Ela Gandhi reflects on the relevance of Mahatma'a message in the age of tribalism

Ela Gandhi, in center in gold sari, with Indian American community members in Davie, Florida, in front of Gandhi statue.

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Ela Gandhi, 79, Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, says that today, at a time when the rising tide of nationalism and populism in the U.S., India, and Europe, has led to increasing divisiveness and polarization, manifested by an anti-immigrant fervor and discrimination against minorities, her grandfather’s message of unity and ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), is more relevant that ever.

But in an exclusive interview with India Abroad, Gandhi, who visited the U.S. last month, including a three-day visit to Stanford University, and interactions with the Indian American and Jewish American communities in Chicago, Dallas, and Davie, Fla., in conjunction with the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, pointed out that her grandfather advocated “positive nationalism” which was the crux of the Indian independence movement.

She also condemned the recent instances of the desecration of the Gandhi’s statues in several places and took strong exception with the contention in certain quarters that he was a racist, and challenged these accusers to come to the table to discuss these controversies that needed contextualization of the era in which Gandhi lived and carried out his activism.

The Durban, South Africa-born Gandhi, who was a Member of Parliament in South Africa from 1994 to 2004, where she aligned with the African National Congress, founded by the late president Nelson Mandela, but is now a full-time peace activist, said her grandfather “also spoke about positive nationalism because sometimes it is important to look at nationalism in order to bring about local changes.”

“So, he talked about positive nationalism, not the negative one—not the nationalism that looks at a superiority or superior position for a particular race or particular group, but rather a nationalism that brings people together,” she said.

Gandhi has received several awards and accolades, including the Padma Bhushan from the government of India in 2007, and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman — the highest honor for overseas Indians conferred by the President of India—in 2014, during her illustrious public life.

When asked how this message of peace by her grandfather can be disseminated in a way that people understand the difference between positive nationalism as opposed to negative nationalism, said that it’s the responsibility of political, community, and other leaders, including Gandhian peace activists, to clearly explain these differences.

“But Gandhi acknowledged that “there are many organizations around the world, who are trying to do things, but they remain small and ineffective, but if we all get together, we can be more effective and we can strengthen ourselves and articulate this message,” of her grandfather.

She said these were among the discussions and strategies that permeated the conference at Stanford, where she interacted with Martin Luther King, the 3rd, the son of civil rights icon, Rev. Martin Luther King, who was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his satyagraha movement, and later in Fresno with Paul Chavez, president and chairman of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, who  has spearheaded the impressive expansion of the organization his father Cesar — an American labor leader and Latino-American civil rights activist — founded.

Gandhi said this message, which she also imparted in her remarks at various synagogues, including in Florida, in the wake of the growing antisemitism in the U.S. and Europe, was essentially “all about the need to build a culture of non-violence in the world and how we can together, escalate the initiatives to grow this culture of non-violence.”

“Another focus has been that considering that this year has also been the 150th anniversary of Kasturba Gandhi (who at age 13 married Gandhi and then was part of his civil rights struggles, including in South Africa), we’ve also been looking at her activism as well, and how all of these messages, struggles, and activism can be the best practices to break down all barriers of race, color, caste, gender—all these barriers—and live in a peaceful environment.”

Gandhi said at Stanford, “There were many papers that were presented and we were looking at various aspects of Gandhian ideals and philosophy –not just the question of non-violence, but spirituality and his ideas of how to unite diverse groups.”

“We were also talking about the environment and what is happening at the moment in terms of our eco-system and climate change and what people can do it order to save the world for our future generations. Also, gender issues and the growing incidence of violence against women and children around the world and how to deal with it. So, it was a broad range of issues,” she said.

When pressed on the issue of the growing negativism being spread by some that Gandhi was a racist, she said that it was imperative that Gandhi’s disciples and devotees and those who are inspired by his life and work and his movement, counter these accusers by challenging them, so that these canards can be nullified.

“These are false notions because they do not contextualize …they have taken certain statements and make judgments. Gandhiji himself says that you don’t judge people—what right do we have to judge anyone? Are they proclaiming that they are perfect human beings? That’s the question I ask? No human is perfect. Even Gandhiji was human and he never claimed to be perfect. Gandhiji was very clear and the Bible is very clear that we have no right to judge people.”

She argued that these accusers need to contextualize the different era that her grandfather lived and worked in and the struggles he experienced. “And, you change. We never remain locked in one particular time. As time goes on, we all change and there is an evolution in one’s thinking.”

As to what message she would have for the Indian American community—a burgeoning, educated, affluent community, but also in conflict in some segments with a tug-of-war between bigoted and racist forces and progressives pushing back, Gandhi said, “If the progressive forces unite, we can influence the not so progressive forces to change and that is what we are trying to do.”

She acknowledged that the unfortunate phenomenon of people going into their own corners and becoming very tribalistic, was also a manifestation of the negative consequences of social media.

“Social media can be used very positively, but unfortunately we are using social media negatively. I mean, lots of people have talked about how bad language is used on social media—how social media promotes violence, social media promoting antagonisms in different people. So, we have to begin to use social media in a positive way instead of the negative use of social media,” Gandhi said.

Asked if she hopes to continue to remain a peace activist, both in her native South Africa — where she worked underground during the time of apartheid and one of her sons was killed during this struggle led by Mandela against the then white Pretoria regime — and across the world, particularly in the U.S. and India, she quipped with a chuckle, “God willing, but who knows what happens with old age.”

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