As far as US is concerned, Gandhi is above and beyond politics of India
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Washington: Mahatma Gandhi never visited America, but no country outside India arguably has more Gandhi statues, busts, and memorials than the US, where he influenced generations of politicians, public figures and even businessmen — from Henry Ford to Martin Luther King Jr to Barack Obama.
Few had put US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on this list, but at a recent event the Democratic leader disclosed how her tryst with the Mahatma began when she was a little girl in a Catholic school when she was upbraided by a teacher who snarkily asked, “Who do you think you are? Mahatma Gandhi?” because she was not appropriately dressed.
“I had no idea who Mahatma Gandhi was, so I went to the library… and in the 1950s they had books on Mahatma Gandhi for children… and so because of what that nun said, I began worshipping at the shrine of Mahatma Gandhi,” Pelosi recalled, adding that she carried her insatiable appetite for learning more about Gandhi into college, where she pretty much cleaned out all the books on Gandhi from the library. The story did not end there. One day a young woman who was her classmate came up to her and said, “I see that you have taken out all the books on Gandhi. My father is the Pakistani ambassador to the US. I want you to take out the books on Jinnah.” Except, Pelosi said, there wasn’t much; only two.
On Wednesday, the formidable treasury of Gandhiana in the US will get another boost when Pelosi joins India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar to open an exhibition on the Mahatma on his150th birth anniversary at the Library of Congress, a storied institution born 69 years before Gandhi.
From a handwritten draft of his essay “A Common Platform” arguing against untouchability and segregation, to Martin Luther King Jr’s account in Ebony magazine of his visit to India in 1959 when he repeatedly invoked the influence of Gandhi, curators have laid out exhibits worthy of the last word in archives and the world’s largest library.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, given that India has come under scrutiny from critics for its purported heavyhandedness in the Kashmir Valley, a subject that will come up at a Congressional hearing on October 22. Critics of India’s approach are gearing up to highlight New Delhi’s violation of human rights and curtailment of civil liberties, even as Jaishankar has repeatedly pointed out that the issue is confined to only a few places in Kashmir Valley and normalcy has been restored in most parts of the region.
While Washington’s foreign policy community has largely accepted India’s position, critics remain. In fact, a New York Times op-ed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2 led to much heartburn among many who argued that it was an inopportune moment to publish such a piece given the events in Kashmir and the ideological incongruence between the Mahatma and the Indian right wing that opposed many of his views. “The most striking thing about this ‘tribute’ to Gandhi is what it is silent about: what the Mahatma lived for and died for, namely, Hindu-Muslim harmony,” noted Ramachandra Guha, a historian who has a written a recent biography of the Mahatma.
But as far as America is concerned, Gandhi is above and beyond the politics of India. The man who made Time magazine cover three times and who would have considered the LoC (Line of Control) irrelevant, is being honoured in the most storied archive in the world, the more relevant LoC — Library of Congress.
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmathi Ashram, Ahmedabad