The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center
for International and Area Studies at Yale
Gandhi in Our Times
By Melinda Tuhus
On April 19, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi gave the annual Gandhi lecture at the Whitney Humanities Center. Rajmohan Gandhi is a professor of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, a political activist and author. Last year he published a biography of his paternal grandfather.
In the talk, sponsored by the South Asian Studies Council at the MacMillan Center, Gandhi outlined his grandfather’s life in India, England, South Africa and then back to India to lead his country’s independence struggle. Though his name is synonymous worldwide with non-violence, the younger Gandhi said he wanted to make one thing clear.
“Gandhi’s non-violence, though profoundly held and maintained and defended in the most challenging circumstances was, nevertheless, not always absolute.” To illustrate, he quoted Gandhi’s son asking how he [I think it’s clear who you mean] should respond to physical attacks on his father. Gandhi told him, if you can’t defend me non-violently, you may have to use violence. Other examples are Gandhi’s support for both World War I and World War II.
The speaker traced the development of Gandhi’s embrace of non-violence. As a law student in London, Gandhi believed that violence would be necessary to win India’s independence from Britain. And later, in South Africa, he still espoused the need for violence to achieve a positive end. But knowledge through books led to a profound philosophical and ethical shift: he read Tolstoy’s writings on non-violence, and he read the history of the 1857 rebellion in India against British rule. This conflict had much violence on both sides, but “the violence of the Indian leaders invited a reprisal that was ten times, 20 times, 100 times, 200 times greater. That convinced him of the folly of angry rebellion,” said the younger Gandhi.
In a reference to the title of his talk, “Gandhi in our Times,” the younger Gandhi said, “I don’t live in Iraq, I don’t live in Palestine, but I do feel that those fighting for Palestinian independence or Iraqi independence ought to ponder this question of what sort of rebellion is successful and what sort of rebellion makes the situation worse.”
While living in South Africa, his grandfather was the leader of an ambulance team during the Zulu rebellion there. “His heart is very much on the Zulu side,” explained his grandson, “but his head tells him that unless the Indians join the British in suppressing the rebellion, the Indians will be forced out of South Africa.” Partly out of guilt, he set up the ambulance team and nursed many of the injured Africans. “It was that experience of the cruelty of the operation, where Zulus were shot out of cannons, just as happened in the Indian uprising of 1857, that confirmed what an unwise, angry rebellion does.”
Shortly afterward, Gandhi led the first Indian satyagraha (“truth force”) protest in South Africa, based on the philosophy, “Not only is violence wrong, there is a non-violent way of fighting.” That belied the common misperception that non-violence is passive.
The speaker then turned to Gandhi’s environmentalism, noting that many people have attributed the quote, “There’s enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed” to his grandfather. “That statement is very much in tune with Gandhi’s ideas, but it’s not a Gandhi statement.” He added, to chuckles from the audience, “Many very choice quotations in the world acquire a little greater force if they’re attributed to Gandhi.”
Gandhi described Tolstoy Farm, one of the ashrams the elder Gandhi founded as a refuge for Hindus, Christians and Muslims. “He said, ‘I don’t want this to be a Hindu farm, and if you people feel it necessary, there can be a non-vegetarian kitchen, and if some of you would like beef, even that may be permitted in your section of it.’ Everybody said they were happy with a vegetarian kitchen, but it’s interesting: this passionate vegetarian wants autonomy for his Muslim and Christian colleagues and comrades.”
Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and became one of the leaders pushing for independence. On April 13, 1919, the British killed hundreds of Indians in the Jellianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. The troops fired with no warning and at least 389 Indians were killed, probably many times more. Shortly before that, Indians had killed five young Englishmen. In December of that year, the Indian National Congress convened in Amritsar to commemorate the massacre. All the major players of the independence movement were there, including Gandhi, who was not yet the unquestioned leader he was to become.
The delegates debated a resolution condemning the massacre in Amritsar, with an addendum condemning the violence from the Indian side also. Most of the delegates were aghast at the second part of the resolution, and it was roundly defeated. But Gandhi asked the next day that it be reconsidered. Referring to a comment one delegate had made – that no son born of an Indian mother could have drafted the resolution – Rajmohan Gandhi recounted, “Gandhi said he had considered deeply and long whether he could have drafted the resolution, for indeed he had drafted it. But after long searching of the heart, he had come to the conclusion that only a person born on an Indian mother could have drafted it. Then he spoke as if his whole life depended on the question. The resolution was reconsidered and accepted in its original form.” The younger Gandhi concluded, “When Gandhi confronted his own people with the truth and challenged them, they responded to it, and that is how the Indian movement got its stamp of nobility, before which the British empire had no answer.”
Returning again to the question of Palestine, Gandhi quoted his grandfather as saying that it was wrong for the Jews to enter Palestine “under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the good will of the Arabs.” But the Mahatma added, “I am not defending the Arab excesses; I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarranted encroachment upon their country.”
Gandhi concluded his talk by sharing his grandfather’s view on the issue of a religious versus a secular state. In September 1946 – with independence a virtual certainty – he was asked if India would have a state religion. He said, speaking as a devout Hindu, “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion; I would die for it, but that’s my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it.”
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