By Saurabh Bhattacharya
‘Freedom is like birth. Till we are fully free, we are slaves.’ From USA to Myanmar, these words of Gandhi have generated a thousand nonviolent movements, all aimed at one goal: complete freedom -political, social or economic. Here are brief sketches of a few other Gandhis around the world who successfully walked on the Mahatma’s path
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR
The man with a dream
If it was a train-ride that created a Gandhi, it was a bus journey that made a Martin Luther King.
Once, as a kid, King was travelling long-distance on a bus with his teacher when the driver ordered them to get up for white passengers.
‘I decided not to move at all,’ King recalled, ‘but my teacher pointed out that we must obey the law. So we got up and stood in the aisle the whole 90 miles to Atlanta. It was a night I’ll never forget…’
And he didn’t.
Deeply influenced by the works of Gandhi while studying at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King made the struggle for civil liberties for African-Americans in the USA his sole motto.
His weapons: faith in God and nonviolence. ‘From my background I gained my regulating Christian ideals,’ he later said. ‘From Gandhi, I learned my operational technique.’
Although King became involved in the civil rights movement from his university days, his first major success came only in 1955 in Alabama. That year, a local black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger.
In protest, African-American activists boycotted the state’s transport system and chose King as their leader. The boycott continued for 382 days until the US Supreme Court declared Alabama’s racial segregation laws unconstitutional. But the war had merely begun.
After the Alabama success, King organised the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). By then, he was convinced that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
In 1963, King began a mass protest campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. The civil disobedience campaign lasted for a month as day after day African-Americans were arrested and jailed for violating the city’s segregation laws. The civil rights movement across the country got galvanised by the events in Birmingham.
Demonstrations erupted in cities and towns. In June, US President John F. Kennedy agreed to submit broad civil rights legislation to the Congress. In December 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Aged 35, he became the youngest man to have received the award.
Delivering his Nobel Lecture, King said: ‘Nonviolence is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.’
Four years later, this apostle of nonviolence was shot dead while addressing a gathering in Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr was only 39 when he died, but in his short life he had gained the rare distinction of making his dream a reality.
KHAN ABDUL GHAFFAR KHAN
Servant of Allah
While Mahatma Gandhi was fighting against the British regime in mainland India, the northwest fringes of the country, then known as the North-West Frontier Province and now part of Afghanistan, were witnessing the rise of yet another Mahatma-Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
Strongly inspired by Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence, Ghaffar Khan, or Badshah Khan as he was popularly known, amassed the world’s first major nonviolent army in his region. He persuaded 100,000 of his countrymen to lay down guns and vow to fight nonviolently against the British regime. He termed this army the Khudai Khidmatgar, the servants of Allah.
It was no mean achievement, considering the bloody and barbaric history of the Pashtun community-a history that was full of invasions, massacres, conquests and occupations.
The Khudai Khidmatgar movement espoused nonviolent, nationalist agitation in support of Indian independence and sought to awaken the Pashtuns’ political consensus. A devout Muslim and committed ally of Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan worked in close collaboration with his inspirer for independence.
For almost 80 long years, the Pashtun leader struggled incessantly for the rights of his people without ever raising arms. Like Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan honestly believed that the upliftment of his people was essential preparation for independence.
Khan opened schools in the province, brought women into the mainstream of society, and encouraged his nonviolent soldiers to vow to do at least two hours of social work a day. Aware of the pervasive violence in his society, Ghaffar Khan decided to invoke people on religious and humanistic grounds.
To this purpose, he initiated a pledge that was to become the motto of the Afghan people in their fight for freedom. The pledge went: ‘I promise to refrain from violence and from taking revenge. I will sacrifice my wealth, life and comfort for my nation and people.’
It called people to serve God by serving other people, which helped the growth of self-respect and human dignity. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s amazing success story will go down in the annals of nonviolent resistance not merely for its popularity but also for its innately simple and spiritual outlook.
As Badshah Khan used to say: ‘Nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people… No peace or tranquillity can descend upon the people of the world until nonviolence is practised.’
BISHOP CARLOS BELO
The priest-hero of East Timor
The agonising human rights crisis that the small oceanic island-nation of East Timor has gone through is now part of newspaper history. The nation’s ordeal began in 1976 when, freshly relieved from the yoke of Portuguese rule, East Timor was yet again colonised-this time by Indonesia.
An estimated 60,000 East Timorese, 10 per cent of the island’s population, were killed in the first two months of the Indonesian invasion. The bloody onslaught of the Indonesian army, under the orders of military dictator General Suharto, forced the peace-loving people of East Timor to seek an ally in the church.
Until the 1980s, East Timor was effectively cut off from the rest of the world, left to fester under military tyranny.
During these tumultuous years, Carlos Belo, a former gardener and buffalo-herder, was training for priesthood in Portugal. He was ordained in 1980 and named a bishop in 1988.
He returned to East Timor in 1981 and was appointed the effective head of the nation’s Catholic church, making him the spokesperson for the island-nation’s ravaged people.
From then on began the bishop’s nonviolent struggle against the Indonesian militia. Belo’s struggle, ironically, did not get any support from even the clerical order he belonged to.
In his biography The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo, author Arnold Kohen notes that in the mid-1980s, when Belo began speaking out on human rights and condemning the violence of the Indonesian military, he was told to cool it.
‘The Papal Nuncio,’ Kohen writes, ‘advised him to stick to his pastoral work’-be a man of the system, dispense the sacraments, and do not stir up trouble with the Indonesian authorities with whom the Vatican must get along. Belo declined the counsel.
Belo’s consistent attempts at seeking international support for East Timor’s crisis finally bore fruit around the end of the millennium, when UN forces at last recognised the gravity of the situation and took control of the island, forcing the Indonesian militia to leave.
In May 2002, East Timor finally breathed the air of freedom. Although the target of at least three attempts on his life, Bishop Belo maintained his belief in nonviolent resistance of the type championed by Mahatma Gandhi.
In advocating an independent East Timor, he consistently stressed the need for his countrymen not to take revenge on Indonesians but build a society based on compassion.
He has now called for the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute Indonesian military officers and militia leaders involved in the atrocities that occurred in East Timor. Bishop Belo’s constant struggle for liberation of his people led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI
For the last 15 years, in India’s immediate neighbourhood, a frail, soft-spoken, mild-mannered woman has been fighting against one of Asia’s most ruthless military regimes -without raising a finger in violence. And she is winning!
Born to a freedom fighter, Aung San Suu Kyi spent four years of her early life studying political science in Delhi University, where she discovered Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
The years were 1960-64, a period during which Burmese military ruler Ne Win successfully dismantled the country’s democratic government through a coup and established a dictatorship.
The ruin of Burma had begun in earnest. Suu Kyi entered the mainstream of the Burmese struggle for democracy almost two decades later. In 1988, she visited Burma (now known as Myanmar) to meet her ailing mother.
This was the year when the country’s capital, Rangoon (now known as Yangon) was engulfed in numerous student-led pro-democracy protests. The movement gained momentum across the country all through the summer of 1988-the so-called ‘Rangoon Spring’-culminating in a mass uprising on August 8.
The government, now headed by military leader Sein Lwin, retaliated by massacring thousands of protestors. Although the impact of the protests forced the resignation of Lwin, the military rule remained inviolate.
Suu Kyi came into the forefront by sending an open letter to the government asking for the formation of an independent People’s Consultative Committee to prepare for multi-party elections.
On August 26, she addressed a rally of 500,000 in Yangon, and declared: ‘This national crisis could be called the second struggle for independence.’
This struggle, which is still continuing, is uncannily similar in nature to the movement initiated by Gandhi pre-1947. Suu Kyi helped create the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988 and went on extensive campaign tours throughout the country.
Her commitment to nonviolence came to the fore once when, during one of her tours, she was confronted by soldiers. When the soldiers threatened to shoot Suu Kyi, she asked her companions to step aside and walked up to and past the rifles aimed at her.
In 1989, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in Yangon for ‘endangering the state’. During this time, she began a hunger strike in support of her jailed colleagues.
By now, Suu Kyi had earned the sobriquet of ‘Burma’s Gandhi’. In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Suu Kyi was finally released from virtual house arrest this May. The military regime was forced to lift all restrictions on her political activity.
In her first press conference after her release, Suu Kyi said: ‘My release is not a major triumph for democracy; I will do everything I can to see that democracy comes to Burma very quickly and comes in the right way.’
The story of Burma’s Gandhi is far from over.
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