the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi
Biographer, Journalist, Peace builder
Interview made by Aurora Martin, Caux Palace,
Switzerland, July, 2011
Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi is a biographer and a Research Professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Before teaching at the University of Illinois, he served as a Research Professor with the New Delhi think-tank, Centre for Policy Research and from 1985 to 1987 edited the daily Indian Express in Madras (now Chennai), India.
A former member (1990-92) of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament), Rajmohan Gandhi led the Indian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1990. In the Indian Parliament he was the convener of the all-party joint committee of both houses addressing the condition of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Associated from 1956 with Initiatives of Change, Rajmohan Gandhi has been engaged for half a century in efforts for trust-building, reconciliation and democracy and in battles against corruption and inequalities. These efforts, made in India and across the world, have involved writing, speaking, public interventions, and organizing dialogues. In the 1960s - 1970s, he played a leading role in establishing Asia Plateau, the 67-acre conference centre of Initiatives of Change in the mountains of western India. Asia Plateau has been recognized in the Indian subcontinent for its ecological contribution. During the 1975-77 Emergency in India, he was active for democratic rights personally and through his weekly journal Himmat, published in Bombay from 1964 to 1981. He has worked consistently for India-Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. Since 9/11, he has also tried to address the divide between the West and the world of Islam. A Muslim-non Muslim dialogue at Caux, Switzerland, in 2002 was one such initiative. He was elected President of Initiatives of Change International for a two-year term, 2009-2010.
At the University of Illinois he has taught political science and history courses from 1997. His latest book, A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 & the American Civil War(New Delhi: Penguin India, December 2009), studies two 19th-century wars occurring in opposite parts of the world at almost the same time.
His previous book, a biography of his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, received the prestigious Biennial Award from the Indian History Congress in 2007. It has since been published in several countries. In 2002 he received the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) Award for his Rajaji: A Life, a biography of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1878-1972), his maternal grandfather and a leading figure in India’s freedom movement who became Governor General, 1948-50. Other books include Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns (Penguin 2004); Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History (Penguin, 1999); Patel: A Life, a biography of Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950), Deputy Prime Minister of India, 1947-50 (Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1990); and Eight Lives: A Study of the Hindu-Muslim Encounter (SUNY, 1987).
In 2004 he received the International Humanitarian Award (Human Rights) from the City of Champaign, and in 1997 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Calgary (Canada) and an honorary doctorate of philosophy from Obirin University, Tokyo.
He currently also serves as a Jury Member, Nuremberg International Human Rights Award, and Co-chair, Centre for Dialogue & Reconciliation, Gurgaon, India.
Mr. Gandhi, for the Sfera Politicii readers, perhaps it would be necessary to start with few words about the Initiatives of Change – what you consider to be the most important achievement during your experience with the Initiatives of Change and anything else you think there is still to come.
I am sure so much more is to come, but it’s the reconciliation between different groups that has taken place. Of course in Europe, after the war it was a really big thing between Germany and France and other countries. Also in Asia between Japan and other countries, quite remarkable things have happened. I would say that today the entire world got used to people of different races or different religions working together, but 50 years ago it was completely unknown and the Initiatives of Change played a very large part in normalizing the relationships between the races. Also, the former colonized countries are very angry with the European countries and for a good reason.
The Initiatives of Change has made possible an honorable partnership, instead of a clash. So this has happened certainly between India and European countries, but also between some other countries.
For example, on the racial question in the United States, between the black people and the white people, Initiatives of Change has played a tremendous part in getting both justice and reconciliation.
Only the future can show us the result. However, the world has so many big needs…
Giving that your grandfather’s legacy is still present among us, what could we do to turn his vision into reality?
Well, I would say that there are two very important ways in which his legacy can be used today. One is to continue on the non-violent struggle. People all over the world still have many issues to fight for but if they can fight for it non-violently, the results are more lasting. World opinion is also in your favor.
Therefore, anytime we find there is some justice issue or something wrong has been done and we must oppose it or there is corruption in the government or dictatorship, we will fight it. But, we will fight it non-violently. If we can do that, that is one way of preserving his legacy and of using his legacy for something good. Preserving is not important.
Secondly, human beings have to figure out what their goal in life is. If their goal in life is more pleasure, more money, that, A, does not satisfy in the long run, B, it leads to more clash and conflict, leads to disappointment, leads to heartbreak.
Gandhi’s feeling was that the goal of human life has to be much more than finding pleasure, happiness or making money. Am I useful in solving the problems of the weak people? Am I useful in solving the problems of the people in need? Or it could be about the environment. Can I assist at the damage of our Earth? So, I think if we can use Gandhi’s legacy also to give all of us, and particularly young people, something much bigger to live for, something much bigger to work for, than just some personal excitement, pleasure...
Is non-violence an instrument for a weak person?
Well, non-violence will help the weak but it is a weapon for the strong, of course. Strong people have to use it. It is not because we can’t use violence. Yes we can! But still we choose to use non-violence. That is the real strength. It is a matter of moral reflection choice, conscious choice. That’s a good point.
Some of the European Union political leaders have declared that multiculturalism has failed. You have the daily privilege to create multicultural communities and to watch them thrive.
According to your recent experiences do you think that we are really facing a failure of multiculturalism, or is it just an excuse of the politicians for incapacity to manage the violence?
That’s a great question. Now, I don’t know European countries so well, but I know India to some extent. I also know the United States, because I teach there. Europe, I don’t know so intimately. So my comments will not therefore be so relevant. But, anyway, I will try to answer.
I think multiculturalism is something that is coming to the world. It can’t be stopped. There is no way in which it can be stopped. The challenge is how to manage it.
And this is not just a matter for Europe, United States, Japan, China, or India. People are moving at a great speed, living in new places, marrying people of different cultures. I don’t think that this can be stopped. We want ideas. Now, with the social network, people are in touch with one another. So it is not possible to prevent multiculturalism. What is needed is to see if we can help that it grows without too much clash, too much conflict.
Yes, politicians will take advantage of it and yes, it is true that change is not something we all immediately love. Our world changes as each year it’s different. Our city changes, our neighborhood changes. The old store is no longer there, or somebody else of a different color is managing it. Human beings get habituated to certain things, they get accustomed to something. If something new happens, people become cautious or sometimes afraid and then some politicians play on fear. But we can assist one another to see how a new kind of demographic situation, how we can make it more for people to see the advantages of it, to make sure that it’s not too much of a shock. It’s also important that both sides cooperate. I think it’s very important, that, say, newcomers or migrants also appreciate that the local people need time before they can adjust. They’re not bad people, but they – just as we – will find any change unsettling. So, the migrants, the newcomers must see that local people also find change unsettling and they must play their part in making the change as friction free and as happy as possible.
In short, multiculturalism or the fact that people of different cultures will live together is not a fact that can be resisted or reversed. A great challenge for all of us is how to manage it so that it has fewer friction points, fewer clashes.
It is a consequence of globalization.
It can’t be stopped because of the political willing
It’s like the air, it’s like the wind. You cannot fight against it.
From your point of view, as an insider into the world of non-violence, what could be done to prevent the violence that stems from political frustration?
Well, politicians will create some kind of anger and fear and then some kind of conflict and some violence results. And very often the violence hurts not the politicians who started it but somebody else, some weak person who is caught in some circumstances. Therefore, I think each one of us should be conscious that if somebody else is trying to provoke me or to inflame me, I will not be provoked or inflamed. If they are playing on my fear or my anger, I will try not to be provoked. We should look into ourselves also for becoming not easy to manipulate by others. Can people manipulate me? Is a question we should ask ourselves and we should be free of that. But we should also identify the positive things that we can build on. Why should we not build on hope? Why should we not build on some good desires for the future?
In every neighborhood, in every situation there are some simple, positive next steps that we can take which will make life better for people. If politics can be based on hope and constructive action then the negative politicians would have fewer opportunities. And of course we should share as many examples as we can find regarding making progress without violence, and solving conflicts or clashes of interest without violence. And there are quite a few such examples now which we can share and speculate.
Well, taking into account the distinct history and culture of the Arab World, how would you apply Gandhi’s teachings to the region?
In some parts of the Arab world, Tunisia, Egypt, the demonstrators, the protesters have very intelligently avoided violence. So, the Arab world has already shown a very fine example of non-violent protests.
If we contrast this with some acts of violence also taken place in some parts of the Arab world... I’m not now thinking of Syria or Libya. I’m talking about Palestine. Palestine is a great injustice. Palestinians must have their state, but for whatever reason America has been strongly supporting Israel. Not urging Israel to also be conscious of Palestinian rights. In such a situation, if violence takes place and some people are killed... Especially if civilians are killed… Innocent people are killed. Then public opinion of the world, especially in America, becomes anti-Palestinian.
And the Palestinians should see what a great impact Egypt and Tunisia have had on the world. America and western countries strongly supporting Mubarak, strongly supporting Ben Ali, changed their positions. They are now all saying good things about the demonstrators and the protesters. Therefore, influencing world opinion is very important.
And, even if people don’t fully believe in non-violence or even if they feel that somehow they are impelled to violence because of the injustice or because of the frustration, they should sit back and say – „Wait a minute!”. What if we would try completely non-violent methods? And non-violent methods can be very strong in their message. We reject Israeli occupation. Jerusalem should also be… Yes, it should be an Israeli city, also a Christian city, but also Muslim city. And yes, there should be equal rights for the Arabs in Israel. And all these issues make very strong fight, but non-violent fight. Make it a picturesque fight with some drama in it, so that the media can come. How long can the world say that these non-violent protesters, that their demands should not be accepted? It’s not possible, human nature will, world opinion will change.
So the advantage of non-violence… By the way, I’ve been to the West Bank. There are so many non-violent groups now. And they are very dedicated. And they are making quite an impact, but if it can draw now. But, outside we must support them, we must publicize what they are doing.
Some leaders invoked the post-second world war Marshall Plan as a model for a large scale European assistance for the region. How do you find this potential intervention?
You mean...for the European countries, the European countries for the North African countries. There are two things: Today the European countries are also feeling the economic pinch very much. And so, for some time, Europe will be preoccupied with itself. I don’t know whether Europe is ready for a very large Marshall plan for North Africa.
Fear, the same fear.
Yeah, but, when the time comes, and these things can change very quickly, I think Europeans should be ready to have a partnership, but with real autonomy given to the North African countries. And Europe should be careful about feeling that it knows how to solve a problem. Because Europeans have a lot of experience about solving problems. But I think for a long time Europe has the feeling that Asians or Africans or Arabs need a lot of guidance. And that we know better than them how to solve a problem.
So, yes, Marshall Plan would be tremendous, but the ultimate decision in implementation, in deciding the project should be left in the hands of those countries and the people there. They are also very gifted people, very talented people. They may do things differently, but the desire to control how development should take place... That desire should be withdrawn. To allow them to grow up.
How do you think the European Union can reconcile its humanitarian responsibilities towards the international community? For example, receiving refugees with protecting their own national interests during these difficult economic times.
Yes, it’s very tough, so I don’t feel like putting pressure on the European countries, but if people are in real suffering and in real need, then I think that all of us have to open our hearts, open our spaces when there is real suffering and real need.
This is not easy for Europeans… and also these countries should realize that Europe can’t suddenly do a lot. It’s not fair to expect Europe to suddenly do a lot. But, within the limits of what is possible, everything should be tried. There can be economic boundaries beyond which Europe cannot do much, but those boundaries should be reached and those limits should be reached.
I would close the interview by reminding to Sfera Politicii readers a fragment from another yours interview, conducted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University: „We need to take responsibility for ourselves as individuals, and train ourselves not to be drawn away from our beliefs. All of us need to convey this sense to our children, that we can live lives that are true and brave. That we can fight against arrogance, pride, and willfulness.” 1
Yes, but I repeat:we will fight it non-violently.