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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Grandson of Mahatma Gandhi visits MU, speaks to student and faculty crowd

Gandhi’s talk focused on topics of history, non-violence, understanding and international reconciliation.

Wherever Rajmohan Gandhi goes, his famous family name follows.

Director of Libraries James Cogswell was helping Gandhi check in to his hotel when the receptionist, an MU student unaware of Gandhi's lineage, commented on his surname.

Cogswell told the receptionist that Gandhi was in fact, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi’s.

“She did a double take sort of, ‘No way’ or ‘You’ve got to be kidding, this is so exciting,’” Cogswell said. “I thought it was an interesting story because he creates connections everywhere he goes. I’m hoping a few other people know the Gandhi name, and it’s not just about the genealogy celebrating here, but he’s a name in his own right.”

Gandhi, an award-winning biographer, journalist and peace builder, is a research professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he works in the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, according to his website. He served as an upper-house member of the Parliament of India from 1990 to 1992 and led the country to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1990. Gandhi also served as the president of Initiatives of Change, an organization that promotes trust among nations, from 2009 to 2010.

The grandson of the famous humanitarian spoke with Journalism professor Charles Davis and Political Science professor Paul Wallace in front of a crowd of more than 200 people at 11 a.m. Friday in the Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union.

Cogswell invited Gandhi to speak at a private dinner for MU Libraries donors that evening, but he arranged the morning conversation to allow faculty and staff an opportunity to meet Gandhi, Communications Officer Shannon Cary said.

Cogswell had seen videos and read papers by Gandhi that talked about the importance of global memory. Cogswell said he thought such topics would interest library patrons, promote discussion and encourage global citizenship.

“With the death of memory follows the death of reason,” Cogswell said. “I think of libraries as the memory of mankind. We do whatever we can to foster dialogues like this.”

While Gandhi addressed topics related to libraries at the donor dinner, he mainly focused on topics of history, non-violence, understanding and reconciliation.

Gandhi explained the history of conflict between India and Pakistan that began in 1947 when Pakistan was created as a Muslim-majority country after the end of British colonial rule. Hundreds of otherwise autonomous and independent “pockets” of India had to choose to join either Pakistan or India following the partition. The region of Kashmir became a much-contested and divided area around that time.

Gandhi explained the complex climate of Pakistan and classified terrorism in the country into two categories of religious extremists - anti-American extremists and internal nationalists.

“The world likes four-second sound bytes and kind of two-word headlines, ‘terrorism,’ ‘extremism,’ ‘religious extremism,’ ‘jihadism,’” Gandhi said. “But ‘jihadism’ doesn’t explain everything … Pakistan, like so many countries, has so many contradictions.”

Gandhi emphasized the importance of education in his talk and said that interaction, trade and cultural relations between Asia and the U.S. are increasingly relevant, making diplomacy especially important.

“The first step is to understand the world, even far away places, strange places, where people have unpronounceable names,” Gandhi said. “So the first step is to study and learn, and the second step is to form a good relationship with one part of the world depending on your interests and inclinations, and then you realize that every place is just as complex as your own place and simple formulae don’t describe a place.”

Davis said history is also important to consider when examining contemporary issues.

“What I want students to get, in and out of the journalism school, is that there’s nothing happening today that isn’t tied to historic events,” Davis said. “It makes us better journalists and historians if we understand relations in their broader contexts.”

Ghandi also reminisced about time spent with his grandfather.

“Whenever I was with my grandfather, the connection was incredibly warm and the affection was absolutely amazing,” Gandhi said.

Gandhi, one of the eight living members of Mahatma Ghandi’s fifteen grandchildren, said his relationship with his grandfather was unique because Mahatma Gandhi sought to make all of India his family. Their visits together were short and infrequent as his grandfather spent many years in prison and had many other commitments.

When Ghandi became ten years old he saw his grandfather more frequently, and he would often attend the multi-faith prayer meetings held every evening with him and members of the public.

They would begin with a Buddhist chant, followed by a reading of the first chapter of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, and end with a Hindu prayer. Sometimes there would be objections to the format, to which Mahatma Gandhi would respond saying that if, for example, the Islamic prayer were omitted, the Hindu prayer would also not take place.

“I would say to myself, ‘This man is not getting angry with people who are quite angry with him, (unlike) how I would react,” Gandhi said. “‘But he also is not yielding to them. He’s standing firm. So that is what I took away from him, apart from the warmth of the embrace of his hug and his strong pat on the back.”

Several audience members asked questions following the talk.

Professor Emeritus of Political Science Robin Remington asked Gandhi how the use of drones has impacted American relations with Muslims, to which Ghandi responded by saying that many Americans view Islam as a “uniquely flawed” religion and that the view should be “vigorously contested.”

Senior Zahra Rasool, who grew up in Mumbai, India before coming to MU and whose grandparents participated in the freedom movement in India, asked Gandhi if non-violence was still relevant.

“There have been results all over the world of violence producing devastating results,” Ghandi said in his response. “The non-violent movement, it’s premature to write its obituary.”

Out of all of his passions, Gandhi said he is interested primarily in one issue.

“I am interested in bringing together the deeply divided people of the world,” Gandhi said. “(I am interested in) peace and reconciliation.”

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