This week, Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, visited campus to work with students in the course REL-295: Gandhi and Resistance, taught by Tim Dobe, Religious Studies, and Shuchi Kapila, English. He is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On Monday, he gave a talk entitled “Contemporary Struggles in the Greater Middle East and its Neighborhood: Is There a Gandhian Perspective?” The S&B’s Lily Jamaludin spoke with Professor Gandhi.
How would you summarize your talk for students who were unable to attend?
I refer to some of the conflicts in the greater Middle East area as well as the South Asian area. I refer to Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, India, Kashmir. My purpose was not to analyze these conflicts in great detail at all, but what would these conflicts look like if we were wearing Gandhi’s spectacles? So how would the world look, or these conflict areas look, if we were wearing Gandhi’s spectacles, and what sort of suggestions we might have to reduce or remove those conflicts. That was the basic idea. I also contrasted what might be called the colonial or imperial or security approach to conflict and the Gandhian approach to conflict. So that was another part of the talk. And I also spoke of what I had learned from my latest research, which was on the history of the Northern part of the India-Pakistan sub-continent, a great region called Punjab, which was split in 1947 into two: Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab, and what that history taught me about these issues. In particular, how the army was trained by the British Empire, the Indian army, and how after many years of training, some decades of training, the different groups, sectarian groups, religious groups, instead of becoming closer to each other became more distant from each other. And what lessons we can learn from that when it comes to let’s say Iraq or Afghanistan with troops that have been trained, security forces that have been trained. What can we learn from that experience?
Can you expand on the colonial interpretation of conflict and how we approach conflict today?
There is some similarity between the colonial view and the security view. Not that the security view is mistaken, but it has some weaknesses. One of the most important things I have learned in my research is that when outside forces intervene in an area, there is a temptation to exploit divisions that already exist. Say the Sunni-Shiite division, to exploit that. Whereas the real need is to bridge the division rather than accentuate it. To put it in another way, the strategic and commercial interest of the intervening powers should be secondary. The long-term interest of the region should be primary. How can we really help the region? Not: how can we make the region safe for us (or less hazardous for us)? That should not be the primary objective. The primary objective should be how can we get the people in those, how can we help them to really live with each other, and then take our hands off and let them do it the way they can. Often, in many of these places, the notion that these divisions are ancient, or that they are in some ways eternal is a mistaken notion. The elites of the different groups have often fought with each other but at ground level there has been good relations between the groups. So we should encourage that reality, or strengthen that reality. So that is one of the points that has come out of my research.
What has been your personal journey with interfaith dialogue?
I have been associated for 50 plus years with a group called Initiatives of Change. It used to be known as Moral Rearmament, but about fifteen years ago the name was changed to Initiatives of Change. And the philosophy behind this group is very simple: If you want to change the world you should start with yourself. It’s a common sense idea, but not always a very easy idea because you know, we all want somebody else to be better and be more reasonable, but what about us? So that’s the philosophy. And people of all faiths, all parts of the world, all races, all nations are associated with this. So that has been the context in which I have done my justice and reconciliation work, or my interfaith work in life. I am not primarily a student of religion. I am a student of history and politics, but of course religion is deeply involved in history and politics, so I’ve had to study religion too.
How does your faith and spirituality impact your worldview?
Here are some ideas that I carry in my mind most of the time, or all of the time: that every single person in the world is very special, that every single person in the world can do some remarkable thing, that at an essential level, we are all the same underneath, whatever our religion may be, whatever our race may be, whatever our nationality may be, we have the same desires in ourselves, we have an idea of what is right and what is wrong, and most of us sometimes are prejudiced, but we can look at our biases and prejudices and look beyond those. So reflection about oneself and a real study and understanding of the world outside, these are two important pieces of equipment that any peacemaker needs: reflection about herself or himself, and a good thorough understanding of the world.
How would you say people integrate Gandhian ideas into their everyday life?
One point I made in my talk yesterday was that nonviolence was a very crucial part of the Gandhian message, but it’s not the only part. Inclusiveness, pluralism, getting different groups to work together is as important as nonviolence, or is another component to nonviolent ways of life. And it is true that people who say we want to be realists, because there are organized people who have guns and weapons at their disposal, and if they want to do great harm, what can nonviolence achieve? That is a legitimate question. But we may say that nonviolence has not succeeded in some of the world’s toughest situations. But what is completely plain is that violence has not succeeded. Nonviolence may take a lot of time to fight against some oppression nonviolently may not produce immediate results, but violent methods to end domination or end oppression have produced disastrous results. So I don’t say that absolute, total nonviolence in all circumstances is the right way, no. As I said in my talk yesterday, if there is a foreign invasion, if there is a terrorist attack, if there is a terrible oppression that you want to end, we cannot say that never will we use violence. Some use of arms has to be condoned and accepted. But the ideas of understanding the other group, the other nation, the realization that we are all the same, basically. We think of some people as enemies, but the enemy is not totally unlike us, and we also have something that we don’t like in the enemy that may also exist in us. So those understandings are very much part of the Gandhian perspective. So if we wear Gandhi’s spectacles, we may see that the enemy is not so different from us.
How do you feel that you are carrying Gandhi’s vision or mission throughout your life?
I find as I study his life more and more, reflect more and more upon it, that my life is in consonance with that. It certainly is. But that’s not my aim. My aim is not to ask myself, if I face any situation, whether it’s a personal one or if I want to understand a conflict issue in the world, I don’t ask myself, “What would Gandhi have thought?” I ask my conscience and I ask my mind. But I find that when I ask those questions, the answers I get are very similar to the ones that Gandhi got.