Volume 19 Number 1
A World Away From 'Us' and 'Them'
01 February 2006

Edward Peters accompanies Rajmohan and Usha Gandhi on a speaking tour of Britain.

A LEARNED PROFESSOR happy to say 'I don't know' when asked a question to which he has no answer-this may be a rare species. A Hindu serving as a bridge between Muslims and Christians may be rarer still. The British had an opportunity to encounter both in one person, when Rajmohan Gandhi visited Britain for two weeks last November with his wife, Usha.

Rajmohan Gandhi is Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois and a noted journalist and writer. His books have included biographies of both his grandfathers, Mahatma Gandhi and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, India's first and only Indian Governor General. He is also a seasoned campaigner. In 1963 he led a 'March on Wheels' for a 'clean, strong and united India'. In the mid-Seventies the weekly magazine he edited, Himmat, was a prominent opponent of Indira Gandhi's 'Emergency', a semi-dictatorship. In recent years he has worked for understanding between Hindus and Muslims, Pakistanis and Indians, and between Muslims and the West.

When Initiatives of Change invited the Gandhis to Britain, the London bombings of last July had not yet taken place. The visit was all the more relevant in the light of the fractures in British society which these events brought into sharper focus.

As my wife, Elisabeth, and I travelled with the Gandhis, we were privileged to see Britain through their eyes, and to witness their vision for our country expressed in many settings.

Edinburgh University's Martin Hall drew an overflow audience, and Liverpool Hope University an even larger crowd. Civic leaders and young people came to meet them in Sheffield's Town Hall and the Bradford Council of Mosques' community centre. Three hundred and fifty crowded into the Oxford Union debating chamber, and 550 into London's Friends House, where Mahatma Gandhi had himself spoken in 1931. Students from four Bradford schools gathered as part of an ongoing project to increase interfaith understanding in that city. Many of those who came to these events were themselves engaged in bridge-building work.

What was the Mahatma's essential ethic? 'To those who said means are after all means, the Mahatma's reply was that means are after all everything,' said Rajmohan. 'Fight the right way, he said, but don't duck the fight. He taught us that we must be ready to pay a price for our convictions. There is no change on the cheap.'

The Mahatma taught that there is no 'us and them'. 'And there is no high and low.' Usha expressed this graphically. International exchange rates establish a standard for one currency against another. But is a life over there worth as much as a life here?

Or as Rajmohan asked in Sheffield, 'Is there room in my heart for everyone, or do I respond differently to different people's suffering?'
Rajmohan constantly emphasised the danger of accepting the notion of a 'clash of civilisations'. He warned against judging whole communities by the actions or beliefs of a few. This tendency, he said, had led to the Holocaust and to massacres in Rwanda and elsewhere. 'How quickly we unlearn the lessons of the past.'

I saw Rajmohan at his most passionate in response to two young men of Indian origin who suggested that India's biggest problem is the accelerating Muslim birth rate. You could feel the memory of the half million killed in communal violence in 1947 welling up inside him, as, with tears in his eyes, he pleaded with these men not to add fuel to the fires of fear of Muslims.
He was moved to hear from two Muslim professionals who have lived most of their lives in Britain about the suspicion they have encountered since the London bombings. One pointed out that Muslims in Britain are just as likely to be victims of terrorism as non-Muslims, but still face increased hostility from other citizens.

'The Muslim world is the actual and potential ally of the West, and vice versa,' Rajmohan stressed. 'Muslims hate terrorism as much as anybody else in the world, and perhaps even more, for more Muslims have been killed in terrorist acts than non-Muslims.'

An academic wrote after Rajmohan's Oxford lecture, 'With my early years lived in Belfast, I could relate to some of his warnings about attitudes to Muslims. Prejudice against Irish accents at the height of the Troubles is an interesting parallel.'

Not enough people in the UK and the US, Rajmohan feels, have tried to find out why so many in the Middle East are so resentful. 'Why is there the oxygen of support for the killings? The question must be asked again and again. Answers must be found.'

'Do you see yourself following in Gandhi's footsteps?' asked a Liverpool questioner. 'I try to be true to my conscience,' replied Rajmohan. 'What is it right to do? I don't ask, "What would my grandfather have done?" '
He has the gift of making a questioner feel their question is of special value. On one occasion, an elderly man asked a question which was more of a comment. Rajmohan replied, 'You have said better in two minutes what I said in 45.' And you felt he meant it.

Asked by a Sheffield businessman what those in the room could do practically about the issues raised, Rajmohan answered, 'That is the easiest question so far. I don't know! That is for you to figure out.'
In Sheffield a group of 14-15 year olds, training for leadership, made a presentation to the Gandhis. Asked to respond, Rajmohan appreciated their sense of purpose, their desire to understand the suffering of others and their teamwork. 'What you convey together is more than what you convey individually.'

The search for common ground, emphasising areas of agreement rather than differences, was a constant theme. To a University of Kent student he said, 'If we are looking for people who are 100 per cent committed in all the areas we are concerned with, we will be leading a solitary march.' We must try not to alienate those who only agree with us partially. 'Our desire to get 100 per cent agreement with everyone is destructive.'

Dialogue was a theme in several radio interviews given by Rajmohan. He spoke of the need to 'embrace dialogue' at all levels, and called for 'interlocutors' from all sides. When we approach someone different from ourselves, said Usha, we may expect the worst but find that 'when we stretch out our hand we are met with openness'.

'Britain is a family,' pointed out Rajmohan, 'a changing, evolving, imperfect, yet rich and wonderful family. Providing security to the British family is a primary duty, for a government and citizens. Yet survival cannot be a national purpose. Britain was not created merely in order that it should survive. It was created for a great purpose.

'As for Britain's world role, perhaps we should remember Gandhi's thought about the place given to the human conscience in the long story of Britain, the historic concern of the British people for the vulnerable.
'And perhaps we should recognise that the clash in the world today is not between civilisations, cultures, religions or nations, but rather between forces inside each heart, between fear and faith, between fear-or hate-and acceptance.'

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all came from a politician at a dinner for the Gandhis in Parliament. 'Over the past 200 years there have always been ideas that sought to dominate the world,' he said. 'Could the idea of dialogue become a dominating idea for the 21st century?'

Only through such dialogue, I thought as the Gandhis left our shores, can bridges be built. Only through 'discovering the other', and the changes of heart it engenders, can Britain become a home for all its people-and, just possibly, the world a family.