Remembering Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
On his birthday, October 2, 2021
Today is Gandhi Jayanti, or the day when Mahatma Gandhi was born. He continues to be our inspiration, the soul force that offers sanity and equilibrium in these turbulent times. Gandhi’s universal appeal to humanity can never diminish.
I thought I should delve into my old book collection in search of memories of this great being and I found a title that I thought would be of interest to you, dear reader.
The title I found is called: ‘A Report On The Memorial Meeting held on Feb. 7, 1948 at The Town Hall, New York, N.Y. to Pay Tribute to the Memory of Mahatma Gandhi’.
This is quite a unique little book. In the 1940’s the community of Indian origin in the United States was very small but its voice was a distinct one and made its presence felt.
The India League of America does not exist today; in fact there is a plethora of organizations that represent Indian-Americans as they are called since the community of Indian origin has swelled to almost 4 million persons.
The India League of America was led in this era of the 1940’s by Sirdar J.J. Singh. Singh had been elected President of the League in 1941 and he had become spokesperson for the nearly 4000 Indians in the United States at the time. He championed citizen rights for the Indians because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1923 had effectively denied naturalized citizenship for them. Singh championed citizen rights for the Indians and he and his compatriots lobbied the corridors of power in Washington to overturn this decision until in July 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act, which provided for an immigrant quota and enabled resident Indians and South Asians in the U.S. to seek citizenship by naturalization. Singh also made great efforts to draw the attention of Americans to India’s freedom struggle. A 1951 ‘New Yorker’ article called Singh the ‘One Man Lobby’.
Interestingly, the India League had many Americans who were a part of it. It’s Honorary Presidents were Pearl S. Buck, the famous Nobel Prize-winning author of books on China like The Good Earth and Dr. Lin Yutang, another famous writer.
But our focus is the Memorial Meeting for Mahatma Gandhi held by the League in February 1948. This was a public Memorial Meeting, as it was termed and held in the Town Hall in New York city. It was attended by more than 1000 persons of different nationalities— ‘races and creeds’—as the League termed it. There were twenty speakers and ‘fifty other distinguished guests’ on the platform. A bronze bust of Mahatma Gandhi by the American sculptor Jo Davidson, surrounded by white flowers and three flags—all at half-mast—flooded by a spotlight, was on the right of the stage. The three flags were those of India, Pakistan and the old flag of the Indian National Congress placed in the center of the two, because as Mr. Singh explained, ‘This flag, with the Charkha (spinning wheel) was very near and dear to Mahatma Gandhi. It was under this flag that Mahatma Gandhi waged and won his non-violent battles. So, on this occasion, we consider it most appropriate to place that flag along with those of India and Pakistan.’
The first speaker on the occasion was Sheikh Mohammad Abdulla, who was at that time, ‘Head of the Emergency Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and President of the All-India States’ People’s Conference.’ He told the audience that he had spent many hours in the company of the Mahatma, that he ‘was never awed by his august presence’ because Gandhi ‘took everybody into his confidence because he had completely identified himself with the masses’ and that he lived for truth and non-violence.
He was followed by Mr. M. Asaf Ali, Independent India’s first Ambassador to the United States of America. Ambassador Ali said that the secret of Gandhi’s greatness ‘was the utmost simplicity of his sincerity. He looked into every heart and he had a most extraordinary sense of discovery, deepmost feelings, deepmost urges, deepmost aspirations, and every time he spoke, he spoke the thoughts of everyone.’ He continued to state,’ I never found one occasion where he asked of others what he himself was not prepared to do himself.’ Every word that had fallen from Gandhi’s lips ‘was the nectar of his life’ and he brought to the materialistic world, the challenge of spiritual humility and the message of reconciliation and service to mankind.
Most importantly, as the Ambassador noted, through Gandhi’s struggle the 400 million people of India (at that time) had achieved freedom through a non-violent struggle that was truly revolutionary. For India, and the world, he did not want merely ‘living freedom’ but complete religious, individual, social and economic freedom.
Warren Austin, the Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations recalled the Security Council Resolution adopted after Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January 1948, and how every member of the Council had spoken feelingly about the contributions made by Mahatma Gandhi and how his example could ‘elevate the human spirit for the achievement of ideals that so-called realists may term impossible.’ Gandhi, Austin said, had ‘stood for principles which have long animated the political consciousness of the American nation’, he had been influenced by Henry Thoreau who had emphasized ‘the transcendental importance of the dignity and freedom of the individual human being’, and who had hated ‘political tyranny in any form.’ In his life, Gandhi had shown he was ‘an enemy of tyrants’, said Austin. There were other qualities that endeared the Mahatma to Americans: his sense of humor particularly, that enabled him ‘to strike the chord of human fellowship with those around him.’ Most importantly, Gandhi had ‘sought the simple but enduring truths of Indian life, and used them as a foundation on which to build a freer and more prosperous India.’ Like President Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi now belonged to the ages, Austin concluded.
Gopalaswami Ayyangar, then Minister Without Portfolio of the Government of India and Head of the Delegation of India to the Security Council, spoke feelingly of meeting Gandhi before coming to New York. He recalled how the Mahatma had asked him the following question, ‘What is it that you have in the forefront of what you are going to do on this mission?’ When Ayyangar told him that ‘I shall be willing all the way that I shall succeed in this mission in bringing about an amicable understanding between India and Pakistan over the particular dispute that divides us today’, Gandhi replied, ‘While you are willing it, I shall be praying for it every moment of my life.’
Let me now turn to the remarks of Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan, the then Foreign Minister of Pakistan and Head to the Delegation of Pakistan to the Security Council of the United Nations. (Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Hassan Ispahani was also present and spoke at the meeting). Zafrullah Khan spoke about Gandhi’s fight for India’s freedom but also about his devotion to securing communal harmony throughout the subcontinent, how ‘he had given expression to the thought that life was not worth while if communal peace and harmony could not be restored throughout India’. There was no doubt that Gandhi had laid down of his life in the pursuit of that ideal, said Zafrullah Khan. ‘From that point of view, his (Gandhi’s) death is an even more poignant tragedy to the Moslem than it it is to the non-Moslem, and it is a challenge to India and Indian leadership that we all hope and trust that they will accept and completely vindicate him’, he concluded.
Among the various speakers was Ting-Fu Tsiang, the Representative of (then Nationalist or Guomindang) China to the Security Council of the United Nations. He said China acknowledged ‘two great debts to India. The first debt is the religion of Buddhism, and the second great debt that China owes to India is the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.’ He said that the people of China ‘feel that the central problem of man is how to these freedoms that we all prize through the Gandhi method of non-violence.’ Lin Yutang, the writer and author said at the same meeting, ‘I say so without fear of contradiction, because without any doubt, of the great world leaders of the 20th century, living or dead—he (Gandhi) was the one who lived closest to God.’
Messages from Pearl Buck and Albert Einstein were also received on the occasion of the meeting. Pearl Buck said, ‘Gandhi was right. Only by determined non-violence can the world be saved today. Reason, arbitration, conferences, nothing is enough. Non-violence must come first…Oh India, dare to follow Gandhi, that there may be left one voice in the world to speak against the violence of foolish men and foolish nations.’
And, Einstein said, ‘The admiration for Gandhi in all countries of the world rests on the recognition—mostly a subconscious recognition, of the fact that in our time of utter moral decadence, he was the only statesman to stand for a higher level of human relationship in the political sphere. This level, we must with all our forces attempt to reach. We must learn the difficult lesson that an endurable future of humanity will be possible only if also in international relations, decisions are based on law and justice and not on self-righteous power as they have been up to now.’
At the end of the meeting, a resolution was moved by Sirdar J.J. Singh and unanimously adopted by all present. An excerpt from that resolution reads thus:
‘BE IT RESOLVED, THEREFORE, in honor of Mahatma Gandhi’s immortal memory, that we gathered together here today, men and women of many races and creeds, do solemnly declare that we will support by every means we have, by strength of hand and mind, those forces which today in India work for democracy and a progressive way of life..’
Dear readers, I will leave you here until my next post. Let the fragrance of Mahatma Gandhi’s memory lift our spirits and in our own ways, let us imbibe his message in our daily lives.