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Mentor Blog

Saturday, July 25, 2009

When Gandhi Encounters 600 Thugs in Rajkot

A while back, I had heard a story from Gandhi's life that gave me goosebumps. "My greatest weapon is a mute prayer," he used to say.

I happened to be leafing through page 418 of Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Gandhi and thought I'd post the full account as it appears in the book:

There was talk of threat to Sardar Vallabh Patel's life. Then, on 16 April, a 600-strong mob of sword-swinging and lathi-carrying Muslims broke up a prayer meeting that a barely fit Gandhi, some months shy of his 70th birthday, was conducting in Rajkot, a tried forcibly to disperse a cordon of unarmed volunteers around Gandhi.

Remaining at Gandhi side, Kalelkar's 26-year-old son Bal, who had been a Dandi marcher in his teens, 'suddenly noticed that Bapuji's whole body began to shake violently'. Bal Kalelkar thought that the shaking:

was not out of fear; his face could tell how free from fear he was. The physical reaction was his revolt against the disgusting atmosphere of violence.

Pyarelal, who was not far, wrote what we have already quoted. He would say that the shaking was set off by a sudden attack of sharp pain near the waist, 'an old symptom that seizes him whenever he receives an acute mental shock.' Added Pyarelal:

For a time he stood in the midst of that jostling crowd motionless and silent, his eyes shut, supporting himself on his staff, and tried to seek relief through silent prayer ... As soon as he had sufficiently recovered, he reiterated his resolve to go through the demonstrators all alone. He addressed a Bhayat, who stood confronting him: "I wish to go under your sole protection, not co-workers."

Bal Kalelkar's account suggests that this time the prayer was not silent, that Gandhi cried out to God:

Suddenly he closed his eyes and started praying. I could hear him saying Ramnam with an intensity of devotion that could never be surpassed. I join him in his prayer and to keep time to our chanting of God's name I started patting my hand on his back ...

The prayer worked. When Bapuji reopened his eyes there was a new strength that appeared then like magic. In a firm tone, he asked all volunteers to quit that place at once and leave him aboslutely alone at the mercy of the hired goonda (thugs) ...

Then he called the leader of the gang who was busy breaking up the congregation and told him that he was absolutely at his disposal if he cared to argue out his point; if not, would he tell what he proposed to do next? To everyone's amazement the hugs' violence melted like ice. The leader of the gang stood before Bapuji with folded hands ... That evening he walked all the way home with one hand on the shoulder of the leader of the gang.

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