At the commemoration of the the 152nd birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, at his statue in the Promenade Gardens at Main and Middle Sts in Georgetown, Indian High Commissioner to Guyana, Dr KJ Srinivasa, made the suggestion that locations be renamed in honour of the man viewed worldwide as “the apostle of peace”.
There is merit in the suggestion to honour Gandhi, paramount being his espousal through his introduction and practise of “non-violent” protests against injustice, which he called “satyagraha”, or “truth force”. He invented the technique from his deep reading and immersion into the teachings of Jesus – especially the Sermon on the Mount from the Christian Bible – and the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus. It was not based on weakness, but on the strength of conviction about the truth that oppression must be confronted, yet taking cognisance of the simultaneous truth that “an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”. The resistance to oppression would not be made with physical force, but with moral force.
The technique was first deployed and honed in South Africa, where Gandhi had gone in 1893 and become involved with the plight of Indentured Indians who had been shipped to that country’s sugar plantations and coal mines. He was willing to challenge the authorities on the moral principle that, as citizens of the British Empire, Indian indentureds had legal rights that could not be violated. His activities earned him the respect of the Indian National Congress (INC), which had been formed in 1885 to secure those very rights for Indians in India.
Through his activism, Gandhi brought the vicissitudes of Indian Indentureship in Guyana and other colonies to the attention of the INC, which petitioned the Indian Government and British Government. Indentureship was consequently halted, first in South Africa in 1910, and in the rest of the world in 1917. As such, Gandhi and his work had a direct bearing on Guyana, since he played a critical role to end this exploitative form of labour.
But Gandhi was much more than a “one trick pony” – even though satyagraha was adopted most famously in the struggle for Civil Rights in the USA by Black Americans under the leadership of Dr Martin Luther King. Some of his other groundbreaking initiatives were mentioned by President Ali at the event in the Promenade Gardens. One was on respecting the environment, and not destroying it through unbridled consumerism, which fuels the industrialisation that created global warming by pumping gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Gandhi’s insistence on placing need over greed made him a prophet for today’s generation.
While Pres Ali emphasised the need for peace in Guyana: “Individual peace transforms itself into societal peace; community peace; national peace”, he went further: “Gandhi’s philosophy was meant to create change bottom up. It was meant to create active minds and thinking people from the bottom up. To awaken a sense of consciousness. And that is important in the message. How do we awake a sense of consciousness in society? This is why people must take the responsibility of their own participation.”
It is noted that some Guyanese have reacted negatively to the request for the renaming of the Promenade Gardens and Middle St on the grounds that Gandhi was “racist” towards Africans in South Africa during his sojourn there, and the location is hallowed grounds for African Guyanese. It is true that the young Gandhi, a freshly-minted lawyer from England, did have an attitude that today would be called “racist”. But to judge him by present standards illustrates the fallacy of “presentism”, which is not fair, according to Nelson Mandela, who was an admirer of the Mahatma. Even in his own lifetime, Gandhi showed much growth in overcoming western hegemonic notions. We should judge him by his contributions to all mankind, including Africans. He was human, with human failings.
Maybe, as a compromise, the Ogle-Diamond bypass road funded by India can be named the Mahatma Gandhi Highway.