|Larger Than Politics: The Worlds of Lincoln, Gandhi and King
A lecture by Rajmohan Gandhi for Creighton University’s Asia World Center, delivered in the Harper Center Auditorium, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, on April 23, 2012.
Let me clarify that when I picked the title of my talk, I did not have in mind the capacities of Lincoln, Gandhi and King in areas other than politics -- areas like music or painting or carpentry. I wasn’t intending to speak on Lincoln as a wrestler or fence-builder, or of Gandhi the spinner and weaver, or of the King who enjoyed fishing. We know that several presidents and prime ministers have been adept at, for example, the piano, the violin, the saxophone or the canvas – we can think of Churchill here, or of Truman, Nixon, and Bill Clinton.
No, that’s not where I am going. In recalling that the worlds of Lincoln, Gandhi and King were larger than politics, I underline not their non-political interests or hobbies but the fact that the goals of these three went beyond capturing office or power.
Affected by the hardships and humiliation of human beings, these three responded to a tough challenge by pitting their deepest impulses against it. In each case, these impulses were moral rather than political, although all three were also gifted with considerable astuteness. We know, too, in each case again, that these moral drives invited mortal enmity.
Lincoln was born in 1809, Gandhi sixty years later in 1869, and King sixty years thereafter, in 1929. Dying at 78, Gandhi lived longer than the other two. King died when he was exactly half that age, and Lincoln at the age of 56.
For insuperable chronological reasons, we cannot know what Lincoln thought of Gandhi or what Gandhi thought of King, but here is what Gandhi wrote about Lincoln. The words were composed in South Africa in 1905, when Gandhi was 36, in the journal that Gandhi had started there, called Indian Opinion, published in English and also in Gujarati. Here is an English translation of sentences from Gandhi’s article in the Gujarati Indian Opinion of August 26, 1905:
It is believed that the greatest and the noblest man of the last century was Abraham Lincoln. Only a person who has a clear picture in his mind of the America of those days can properly appreciate Lincoln’s virtues and his services…
Nobody saw anything wrong in openly selling Negroes and keeping them in slavery. The high and the low, the rich and the poor saw nothing strange in owning slaves… Religious minded men, priests and the like, saw nothing amiss and did not protest… Some even encouraged [slavery], and all… thought that slavery… was a divine dispensation and that the Negroes were born to it… [E]ven those [who thought that slavery was wrong]… preferred to remain silent, being unable to assert themselves…
Even today our hair stands on end to hear the accounts of the atrocities inflicted on slaves. They were tied up and beaten; they
were forced to work, they were branded and handcuffed. Lincoln … made, and put into execution, his resolution to change the ideas of men, ideas which [had been] indelibly carved on their minds…
Referring to Lincoln’s Civil War utterances, Gandhi wrote:
The language of the powerful speeches [that Lincoln] delivered during those stormy days is … sublime…
We don’t know what Lincoln books Gandhi had read before he offered this assessment. From the age of 23 until he was 45, Gandhi was mostly in South Africa. Before that, he had had a three-year stint in London as a law student. Gandhi’s summation of Lincoln’s life stresses the struggle over slavery rather than the election and re-election as President.
Let us quickly note some obvious Lincoln/Gandhi similarities.
Both were assassinated on a Friday and for acting on deep convictions. When the railway train bearing Lincoln’s body or Gandhi’s earthly remains passed by, the nation of each stood with grief and reverence.
Both were brilliant lawyers.
Each was known for an ungainly appearance – “awkward,” “incongruous,” and “strange” were the words generally used for one who at six-foot-four also donned a tall stovepipe hat and also for the other who was five-foot-six and bald. Both had arms that were disproportionately long for their bodies; both had large flapping ears.
Someone wrote of Gandhi that “his fat nose pointed downwards, and his lower lip pushed up to meet it,” (Martin Green, quoted in Mohandas 435) and Sarojini Naidu, the poet who was also a significant figure in India’s freedom story, often addressed Gandhi as “Mickey Mouse.”
Here is how William Howard Russell of the London Times described Lincoln after calling on him in 1861:
Soon afterwards there entered, with a shambling, loose, irregular, almost unsteady gait, a tall, lank, lean man, considerably over six feet on height, with stooping shoulders, long pendulous arms, terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions, which however, were far exceeded in proportion by his feet…. (Russell spoke of Lincoln’s) flapping and wide projecting ears, (and said) the mouth is absolutely prodigious; the nose itself – a prominent organ – stands out from the face, with an anxious, inquiring air, as though it were sniffing for some good things in the wind; the eyes, dark, full and deeply set, are penetrating, but full of an expression which almost amounts to tenderness.
That was Lincoln at age 52. Here is Gandhi at 52, as described in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1922 by an American writer who had met him, Edmund Caddler:
He rose from the floor to receive me—a spare figure, enveloped in homespun blankets; a man of middle age, or so he appeared, bareheaded, with strong, close-cropped iron-gray hair…; very large ears, pierced in the centre of the lobe; the chin fine and clean-shaven, expression alert, eyes penetrating, glance direct. He greeted me with gentle courtesy. His English idiom and accent were perfect. When I was seated, he subsided into his blankets again. He was not in the least voluble. His inclination was to give me the lead.
Then there is humor. If callers often noticed melancholy in both Lincoln and Gandhi, in each case they also ran into an extraordinary capacity to amuse others and to appreciate life’s ironies. Lincoln of course was the supreme master of the funny story and the witty response. Accused of being two-faced in politics, he is said, as you know, to have replied, “If I had another face, would I be showing this one?”
Gandhi by contrast seldom if ever told a joke, but he always made those in his company laugh. William Shirer, referring to a meeting that he and a few others had with Gandhi in the final year of Gandhi’s life, which was a pain-filled year, would say:
In no time at all Gandhi had us all laughing and completely at our ease… If in this world of varied personalities there is a single man even half as charming as Gandhi, I have not seen him. (Quoted in Homer Jack, Anthology, 399)
In 1924, not long after a huge Gandhi-led bid that -- to the world’s surprise -- shook British rule in India but then petered out and landed Gandhi in prison, this is what he said after release from two years in jail:
Napoleon planned much and found himself a prisoner in St. Helena. The mighty Kaiser aimed at the crown of Europe and is reduced to the status of a private gentleman. God had so willed it. Let us contemplate such examples and be humble. (Young India, 9 Oct. 1924; 29: 236)
Here, while passing on a fundamental truth, Gandhi is also laughing at life, at himself. Lincoln might have said the same thing. Of course, only temporary defeat is admitted.
Let me give another instance of Gandhi’s style in discourse, which reminds one of Lincoln’s. In October 1947, a few weeks after India was free but also partitioned, a Hindu warned Gandhi against sheltering “frozen Muslim snakes” which would bite on revival. Replied Gandhi:
Harijan, 3 Oct 1947: To liken a human being, however degraded he may be, to a snake to justify inhuman treatment is surely a degrading performance… I have known… fanatical Muslims to use the very analogy in respect of Hindus… Lastly, let me, for the sake of snake-kind, correct a common error [and point out] that eighty snakes out of every hundred are perfectly harmless and they render useful service in nature.
There are less obvious similarities too. The first of these is their strong self-belief. Well before he ran for President, Lincoln felt he had something to offer ‘on the great and durable question of the age’ for America, namely slavery1; and Gandhi seemed to indicate an awareness that his task was to lead his people to independence.
Offering himself for re-election in 1864, Lincoln said he could ‘better serve the nation in its need and peril than any new man’2 and that he was fitter than the others available to reunite his bitterly divided people.
Gandhi told a colleague (in 1932) that like a pregnant woman who takes care of herself for the sake of the baby in her womb, he looked after his own fitness for the sake of the independence of India which he was carrying inside of him.3
Lincoln and Gandhi are similar, too, in their physical proximity to violence and war. Both abhorred bloodshed but were fated to witness lots of it. Lincoln was critical of America’s 1846-48 war with Mexico, felt that American ‘greed and mendacity’ had drawn Mexico into that war, and suspected that a desire for new territories for slavery was part of the American motivation.4
Not forgetting that even the Revolution that in the 1770s and 1780s overthrew British rule and brought an independent America to birth had been a cruel affair, Lincoln wrote that that revolutionary war
breathed forth famine, swam in blood, and rode on fire; and long, long after, the orphan’s cry and the widow’s wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.5
Despite his grasp of the consequences of violence, Lincoln had to preside over what remains America’s bloodiest war to date. Despite a passion against violence and over three decades of presenting an alternative to violence, Gandhi could not prevent the killings of 1947, the year of India’s and Pakistan’s independence, which took around half a million lives.
Thus, and this is a reminder of the irony of life and of history, Lincoln and Gandhi, both seen by the world as symbols of reconciliation, sympathy and justice, spent the final years of their lives amidst great violence.
Gandhi and Lincoln both fought for national unity, Lincoln to preserve the Union and Gandhi to preserve a single India for all its residents, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others. Moreover, Gandhi’s struggle over untouchability and caste in India invites comparison with Lincoln’s struggle over slavery in the USA.
If slavery and the Union, in whichever order, were Lincoln’s chief concerns, counterparts to Gandhi’s concerns in India over caste and national unity, we should also remember that Gandhi had a major third concern: India’s independence. Actually Gandhi had three difficult goals compared with Lincoln’s two difficult goals.
If Gandhi was a kind of an Indian Lincoln, we should add that he was like a Lincoln in the time of Washington, called upon to play the roles, at one and the same time, of both the 1st and the 16th Presidents.
We know of Lincoln’s insistence that the Union was “much older than the Constitution.” In his view, it was “formed by the Articles of Association of 1774 and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776” and “further matured by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.” As Lincoln pointed out, one of the declared objects for establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect union.” (Wills 130-31) It had to be strengthened, but the union was already there.
But it was more than a legal question. Lincoln believed in the value of -- a purpose for -- the United States of America. Critics and defenders alike have acknowledged Lincoln’s almost mystical attachment to a Union. It was said that “the only thing like passion or infatuation in the man was the passion for the Union of these states.” (Wills 125)
To Gandhi, too, the unity of India mattered a very great deal. He wanted Hindus and Muslims to live together in a united India. In the 1930s and 1940s, India’s Hindu-Muslim question, later “resolved” through India’s 1947 Partition, was reminiscent in some ways of the North-South divide that Lincoln and the USA finally resolved through the Civil War.
Declaring the South to be an alliance of rebels, Lincoln went to war against it, crushed what he saw as rebellion, and the Union was preserved. While India’s Hindus and Muslims had a great deal in common, as was also true of the North and the South here, Gandhi did not, for all his passion, advocate war or compulsion for keeping India one.
One difficulty facing Gandhi was that some on the Hindu side had also argued, before the Muslim League came up with its demand for Pakistan, that Hindus and Muslims were two nations.
Moreover, in 1947, when the British came up with their Partition plan, virtually all of Gandhi’s political colleagues, including many who had worked at his side for thirty-plus years, were keen to settle for Partition, without which independence would be indefinitely delayed. On their part, the bulk of India’s Muslims seemed to want Partition, and from March 1947 the bulk of India’s Hindus and Sikhs also seemed ready to accept it. In the crucial province of Punjab, its Hindus and Sikhs demanded partition. Gandhi acquiesced.
Gandhi did not in the end defy Pakistan in large part because public opinion in India and his closest political colleagues favored it.
In 1947, no mainstream element in India defied Pakistan -- it was not as if Gandhian nonviolence came in the way of a nation or people keen on preventing or undoing Pakistan. True, a political party known as the Hindu Mahasabha, for years led by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who had said in 1937 that Hindus and Muslims were two nations, opposed Partition in strong language. But the Hindu Mahasabha lacked the strength to implement its wishes. Moreover, what it seemed to want was not equal rights for all in a united India, but Hindu domination.
Given Gandhi’s passion for India’s unity, some wondered why, even if public opinion was not with him, he did not start a fast unto death against the creation of Pakistan. Yet Gandhi was not prepared to invite the terrible killings that were bound to follow his death in a fast to prevent Pakistan.
While accepting Partition, Gandhi refused to accept enmity, and when great violence occurred between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi sought to heal wounds, on occasion through a fast, and his language was at times Lincolnesque.
Gandhi on 12 January 1948, New Delhi: The fast begins from the first meal tomorrow (Tuesday 13 January). The period is indefinite… It will end when and if I am satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities brought about without any outside pressure, but from an awakened sense of duty.
The reward will be the regaining of India’s dwindling prestige… I flatter myself with the belief that the loss of her soul by India will mean the loss of the hope of the aching, storm-tossed and hungry world…
Let us compare the last two lines with Lincoln’s famous words proposing the emancipation of slaves in his State of the Union address on 1 December 1862:
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
America may be ‘the last best hope of earth’, says Lincoln. Let’s not destroy that hope. ‘The loss of her soul by India will mean the loss of the hope of the aching, storm-tossed and hungry world,’ says Gandhi. Each is wrestling for his nation’s soul; each is also fighting for humanity as a whole.
Then there is the similarity in their understanding of what defines their nations. The people living in the US became American not by yielding to, or marrying into, a dominant or superior race, not by occupying a certain physical space, but by subordinating race and soil to an idea – a proposition, as Lincoln called it. As we all know, the Gettysburg Address makes no reference to a chosen race, to genes, to a physical space, or to a sacred soil. Spelt out in the Declaration of Independence and quoted by Lincoln in Gettysburg, this proposition, we know, was that all human beings are created equal.
During the decades when India was fighting for independence, Indians gifted in poetry and oratory defined India in terms of geography, the bloodline, and religion. For a while, the notion of a homeland that was also a holy land – a notion aiming to mobilize and merge the powerful emotions evoked by soil, blood and hymn – seemed to catch on.
Aware as he was of India’s religious and racial diversity, Gandhi drew a different picture. It was in fact a geometric picture. Asked in 1946 – a year before India’s freedom --to describe independent India, Gandhi wrote of a nation of ‘innumerable villages’ where ‘the last is equal to the first or, in other words, no one is to be the first and none the last’ Added Gandhi:
In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.
Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.
I may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian… [But] if Euclid’s point, though incapable of being drawn by human agency, has an imperishable value, my picture has its own… (Harijan, 28 July 1946; 91: 325-7).
Equality, then, and the strength emerging from equal women and men voluntarily supporting one another, is the foundation of Gandhi’s India. Not geography, not religion, not race, but equality.
Justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity are the words the Preamble to the Indian Constitution uses. There is no reference in the Preamble to an Indian blood, an Indian race, the Indian geography, or an Indian religion. The Constitution prohibits, in specific language, discrimination against any person on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
This picture of undiluted equality is not of course what is found on the Indian ground. Far, very far, from it – we all know that. But the verbal commitment is noteworthy all the same.
King’s “I have a Dream” speech of 1963 contains stirring references to America’s physical features – prodigious hilltops, snowcapped Rockies, and more. Yet like Gandhi he too envisions, in this speech, a level field. His vision of America requires – to use the words he quoted -- that
Every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.
Recalling Lincoln in this speech, King says: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Then, like Lincoln and Gandhi before him, King underlines equality and fraternity. Many here will know the lines, but I will repeat them:
We have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words -- All men are Created Equal --, they were signing a promissory note…
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note… But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
There is something that I must say to my people… In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
What King thought of Gandhi was spelt out by King himself. On March 22, 1959 – which was Palm Sunday -- he delivered a whole sermon on Gandhi in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The sermon is an evaluation and a summation of Gandhi’s life. Its full text can be found in Volume Five of the King Papers, pp. 145-57.
King speaks of how Gandhi was stirred by the injustice that Indians received from the British and by the injustice that Indians meted out to one another. He says that Gandhi mobilized and galvanized more millions than almost anyone else in history, and adds that Gandhi had an “amazing capacity for internal criticism,” that he held himself, his family and his followers to tough standards.
In this sermon, King also sums up the rationale for nonviolence: “The aftermath of violence is always bitterness; the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community – a new relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed.”
Employing language that Gandhi used again and again – language that Indians living in Gandhi’s time heard over and over again --, King in this sermon addresses the Almighty:
Some call thee Allah. Some call you Jehovah. Some call you Brahma. But we know that these are all names for one and the same God and we know that you are One. (151)
Before he was gunned down, King was organizing the garbage workers of Memphis; three days before he was gunned down in Delhi, Gandhi obtained a first-hand report of the squalor in which “untouchables” were obliged to live in the city of Ajmer, about 300 miles to the south of Delhi, as indeed in many other parts of India then and now. In response, this is what Gandhi publicly said:
We have secured our independence, but it is of no value if we cannot stop such a thing. And it can be done in a day. Can we not provide a piece of dry land for them? If they must remove garbage, must they be also made to live in it? We have become heartless. (1.27.48; 90:508)
Martin, or Mike as many liked to call him at the time, was a 19-year-old student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, when, shortly after Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948, he heard of Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy from a professor called George Davis. Martin would remember this reference, but it was two years later, in 1950, that a real impact was made. As a twenty-year-old, Martin – Mike – had gone to Friendship House in Philadelphia to hear a talk on Gandhi by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University.
We have King’s own words. “His (Dr Johnson’s) message was so profound and electrifying,” King would write, “that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” (We can assess this impact by recalling, if we can, the last occasion when we left a meeting to buy, right away, six books.)
Thereafter, and again we have King’s own words to that effect, he felt that Gandhi’s was a moral and practical way for oppressed people to struggle against injustice. King saw Gandhi as “lift[ing] the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful effective social force on a large scale.” (Oates 31)
We should recall a critical difference between Gandhi’s India and King’s America: Indians were a great majority fighting a strongly-armed minority of British rulers, backed by the might of an empire. American Blacks were a defenseless minority, with living memories of slavery, in a predominantly white society, polity and economy. Yet King had this prophetic insight that nonviolent force, or what Gandhi called satyagraha, clinging firmly to the truth, held promise in the USA.
As we have noted, King’s encounter with Gandhi occurred after Gandhi’s death on 1948. Much earlier, however, starting with 1917, a remarkable sequence of African-American interlocutors had probed Gandhi’s thinking. In February 1936, Howard Thurman, then dean of Rankin chapel in Howard University (Washington DC), visited Gandhi in India along with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman and friends Edward and Phenola Carroll.
Gandhi gave the Thurmans and the Carrolls a warm welcome, more cordial, reported Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary, than anything Desai had seen in the 19 years he had spent at Gandhi’s side. At this meeting, Thurman asked Gandhi a question that others too had raised: why was Gandhi using the expression “nonviolence” rather than “love”? Replied Gandhi:
In spite of the negative particle ‘non’, nonviolence is no negative power… We are surrounded in life by strife and bloodshed, life living upon life. Nonviolence means love, and yet something more… (Also, Gandhi added) Love in the English language has other connotations too, so I was compelled to use the negative word.
Love has other connotations. Moreover, and this perhaps was the decisive reason, love might suggest an absence of struggle. Like King, Gandhi wanted to convey both goodwill and struggle. Gandhi and King were not for hitting back; but they were strongly for clinging to the truth pulsating from their souls. Hence nonviolence. Hence satyagraha.
It was at this 1936 meeting in Bardoli, western India, between the Thurmans and Carrolls and Gandhi, that Gandhi made what in the light of later history was clearly a prophetic remark. “Well, if it comes true, it may be through the [African Americans] that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” (62:202) Martin or Mike was just seven at this time, but the forces of destiny that would capture and catapult King and make him the symbol of nonviolent resistance all over the world, including in the Soviet empire, were already at work.
In 1937, Benjamin E. Mays and Channing H. Tobias visited Gandhi in India, and Tobias asked Gandhi what he thought the outlook for American Blacks was. Replied Gandhi: “With right, which is on their side, and the choice of nonviolence as their only weapon, if they will make it such, a bright future is assured.”
In the summer of 1945 an African-American journalist, Deton Brooks Jr of the Chicago Defender, met Gandhi in India and asked for a message for Americans. “My life is its own message,” Gandhi replied. The audacious remark is quite well known; what is less known is that a question from an African-American journalist elicited it.
That empathy and goodwill are not enough in our unfair world, that struggle is often called for, is surely a common message that Lincoln, Gandhi and King send out to us. Reluctantly yet firmly, Lincoln went to war, and with like reluctance Gandhi and King went at times to nonviolent war.
At such times, some of King’s or Gandhi’s friends and admirers were uneasy. They hated the possibility of their admired hero inviting tension or opposition. King’s answer to such doubting Thomases was given in his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail in April 1963. While insisting that “one who breaks an unjust law, must do it openly and lovingly,” King added:
I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth… I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well-timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly... For years now I have heard the word, “Wait.’ This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never’.
The African-American has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.
If some had to be reminded that struggle was unavoidable, others had to be reminded that reconciliation was called for. It is their simultaneous passion for justice and reconciliation that defines and unifies my three subjects.
Most people in the US have heard of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, yet many have not read it. If after this evening some of you visit or revisit that text, I shall feel rewarded. The words diagnose yet they also heal; there is truth there, and reconciliation.
On August 15, 1947, India’s independence day, Gandhi reached out to his friends in the enemy nation, England, sending them his love through a letter he wrote that day one of them, Agatha Harrison. Three months later, when Princess Elizabeth was getting married, Gandhi sent her and the bridegroom, Prince Philip, a small table-cloth made from cotton thread he had spun on his spinning wheel, with – in his words -- his ‘blessings and the wish that they would have a long and happy life of service.’ The wish has indeed been realized.
Reconciliation was needed, we know, between Indians and the British and also among India’s oft-divided religious communities and castes.
In January 1947, seven months before India’s independence and partition, Stuart Nelson, Dean and Vice President of Howard University, visited Gandhi in Noakhali, now a part of Bangladesh, where Gandhi was engaged in a mission to bring healing and courage to victims of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims. At his multi-faith prayer meeting in what was a Muslim-majority area, Gandhi requested Nelson to sing a Christian song. Nelson offered ‘O God My Help in Ages Past.’ Gandhi translated its meaning for a mixed audience of Muslim and Hindu men and women.
We should imagine the scene. Deep inside a predominantly Muslim region, humble Muslims and Hindus, women and men, listening to a Christian song sung by a Black American and translated by Gandhi. I find it wonderful.
In the third week of August that year, Nelson again met Gandhi, this time in the city of Calcutta. India and Pakistan had gained independence a few days earlier, but the morrow of independence saw serious violence in Calcutta and even greater violence, a thousand miles to the west, in Punjab.
Nelson asked Gandhi: “Why is it that Indians who had more or less successfully gained independence through peaceful means are now unable to check the tide of civil war?”
‘This is indeed a searching question that I must answer,” said Gandhi. Once more an African-American interlocutor had asked a probing question. Gandhi’s honest reply was that in the scramble for control as the British were leaving, many Indians had gone after one another’s throats, rejecting what he had taught for thirty-two years. In the months that followed, Gandhi gave all of himself and more to end the violence and restore relationships. In September 1947 and again in January 1948 he fasted to change the climate of blame and anger, ending his fasts only when solid commitments were secured from the antagonistic parties.
This is what he said in New Delhi on January 12, 1948.
The fast begins from the first meal tomorrow (Tuesday 13 January). The period is indefinite… It will end when and if I am satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities brought about without any outside pressure, but from an awakened sense of duty.
Two days later, he said:
Delhi is the capital of India… It is the heart of India... All Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Jews who people this country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and from Karachi to Dibrugarh in Assam… have an equal right to it… Therefore, anyone who seeks to drive out the Muslims is Delhi’s enemy… and therefore India’s enemy…
When I was young I never even read the newspapers. I could read English with difficulty and my Gujarati was not satisfactory. I have had the dream ever since then that if the Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Muslims could live in amity not only in Rajkot but in the whole of India, they would all have a very happy life. If that dream could be realized even now when I am an old man on the verge of death, my heart would dance. Children would then frolic in joy… (98: 229-235)
This too is a scene I enjoy imagining: the 78-year-old Gandhi dancing and frolicking.
What do these three say to us in today’s world? Through King’s words, all three tell us that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,’ that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Oman affects Omaha. Nebraska influences the Nile. Iran and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan impact all of us. This we get, but we should also heed King’s call “to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects” and “grapple with underlying causes.”
Lincoln, Gandhi and King would probably offer the verdict that after 9/11 the world has been slow to grapple with underlying causes. In the US, sales of the Qur’an indeed went up after 9/11, and a number of books on Islam got written, but an honest dialogue between Arabs and Americans to identify and remove underlying reasons for mistrust has not occurred. Past injustices and present fears have not been squarely or dispassionately identified.
Secondly, the lives of the three warn us that fighting for justice can take the ultimate toll. In, 1959, when he was but 30 years old, King spoke of Lincoln and Gandhi, in the same breath. This is what King said in that sermon in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama, of which I spoke:
The world doesn't like people like Gandhi. That's strange, isn't it? … [T]hey don't like people like Lincoln. They killed him, this man who had… galvanized 400 million [Indians] for independence ... . One of his own fellow Hindus felt that he was a little too favorable toward the Moslems… Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man with hate. This seems the way of history,… but thank God it never stopped here… The man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity.
Just as when (King continues) Abraham Lincoln was shot -- mark you, for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot that is, the attempt to heal the wounds of [a] divided nation --,… Secretary Stanton stood by and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Like Lincoln and Gandhi, King too, when he himself was shot, nine years later, frustrated the assassin’s intention. He entered the ages and he entered the hearts of all humanity.
Thirdly, after reminding us that peace, freedom and dignity are worth fighting for, and worth dying for, the three would add that killing others (or oneself) for peace, freedom or dignity is a temptation that citizens must always reject.
Equally, there is no doubt that all three would ask governments to be exceedingly careful about starting a war, or inviting one.
Fourthly, the three also ask us to reflect on the undeniable fact that the sides clashing against one another in today’s world are urging the same God to do opposite things. God, Yahweh and Allah are different sounds but the same cries, prompted by similar wishes and similar fears, and addressed to the same Being seen as all-mighty and also all-compassionate.
Finally, the three would ask us, wherever we live and whoever we are, not to divide humanity into two halves, one labeled “essentially sound” and the other seen as “basically flawed.” The three would ask Arabs and Iranians to see Jews as part of humanity, people like themselves, and they would ask Americans to see the world’s Muslims as part of humanity, people like themselves.
It was not their fault that the children of slaves and untouchables were born to their parents; and it is not the fault of Muslims or Jews or Iranians or Pakistanis or Americans to have been born where they were.
Lincoln, Gandhi and King ask us, whoever we are and whatever we do, to struggle for dignity when that is required, and to work, when needed, for reconciliation.
1 Letter of 19 November 1858, in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 228-29.
2 Donald, Lincoln, p. 540.
3 D.B. Kalelkar, Bapuki Jhankian (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1948), p. 124.
4 Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Touchstone, 1992), pp. 177-78.
5 Wills, Gettysburg, p. 179.