Mahatma Gandhi's Grandson Meets US Policymakers
29 March 2007
Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma and Visiting Professor in the Program of Middle East and South Asia Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, visited Washington, DC, with his wife Usha in late March.
Rajmohan Gandhi, Visiting Professor in the Program of Middle East and South Asia Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and his wife Usha visited Washington, DC, March 20 - 25. Their visit was organised by Initiatives of Change. Drawing on his recent book, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, a Nation and an Empire, published to great acclaim by Penguin Books in India in January, Rajmohan intrigued and fascinated everyone he met with the relevance of his grandfather’s life and thinking to contemporary issues, such as the divide between Islam and the West.
In private meetings with senior Administration officials, Members of Congress and a key member of the Iraq Study Group, and in public engagements at the World Bank, the Library of Congress and George Washington University, Rajmohan suggested that much could be learned from the Mahatma’s attitudes to violence and non-violence, his profound respect for all individuals and faiths, his commitment to empower the marginalized and his determination to bridge the Hindu-Muslim divide.
For example, after partition of the sub-continent in 1947, Gandhi announced his intention to visit the eminent Muslim leader, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, one more time. His colleagues strongly advised him against this, as it would be 'a waste of time'. But Gandhi said to them: 'I would meet with Jinnah 70 times 7 if necessary. It is vital, as he and I have to share the same space'.
In response to questions about non-violence, Rajmohan said that Gandhi advocated non-violence in India’s pursuit of independence, because this made it possible for everyone to participate, including women and children. Commenting on this at a reception at the McLean IofC Center, Eunice Mathews, the 92 year old daughter of the well-known American evangelist E. Stanley Jones, recounted her meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. following the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize. He told her that he had read many books on Gandhi, but only after reading a quote from him in her father’s book did he say, 'this is it.' When visiting the King Center later, she saw her father’s book opened to the page with the following quote marked: 'Non-violence is not for the weak, but for the strong – only the strong.' Thus, Gandhi exhorted Muslims in the Northwest Frontier region of India, now Pakistan, to become, 'a human wall of protection to their Hindu and Sikh neighbors.' At the same time, Rajmohan indicated on several occasions, that for Gandhi, 'self-defense was everyone’s birthright.'
When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Rajmohan said that he thought Gandhi might well encourage the Palestinian people to consider his non-violent approach, and would also exhort dialogue and consultation from the other side. He would also remind Muslims of their history of welcoming Jews fleeing persecution from Christian lands.
Rajmohan recounted that while Gandhi was killed by people who saw him as being too friendly to Muslims, he actually had a bit to overcome for him to reach the point of team-work with Muslims. At age 12 Gandhi’s mother warned him against touching an 'Untouchable' boy, also 12 years old, who came to the house to clean the lavatories. 'If you accidentally touch this boy, you must immediately take a bath to get rid of the polluting touch.' Gandhi argued with his mother on this, and asked what he should do if such a touch occurred at school or on the street. His mother said that he could cancel the unholy touch by touching any Muslim passing by. Inferring that Muslims were also unclean, the second 'pollution' would remove the first.
Asked to comment on US-India relations, Rajmohan said the two countries were inextricably bound together – not only by democratic values and trade, but also by the fact that so many children of the Indian establishment were studying or working here. However, he continued, 'India has to find a really honest relationship with the US – one of love, respect and gratitude, built on frankness.' Summing up his vision, he concluded, 'I dream that India can play a role in bridging the global divide between Islam and the West. The alternative, if the conflict is allowed to go to its conclusion, is destruction and death.'
Many were touched by the spirit Rajmohan and Usha brought with them. Among them was a Muslim medical doctor, who said at the concluding reception: 'At George Washington, I expected him to talk about his book. But the first segment of his talk was in defense of Islam. As a Muslim-American today I am anguished by my state of being… The opening words for every Muslim text starts: “In the name of God, the Merciful and the Benevolent”. I have not seen such mercy and benevolence as I saw in Rajmohan’s words about Islam during that gathering. It made me think very deeply. I have been connected with MRA/IofC for many years,witnessed many people express apology, and it has never meant as much to me as this moment, when I felt how much I needed to apologize to India for any wrong-doings the Muslims have done to this nation and country.
Our human family can learn from a gesture such as Rajmohan’s the other day. It touched me deeply – his mercy and benevolence'.
Charles Aquilina and Randy Ruffin