US-India Civil Rights Legacy: ‘Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative’ launched

Martin luther king jr. at new delhi -Photo- US embassy in India, via Creative Commons

The June 14, 2022, launch of the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative, part of a much bigger plan, is the fruition of a cause close to the heart of late Congressman John Lewis.

The plan announced by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, will bring together 20 emerging young civic leaders from India and the United States to advance civil rights, social justice, and inclusion on the local, national and international levels by exploring the histories and legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Late Congressman John Lewis posing for a picture along with Martin Luther King III, right, and his wife Andrea Waters King at the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on February 20, 2009.

“This [initiative] to me, is one of the efforts that can be a catalyst … to forge a closer and better relationship between our countries, India and the United States. So that’s why I was glad to be a part of that. And I hope that we will get it done in John’s memory,” Congressman James Clyburn, D-SC, majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, and co-sponsor of the larger Gandhi-King Exchange Initiative Act, told News India Times. “John Lewis and I were very, very close friends. We met back in 1960 and had no idea then that we will be here in Washington serving together in the United States Congress.”

The Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative, operational from June 15, will have a one-week virtual program and orientation followed by a two-week academic residency hosted at the Alabama A&M University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and the University of Alabama.

Congressman John Lewis led a congressional delegation to India in 2009 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Rev. King’s pilgrimage to India. In its aftermath, he drafted the larger Gandhi-King Exchange Act to combine and build upon philosophies of both Gandhi and King in areas of conflict resolution and ongoing policy challenges.

The Act in its complete form was introduced in Congress October 2017 and recommended identifying development priorities in India, such as pollution and climate change, education, and tuberculosis to award grants to non-governmental entities addressing them. It also authorized the State Department, in consultation with the Government of India, to setup a yearly educational forum for US-India scholars to focus on Gandhi and King’s legacies, devise a training initiative based on conflict resolution in alignment with non-violence principles, and to build an infrastructure to handle environmental, social, and health sectors in India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Barack Obama at Martin Luther King Jr- Memorial in Washington, D.C. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

On December 3, 2020, five months after the death of Lewis in July 2020, the House of Representatives passed Rep. Lewis’ Act thereby setting up the exchange initiative between the US and India to study the legacies of Gandhi and King. It authorized $1 million a year through 2025 for the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative, $2 million for 2021 for the Gandhi-King Global Academy, and $30 million for 2021 for the US-India Gandhi-King Development Foundation.

Stamp issued by India in 1969. Photo::

About how the initiative will help scholars of both countries moving forward, Clyburn pointed to the need for communication. “And this is the kind of program that can keep the lines of communications between two countries and their cultures, their adherence to those cultures in communication with each other,” he said, giving awareness of slavery as an example. “Communication is important and we’re going to celebrate Juneteenth this weekend. A lot of people don’t realize the problem for Juneteenth is that there was not any communication. You had slaves who were free but didn’t know they were because nobody ever told them,” Clyburn said.

On June 16th, Clyburn received the Mahatma Gandhi Global Peace Award at the first Annual Incredible Inc.50 Awards organized by the US-India SME Council at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, VA.

“I think this is a very important linkage, between both Gandhi and Dr. King, who is also greatly respected in India,” Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, Prof. Santishree D. Pandit, told News India Times. Pandit, who is visiting Washington D.C., said, “… this would bring us together and then young generation of scholars, who will understand the value of nonviolence, peace as well as determination which these two leaders from marginalized and colored groups brought to the national mainstream.”

“And I think even in the United States, they must know that it went beyond Gandhi, King and to Nelson Mandela as well. So, this is a movement that will spread the message of Dr. King in India and Gandhi in the U.S., ” Vice Chancellor Pandit said.

Notably, among others, the Act was co-sponsored by Indian-American Representatives Ami Bera,D-CA, Ro Khanna, D-CA, Pramila Jayapal, D-WA, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-IL.

“John Lewis was a civil rights hero not only in the United States, but across the globe. John fought for human rights, equality and justice, and democracy for all. Just like Gandhi and Dr. King,” said Rep. Bera in July 2020, hailing the Act, “Congressman Lewis shaped the world through his actions of nonviolence, and his life story will reverberate throughout history. The Act is a fitting tribute to his incredible legacy. ” At a time when values Gandhi and King espoused are under threat, Bera said, “This legislation will help those values endure and remind us that by holding true to them, we embody and live up to the best of our two nations,” he added.

On April 11th, during the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Washington DC, India’s Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar, and U.S. Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, announced the formation of a Working Group on Education and Skill Training. They also visited Howard University, a HBCU, on April 12, to acknowledge the significant role being played by that institution in deepening interpersonal ties between India and the U.S.

Jaishankar and Blinked launched the Working Group on Education and Skill Development in a bid to a range of opportunities in education, research, innovation and entrepreneurship. “We are also committed to taking forward the proposal for the Gandhi-King Development Foundation to implement social development projects in India. And in doing so, we would help realize the vision of Congressman John Lewis, who initiated congressional legislation in that regard,” Jaishankar said at the April 12 gathering.

Maneesh Pandeya, a Fulbright Professor and PHD scholar at Howard University in Washington D.C. told News India Times, that as an academic he deeply appreciated the Scholarly Initiative which would lead to regular scholarly exchange, collaborative research projects, and seminars and workshops. “This will, in many ways, define the new soft-diplomacy chapter in India-US relations. India also offers a great opportunity to US universities for collaboration in higher education under the New Education Policy,” Pandeya said.

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Montgomery College in Maryland, Sanjay Rai, called the initiative “timely and laudable.”

“This provides young leaders and community activists the opportunity to learn from two of the greatest leaders in human history, as to why social justice and civil rights are fundamental to any democracy and how peaceful and non-violent movements can help achieve these goals,” Rai told News India Times.

The Scholarly Initiative also includes visit to civil rights sites in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham in Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta in Georgia. The scholars will reconvene in January 2023 in India to undertake visits to important sites, communities, and organizations to enhance their academic knowledge in areas such as peace, nonviolence, and conflict resolution, the State Department announced.



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