- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

The re-enactment of a symbolic march for salt that changed the course of India’s struggle for independence from British rule 75 years ago has reignited a debate in the country on Mohandas Gandhi and his message of nonviolence.

Two descendants of Gandhi say his message is still relevant and hope the anniversary of the Dandi March could stoke some interest in his teachings.

The man called the “Mahatma” (great soul) and referred to as the architect of India’s independence from British colonial rule, has been all but forgotten in his home country, some analysts say, as India moves away from its Gandhian-Nehruvian socialist past to become a key player in economic globalization.

“India was never Gandhian,” said Arun Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma who was in Washington earlier this month. Soon after independence, the ruling Congress party abandoned Gandhian socialism and nonviolence, and in the rush toward capitalism and acquisition of nuclear weapons in the recent past, the country’s leaders barely remember Gandhi, he said.

“Now anything wrong with India is blamed on Gandhi.”

The past three weeks have offered a new opportunity for the country to re-examine its direction, albeit rhetorically, and test its people’s awareness of the Gandhian message. The occasion is the 75th anniversary of a symbolic march led by Gandhi against a tax on salt imposed by the British rulers.

The Congress party, which leads the federal government in New Delhi, has organized a re-enactment of the march in Gujarat state — where the government is headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP shares its root with the militant Hindu organization blamed for the Gandhi assassination. The state government is “indifferent” to the march, said Tushar Gandhi, a son of Arun Gandhi who is leading the march.

The 241-mile, 3½-week-long march on March 12 was started by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma). She said Gandhi’s path “is the only one that can truly serve the nation.”

“With this march, we are not just expressing faith in Gandhi, but our bigger aim is to make the new generation of India aware of Gandhi’s ideals,” Agence France-Presse quoted her as saying.

The participants will be welcomed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as they end the march in the coastal town of Dandi on April 6.

Hundreds of Indians and foreigners gathered in the Gujarat city of Ahmedabad to join the march, signaling a level of interest in Gandhiism that has survived the materialistic fast lives of Indians and foreigners.

Among the participants are a 94-year-old man from central Madhya Pradesh state, and several villagers who witnessed the original march 75 years ago.

“Gandhi is my hero,” American student Christopher Zink told AFP. “This march will help me know him more closely.”

Shang Quan-Yu, a college professor from China’s southern Guangdong province, said today’s world is the same as in the Gandhi era. “There is strife and conflict. We badly need Gandhi today,” he said.

“I am a child of the United States of the Depression and World War II. It brings tears to my eyes to see that even at the end of our lives, the world has not changed,” said Joyce Barnett, 70, from Florida.

Tushar Gandhi said at the start of the march that at least 60 foreigners had already arrived and he expected more to join on the way, including about 150 from neighboring Pakistan.

“We have at least one country from each continent represented at the march,” he said.

Fans and followers of Gandhi also have organized smaller marches around the world, including one in Hawaii, he said.

He was, however, disappointed that he could not bring parties from regions in conflict such as Iraq, Korea and Palestinian territories to the march.

Mohandas Gandhi, at age 61, set off from Ahmedabad on March 12, 1930, accompanied by a group of 78 followers. When he arrived in Dandi 24 days later, the numbers had swollen to thousands and the march had attracted international attention.

On the shores of Dandi, Gandhi picked up a handful of salt, symbolically breaking a British law that allowed only the colonial government to produce salt, a staple of Indian diet.

The action triggered mass disobedience across India, forcing the British government to arrest thousands besides Gandhi.

Tushar Gandhi said he hopes to revive interest in Gandhi and create an understanding of his message by re-enacting the march that galvanized the movement against the British rule.

“Gandhi is worshiped more as an icon than his philosophy is practiced,” he said in a telephone interview.

Both Arun and Tushar Gandhi say the definition of Gandhian nonviolence encompasses more than opposition to physical violence.

Arun Gandhi said the Mahatma was not just against overt physical violence, but he also focused on passive violence.

“He wanted to replace the culture of violence with the culture of nonviolence.”

Passive violence, Mr. Gandhi said, would include all forms of psychological, social, cultural, economic aggression and exploitation.

“Poverty is the greatest form of violence,” he said and pointed out that rich nations are not doing enough to help the poor ones to improve their lot.

“The tragedy is most people have not understood Gandhi’s philosophy in totality.”

Arun Gandhi, who once worked as journalist in India, sold a bunch of personal letters from his grandfather in 1989 to raise funds to start an institute for nonviolence in the United States.

After the Indian federal government led by Rajiv Gandhi — grandson of Gandhi’s close associate and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru — showed no interest in the government acquiring the letters, they were auctioned by Christie’s of London and fetched $56,000.

Mr. Gandhi said an Indian debate on national treasures being sold to a foreign bidder resulted in the low price.

He started the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in 1991 and it is hosted by Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn.

The low amount of seed money means the institute cannot invite scholars from India and elsewhere, and has only two full-time staffers, depending largely on volunteers.

The institute organized two conferences on Gandhi in 1994 and 2004, and plans one in October with funding from the Assisi Foundation, a Catholic charity.

Mr. Gandhi also has been traveling to various parts of the world spreading the message of nonviolence. He doesn’t believe in trying to persuade powerful politicians to change. “The change must come from the bottom, not from above,” he said.

Citing the strategy of the Mahatma, he said he does not harbor high expectations. Gandhi’s advice was to “plant the seeds of a nonviolent social movement like a farmer, and leave it to the people to nurture their growth.”

Last year, he went to a hotbed of violent struggle, the Palestinian territories, at the invitation of a group called Palestinians for Peace and Democracy.

He met with Yasser Arafat for more than an hour and explained why the Palestinians’ method in fighting the Israelis had not worked. The Palestinian leader was impressed enough with the conversation to ask him to address the Palestinian parliament.

He said the Palestinians were only reacting to Israeli actions, but were unable to match the military might of the Israelis.

“With nonviolence, you are the master of the situation,” he said he told the Palestinians.

In his meetings with Israeli officials, Mr. Gandhi pointed to their need to build a prison around themselves in order to keep themselves secure.

“I think the message of nonviolence is very relevant today because the level of violence we see all around us is very high,” he said.

Mr. Gandhi also sees relevance for Gandhiism in the social-economic field. The biggest enemy today is selfishness of people, groups, corporations and governments, and greed for power and wealth, he said.

Selfishness is taught from childhood, he said.

“We want the biggest slice of the pie and we don’t care how we get it — all this contributes to passive violence.”

Mr. Gandhi organizes field trips to Gandhian India for American students to help them understand the philosophy of his grandfather. The trip was a learning experience for at least one group of students from Wellesley College in Massachusetts who went a few years ago.

After spending six days traveling through dusty villages, riding in crowded buses, living with locals and making do with no luxuries of modern life, the students arrived in Ahmedabad city and were put up at a five-star hotel. They were excited that they could finally enjoy hot showers and fresh bedsheets.

However, Arun Gandhi recalled, a look out the window revealed sprawling slum colonies and poverty right outside the swanky hotel, and forced the Americans to regret their extravagance.

“It opened a window on how the other half lives, a microcosm of the reality of the world,” he said.

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