Life, Legends and Legacies : An Interview with Arun Gandhi, by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

Arun Gandhi

Arun Gandhi

Born in 1934 in Durban, South Africa, Arun Gandhi is the fifth grandson of India’s legendary leader, Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi. Growing up under the discriminatory apartheid laws of South Africa, he was beaten by “white” South Africans for being too black and “black” South Africans for being too white; so, Arun sought eye-for-an-eye justice. However, he learned from his parents and grandparents that justice does not mean revenge, it means transforming the opponent through love and suffering. Arun Gandhi who worked for 30 years as a journalist for The Times of India now shares these lessons all around the world. In 1987 Arun and his wife Sunanda came to the US and in 1991 they started the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis Tennessee. A socio-political activist Arun Gandhi is also an author of a number of books. His first book, A Patch of White (1949), is about life in prejudiced South Africa. He also wrote two books on poverty and politics in India; followed by a compilation of M.K. Gandhi’s Wit & Wisdom. He has edited a book of essays on World Without Violence: Can Gandhi’s Vision Become Reality? And, more recently, he wrote The Forgotten Woman: The Untold Story of Kastur, the Wife of Mahatma Gandhi, jointly with his late wife Sunanda and his bestseller Legacy of Love: My education in the path of nonviolence. His latest book Grandfather Gandhi was released in March of 2014

In wake of many social and political turmoils across the globe recently, and the racial unrest that shook the spirit of America, we decided to interview Arun Gandhi to learn from him, what role a creative, intellectual community can play in reshaping the thinking of our society and global community?

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis (KSC) – Arun Gandhi, you are an activist, author, speaker and the grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Please tell us, how it is like to be the grandson of a man who shaped the destiny of the Indian nation and inspired the world to believe in peaceful means of non-violence?

Arun Gandhi (AG) – When I was a teenager I found it a burden because everyone expected so much from me and I did not feel confident enough to deliver. In exasperation I confessed to my mother: I don’t know how I will go through life carrying this burden. Her response was: It is up to you. If you look at this legacy as a burden it will grow heavier as the years pass, but, if you see this legacy as a light that is illuminating the path ahead it will be easier. I have since never stopped being grateful to my mother for this bit of sage advice. It is the light that is showing me the path.

KSC – You were born in South Africa and spent your early years there. Do you have the recollections of political events taking place there, such as the start of non-violent, civil disobedience movement against apartheid?

Arun Gandhi with his legendary grandfather Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

AG – My grandfather left South Africa in 1914 and I was born in 1934 so I do know about the freedom struggle led by my father Manilal Gandhi and played a supportive role as a teenager. My father played a significant role in persuading Chief Albert Luthuli, then President of the African National Congress, and the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate in South Africa, to commit to nonviolent campaigns. This philosophy was still new to the African leaders and people. After my father convinced Chief Luthuli the African National Congress passed a resolution committing to nonviolent action.

KCS – Growing up in South Africa, when you faced racial discrimination yourself and reacted to it, what did your parents and grandparents teach you? What lessons did you learn from them as a child, and as an adult to fight racial injustice in South Africa and British imperialism in India?

AG – My parents were both committed to nonviolence as a way of life so they practiced it at home with parenting as well as outside in conflict resolution. But, when I became a victim of bullying and beatings at the age of 10 simply because of the color of my skin I was moved to rage and wanted revenge. These events coincided with our periodic visits to India to reconnect with relatives and so the family went to India and my parents decided to leave me with grandfather who could help me deal with the conflicts in my life. The first lesson that grandfather taught me was about understanding anger and being able to use the energy positively and intelligently. He said: Anger is like electricity. Very useful when used intelligently but also equally deadly when abused. So, it is with anger. If we abuse it we cause death and destruction but if we challenge it intelligently we can find ways to improve society. He taught me how to take time away from issues that cause anger and reflect on them with a calm mind and then come back to address them intelligently. He also suggested writing an anger journal not with the intention of getting anger out of your system but as a means of finding an equitable solution. The journal, therefore, had to be written with the idea of how to resolve this problem peacefully. It made me start thinking of peaceful solutions every time I faced a conflict. Considering that experts today have found that more than 80 per cent of the conflicts we face in life are generated by anger it is important for all of us to learn how to use anger intelligently rather than abusively. This is why I disagree with scholars who have painted nonviolence as a strategy of convenience rather than a way of life. I don’t think we can create a peaceful, nonviolent society when we are so deeply steeped in a Culture of Violence. It is, to put it crudely, like allowing a cancer patient to smoke and every time he gets recurrence of the cancer just cut off a bit of it. Eventually, the patient must die. My understanding is that we, individually and collectively, have to replace the culture of violence with the culture of nonviolence by acknowledging our weaknesses and transforming them into strengths — that is, using anger intelligently, and rooting out all the violent language, thoughts, attitudes and interests to allow love, respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation and compassion to control our lives.

Home where Arun Gandhi was born

KSC – Was there any beauty in the adversities of South Africa? Tell us about your favorite memories there.

AG – Oh yes, there was beauty in adversity in the form of people, both among the whites and the Africans who did not believe in prejudices and showed it in their attitudes. As a teenager I recall one Sunday I went out biking with two other friends. We were so disorganized that we had no water nor food and the day was hot and humid. After about 30 miles of cycling we found ourselves in a lily white neighborhood with one white-owned general store open. People of color were not allowed into these stores and if they did allow them to come in the white owner-staff were very rude. We stood outside debating what to do. We were very thirsty and hungry and my friends pushed me to go in and see if we could get something. I walked up to the door hesitantly and peeked in. There was one white lady behind the counter and no customers. She saw me and very amiably asked me what would you like young man. Emboldened I walked in and said we are thirsty and hungry because we had been biking for nearly 30 miles. She said I can make you a nice tomato and cheese sandwich which was generous considering it was not a restaurant. I said that would be fine. So, she went and got a loaf of bread, a slab of butter and cheese and some tomatoes and I watched as she made the sandwiches. It is almost 65-68 years ago but I can still feel the love with which she made the sandwiches and still taste it. She simply cut slices of butter and cheese and tomatoes and generously piled them on. She made three large sandwiches and sold us three cold bottles of coke.

Similarly with the African people. When we returned from India I was 14 years old. My father had gone back to India after grandfather was assassinated, leaving mother, my younger sister Ela and me alone at the Phoenix ashram. Scattered around the ashram were poor African laborers who either had jobs in the city or worked on farms on daily wage. But my parents had always maintained a respectful relationship with all of them whatever their economic standing. So, while my father was away the city of Durban flared up in racial riots instigated by the white administration. There was indiscriminate killing and butchering on both sides. Our friends in town were worried about us because they knew we were surrounded by African people. But the African neighbors were so nice to us that they decided on their own that they would patrol the periphery of the ashram to protect us from anyone who attacked. Throughout the days and nights for a week they were there by our side determined to see that no one harmed us.


The home of Arun Gandhi where he grew up.

KSC – Many Indians were skeptical about joining M.K. Gandhi’s movement in South Africa. How was it like to stand for them who did not want to stand for themselves?

AG – People all over the world have a misconception of nonviolence, largely because scholars have misinterpreted the philosophy. People think that simply because they do not fight or kill they are nonviolent. Or, many believe that as long as we do not harm people but destroy property we are nonviolent. In the recent demonstrations in many parts of the US people disrupted traffic, blocked roads, stoned and looted shops. This is not nonviolence by any stretch of the imagination. In nonviolence it is not about winning and losing it is about transformation. Our actions must not cause discomfort to anyone or disrupt their lives. When you block roads and traffic and throw stones you are causing fear among the common people and giving the authority the excuse to use violence to contain the violence. Then everything escalates and no one is transformed.

There is an example in South Africa. In 1912, just before grandfather left South Africa for good, he announced that he was going to launch a final campaign against discrimination. As he always did, he announced publicly what he was going to do, why, where and when. The day after the announcement the workers of the South African Railways decided to go on a strike for more pay and better working conditions. Grandfather realized this was important and would affect the people and the government equally. So he suspended his movement because he did not want to put pressure on the people and the government. The leaders of the strike came to grandfather and pleaded with him to continue because “we are fighting the same enemy.” Grandfather said: “I don’t have any enemies to fight. I am simply trying to transform the thinking of the people and the administration by our personal suffering.


Arun Gandhi’s father Manilal Gandhi outside the printing press in Phoenix Ashram, South Africa

The strike took place and there was a great deal of anger, frustration and slogans like “down with the Government” and so on. The anger and the attitude of the strikers gave the police the chance to use force and break the strike. They did not gain the sympathy of the common man nor did they convince the government that they deserved better treatment. In four days the strike was ended and they went back to work without gaining anything.

Later grandfather launched his campaign and because he insisted on proper behavior, respect for the authorities and the common people the police were unable to break their resolve. After several weeks the Prime Minister, General J. C. Smuts, invited grandfather for peace talks and that is when he confessed. I could crush the strikers because there was so much anger and frustration in their ranks but I don’t know how to deal with you because you are always so kind, considerate and compassionate towards the police and the administration. That is the key to a successful nonviolent campaign.


An old family photo — Sunanda Gandhi (wife), Arun Gandhi, Archana Gandhi (daughter) and Tushar Gandhi (son)

KSC – When you got married, your wife was denied permission to join you in South Africa, forcing you to move to India. Did it turn out to be a good thing for you and your family or not?

AG – In retrospect it turned out good for me personally because it gave me a chance to flourish, to see a new way of life and broaden my perspectives. It was not good for my mother who lost her husband and her son in less than a year. My mother and my younger sister Ela were left alone in South Africa to run the ashram and the campaign against discrimination. Whether my presence in South Africa would have made any significant difference to what eventually happened I don’t know. It would be egotistical to claim that I could have made a significant difference. It might seem like escapism but I feel whatever happened happened for the good. There is some indefinable power that controls everyone’s actions and destiny.


Arun Gandhi with his younger sister Ela Gandhi at Phoenix Ashram in South Africa

KSC – What is the biggest challenge you face as an activist and advocate of peace?

AG – I think every conflict is a challenge. In India, where life is riddled with conflicts, there were and are many challenges. The biggest is the immense poverty that exists, the disparities and discrimination, the exploitation of the poor as slave labor, the general lack of concern and the increasing religious turmoil caused by narrow-minded politicians and people. I firmly believe that peace is not the absence of war but true peace can only be attained when we show greater concern and compassion for the less fortunate among us, when we stop exploiting people for personal gains, when we realize that our own happiness lies in the happiness of others and that creating a better world is a collaborative task for all of us and not just one individual.

KSC – We can only imagine, what it would have been like, when Mahatma Gandhi started his movement against apartheid in South Africa! How far have we come since the day? How do you feel about the current socio-political situations in the United Sates, and what are the solutions?

AG – We are still literally miles away from understanding Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolence not only in the United States but even in India and all over the world. Gandhi said weeks before his assassination: (The People of India) will follow me in life, worship me in death but not make my cause their cause. These prophetic words could have been uttered by anyone from Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad to the Buddha and everyone else in between. We willingly pay lip service to their philosophies but when it comes to emulating this in our lives, we have a thousand excuses why this cannot be done. So, we kill them physically and then worship their spirits and turn them into saints. The world, led by the United States, has chosen a materialistic way of life and grandfather said: Materialism and morality have an inverse relationship. When one increases the other decreases. We can see the results. The more materialistic we are, the less moral we have become. When there is no morality in our lives how can we live an ethical, value-based life of compassion and love?

Arun Dalai lama

Arun Gandi, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King III

KSC – You have traveled in many countries, spreading messages for peace and nonviolence, such as Israel, Palestine, Croatia, France, Ireland, Holland, Lithuania, Nicaragua, China, Scotland and Japan; and for the past five years, participated in the Renaissance Weekend deliberations with President Clinton. How satisfied or dissatisfied do you feel with the level of engagement of intellectual community in the wake of our national and international crisis?

AG – Disappointment and disenchantment come when we are more focused on the results of our actions rather than the need for our action. We need to do what we need to do because it is the right thing to do. The results will come in due course and whatever they are it is not for us to determine. Good actions can only lead to good results. What I see in the world only convinces me that there is more work to do and that I need to do it to the best of my ability. THIS IS WHY I CALL MYSELF A PEACE FARMER. I just go out and plant seeds in the minds of people and hope and pray that they will germinate and eventually we will reap a good crop of peace activists.

KSC – Do you think, in our modern world moral values are on decline and we are getting desensitized to many things happening around us? If yes, what reasons do you think are behind this phenomenon that we have now accepted as normal?

AG – Materialism has a tendency to make people selfish and self-centered. At every stage we think only about ourselves and our needs and we try to get them by any means possible. Our yardstick to measure success is materialistic. How much do you have in the bank, what kind of car do you drive and how big a house do you own. Morality plays an insignificant role and if at all it is only in relation to sexual or spiritual matters. Everything else is fair game. We can consume more than we need, waste more than we should and destroy things and want only because we have the means and the power to do so and that is not considered immoral. Material success leads to greed and arrogance and that is what we are enjoying at the moment. We seem to be unconcerned that it was that very same attitude that destroyed civilizations in the past.


126 babies were rescued from the streets in India by Arun Gandhi’s foundation and placed in adoptive homes. In this picture, Arun Gandhi with some of them.

KSC – What is the biggest hope for mankind in today’s world?

AG – One must always have hope otherwise life would not be worth living. The hope is that the more people see the light of day the more we will be able to awaken those who slumber in ignorance and arrogance.

KSC – Tell us what incident inspired your first book A Patch of White (1949)?

AG – When I came to India and got a job as a journalist, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge about what was happening in South Africa. I thought by writing a first hand account of my own experiences with prejudices, I would be able to spread more understanding.

KSC – Your book World Without Violence: Can Gandhi’s Vision Become Reality? poses a question. What is the answer and first step towards realizing this vision?

AG – the answer is YES it can be achieved provided WE BECOME THE CHANGE WE WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD. If each continues to wait for the other everyone will be waiting forever. We also need to understand violence and its wide manifestation. It is not just physical violence but a great deal more of non-physical or passive violence that we commit which is more insidious. Because of the Culture of Violence that surrounds us there are many things that we do that we don’t even consider to be violent — like over consumption, wasting resources, and hundreds of little things that we do which hurts someone somewhere. The other day I read in the NYT that in the US alone we waste $20 billion of food every year. Or, that the government in Maharashtra, India, has decided to build a statue of Shivaji Maharaj in the bay, like the Statue of Liberty, at a cost of $200 billion when there are millions living in poverty and dying of hunger and neglect. When we are able to show greater compassion for the living, instead of respect for the dead then there will be peace.

KSC – What are you reading and writing these days?

AG – Right now I am reading The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam, based on one family during the Bangladesh war of independence. I am writing newspaper articles on some important issue in India, like the movement away from Gandhi and his ideals. One member of Parliament called all those who do not believe in Lord Rama, “haramzadas” — infidels — and said we should be rid of them. Another MP said Godse, thee man who assassinated Gandhi was a martyr and that his death anniversary will be observed as martyrs day and then the RSS has been going around converting Muslims and Christians into Hindus by coercion. Now they have appealed for funds from NRIs at the rate of Rupees 500,000 to convert one Muslim and Rupees 200,000 to convert one Christian. If these conversions are voluntary why do they need so much money?

KSC – You are a writer, journalist and champion of many good causes, please tell us about your aspirations and dreams you yet have to realize and your message to the world.

AG – My hope is to leave behind a world that is slightly better in all respects than when I was born. I will just go on doing what I think is right, make mistakes, learn from them and move on in the hope of planting good seeds of peace, love and compassion.

KSC – Thank you!

By Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

Also by Arun Gandhi – Tragedy of Civilization



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