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With a pinch of salt

Like his iconic grandfather, Arun Gandhi doesn’t care about political correctness, writes Ravi Kalia.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2008 14:08 IST
Ravi Kalia

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He first ruffled British feathers in South Africa by staging civil disobedience — Satyagraha — to fight segregationist laws against the Indian diaspora. Returning to India in 1915, he was dismayed by the Congress Party, which he found to be elitist in membership and purpose. The British saw Gandhi as a scalawag; the Indians saw him as a troublemaker. His countrymen mocked his doctrine of non-violence, and the British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill dismissed him as the ‘Naked Fakir’. But Gandhi — whose act of violating the Salt Laws in Dandi on April 6, 1930, will be commemorated on Sunday — persevered.

Now Gandhi’s South African-born grandson, Arun Gandhi, has ruffled the feathers of the Jewish American lobby that has reviled him for his article titled ‘Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence’ in the Washington Post’s ‘On Faith’ blog (January 7, 2008), in which he is critical of Israel’s heavy-handed treatment of the Palestinians. Acknowledging that “the holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful,” Arun Gandhi believes that the future of “Jewish identity” would be “bleak” unless Israel as a nation can move ahead and rid itself of the thinking that “its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs”. He wrote:

“In Tel Aviv in 2004, I had the opportunity to speak to some members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit — with many deadly snakes in it — and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbours would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you?”

The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and many other prominent Jewish-American organisations quickly condemned Arun Gandhi’s commentary. He was also condemned by the politically-correct Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which issued a press release declaring that HAF “absolutely” rejects remarks by Arun Gandhi. Nikhil Joshi, an HAF board member noted: “The simplistic and biased comments by Gandhi were not just unbecoming of one who presumes to lead a conflict resolution institute, but [are] dangerously misguided.”

But paradoxically, M.K. Gandhi’s life was not about political correctness. His grandson’s musings of the Israeli-Palestinian question are timid in comparison to former US President Jimmy Carter’s critique of the same question in his recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter’s book immediately came under criticism for the inclusion of the term ‘Apartheid’ in the title, and several Jewish intellectuals accused Carter of factual errors. Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who brokered the peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978, claims that he wrote the book in an effort to offer the Americans both sides of the story, and to promote an informed debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict that, according to him, has never taken place in the United States.

In 1991, Arun Gandhi and his late wife Sunanda founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute of Non-Violence in Memphis, Tennessee, to promote the Mahatma’s ideals internationally through educational programmes. In June 2007, the institute relocated to the University of Rochester in upstate New York. The institute itself is separate from Arun Gandhi and not formally part of the university. Under criticism, Arun Gandhi resigned as director of the institute, noting that his blog “was hurtful and contrary to the principles of non-violence”. Accepting the resignation, Joel Seligman, the university president, stated that the “institute will continue its mission here”, adding, “Universities exist and best serve all of us if they foster open and virtually unregulated teaching, research, discussion and debate, including viewpoints that are diametrically opposed to each other.” Evidently, Seligman missed the irony in his own statement.

The English historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that, to most people, history was something that happened to someone else a long time ago. But if history happens to us, it makes us uncomfortable. M.K. Gandhi was a prolific writer, and his writings stretching from 1888 to 1948 have been compiled into the Collected Works of M.K. Gandhi. He is one of the few men of the 20th century to be most written about. He is also the subject of at least four films. And yet he is the most misunderstood person.

Revered as the Mahatma and endeared as simply Bapu by his followers, Gandhi comes down to most Indians through the mists of national memory. What, after all, is history if not the words handed down through remembrance and kinship? Like other schoolchildren throughout India, I remember his portrait gazing down at me from the walls of my classrooms: the Mickey Mouse ears, the steel-rimmed glasses, the disarming smile. The benign and intelligent eyes seemed to beseech the young to be wary of the evil.

The Mahatma did, indeed, fight hard for One India, accepting in the end most of the changes brought about by the Partition. His complicated commitment to the Hindu-Muslim accord, I surmised, was the skein that held his life together, despite his later disappointment. His very inheritance was suffused with devotion to the doctrine of non-violence, and every episode of communal violence simply ratified his belief in the dictum that “an eye for an eye makes the world blind”.

There were two sides to Gandhi’s non-violence — observing himself and observing others, and then designing his response in a clear and clean way that was politically effective and yet spiritually non-violent. His adversaries could not help but envy in Gandhi that which, if he had been a singer, might have been called his ‘purity of tone’. From my reading of his life, he sensed that Partition would bring about the bloodiest conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims, and he was right. The statistics of death, mutilation and disease, on both sides, were astounding, more than 10 million refugees and over 1 million dead.

M.K. Gandhi was born and raised in the small coastal town of Porbandar. The small-town India never left Gandhi, though it always seemed subtly at war with his national stature, which might explain why he preferred to live in ashrams, his template for the idyllic village with which he had a mystical relationship. And yet, I believe, he felt the palpable challenge, as Jack Burden had in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, that he must “go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time”.

One defining trait that remains a constant throughout Gandhi’s life is a passion for discovering the truth of history. He deemed fanaticism and folly — ultraism and sectionalism — as dogmas at which every patriot breast must stand appalled. And perhaps he went too far in his search for the truth when he fasted to persuade the young Indian government to transfer to Pakistan its share of the funds from the British treasury. A hothead shot him dead.

Ravi Kalia is the Distinguished Asian Alumni Professor at The City College of New York.