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29th Annual Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture by Ambassador Nirupama Rao (21 June 2012, University of California at San Diego)

Chancellor  Marye Fox,
Prof Suresh Subramani, Executive Vice-Chancellor, UCSD,
Mrs. Gayatri Prahalad, President of the San Diego Indian American Society,
Prof M. C. Madhavan,
Prof  Ramesh Rao

Ladies and Gentleman,
Young students,

I would like to thank Mrs. Gayatri Prahalad and Prof Madhavan for  inviting me to deliver the 29th Annual Mahatma Gandhi Lecture this afternoon. I know that very eminent people beginning with Dr. Jonas Salk in 1984, and including Dr. Prahalad, have delivered the annual memorial lecture and that therefore, you come here with high expectations, which may not be easy to measure up to. But, thank you once again for this honor.   I am also delighted to present the prestigious Mahatma Gandhi and AVID scholarships to brilliant high school students from the San Diego area. I congratulate today's scholarship winners and wish them every success in the future.

Since its inception in 1984, the San Diego Indian American Society has been deeply involved in community related work, advancing the cause of India-US friendship and, in particular, increasing awareness about the continued relevance for our times, and indeed for all times, of the teachings  and ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi for the benefit of mankind.  I applaud all those associated with the San Diego Indian American Society for their tireless efforts and commitment to such noble causes.

It is also a privilege for me to be at the premises of University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - one of the premier public universities in the United States. The UCSD celebrated its 50th anniversary in the academic year 2010-2011 and over the years has been in the forefront of the advancement of academic excellence, skills, research and innovation with its diverse set of academic and research programs. Under the leadership of outgoing Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, the University has made significant strides in all aspects of University life, and I wish Chancellor Fox all success in her future endeavors. I also compliment the Chancellor-designate of the UCSD Prof Pradeep Khosla, an eminent scientist, scholar and educationist, who, I am sure, will further consolidate the University's tradition of excellence.        

Education, research & development, innovation are crucial and expanding areas of cooperation between India and the United States. We have held a successful Higher Education Summit last year. And, the first bilateral Higher Education Dialogue was held in Washington DC last week co-chaired by the Indian Minister of Human Resources Development, Mr. Kapil Sibal and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which we hope will help strengthen teaching and research in both US and Indian institutions through university linkages, junior faculty development and joint research. It is our cooperation in this vital field that can provide intellectual sustenance to the idea of a strong India-US partnership. I would encourage UCSD to deepen its linkages with Indian institutions of higher education to harness the creative genius of our two peoples.

Gandhiji in a 21st Century World

I have reflected considerably over the last few days on what I should choose as the theme of my talk today. I know that the thoughts and values expressed with boundless truth and conviction by Gandhiji are well known to a vast cross section of thinking humanity today. In the troubled world we live in, where we are constantly searching for answers to the challenges that face so many regions, the talisman of non-violent action, and the passionate advocacy of inclusiveness, tolerance, cultural sensitivity, respect for diversity, and the understanding of the multiple identities that constitute each and everyone of us today, all Gandhian values, are precious legacies which we must constantly uphold. I know the impact that Gandhiji had on lives here in America too. In November 2010, before the Indian Parliament , President Barack Obama spoke of how he was influenced and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. He said, " I am  mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared with and inspired America and the world". And,, while preparing for this speech, I have also been re-reading the Rev Martin Luther King's account of his one month long trip to India in early 1959 when he and his wife, Coretta, travelled across the length and breadth of our country, connecting with the life, the legacy and the message of Gandhiji.

Just yesterday , I had the privilege of paying my respects to the world famous Indian classical musician, Bharat Ratna Pandit Ravi Shankar  at Encinitas. I asked Panditji about his memories of Gandhiji. Panditji, who is 92, spoke of meeting Gandhiji in Mumbai in the mid nineteen thirties,   as a  young boy of 14, and singing a bhajan for him. "I was so struck by his simplicity", Panditji said of the Mahatma.

I thought I should highlight a few  points  relevant to contemporary life in my talk today. All of them draw their inspiration from Gandhiji. The first is  awareness, which I see as ridding oneself, of what Rabindranath Tagore called " the sheath of self" and to realize the infinite reserves of goodness and compassion that exist within the human mind. It is understanding the  strength of  the spiritual reserves within us that instinctively make us bond with our fellow human beings. When we see the divisions and frontiers that divide humanity today,  we must understand that the power to overcome them can only come from within ourselves. We often think of our lives as confined within ourselves, tied to our individual existences, and overlook the deeper and higher life in  each and everyone of us. Gandhiji sought to awaken us to those reserves of inner strength. That message is still relevant for the world of today.

The second point is about connectedness and connectivity. and understanding the meaning of pluralism and diversity. Parochialism and closed mindsets lead us forth into violence and conflict. A decade ago, while delivering the Neelam Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the celebrated writer Amitav Ghosh, talked of creating an "archipelago of hope" with sanctuaries that remain "stubbornly open to the flow of opinions, stubbornly hospitable to imagined enemies, stubbornly resistant to the floodwaters that seek to grind all forms of life into uniform grains of sand". Gandhiji fought all his life against ghetto mentalities, against the narrow, myopic confines of imagined histories, he sought a cross pollination of minds, the freedom of democratic debate, the jousting of ideas - never to forget the connectivity that ties us with the rest of the human race. Our survival can only rest on the recognition of that connectivity, a recognition, as Edward Said once said, " of the other echoes that inhabit the garden".

The third point  is communication: and communication, as Gandhiji willed it , has to rest on openness, transparency, and truth. It has to rest on education. It must involve the imaginative  use of technology, including social media, as we saw being used by young Egyptian bloggers during the Arab Spring. We  share, as humans, the fundamental urge to learn and share (communicate) and prosper. We live today in a world of Internet search engines and collaborative systems of knowledge  like Wikipedia. We are still in search of that perfect search engine, which, as one Google executive said , "would be like  the mind of God" - a compelling thought which would have captured the imagination of Gandhiji. Achal Prabhala, a Bangalore based writer made the very meaningful observation in a piece written for "The Hindu" newspaper a few months ago, that Gandhiji saw productive and revolutionary potential in the sharing of knowledge generously. His first book, "Hind Swaraj" or Indian Home Rule had, on the cover of it's first edition, the prominent, unusual, copyright legend: "No Rights Reserved". Gandhiji was certainly an activist for free knowledge . He reached across geographical and political frontiers in an instantly appealing and comprehensible way: in the manner of all great communicators, as a votary for development, as a practitioner of peace. He is not dated in any manner. He wished to create that communications software that enables the exchange of ideas, best practices in education, the study of foreign cultures, and the promotion of dialogue between civilizations, the maintenance of that harmony between heaven and earth.  He would want us to possess that mental infrastructure that opens the mind, that resists injustice and does not fear it, that is confident about interaction with the outside world.

The fourth point is about synergy and cooperation. Today, as the world fills with talk about the rise of Asia, and countries like India and China, Gandhiji would have been a tireless advocate of regional cooperation and the pooling of individual capabilities for collective progress and advancement of our region, the Asia-Pacific world. He would have been also a passionate supporter of the Nalanda University project, a global institution of higher learning, enabling us to rediscover that pride in our heritage as Asians, and in our soft power and civilizational influence, mixing, as Jeffrey Garten says, "nationalities and cultures". Today, we have very few Asian universities that rank in the world's list of top educational institutions. Gandhiji would have strongly espoused the idea of an Asian university as a great intellectual center, incubating ideas for common development, and innovative research. Nalanda is such a project, and it's resurrection is of fundamental importance as we craft a future that is full of energy and a sense of direction.

And the fifth point is about simplicity - the yearning for simplicity, love and compassion that led Gandhiji to identify with the poorest of the poor and to see the spirit of God in them.  Gandhiji 's ability was to grasp the secret of a simple life that is able to comprehend the special quality of the ordinary things we take for granted around us. As the lines of the famous English poem go: "To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower" . Gandhiji took inspiration from the simplest and poorest people around him . He rightly said that all our actions become meaningful only when we gauge them by a simple test - do they help the poorest and the weakest among us? We have " to do right" by the disadvantaged and underserved amongst us. They need a ticket to ride, as the popular Beatles song went. This is where elevated Gini coefficients should be of concern to us, and where we must live by the precepts of inclusive development.

And the sixth point is about moving away from conflict. Today, we often talk of a global vision for our planet. Here again, I would turn to Gandhiji, who said,"Once we recognize the common  parent stock from which we are sprung, we realize the basic unity of the human family, and there is no room for enmities and unhealthy competition." As we dodge the hate and shrapnel of terrorism and violence In the world of today, we have to search for solutions away from codes of revenge and retribution, violence and conflict. When I reflect on the litany of death and destruction that has convulsed Afghanistan in the last few decades, I ask myself why this should be so. The Pashtun people are traditionally identified in India with the courageous non violence that exemplified the life and work of Bharat Ratna Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or Badshah Khan  or the Frontier Gandhi as he was lovingly known. Another image is of the strong, kind and gentle Kabuliwala in the story by Rabindranath Tagore.  It is often overlooked that these people produced a remarkable pacifist movement in the 20 th century whose moving spirit was Abdul Ghaffar Khan. His followers had to swear against violence, retaliation and revenge. This pacifism, as is noted in the biography, "The Pathan Unarmed" by Mukulika Banerjee, grew out of the concept of jihad, or holy war, because nonviolent resistance  was martyrdom in its purest form since putting "one's life conspicuously in one's enemy's hands was itself the key act". It was this strategy that led Ghaffar Khan's followers in 1930 to shut down Peshawar for five days in a protest against colonial rule. When Badshah Khan died in 1988, his funeral procession stretched for miles, as his body was carried from Peshawar across the border to Jalalabad, in what was termed "a caravan of peace, carrying a message of love" from Pashtuns east of the Khyber to those on the west. As Karl Meyer notes, the history of this troubled region thus "offers an extraordinary precedent for peace as well as a legacy of war". Gandhiji would, naturally, have chosen the precedent for peace personified in the life of Badshah Khan.

Finally, there is remembrance.  And standing here as I do, on Californian soil, among so many of you from the Indian American diaspora, I cannot help but remember that next year, we will mark one hundred years of the launch of the Gadar Movement by the Gadar Babas, a group of almost 8000 brave and selfless Overseas Indians who set forth from here for India,  to help the cause of freedom in our motherland. To remember them is to remember the spirit of sacrifice, the tapasya, as Gurudev Tagore calls it,  in which they gave up their lives selflessly, fighting the injustice of colonial rule, to safeguard the future of millions of our countrymen. We must not forget them, or the cause of a secular, free, India, for which they fought and laid down their lives.

I would like to conclude by saying that India remembers Gandhiji in myriad ways - as the father of our nation, as the enabler of our freedom, as the fount of our pride in our identity as a peace loving, non violent country and a secular democracy, as a healer of divides, as a personification of truth, strength, faith and courage. Our diplomacy in the world also bears the imprint of, and draws inspiration from Gandhiji.  He is our philosopher, our guide, the "good boatman", as his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi says, as we connect with the world, ever relevant, evergreen, a 21st century leader for our times. To quote Faiz Ahmed Faiz, he lives, among us, reminding us of our responsibilities as human beings on a fragile planet, in what is an "ageless life ".

Thank you.