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Mentor Blog

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fifty Years after King’s Pilgrimage to India

“Why don’t you go to India and see for yourself what the Mahatma, whom you so admire, has wrought,” friends told Martin Luther King, Jr., after the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. By the time he accepted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation to visit India in February 1959, King saw himself as a “pilgrim” to “Gandhi’s land.”

This year's fiftieth anniversary of King’s month-long visit to India had special significance at a time when the frustrated aspirations of millions are expressed through terrorism and intergroup violence rather than the constructive alternatives of Gandhi and King. Arriving in India convinced that “non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” King was assured that Gandhi’s influence in India was “felt in almost every aspect of life and public policy,” but his tour also revealed the profound changes that had occurred in India since Gandhi’s assassination.

After disembarking in New Delhi on 10 February, Martin and Coretta King discussed Gandhi’s complex legacy during a dinner with Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten at Teen Marti Bhavan, the prime minister’s residence. Although Nehru assured the Kings that he still believed that India should never stop promoting Gandhian nonviolent principles, he added that, as a head of state, it would be folly for him to lead India further down that road alone.

The Kings learned that Nehru had already abandoned Gandhi’s model of local economic sufficiency in favor of western-style industrial development. They could not have known that Nehru was considering the possibility that India’s ambitious nuclear power program (which was then consuming a third of the nation’s research budget) could someday produce nuclear weapons. Martin King recalled that Nehru was confident that India could avoid the “pitfalls” of industrialization, if the state kept a “watchful eye” on development.

Nehru’s commitment to Gandhian principles was more evident in his policies regarding the “untouchables” or, as Gandhi called them, the Harijan. Contrasting India’s policies of preferential treatment for the lowest castes with pervasive racial discrimination in the United States, King applauded the fact that India leaders were exerting their “moral power” against caste discrimination. He noted that “in the United States some of our highest officials decline to render a moral judgment on segregation and some from the South publicly boast of their determination to maintain segregation.”

Despite Nehru’s wavering support of Gandhian idealism, King was nonetheless impressed that he was at least enthusiastically welcomed by Nehru and other Indian political leaders at a time when he lacked similar access to America’s top leaders.

As his tour continued, King was able to visit several Ashrams and rural development experiments that reflected Gandhi’s influence. Especially memorable was his visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, where Gandhi had begun his 1930 Salt March to the sea.

Another high point of King’s tour was his meeting on 3 March with Gandhian disciple Acharaya Vinoba Bhave, leader of the Bhoodan movement. In his extended discussions with Gandhi’s spiritual successor, King, still barely thirty years old, modestly asked the sixty-three year-old Vinoba for guidance. When King asked about the limitations of nonviolence, Vinoba insisted that even totalitarian regimes were “composed of human beings” and that nonviolence required faith. “Mere argument and persuasion is not enough,” he explained.

King would later describe Vinoba as “sainted,” despite admitting his ideas sounded “strange and archaic to Western ears.” King worried, however, that “Bhoodanists shrink from giving their movement the organization and drive that we in America would venture to guess that it must have in order to keep pace with the magnitude of the problems that everybody is trying to solve.”

As his four week visit came to an end, King acknowledged that many Indians wanted their nation to become more westernized and modernized. King, however, placed his hopes in those who equated westernization with “the evils of materialism,” which would “only raise the living standards of the comparative few workers who get jobs” while “the greater number of people will be displaced and will thus be worse off than they are now.”

In his farewell statement on 9 March, King admitted that he could not presume to “know India” after a single visit, but he nonetheless offered a gratuitous suggestion for Nehru’s government. “It may be that just as India had to take the lead and show the world that national independence could be achieved nonviolently, so India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament.”

When he arrived in India, King was a novice protest leader whose activities were only beginning to expand beyond Montgomery. Afterwards, he would increasingly speak of the African-American civil rights struggle as part of a global struggle of “minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism.” Still seeing himself as a student of Gandhian principles, he would soon inherit Gandhi’s mantel as the world’s most influential advocate of nonviolence.

Modified version of an article originally published in Times of India, January 1, 2009