Low point of protests: Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Washington, DC, vandalized

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Ambassador Navtej Sarna paying floral tributes at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the occasion of the 69th Republic Day of India, in Washington, DC, on January 26, 2018. (Photo: courtesy Indian Embassy)

NEW YORK – It was an appalling low point in the gross vandalism, looting and arson that accompanied nationwide protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd: the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, in Washington, DC, was desecrated with graffiti and spray paint by unidentified miscreants, earlier this week.

Since its inception in 2000, the beloved statue of the Apostle of Peace, installed on a triangular island along Massachusetts Avenue, in front of the Embassy of India, is garlanded and honored every year by the Indian Ambassador to the US, on Gandhi’s birth anniversary, on October 2nd.

Devotional songs are sung; community members flock to it. The day earmarks a quiet celebration of the Mahatma’s extraordinary life and legacy that touched millions of people around the world; made a huge difference in dozens of freedom struggle and peace movements, including here in the US.

The statue, designed by Kolkata sculptor Gautam Pal, was a gift from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and was dedicated on September 16, 2000, during a state visit of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the presence of President Bill Clinton, according to Wikipedia.

The 2.64 m bronze statue depicts Gandhi in ascetic garb, in reference to his famous 1930 salt march. It’s mounted on a 16-ton plinth of ruby granite from Ilkal, Karnataka, standing in a circular plaza of gray granite pavers. Behind it are three slabs of Karnataka red granite with inscriptions honoring Gandhi’s memory, and in front of it is a seat also of red granite. The statue bears an inscription with Gandhi’s answer to a journalist who asked for his message to the world: “My life is my message.”

The mindless vandalism of the statue drew widespread condemnation, including from the Trump campaign, who termed it “very disappointing”. The State Department said: “We condemn this disrespectful act and are working with the relevant authorities and the Embassy of India to rectify the situation.” The US Ambassador to India Ken Juster apologized, tweeting, “So sorry to see the desecration of the Gandhi statue in Wash, DC. Please accept our sincere apologies.”

While Gandhi never visited the US, his influence on the peace movement here was huge, and striking his statue is akin to defacing a statue of Martin Luther King Jr.

Charles C. Walker, writing in MKGandhi.org, noted Gandhi’s influence on the peace movement in the US was felt as early as the 1920s. An early and effective exponent of Gandhi’s ideas here was John Haynes Holmes, a prominent Unitarian minister and reformer, and an outspoken pacifist in World War I. He first set forth his discovery of Gandhi in a sermon titled “The Christ of Today” which was widely circulated. In another sermon in 1922 called “Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?” his designation of Gandhi amazed many listeners, most of whom had never heard the name before.

Walker wrote that Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential figure in religious circles and in movements for social justice, as far back as 1932 urged American Negroes to adopt satyagraha in the struggle for racial justice.

In the magazine The World Tomorrow (1934), Cranston Clayton argued that Gandhian methods were especially appropriate to the American scene and were necessary as a stage beyond the traditional methods of persuasion and education. It was not until two decades later that this idea began to flower in the civil rights movement.

Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, writing in the Wall Street Journal, last year, which was also the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, noted that Gandhi’s struggle in India was widely reported in the African-American press. Thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier wrote about him, and several influential African-Americans visited him to seek advice, including Howard Thurman, later a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman wrote of how he had been subjected to an intense examination by the Indian leader: “persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery, and how we had survived it.” As Thurman prepared to leave, Gandhi offered him this hopeful prediction, wrote Guha: “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Guha also writes of the time King published a tribute to Gandhi in an Indian newspaper describing the deep influence the “Father of the Indian Nation” had on his thought: “I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis of Gandhi’s method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes in this struggle for freedom and human dignity…. His spirit is a continual reminder to oppressed people that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.”

Following Gandhi’s 1930 salt march, which made him famous in America, and Time Magazine named him Man of the Year, he received a flood of letters conveying the admiration of Americans for his struggle, wrote Guha.

“A particularly moving letter came from a Chicago resident named Arthur Sewell. The “Negroes of America,” Sewell wrote, were “keenly and sympathetically” following Gandhi’s movement. African-Americans “sympathize and suffer” with India and Indians, “for here, in America, they not only rob us of our possessions and hurdle us into the prisons unjustly, but they mob, lynch and burn us up with fire…. May God Bless you,” Sewell declared, “and enable you to carry on the great battle for righteous adjustment until you win a glorious victory for the common cause of the lowly””, noted Guha.

The tactics of Gandhi that was taken up by King, is noted by Bloomberg columnist Mihir Sharma, who this week, wrote that “When Americans debate non-violent protest in moral terms, they miss the point. It is not a purely moral question; it is about both morality and tactics. Gandhi and King were politicians who recognized that they needed to create demonstrations of will and also of moral superiority if they wanted to change minds. Choosing violence instead, they argued, would only justify – in the oppressors’ minds – further repression.”

Obviously, the violent protesters who vent their anger on the statue, never came close to understanding that.

Those protesters, who never might have heard of President Obama’s wish to dine with Gandhi, when asked the one person in history he would like to do so, might well heed the words of Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights movement leader, who said: “Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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