WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who along with India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar inaugurated on Oct. 2, a reception to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the 90th birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr., at the Library of Congress, in delivering her keynote address, declared that the legacies of these “two extraordinary men” are forever etched in the history of the U.S., India and the world.
Speaking in the hallowed hall of the Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress complex, Pelosi, who has been a lifelong devotee of India’s Father of the Nation, said even though the Congress was in session, when she was invited by Jaishankar and India’s Ambassador to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla to grace this inauguration to honor Gandhi and King, there was no way she would have given this celebration a miss whatever the constraints.
“We are in session, but this is a honor to be at the Library of Congress and on this important occasion to celebrate,” the birth anniversaries of Gandhi and King “and the legacies of these two extraordinary men that forever changed our nation and forever changed the course of history of both our countries and indeed the world,” she said.
In her remarks, Pelosi said, “The relationship between the U.S. and India is a shining example of mutual cooperation, prosperity, peace and respect,” and added, “We have been partners in the fight to expand justice and ensure the blessings of it for all.”
Addressing the scores of guests, who included leading U.S. lawmakers, Indian American community leaders from across the country and senior Trump administration officials and members of the diplomatic corps, the Speaker also showered praise on the contributions of the Indian-American community to the fabric of the U.S. in a variety of fields.
“In the U.S., generations of Americans of Indian descent, have enriched our democracy with their beautiful culture and rich traditions, not to mention their entrepreneurship,” and boosted the country’s economy, she added.
Pelosi also said that “our government has been strengthened by the leadership of Indian American members of Congress –Senator Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), Rep. Ami Bera (D.-Calif.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D.-Wash.), Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D.-Ill.), and Rep. Ro Khanna(D.-Calif.),” she said.
And, then, giving a special shout out to Khanna, she said that “his grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, was a champion for freedom and spent years in prison alongside Gandhi in the quest for Indian independence.”
“Today,” Pelosi, noted, “Ro Khanna, proudly honors his family’s legacy of service and sacrifice in his work and leadership to build a better future for all. But his connection is a direct one to Mahatma Gandhi.”
An elated Khanna, who has been pilloried in some quarters of the Indian American community, including the Hindu American Foundation and a coalition of several Hindu organizations across the country, for joining the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan (he’s an active members of the Congressional Caucus on India too) and for his criticism of Hindutva as an affront to India’s pluralism and secularist ideals and principles, immediately tweeted his thanks to Pelosi.
“Thank you @SpeakerPelosi for recognizing Amarnath Vidyalankar, my grandfather, on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday. He spent years in jail in the 1940s as part of Gandhi’s independence movement. Gandhi’s principles of pluralism and peace continue to inspire my public service,” Khanna said in his tweet.
Pelosi also recalled the impact that Gandhi’s life and his struggles had had in her own life, as it has in the lives of many Americans, and said, “This is very personal for me and I’ve always, since my childhood, carried India in my heart, all because of Mahatma Gandhi.”
And, as she has, on several earlier occasions, whenever addressing an Indian American audience, she said that as a child she would read all the books on Gandhi that she could get a hold of and reiterated, “That’s the debt we owe to India—that inspiration of Gandhi and his satyagraha,” which she explained, “has two meanings in Sanskrit — non-violence and the insistence on the truth.”
“That strength of his message and his inspiration made a difference in our own country,” Pelosi said, and added, “Dr. King, insisted on the truth in a non-violent way, and the strength of Gandhi’s message that we are all created equal…regardless of gender, race or creed.”
And, she argued that “at this time of challenge and opportunity,” it was imperative that “just as the torch passed from Gandhi to Dr. King, the torch now belongs to all of us and we must now pass the torch and encourage people across the globe to have justice and equality for all.”
In this regard, Pelosi said, climate change was “the existential crisis of our time, which jeopardizes the future of our children and grandchildren,” and lauded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his commitment to tackle this existential threat to the planet.
Pointing to Modi’s “commitment” to the Paris Accord on Climate change and his ensuring that the agreement was consummated, Pelosi said, "It was not easy, but it was done".
She recalled that when Prime Minister Modi addressed a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, she was part of the Congressional leadership that had met with him before he delivered his remarks, “and, I mentioned about climate crisis and thanked him for his leadership, he talked about Mahatma Gandhi and the environment.”
Pelosi said, "He (Modi) told us whether it was water conservation or whatever it is, Gandhi understood the worth and the respect we had to have for nature," and added, “If Gandhi was alive today, he would have led the movement to take on the challenge threatening God's creation: planet earth.”
"We are called to fight this fight, which is the existential threat of our time: really jeopardizing the health, security, and future of our children and our grandchildren,” she said.
Earlier, Jaishankar said, “Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked at an event at the United Nations what it would have been like had Mahatma Gandhi been like born in a free country. We could perhaps take that even further and ask ourselves what he would advocate today if he was amongst us.”
"The answer obviously is not a simple one because Gandhiji's outlook and thoughts spanned a very broad spectrum of human activity. But to the extent we can define it within sharper boundaries, they probably are best captured by the 17 sustainable development goals that the worldseeks to achieve today," he said.
Referring to “the very idea of an Indian prime minister talking of girls' toilets in an international address,” being seen “as bizarre,” Jaishankar argued that “the elite forgot a famous saying of Gandhi that cleanliness is next only to godliness, or that human rights were best delivered in the most practical form, access to sanitation, housing, health, education and livelihood.”
"Clearly the people of India had a different appreciation and conveyed that emphatically when the time came. Today, if there is one challenge that Gandhi ji would like us to focus on, that is that of combating climate change," he said.
Jaishankar spoke of how “through a mix of policy and advocacy there has been a fundamental shift in the way in which India approaches this issue,” and recalled that at Paris, “it was India's mediation that brought together different constituencies and interests.”
India’s top diplomat also described Pelosi “as a political figure who embodies the strength of convictions that is so relevant even today,” and said the Speaker has “shown commendable leadership on a similar set of priorities in the US.”
To sustained applause, turning to Pelosi, he said, "Your commitment towards clean governance and green development is widely recognized."
"Your presence here today underlines the impact that the life and message of Mahatma Gandhi has had on your own endeavors from your early youth," Jaishankar added.
In his welcoming remarks, Shringla said that to commemorate the occasion of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, resolutions in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives had introduced resolutions “recalling Gandhi's contribution to mankind, emphasizing the shared influence of his teachings on human rights, on civil rights leaders around the world, including Dr Martin Luther King, and highlighting the shared values of the people of India and the U.S.”
At the conclusion of Pelosi’s remarks, Jaishankar, presented the Speaker with a bust of Mahatma Gandhi, and a clearly emotional Pelosi told the guests that "I will display it with great pride in the Speaker's office of the capital of the United States so that anyone who visits there will see that respect and admiration that we have (for Gandhi).”