When his grandfather was tossed off a train in South Africa because he had the temerity to enter a first class compartment although he was not white, it was a defining moment in resolving whether his life-goal should be political or spiritual, said Rajmohan Gandhi.
Rajmohan, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, was speaking to a standing-room audience of nearly 200 Gandhians at the Golden Lotus Temple of the Gandhi Memorial Center in uptown Washington, DC.
Author of a major new biography of his grandfather titled Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People, and an Empire, Rajmohan said, "The humiliation was a break for him, for he had found a task in which his will to God and his will to politics could flow together as one force."
He is a visiting professor in the South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and faculty director of Global Crossroads, a learning and living community at the University of Illinois,
In a talk titled 'The Islam/West Divide and India's Role: Hints from the Mahatma,' he said this was why the train incident has to be recognized as the turning point in Mahatma Gandhi's life and mission because his entire life "bolstered by this incident, was a fusion of the spiritual and the political."
Rajmohan said that when Gandhi returned from South Africa to India, "it was clear to him that if he did not bring the Hindus and Muslims together, if he did not bring the so-called high caste and so-called low caste and untouchables together, Indians would neither merit independence, nor, in practical terms, attain independence."
"He had to bring them together," and thus, shortly after he returned from South Africa, "he told a very close colleague, Mahadev Desai, who became his ally, that while he saw that Hindus and Muslims did not today see one another as brothers, there was no other course open to them for they lived next to one another."
Rajmohan said the Mahatma "recognized that there was suspicion, and mistrust, but they had to somehow work things out. This became his conviction, that no matter how difficult it might be, Hindus and Muslims had to work together."
He recalled that in 1920, five years after the Mahatma returned to India from South Africa, he launched his non-cooperation movement that had both Muslims and Hindus in great numbers. "It was a tremendous start to the national independence movement that Gandhi launched," Rajmohan said.
He noted that Mahatma Gandhi realized how some Muslims answering his call for non-cooperation, did not believe in his doctrine of non-violence enough to ensure they would not be violent. "If some of them could offer successful violence, they would do so."
And he added that Gandhi was fully aware that they were not free from hatred, yet he hoped that by joining what he called 'my love with their hatred,' he could diminish the intensity of their hatred.
Rajmohan said Gandhi realized the discontent subcontinental Muslims at the time felt about the holy cities of Islam Mecca, Medina, Najaf and Karbala being under the control of the British and French.
"Gandhi thought that if the Hindus of India and the Muslims of India joined hands, he would try not only to retain this partnership but also to diminish the anger that he was well aware existed in the hearts of many of the Muslims who were working with him," he said.
Rajmohan, who punctuated his lecture with readings from his book, argued that Gandhi's campaign "was astonishingly successful for some time," but had to be called off for a few reasons, including violence that resulted, particularly in one incident where 22 policemen were killed by people shouting, 'Mahatma Gandhi ki jai [Victory to Mahatma Gandhi].' Gandhi also was upset that Hindus and Muslims in the movement blamed each other for the riots even though there were victims in both communities, Rajmohan said.
He spoke of the fasts Gandhi undertook for Hindu-Muslim friendship and the Mahatma's conversations with his good friend and ally Maulana Shauqat Ali. Gandhi also entreated him to befriend the Hindus and said that if Muslims felt such friendship was contrary to their religion, he would rather die.
Rajmohan said, "I mention some of these points because of the well-known criticism that many extremist Hindus have made of Gandhi, that he appeased the Muslims, that he was friendlier to them than necessary, that he extended the hand of friendship when he should not have done so.
"I wanted also to point out that while Gandhi extended the hand of friendship and in the end died for Hindu-Muslim friendship, he was also always willing and determined to challenge the Muslims to recognize when they needed to move forward."
Rajmohan acknowledged that Gandhi was unsuccessful in his attempt to prevent the partition of India by offering Jinnah the prime ministership of a united India, an idea vetoed by his closest political colleagues, Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten, among others.
"Partition did occur and reluctantly, sadly, Gandhi acquiesced to it," Rajmohan said.
He reminisced about the final months of Gandhi's life, largely spent in New Delhi "where I was a schoolboy going to school at the time. I was 12 years old at the time and I would often attend Gandhi's prayer meetings with my siblings. At these prayer meetings, you would have verses from different religions, including from the Koran."
While acknowledging that "this was not a time when his grandchildren could have long leisurely walks and conversations with him," Rajmohan recalled that "we had a wonderful opportunity to spend a few minutes with him before he went for his 5 pm prayer meeting to walk with him, to banter with him along the way, and then to partake in the prayer meeting, listen to his remarks thereafter, and walk back with him. Again, when he was walking back, he was in his warm and affectionate and joke-making mode at times."
Talking of Gandhi's dream that all communities in India the Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Muslims could live in amity, Rajmohan said he himself, as an old man, dreamt not only of lasting Hindu-Muslim reconciliation in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also that India played a role in closing the dangerous divide between "what is known as the western world I know it's not a monolith and it's not uniform and it has its differences but yet is spoken of as a single entity at times and the Islamic world or the Muslim world which is again full of great differences, divided by language, ethnicity, by nationality and by sect."
He warned that "if the divide between the West and the Islamic world is carried to a fight to the finish, it really means the destruction of normal life everywhere in the world."
Rajmohan reiterated that India has a huge stake in both these worlds. Just as Indian Americans have a stake in the prosperity, security and growth of the US, Indians also "has a tremendous stake in the prosperity, the security and the growth of the Muslim world 14 percent of the Indian population are Muslims.
"If we are to accept that this divide is to lead to bitterness and indeed conflict and clash," he said, "it will lead to the destruction of all normal life as we know it. So, the dream of this man in his early 70s, is very much that India will play a role in bridging this divide and possibly that Gandhi's life, what he said and what he did, can also give us some interesting clues on how to do it," Rajmohan said.
The program began with Bangla and Hindi bhajans sung by Samia Mahbub Ahmad, accompanied by Ashish Bagal on the tabla, after which Carrie Trybulec, director of the Gandhi Memorial Center, and Srimati Kamala, president of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation welcomed Rajmohan and his wife Usha to the lighting of the ceremonial lamp.
After his lecture, the audience gathered for a reception in the Center's library to meet with Rajmohan and his wife. There, he signed some copies of his book, which is yet to be published in the US.