Sixty years after his death, Mahatma Gandhi is still a major presence on the world stage.
Since his assassination on Jan. 30, 1948, at the hands of a Hindu extremist, Gandhi has had a global impact.
To start with the United States, Gandhi influenced two of the most important mass mobilizations in this country — the civil-rights struggle for equality for African-Americans and Cesar Chavez’s advocacy for Latino farmworkers.
“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale,” King remarked. It is not for nothing that a section of the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta deals with Gandhi.
But the influence of Gandhi on the civil-rights movement predated King. African-American leaders such as Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays undertook long voyages to India on ocean steamers to meet Gandhi, while W.E.B. Du Bois corresponded with him. King was himself introduced to Gandhi’s vision by African-American Gandhians such as Mordecai Johnson and Bayard Rustin.
Gandhi had a great effect on Chavez, too. Chavez traced his political awakening to a newsreel he saw at the age of 11 or 12 showing that “this half-naked man without a gun had conquered the might of the British Empire.” Chavez modeled many of his tactics on Gandhi, from boycotts to hunger strikes. “Not only did he talk about nonviolence, he showed how nonviolence works for justice and liberation,” Chavez
Outside the United States, Gandhi has had a similar effect. Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu — all these giants of our time have acknowledged Gandhi as a guiding light.
Gandhi’s vision helped inspired movements that toppled dictators from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1989 to the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 2000.
Gandhi also made a big impact on the Muslim world.
During Gandhi’s lifetime, a good friend of his, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, founded a movement for nonviolence and social reform among the Pashtuns on the border of current-day Pakistan and Afghanistan that had at its height more than 100,000 adherents. In the 1990s, Ibrahim Rugova led a movement for independence in Kosovo that drew inspiration from Gandhi. And several activists in Palestine have adopted Gandhi’s message to offer nonviolent ways of resisting Israeli occupation.
But so much more needs to be done.
The world is torn by strife, caught between states that are too eager to use force and guerrilla armies drawn to the fatal lure of violence. The planet’s sole superpower has sent a terrible message to the world by engaging in a devastating preemptive war in Iraq. The nihilistic, ultraviolent philosophy of Al Qaeda has tainted the image of an entire region and religion. And in Africa, violence in the pursuit of cynical political ends scars the lives of millions from Darfur to the Congo.
Gandhi understood that his vision of nonviolence had mass appeal, and that his own leadership was of lesser importance. Gandhi himself said, “There go my people; I must run to catch up with them for I am their leader.”
More than half a century after Gandhi’s death, we need more leaders who want to catch up with nonviolent people.
Amitabh Pal is the co-editor of the Progressive Media Project and the managing editor of The Progressive magazine in Madison, Wis. He is working on a book about the role of nonviolence in Islam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.