Practicing Nonviolence: An Interview with Arun Gandhi
Sam Diener, Co-Editor of Peacework, conducted a phone interview with Arun Gandhi, Co-Director of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, TN, on July 25, 2006. The Institute is planning a conference at Georgetown University and a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial on September 11, 2006 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gandhian nonviolent action, as well as another conference in Memphis in October.
Sam Diener (SD): What misconception about Mohandas Gandhi do you spend the most time and/or energy correcting?
Arun Gandhi (AG): Many people today associate grandfather’s philosophy only with waging political conflicts, because most people I talk with in the US associate Gandhi first with the freedom struggle in India, and second as an exemplar for Martin Luther King and the political struggle for civil rights in the US. Transforming political struggles in nonviolent directions is an essential contribution. Yet what I understand of Grandfather’s philosophy is that it transcends the purely political; it’s also about creating economic justice and about how individuals can transform our lives to live in nonviolent ways.
Nonviolence isn’t just for activists. We all need to transform ourselves so that we embody nonviolence. This is a challenge because our society surrounds us with violence. The culture of violence encourages us to engage in violent thinking, violent work, violent relationships, and violent media. So, too often, unless we are trained to consciously strive to unlearn all these habits of violence, our first response to a crisis is violence. We need to practice becoming better practitioners of nonviolence every day, just as a doctor needs to practice medicine. Sometimes people who aren’t necessarily trained in nonviolent struggle will try a particular nonviolent action, will face opposition, particularly violent opposition, and then too quickly conclude that nonviolence can’t work. We need to practice building our everyday repertoire of nonviolence so that when we do face crises we can draw upon these practical, ethical, and spiritual nonviolent resources.
SD: How did you get to know your grandfather?
AG: I grew up in South Africa on Phoenix Ashram, an ashram that Mohandas started when he lived here, and which Manilal, Mohandas’s son and my father, sustained along with many others. I traveled to live with Grandfather in India for 18 months when I was 12-14 years old. He was a loving grandfather, spending an hour with me every day, helping me with lessons primarily, as he did with all the kids in the ashram.
SD: Did you ever have disagreements with him?
AG: I wanted my grandfather’s autograph. So many people wanted his autograph he had decided to charge people for it and donate the money to the cause. He wouldn’t make an exception for me. Not only did I have to pay him, but he told me I needed to work to earn money for it; I couldn’t obtain the money from my parents. I kept pestering him, and it became a running joke between us, with me trying to wheedle it out of him, and grandfather gently refusing.
SD: Did he help you personally become more nonviolent?
AG: When I traveled to India, I was filled with rage about the discrimination I faced under apartheid. Yet I was ashamed of my anger, and he helped me understand that anger is a vital resource for us to channel rather than suppress. He said, “Anger isn’t evil. It’s not something to be ashamed of — be ashamed only of abusing anger.” He told me to write an anger journal. When I felt anger, he wanted me not to respond to the situation right away, but to write and express my anger in the journal. These days, I’ve heard of other people keeping anger journals, but they don’t do anything with what they write except maybe re-read the material and get angry all over again.
Mohandas taught me to address each incident in the anger journal, talking about and thinking the situation through until I had decided how to constructively approach each one of the conflicts. I continued keeping an anger journal for many years after I returned to South Africa. There were times I wanted to explode with rage at racist officials, but I knew it wouldn’t help anybody and would ruin my life.
So I used the anger journal to help me figure out how I could help challenge racism positively.
SD: How did you decide to challenge racism?
AG: I got involved with the political struggle against apartheid as my father helped bring together the African National Congress, the Colored People’s Congress, and the Indian Congress in 1952. I worked with him. Unfortunately, when they arrested leaders from different “racial” groups, the apartheid regime imposed much harsher sentences on the Black ANC leaders, sowing distrust and disunity. The apartheid regime’s strategy of divide and rule was effective. Some of the young activists in the ANC responded to the intense repression by wanting to move the ANC away from its commitment to nonviolence, arguing that it wasn’t violent to blow up bridges, for example. My father disagreed with this approach, and I had the opportunity to work with him on these struggles until his death in 1956. My grandfather faced a similar situation during the Quit India Campaign in 1942 when some impatient activists began blowing up bridges, arguing this wasn’t violent. When a train derailed after a rail bombing, causing many casualties, instead of generating sympathy for the cause, it caused widespread revulsion. Grandfather channeled this revulsion to win a re-commitment to nonviolent struggle from the overwhelming majority of activists.
SD: What is Mohandas Gandhi’s legacy in India today?
AG: Sunanda and I lead a tour every year to “Gandhi’s India.” (Sunanda and Arun share a marriage, and are co-directors of the M. K. Gandhi Institute). I’m excited about the new impetus the Gandhian sarvodaya (welfare of all) constructive program campaign has received from young activists. Sarvodaya is not just a campaign for rural land reform, which is how it’s best known here. For example, in the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), young Gandhians began organizing homeless day laborers. Many of these workers arrive in Bombay from poverty-stricken rural villages, but don’t have places to live, and their employment is sporadic. As we organized with them, part of the requirement was to save one coin from each day of work. For people who have nothing, this takes an incredible amount of self-discipline and commitment. Yet, in this way, as a collective they saved the equivalent of $11,000 in two years. This was enough to buy ten second-hand textile machines to begin a business. At first, this collective employed the 70 people who had literally gone hungry in some cases in order to save the money, working in three shifts around the clock. It was explicit in the charter of the enterprise that it existed not solely to serve the market, but to provide employment and help each employee help other people who live in the slums as well. It’s explicitly an enterprise with a nonviolent spiritual base instead of a corporation based on the violence of exploitation. Today, this collective has grown into four large factories and a micro-credit savings bank for the poor which now has seven branch offices throughout the city.
SD: Does this enterprise cross caste and communal lines?
AG: From the beginning it crossed communal lines, with Hindu, Muslim, and Christian members. These divisions haven’t been an issue. Crossing caste has been more difficult. At first, there were few low-caste members, but now the projects are better integrated. There was a real need for self-education and dialogue about how to make the projects more inclusive. Caste was banned by law in India, as segregation was banned by law in the US, but this doesn’t integrate our hearts or our organizing efforts. True integration requires spiritual struggle.
SD: With your experience in working against racism and oppression in so many cultures around the world, are there principles and/or approaches you believe are central to this work?
AG: I believe we need to learn about each other in order to change our hearts. So many conflict resolution programs, including conflict resolution initiatives in schools, just focus on resolving violent conflict, after the conflicts based on various forms of injustice have already escalated almost to the point of violence. We need to teach students to learn about each other and care about each other so that we become committed, not merely to resolve conflicts, but to working for justice for all, for sarvodaya. This then would truly be teaching violence prevention. In the US, there is Black history month, and Women’s History Month, but they’re separate, instead of integrating anti-racist and anti-sexist education throughout the year into all of our subjects. What could be more important than teaching students how to create positive relationships and work for justice? What could be more important than teaching students about the history of nonviolent struggles in this country and around the world? We could then ask students to identify the injustices of today and ask them their ideas for how they might go about transforming the situation.
SD: In theory, in the US, schools do teach about the struggles of the civil rights movement, especially around Martin Luther King day and during Black History Month, but King’s radical message of principled nonviolence, nonviolent direct action, and the need to challenge capitalism itself has been coopted by politicians and too many educators into platitudinous sound-bites. Has the same thing happened to Gandhi in India?
AG: Definitely. Politicians have always exploited grandfather’s name and memory, even before he was killed. A martyred hero is safer than a cantankerous critic calling us to transform our lives and our societies. Politicians in India trudge out to official functions every January 30th (anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination in 1948) and October 2nd (anniversary of his birth in 1869). Even President Bush was taken to one of these events by Indian militarists. They pay homage through meaningless rituals. It’s like people who go to churches, mosques, and temples to utter meaningless prayers and then return to their lives of participation in the culture of violence. Instead, we need to strive to live compassion, live respect, live love. That was grandfather’s, and Martin Luther King’s, true message, but it’s a challenging message.
SD: Do you have ideas about how we can extend the radical legacy of Mohandas Gandhi into the future?
AG: It’s a challenge because we don’t want to accept any legacy as dogma, and we don’t want to allow just anyone to invoke their legacies in ways which subvert the very essence of the message. I believe some people who call themselves Gandhians are stuck in dogma. Every time something happens today they want to rush out and consult grandfather’s collected works as if something he said 80 years ago will contain the god-given answer to today’s dilemmas. Yes, we can learn from Grandfather, but everything changes, so ideas need to change.
The easiest way to kill a philosophy is to write it in a book and worship it. Grandfather once said that when he died he wanted all of his books and papers to be burned with him so that his ideas would live on in nonviolent struggles for justice instead of fossilizing into dogma. When the Mumbai project bought sewing machines, some of the older and more dogmatic Gandhians condemned us for not using spinning wheels and not dressing in khadi (homespun cloth produced from hand-spun thread). At first, this turned off many young people, and motivated them to reject Gandhism. We need to understand that Grandfather promoted the spinning wheel at a particular time in order to involve millions of people in a program to promote economic and political self-determination and to create a symbol of collective resistance to British colonialism. I’m excited that a new generation of Gandhian activists in India understand this, and won’t let some of the old guard scare them away from extending Grandfather’s living legacy.