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Watch the Video: Gandhi's Grandson Reflects on Martin Luther King

January 14, 2010

In a lecture last semester, Rajmohan Gandhi, a leading public intellectual and the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, drew on the parallels between his grandfather and Martin Luther King, Jr., and also illustrated ways in which today's conflicts could be addressed by nonviolent means. Among these means are far wider and more serious dialogues among various cultures and countries, he said.

Gandhi's analysis of "these two great 20th century men of peace," as Dean of Faculty Rajiv Vohra described them in his introduction, was the subject of a Kathryn O. Greenberg Lecture, given as part of Brown University's Year of India.

"One should ask: 'Can nonviolence work in Pakistan? Can nonviolence work in Kashmir? In Sri Lanka?'" Gandhi said. And in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, "whether nonviolence will work or not, we do not know," he said, adding: "Violence has not worked."

Professor Gandhi described nonviolence as a position of strength in the fight against inequality and injustice. "Nonviolence means love and yet something more ... love might suggest an absence of struggle," he said about Gandhi's choice of the term.

Assuming such a stance in America today would translate in several ways: understanding that what affects one directly affects all indirectly, for instance, and recognizing that the loss of a Pakistani life can be as anguishing to families and communities as the loss of an American life.

Professor Gandhi traced the historical formation of Gandhi's strategy: Gandhi's vision was molded in two arenas. The first was Gandhi's encounters with works of literature as he was profoundly affected by writers like Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau. One particular work that significantly resonated in Gandhi's life was Thoreau's essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." The second was Gandhi's personal experience with social injustice, racism, and prejudice, such as being barred from hotels in South Africa in the 1890s.

One of these incidences began Gandhi's partnership and cooperation with African Americans, when an African American helped Gandhi find a hotel room. Another expression of this relationship is the fact that the reporter who elicited Gandhi's famous statement, "My life is my message," was African American.

On September 11, 1906, Gandhi applied his approach for the first time in Johannesburg when he urged Indians to defy a new act passed by the Transvaal government through nonviolent protest.

Through the following decades, although Gandhi and King primarily fought for equality, they differed in the power dynamics they encountered: While in India, Gandhi was fighting with a majority against the armed British minority; King was leading a dispossessed minority against a majority, said Professor Gandhi.

But the discourse of nonviolent means does not end with Gandhi or King; rather, it is a perpetual strategy that should be used to resolve disputes in today's global society, one example being the tensions escalating in Muslim countries.

"There wasn't sufficient dialogue with the Muslim World (post 9/11)," said Professor Gandhi. Muslim countries must not be lumped in one category because "they are all very different worlds." Gandhi and King would have denounced the ways in which Muslims are looked at as intrinsically terrorists and Islam as a "uniquely flawed religion." People who do not denounce such a state of affairs are blinded by fear or hate, he said.

What happens when non-violent means are used against a severely violent situation, like that in Nazi Germany? Professor Gandhi spoke of the peaceful protests that were organized at the time: "Did they solve the problem? No, but did they make a difference? Yes." He added, "We must still try."

Such effort should not be limited in its scope. Rather, it should cover a wide array of shared struggles in the same way that Gandhi's fight was not merely confined to that of Indians' resistance to attain independence; Gandhi's struggle against racism was of universal significance. It was "a spiritual as well as a political exercise," said Professor Gandhi.

Rajmohan Gandhi is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of works including his 2007 biography of his grandfather, Gandhi: The Man, his People, and the Empire, which was chosen for the prestigious National Biennial Barpujari Prize of the Indian History Congress, given once in two years for an outstanding work of history.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Samura Atallah '11