Gandhi statue proposed for Zilker Park
Proponents say tribute to Indian activist fitting as city’s diversity grows
When Nehal Sanghavi thinks of Austin, he sees a community that embraces diverse cultures and values progressive ideas and public service — a model place, he says, for a memorial honoring one of the world’s iconic figures of peace, Mohandas Gandhi.
If Sanghavi and supporters realize their dream, the tranquil, bespectacled face of Gandhi will gaze upon the Zilker Park lawn, perhaps as soon as next year. Members of Austin’s rapidly growing Indian community are leading the effort and submitted a proposal to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department board. Sanghavi said supporters have financial commitments from the community to cover the estimated $35,000 cost for a bronze statue. He said they prefer a Zilker Park location but are open to suggestions from the city.
The campaign corresponds with supporters’ plans for an annual
day of service in Austin. This year’s event is set for Oct. 2, the birthday of the late leader.
Be the Change Day will be patterned after traditional observances in India, where the date is a national holiday and a day of service, said Sonia Kotecha, president of the Network of Indian Professionals of Austin.
Supporters hope to unveil the Austin memorial on Be the Change Day in 2011.
Known to his worldwide followers as “Mahatma,” or “the Great Soul,” Gandhi galvanized millions in India’s nonviolent struggle for freedom from British rule. With his philosophy of civil disobedience, Gandhi influenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and South African leader Nelson Mandela, who used his principles to cultivate their own nonviolent struggles for equality, Sanghavi said.
“A Gandhi memorial would just serve as a reminder to the human community of the humanity that he brought to us, especially his principles of nonviolence,” said Sanghavi, 36, a local attorney and president of the India Community Center of Austin.
He said he’s puzzled why Austin doesn’t already have a Gandhi memorial — by his count, at least 30 U.S. cities have one, and there are countless others around the globe.
“It doesn’t matter what religion, what generation, nationality, race, you’re usually going to be for nonviolence, peace and progressive change. Gandhi represented all of those things,” he said.
A Gandhi memorial has the support of Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who said he first heard about it at a meeting with Asian American residents earlier this year.
“Gandhi is an international hero and did so much good in the world,” Leffingwell said. A former airline pilot, Leffingwell said he flew often to India and visited the Gandhi memorial in New Delhi. He has a photo of himself standing beside a stone marker at the entrance to Gandhi’s home, he said.
A memorial on city parkland would require approval from the city Parks and Recreation Board and the City Council, a city spokeswoman said.
Sanghavi said supporters are collecting proposals from sculptors and hope to choose one by the end of summer. The memorial will consist of a 2foot granite pedestal base and a 7-foot cast bronze statue of Gandhi with his walking stick in his 1930s protest march against the British salt tax. It’s an easily recognized image, depicted in memorials in San Francisco and elsewhere.
Kotecha, a community liaison with the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, or CASA of Travis County, said Be the Change Day is an attempt to build on inaugural events last year that drew a few dozen people. “We started planning a little late in the game,” she said.
This year, supporters, including the local network of Indian professionals, are planning early and reaching out to other racial and ethnic communities, including organizers of Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities.
Events are likely to include service projects across the city, a lunchtime picnic with speakers and children’s performances, and possibly a children’s essay contest about Gandhi’s legacy.
“We really want to inspire people to learn more about the ways they can give back to the community on an ongoing basis,” Kotecha said.
A self-described second-generation South Asian American who moved to Austin with her family in the 1990s, the 34-yearold Kotecha said the local Indian community “wants to feel like it’s a part of Austin.”
“Having a Gandhi statue just kind of symbolizes what we’ve contributed in this country as well,” she said.
The Austin metro area’s Indian population is the fastest growing segment of the area’s Asian population, city demographer Ryan Robinson said.
According to American Community Survey 2008 estimates from the Census Bureau, Indians made up 20,685, or about 28 percent, of the 73,375 total Asian population. Asian residents comprise the fastest-growing ethnic community in Austin by percentage, Robinson said. They represent about 6 percent of the city population.
Nehal Sanghavi says funding already set.
Sonia Kotecha is promoting day of service in October.
Mohandas Gandhi, right, talks with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 946. Gandhi, who died in 948, led nonviolent protests to push for India’s freedom from British rule. Local Indian organizations are planning events for Oct. 2, Gandhi’s birthday.