Gandhi Jayanti has been a very special occasion both in India and around the world. However, over the years, it has ossified and been reduced to a procession of ceremonial steps and rituals with little bearing on actually living up to the Mahatma’s ideals. Visiting Rajghat and doing bhajans has become a rite of passage with little actual effect to show on society. In light of this, the DhIA foundation in the United States has made a real change in their celebration of Gandhi Jayanti by focusing on, and campaigning against, violence and hunger. This is a celebration of not just the Mahatma’s life message but also that of Dr King Jr. They have both been luminaries in their societies to resist against injustice and usher us into a more enlightened, a more perfect world. As Shekar Narasimhan, the President of Dharma into Action Foundation states, “We thought long and hard about how to connect as Dharmic Americans with the rest of America and create a sense of belonging among our future generations. Rather than celebrating Gandhi on one day with gestures and words, we decided to focus on action and harness the power of Gandhi’s shared history with Martin Luther King, Jr. By 2029, we hope this becomes the one week we celebrate seva in its purest form.”
Gandhi through his satyagraha and non-violent protest, as well as civil disobedience and swadeshi methods dented the British Raj economically and resisted the civil service administration. His ability as a mass leader to put the Jain principle of non-violence into practice as a political movement has won him a place in our hearts and in the country’s legacy that he has attained and is affectionately regarded as “Bapu”.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr, on his part, was inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against British repression and decided to adopt it for his own African-American civil rights movement to enfranchise black and coloured Americans with equal rights, both politically and socially. His stirring speeches particularly the one with “I have a dream.” envision a colour blind society where everyone is measured by the “content of their character” and not by the “colour of their skin”. This dream of egalitarianism is an extension of the same values of justice and fairness that is otherwise espoused.
Indian-Americans and African-Americans have a shared history of confronting discrimination. Dr King, Jr. was inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for liberation, and his adoption of Gandhi and non-violent methods both fuelled the US civil rights movement and led to the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which propelled the growth of the Indian diaspora in the United States. The We Are One Campaign builds on the legacies of Gandhi and King to address hunger and violence challenges in the US. Both leaders believed that alleviating hunger and practicing non-violence were essential for building a better future.
The US is affected by its twin evils of racism and gun violence, while India continues to grapple with poverty, hunger and caste-based discrimination. According to Pew Research Report in 2021, 10% of US households are food insecure despite the US having the capacity to feed its entire population. This demands action that is the urgent need which the campaign aims to highlight and resolve. This issue is also connected to income inequality between the rich and poor, which has increased manifold in recent decades.
Gun violence is another major issue plaguing the country in a way that no other developed country sees in comparable numbers. In 2021 alone, there have been 48,830 gun deaths which show how gravely this has gripped the American way of life. More regrettably, gun deaths of children have increased by 50% since 2019.
The “We are One” campaign drives its vision from ancient Indian philosophies from the Vedas and Upanishads where the individual soul (atman) and the universal soul (brahman) are considered to be one and the same. It is this underlying unity in all beings around us that is the foundation of a dharmic code of ethics which emphasises compassion, unity and support. With this vision, the DhIA Foundation with their partners—American Jewish Committee, the Art of Living Foundation, DC Central Kitchen, the Federation of Jain Associations in North America, Gandhi Foundation of the USA, Global Sikh Foundation, the Heartfulness Institute, Indiaspora, International Buddhist Association of America and the JITO—are organising this campaign to bring about actionable change on the ground. In its historical partnerships, the contribution of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King preached and the civil rights movement was born is significant along with Sri Siva Vishnu Temple which is the oldest and largest Hindu temple in the Washington, DC area.
This view of celebrating Gandhi Jayanti must be used as a template and be replicated all over the world. It would be far more meaningful to the legacy of Mahatma if we were able to address the twin issues of hunger and violence, actually feeding the poor, uplifting the marginalised and support the least among us on this auspicious occasion as opposed to pageantry and ceremony each year.
Rajesh Mehta is an international affairs expert focusing on areas like market entry, innovation, geopolitics and public policy.