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Address by Ambassador Meera Shankar at the 26th annual Mahatma Gandhi Memorial lecture, University of California, San Diego

San Diego, CA
July 12, 2009 

Chancellor Mary Anne Fox,

President of the San Diego Indian American Society, Professor C.K. Prahalad,

Prof. Madhavan,

Ladies and Gentleman, 
Dear students,

It is my honour and privilege to be amongst you to deliver the 26th Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture. It is also a pleasure to present the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Scholarships and AVID scholarships to these brilliant students.

Bapu, or “Father” as Mahatma Gandhi was fondly called by his followers, was a unique leader, who galvanized millions of Indians to stand up to the might of the British Empire and led the nation to independence through non-violent resistance or satyagraha. He strove not only for the political freedom of the country but also for the social and economic integration of those on the margins of society, recognizing that freedom cannot be built by perpetuating historical social injustices. 

A remarkable flow of ideas between India and the United States helped shape Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas which in turn provided a new paradigm for political movements in the U.S. Henry David Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience influenced the evolution of Gandhiji’s concept of ‘Satyagraha’, or “Truth Force”, which became the defining principle of India’s freedom struggle moulding a colonized people into a potent movement for freedom. Gandhiji and his life in turn influenced and inspired a whole generation of Americans in the civil rights movement, including one of the great American leaders of our time, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrated that power need not come from the barrel of a gun, or might from wealth, that truth and perseverance, or ‘Satyagraha’, can be more lasting and effective. While Gandhiji fought the injustices of apartheid in South Africa or the colonial rule of the British in India, he willfully suffered punishment for violating the laws laid down by those regimes but refused to hate the perpetrators of those injustices. He believed that Satyagraha or non-violent resistance appealed to the inner conscience which every human being possesses and, therefore, it had the unique capacity to change the mind-set of the oppressor. 

Perhaps no other modern figure comes close to exercising as much influence on public life for such a long period. His collected works run into 90 volumes. His philosophy and thoughts cover a vast array of issues relevant to our times and have inspired people’s struggle against injustice everywhere on earth – anti-war protestors, feminists, environmentalists, anti-colonial movements, people fighting for social justice, and freedom of expression, have all invoked Gandhiji’s name in their struggle. 

In his own lifetime, he was constantly evolving and whatever he taught, he first subjected to rigorous experimentation on himself. For Gandhiji, non-violence and Satyagraha were not a matter of political expediency. Their efficacy was to serve a goal greater than politics. At the height of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922, when millions boycotted Courts, Councils and Colleges of the British colonial regime in India, Gandhiji withdrew from the movement when a group of agitators turned violent in a small village of Chauri Chaura. Despite protests from his political colleagues, he drew the conclusion that more hard work was required to prepare the people for a non-violent struggle. For Mahatma Gandhi the means were as important as the ends. He realized that the pursuit of goals, no matter how noble in themselves, by violent means could end up distorting those goals themselves.

After withdrawing the Non Cooperation Movement, Gandhiji turned his attention to what is called the Constructive Program, which encompassed many areas of work aimed towards a social and economic regeneration of India. The Constructive Program was central to the embodiment of Gandhiji’s concept of Swaraj or self-rule, which meant much more than just winning independence from the British. Gandhiji propagated the use of khadi, or homespun cloth, which signified economic independence. Most significant was Gandhiji’s crusade to banish the abominable social practice of untouchability. 

Gandhiji’s Constructive Program had a deep impact on the thinking of people. It was a regeneration of India itself. At its independence, the Indian State embraced all the tenets of Gandhiji’s Constructive Program. The tragic partition of India, which was unfortunately followed by communal violence did not deter our leaders from adopting a Constitution that made India a secular and democratic republic in which all citizens regardless of their faith, sex, or caste were ensured liberty, justice, and equality. This belief in human freedoms, the dignity of the individual and equality before the law are fundamental aspects of the Indian State which have enabled India to flourish in all its rich diversity.

Untouchability was banned by law and made a punishable offence. There was affirmative action to ensure greater representation of marginalised groups in public life. There were steps taken for the empowerment of women and creation of economic opportunities. Of course, India today has not achieved all that Gandhiji worked for. But if we recall that before independence the Indian economy had grown at 0.5% for 50 years, that the literacy rate at independence was around 17% and that life expectancy for women was barely 28 years, we can take pride in the strides we have made, even as we remind ourselves of the ground which remains to be covered in ensuring a life of dignity for all our citizens.

Today, 60 years after the death of Gandhiji, there have been protracted debates over the current relevance of Gandhian ideals, particularly the use of non-violent methods to achieve results. The world has been forced to recognize that dialogue between nations is a much better way to solve their differences rather than resorting to military aggression. Violence leads to more violence, and peace if at all achieved by violent methods, is like the uneasy calm one senses in a graveyard. A nation cannot be built through violence. Today, when terrorism and fundamentalism have become threats of global proportions, we have to rededicate ourselves to the essential values of peace, humanity and the dignity of every individual, if we are to survive. 

Mahatma Gandhi was a man of peace who fought for what he believed to be right; a political strategist who shunned conventional politics and never held any office; a pragmatic person who did not hesitate to adapt himself to changing situations without compromising his basic values; a deeply religious person not bound by any religion, but a religion drawn from every faith; a true revolutionary with concern for the poor and the deprived, empowerment of the disadvantaged and underprivileged.

The world recognized Mahatma Gandhi as the Apostle of Peace when the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 decided to commemorate his birthday, October 2nd, as the International Day of Non-Violence. The greatest tribute to Gandhiji would be to live a life of selfless action dedicating ourselves to the common good so that we can wipe at least one tear “if not every tear from every eye”, as the Mahatma wanted us to.

When we turn great leaders and philosophers into saints or Mahatma, we put them on a pedestal and distance their ideas from our daily lives. Today, I do not wish to only remind people of Gandhian values and principles. I wish to say, that it is important that we do not consign him to a moment and a context in history. We should not think of him only as the historical leader of a non-violent and peaceful struggle for independence of a nation or as a great social reformer of his time or as a person who sacrificed himself to heal the wounds wrought by the horrors of India’s partition. 

Gandhiji’s ideas remain relevant to all aspects of our national and individual lives. The power of peaceful means to seek justice; the effectiveness of non-violence in countering force; respect for diversity within and between societies; fighting social prejudices and promoting social reforms; conservation of nature; probity in public life; and, simplicity in personal life, are ideas that are enduring and can address many current problems in the world. Each of us, when we seek to shape the world in these ideals, must remind ourselves of a statement of Gandhiji: “We must become the change we want to see in the world”. 

I would like to end by leaving a thought with you, a thought that was among one of the last notes left behind by Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Gandhiji has given us a talisman – a simple way to judge our own action when we are in doubt. It works for me and I am confident, it can work for all of us as a guiding light for all of our actions in life. I quote Gandhiji’s words: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self [ego] becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self [ego] melt away.”