. However, in a secret memo to the first Indian ambassadors to the U.S. and China, Nehru remained clear about India’s position: “our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes.”
How African Americans Created South Asian America: 1950-1960s
We are in the United States today because African American activists organized, bled, and died to overturn the racist laws keeping us out. American laws long restricted immigration from South Asia. While several thousand South Asians had journeyed to the United States by the early 20th century, the Immigration Act of 1917 explicitly barred our immigration. Three decades later, the 1946 Luce-Cellar Act loosened the restrictions—but allowed in only one hundred Indian immigrants per year.
From the 1950s onward, new waves of African American activists took on the policies upholding American racism. Civil rights activists organized in the face of social pressure, mob violence, police brutality, and domestic terror. In Mississippi, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his home. In Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was firebombed. In South Carolina, three students were shot and killed by Highway Patrol officers on a college campus. In Tennessee, Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood in support of local African American union workers. The list goes on.
Some early South Asian immigrants participated in the civil rights movement. For example, in his book Colored Cosmopolitanism, historian Nico Slate describes how in the mid-1960s, two professors in Jackson, Mississippi stood with their African American students to help desegregate the city in the mid-1960s. Hamid Kizilbash (from Pakistan) and Savithri Chattopadhyay (from India), both faculty members at Tougaloo College, challenged racial segregation and terror, taking advantage of their ambiguous racial status. (In one instance, a white mob stopped attacking a bloody Kizilbash after a priest yelled “he’s not Negro, he is Indian.”)
The civil rights movement won one of its biggest victories with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which created South Asian America as we know it today. This law ended the racist restrictive immigration quotas, allowing us to become one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with over 3.5 million South Asians in the United States today.
While the burden of the civil rights movement was carried largely by African Americans, perhaps no group has benefited as much from African American activism as Indian (and particularly upper-caste Hindu) Americans. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, the median Indian American household income is over two and a half times higher than that of African Americans, in part because of immigration policies favoring the selective import of skilled foreign workers like my father.
I grew up in the United States, and never questioned my right to be here. But my wife Barnali Ghosh came to the United States as a graduate student; and stayed on as an H-1B worker. Learning history made a deep impression on her. “I realized that my presence in this country, and the existence of our Desi community, was possible only because African American activists helped overturn anti-Indian immigration laws. How do we repay the deep debt that we owe?”
South Asians for Black Lives: 2014-
Seventy years ago, Bayard Rustin, a gay African American civil rights activist, repeatedly engaged in civil disobedience to support Indian independence. Across the country, South Asians are starting to repay the debt, at a time when African American activists are asking other communities for their support as they organize against racism and police brutality.
In Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was fatally shot, South Asians whose businesses were impacted by protests stood with their African American neighbors and often saw their neighbors stand up for them. Ferguson resident Anil Gopal, president of the St. Louis Asian Indian Business Association, described to India Abroad how “Black people came to help the (Indian) community … Some of them even kept vigil outside the store as long as they could, to protect the stores.”
In New York City, the DRUM (Desis Rising Up And Moving) South Asian Organizing Center brought together over a hundred community members to discuss race and policing in light of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, before starting a march against racism and for immigrant rights.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, South Asians organizing with #Asians4BlackLives have been engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against institutions responsible for killing African Americans.
Across the country, South Asian Americans are divided about how we understand our relationship to African Americans; many community members have never given much thought to the topic. The Queer South Asian National Network developed a free curriculum on confronting anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, which is being used for 1–2 hour workshops in New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and beyond. Little by little, some community members are choosing to repay the debt, continuing the century-long tradition of solidarity.
Growing up, I learned a version of our community’s history where we desis worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, never connecting with other communities of color.
But for over a century, South Asians and African Americans have lived entangled lives—Black-Bengali marriages, Vivekananda speaking out against anti-Black racism, satyagraha in the civil rights movement, Indian Muslims offering Black Muslims a more global perspective, Dalit activists learning about Black Power, long histories of individual friendships, and African American activists who first fought for our independence, and then helped end the barriers to our immigration.
Knowing our history leaves us with a choice. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard some of us openly express anti-Black racism; perhaps this is linked to casteism or colorism, or maybe we’re mimicking what we see and hear around us. Will we ignore our history and give in to some of our worst instincts? Many community members are choosing a different path, celebrating our shared histories, and helping add a new chapter to one of our best and oldest traditions.
Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of historic peace leader Mahatma Gandhi, took a stroll through the Fresno State Peace Garden on Feb. 21 while on campus for a special luncheon in his honor.
Rajmohan Gandhi, who is a research professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was in Fresno for the Interfaith Scholar Weekend. Started by Community United Church of Christ and Temple Beth Israel in 1998, the event brings a renowned scholar from one of the represented religious traditions to Fresno for a weekend of lectures and events on topics of interest to interfaith audiences.
At Fresno State, a bronze bust memorial of Mahatma Gandhi inspired the creation of the Peace Garden, just north of the Henry Madden Library. Three sculptures of other well-known social activists and peace leaders have since been added.
This year, as the Peace Garden celebrates its 30th anniversary, plans for a fifth sculpture is in the works, this time honoring Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and political leader who became South Africa’s first black president after spending 27 years in prison for his efforts against racial injustice. He was referred to as “The Father of the Nation” and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1993. Tuesday, Feb. 11, marked the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison.
Visit Fresno State News to read more about the Peace Garden and the Nelson Mandela statue.
By BoNhia Lee, communications specialist, University Communications. Photos by Cary Edmondson, University photographer.
Ding Ding TV, in partnership with India Currents and Civic Leadership USA (CLUSA), presented the next panel in a series to create a dialogue around how average citizens evolve from their roles as parents to civic leaders. In a panel moderated by Jeff Chow, Associate Vice President at Morgan Stanley, on September 27, 2019, the attendees of the event and the speakers explored education as a means for entering current community activism. The panelists were Nancy Alvarez , College Access Family Liaison at East Palo Alto Academy; Pragati Grover, former Board member for the Saratoga School District and Team4Tech Operations Manager; and Anjali Kausar, former Board member for the Cupertino School District and current CEO of the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce.
Three impressive women, mothers, and immigrants are bound together by their thread of passion for education. All three happened upon this mutual interest through their own children. Alvarez, who came from Mexico twenty two years ago, found herself advocating for her children who had been placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. Her children were regressing and falling behind because they were in ESL. She proposed that her decision to pull her kids out of the class eventually benefited them; she has one student at Stanford and one at UC Merced and continues to advocate for the next generation of under-resourced students at East Palo Academy.
Similarly, Anjali Kausar and Pragati Grover, began working in their children’s classroom and discovered that the teachers faced many difficulties. In order to be proponents of change, both became board members for the school district in their region. Kausar came from Africa thirty years ago and found it hard to navigate the school system. It was when she became entrenched in the school that she found not only a means to support her children but also her identity as an American. Grover shared this sentiment and stated, “One should give their time, not their money” and that “I want to give back because this is my community.” As immigrants, they both found their sense of belonging and identity by being a part of the school system and having a voice in their communities.
Once the panelists left the stage, we were graced by storytelling through the art of Bharatanatyam by Nirupama Vaidhyanathan. She came with a narrative that continued the message woven throughout the discourse of the night–a narrative of resilience, passion, and social activism. Her first performance was a journey in time to her ancestors who took part in the Salt Satyagraha with Gandhi. Her grandfather protested against the salt tax imposed by the British and had exchanges with other revolutionaries on the caste system, sanitation, and other barriers that Indians were facing under colonial rule.
Vaidhyanathan’s second piece was based on a Tamil poem by Sugathakumari. The poem encapsulated the evils of pollution on the environment and was interspersed with the Indian myth of Shiva churning the ocean to drink the poison created by the evil on Earth. It was clear by the end of the performance that this forum had left an impact on every person in the room.
In a day and age in which civic engagement may seem like a fruitless task, it was wonderful to see engaged and empowered women of color take the stage. One can only hope that the next generation can embody the tenacity of the three women who spoke on the panel. Keep checking in with India Currents to see when the next panel discussion will be and how you can become an engaged leader in your community.
The voice of intuition is often overruled by the voice of reason, leaving one with a sense of regret.
When Sonia Gandhi turned down the offer to become Prime Minister in UPA 1 in 2004 and attributed her decision to an “inner voice,” there was a sense of relief at her decision, yet many were intrigued over her choice of words. But then, cynicism crept in and most of us dismissed it as just a catchy turn of phrase.
Yet, the very same words when used in connection with the Mahatma assume a whole new dimension. I am certain that there was not an iota of self-interest in Gandhiji’s decisions.
The “inner voice” that the Mahatma referred to, goes much beyond the intuitive voice that an average person becomes privy to and is guided by. Being immersed in spirituality, Gandhiji submitted his physical body to a great deal of penance and perhaps it is this and his self-reflective meditative practices that honed his inner voice of consciousness to provide him the best possible counsel, which he applied to the service of the country.
The Dandi March was one such inspiration. The non-violent way in which Gandhiji showed his followers to not retaliate in the face of great brutality set a tone for the rest of the Independence struggle. It provided India with a path breaking moral supremacy and brought her closer to being able to achieve her goal of self rule.
Across the ages, there have been many prophets who were privy to this inner voice of wisdom. I have concurred that from this wisdom has developed the term “prophetic words.” Mahatma Gandhi was certainly among the greatest apostles of peace, who walked this earth. Who else but he could have chosen to keep away from Delhi when the Indian flag was unfurled for the first time on the 15th of August, to stay with those who were affected by the riots resulting from the Partition of India. Horace Alexander, a Quaker who was closely associated with Gandhiji, wrote his biography, Gandhi through Western Eyes and was with him on that occasion, made these observations: “What Gandhi did on that day was one of the most extraordinary happenings in his evening life. He brought peace to that great city of Calcutta, and to the whole of Bengal, where Hindus and Muslims had been killing one another almost daily for over a year.”
At every stage of his life, Gandhiji applied the principles of Ahimsa or non-violence towards all sentient beings and Satyagraha or the adoption of a higher consciousness of truth and morality. His was a life of humility and self-effacement. He spoke of the Talisman that he employed in his decision-making – whether the action that he was contemplating would benefit the last man – Sarvodaya through Antyodaya, which is at the core of India’s formation as a country.
I have understood that to understand the Mahatma’s inner voice, his own words resonate greatly: “I do not know what you would call a vision, or what you would call prophetic. When I announced my fast of 21 days in jail, I had not reasoned it. On retiring to bed the previous night, I had no notion that I was going to announce a fast for 21 days. But in the middle of the night a voice woke me up and said, ‘Go through a fast.’ ‘For how many days,’ I asked? ‘21 days’ was the answer. Now let me tell you that my mind was unprepared for it, disinclined for it. But the thing came through clearly as anything could be. Whatever striking things I have done in life, I have not done prompted by reason, but prompted by instinct, I would say, God. Take the Dandi Salt March of 1930. I had not the ghost of a suspicion how the breach of the Salt Law would work itself out. Pandit (Jawaharlal Nehru) and other friends were fretting and did not know what I would do; and I could tell them nothing, as I myself knew nothing about it. But like a flash it came and as you know, it was enough to shake the country, from one end to another.”
In the tradition of Yoga, all practices aim toward stilling the mind. Among other benefits, a mind bereft of thoughts can invoke super-natural powers that can offer prophetic guidance and extra-sensory perception also known as Siddhi.
Whilst great Yogic practitioners would use their powers for self realization, what makes Mahatma Gandhi different is his combining of the spiritual with the temporal; both in his single-minded quest to achieve independence for India and in wishing to wipe a tear from every eye. I am reminded of the Buddha, who did not end his quest by achieving enlightenment under the Bodhi tree but used his wisdom toward alleviating the same suffering that led him to question the meaning of life.
There is not much to look forward to from muscular leaders who will have the Mahatma’s statues dusted and pay lip service to him on his 150th birth anniversary in the name of nationalism. If only Gandhi would resurrect now to solve the problems of modern times. At the least we could emulate his universal and eternal vision even in the smallest ways. May all that was good in the Mahatma light a spark in those who follow, so that they might act as beacons for the world.
Melanie P. Kumar has been an Independent Writer and contributing for more than 20 years now. Married to a Gandhian scholar, she has had occasion to travel to many of the important places associated with Mahatma Gandhi. She has also attended innumerable seminars on Gandhi, which has prompted her interest in writing about the Mahatma in an effort to understand him.
Dr. Rajesh Oza has created a profound and resonant work in Satyalogue// Truthtalk by allowing entry at multiple levels and providing ideas for growth. The book is based on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life and autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”Oza’s writing draws us deep inside ourselves by providing questions and answers to re-evaluate our lives. It indeed becomes a living text: one to interpret in multiple ways, revisit with increasing understanding and joy. It was in experiencing the same concept from multiple dimensions that I realized Oza’s book offers a never-ending journey of the self.
Oza uses Gandhi’s brilliant architecture that framed a path to India’s liberation in four concepts, Satyagraha, Swaraj,Sarvodaya and Ahimsa. He adapts this framework for living well in modern times. Satyagraha, the search for truth to give your life meaning, forcing differentiation between reality and illusion, lies and truth. Swaraj means self-rule: the capacity to discipline the self thoughtfully. As Oza points out, “Swaraj is…Gandhiji’s prerequisite for independent India’s self-rule movement.” He elaborates this as a moral governor for rulers in any age. Too many world leaders are governed by ego, immorality, self desires and not by their constituents’ needs. Sarvodaya, understanding all world cultures, ensures we consider more options before choosing best life principles. Ahimsa, a concept of non-violence, the author reminds us is to “be the change you want to see in the world.” The Scope of Gandhi’s principle spans beyond India’s Independence but resonates within our lives, even today.
While a lifetime is necessary to internalize these overarching principles, Oza also provides relevant examples. I was moved by the leadership section, since it includes daily questions of how to remain ethical in a Nationalistic era. While effective leaders generally lead through thorny times, Oza wisely counsels us to remember that …”to be an effective leader, one must have self-rule (swaraj).” But he also reminds us, “all that wealth does not belong to me.” He stresses the concept of “Stewardship,” which implies delayed gratification for long-term results; stewardship implies the benefit of all stakeholders – employees, management and community. After successes or failures, effective leaders learn the dance of moving forward and stepping back to create high-performing organizations. In the climate change section, we see the seriousness of the problem; he argues that “…the father of Independent India was also the father of modern India’s conservation movement. He powerfully spoke to our stewardship of the earth–not as a backward-looking inheritance from our forefathers that we can squander, but rather as a forward-looking loan from our children and our children’s children’s children.”
Dr. Jyotsna Sanzgiri, served as Program Director, Dean and Professor from 1989 to 2017 at Alliant International University. She taught in the areas of Organizational Development and Change, often using principles from Gandhian philosophy for transformative change. Her parents worked closely with Gandhi and others for the Indian Independence movement, and Gandhi’s principles have shaped her life deeply.
“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try and find one’s way to the heart of the man…”
Thus begins Richard Attenborough’s epic 1982 film Gandhi with the extraordinary Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. The much-lauded film, a deeply moving homage, was made by an Englishman, for an international audience. Every word spoken in that film is in English. Even Gandhi’s unforgettable words on being shot, “He Ram!” known to every Indian, are spoken as “Oh God!” in the film.
In pleasing contrast, Naatak’s play, Gandhi, musical theater in the tradition of Naatak’s own “Mahabharat,” is multilingual, capturing India’s vibrancy in its many tongues. Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil are spoken, Bengali is sung along with Hindi and Gujarati, and we even see a couple of signs in Malayalam. Supertitles in English make the languages accessible to all. I watched it on September 20 at the Cubberley auditorium in Palo Alto.
In writer and director Sujit Saraf’s telling, the story begins with Mahatma Gandhi‘s journey to England, where he went to study law.
He returned to Bombay as a barrister, and after an unsuccessful 2-year stint, left for Durban, South Africa for work. Armed with his legal degree, he successfully represented oppressed Indian laborers, and gained stature and respect, both in South Africa, and in India. On returning to India as a well-known figure, he took on his historic role in India’s independence movement, transforming in time to “the little brown man in a loincloth who led his country to freedom” in the words of American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow at Gandhi’s funeral.
Attenborough’s film has been criticized by some as hagiography. as it unquestionably and admiringly portrays the saintly qualities of the man. Gandhi also had his eccentricities and odd, extreme behaviors. Sujit Saraf’s telling paints a more balanced portrait of the man, with his idiosyncrasies. He was not born, after all, as the Father of the Nation. In a few clever scenes, Naatak shows Gandhi’s foibles. He stops drinking cow’s milk, believing that the milk meant for calves is taken forcibly from a mother. When asked why it was OK to drink goat’s milk, and why he didn’t have the same reservations, he smiles and shrugs.
Then, the experiments with celibacy. As asked in the play, “Shouldn’t his wife have a say in the matter?” The play shows his early life and career in great detail, and humanizes the legend. Listen to more about this portrayal at KQED radio, where Sujit Saraf spoke with Michael Krasny on Forum earlier this month.
Naatak presents with fitting respect, Gandhi’s coining the term Satyagraha, the force of truth: the term for peaceful protests and civil resistance that are among his greatest contributions to society. Gandhi emerges as a man of conviction, a believer in fairness and justice, a calm, skilled negotiator in the face of racist opposition.
What runs most deeply through the play, as in his life, is Gandhi’s deep desire to unite Hindus and Muslims. On being told that “there is too much bad blood” in Noakhali, Bangladesh, he responded movingly “It is the same blood, good or bad.”
One of the most egregious and dishonorable attacks by Britain on Indian soil, the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, is depicted with tremendous artistry and power. As General Dyer commands his troops “Take your positions!” and continues with “Fire!”, the dancers fall to the ground, one by one, until none are standing. This, for me, was the most powerful scene in the play.
It was on the anniversary of this day that Gandhi planned to peacefully protest British oppression by marching to the coastline and making salt from the Indian Ocean. With civil resistance, he broke the British resolve.
Then independence and the bloodbath following Partition, was shown with a stage lit in blood-red.
The play ends with Gandhi’s assassination, the shock of the nation and the heartbreak of his loss permeating the audience. He fell to the volatile religious sentiment and animosity that he worked so hard to quench.
The play focuses much time on the making of the man. I wondered if a trade-off could have been made with more time devoted to the independence movement.
The acting overall is impressive and moving, even though some attempts to show his culture shock when he arrived in England to study law, being taught how to dance and play the violin, were a little slapstick.
The set is made of newspaper reports from Gandhi’s times: a period of extraordinary historic importance, World War II, India’s independence and Partition. The mood and import of the scenes are accentuated by the changing lighting that one sees through the set pieces.
The inclusion of live music and dance continues to enrich Naatak’s impressive productions. The dances are colorful and engaging, complementing the seriousness of the lyrics, set in South Africa in the early 19th century, and pre-Independence India. The music was extraordinary. Music director Nachiketa Yakkundi and his troupe are jewels at the edge of the stage.
Performances continue for the next two weekends, with a special performance on Oct 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Tickets are available (if any are left!) at www.naatak.org.
This article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is included here with permission.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.