Gandhi Grandson Pursues Peace

Arun spent time with Indian leader as a teen; now he teaches nonviolence in US

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS a boy living in Durban, South Africa, in the 1940s, Arun Gandhi was bullied from all quarters. White kids beat him up because he was nonwhite. Black youths assaulted him because he wasn't black. The thing he most wanted, he recalls, was ``to grow up and be strong and beat everybody back again.''

But his parents had a different idea about how to deal with their son's adolescent rage. They sent him to India to live with his grandfather for a time. And those 18 formative months at the side of the man who personified nonviolent resistance to oppression changed Arun Gandhi forever.

Today, the grandson of the man called ``Mahatma'' by his followers is walking in his footsteps. He works with schools, businesses, and government agencies in the United States to address the passive violence that he says inevitably causes the anger that leads to active violence between individuals, within families, and among nations.

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``We'll never be able to get rid of physical violence until we address passive violence ... anger, hate, and prejudice,'' he told a packed lecture at Southern Oregon State College recently.

Mr. Gandhi is a soft-spoken man who rouses audiences with the power of ideas rather than the force of rhetoric.

George Elder, headmaster of the Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tenn., heard Gandhi speak and says, ``I just fell in love with the guy and wanted to make him part of our faculty.''

Arun Gandhi now conducts a for-credit course on nonviolence for high school students at Lausanne, a highly academic school with an enrollment of 560. He has also led workshops for a hotel-management company, for recovering drug and alcohol addicts supervised by the Shelby County (Tenn.) Correctional Center, and for counselors with the Youth Services Department in Memphis.

At the request of the US Information Agency, Gandhi held workshops in conflict-resolution for rival youth gangs in South Africa. And as a scholar-in-residence at Ball State University, he works with students and police in Muncie, Ind.

Although he had become a world figure and was in the midst of negotiating Indian independence with British colonial leaders, the elder Gandhi kept his grandson close at hand and set aside an hour every day to be alone with the boy.

Gently but persistently, Mohandas Gandhi taught Arun to recognize his anger and turn it to constructive uses. And also to appreciate the ``violence to humanity'' and the ``violence to nature'' caused by wasting something even as insignificant as a pencil stub.

The last time Arun saw his grandfather, the old man slipped the boy a piece of paper with a list of what have come to be known as Gandhi's ``Seven Blunders of the World'' that lead to violence. (See item below.)

ARUN GANDHI rejoined his parents in South Africa before his grandfather was assassinated in 1948. He returned to India a few years later to begin a 28-year career as a journalist, writing four books and becoming a senior editor with the Times of India in Bombay.

During this period he and his wife, Sunanda, began working to improve the lives of poor villagers, including India's lowest-caste ``untouchables.'' Over the years, the Gandhis and a group of like-minded friends established India's Center for Social Change, helping to fund programs (including a cooperative bank) to help farmers and textile workers in more than 300 villages.

Meanwhile, Arun Gandhi's sister Ela was active with the African National Congress in South Africa (where Mahatma Gandhi had honed his nonviolent resistance tactics as a young lawyer). Having spent 15 years under house arrest during the recently ended period of all-white rule, she is now a member of Parliament.

In 1987, Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi came to America on a fellowship to the University of Mississippi. The year was spent comparing India's caste system with apartheid in South Africa and racial prejudice in the US. It was then that Arun Gandhi saw the need to address violence here.

In 1991, Arun Gandhi sold his grandfather's letters for $56,000 to provide the means to establish the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, a small, privately funded organization with one paid staffer plus volunteers.

As word of his work spreads, Arun Gandhi is becoming much in demand as a speaker.

He was keynote speaker at a conference on ``Nonviolence or Nonexistence'' at Wellesley College in Massachusetts last fall. Before speaking in southern Oregon at a gathering in conjunction with the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, he met with 150 high school students in Seattle to talk about conflict resolution and channeling anger into more positive action.

``We're getting more and more requests from all over the country,'' he says.

Although India's caste system officially ended in 1947, apartheid is no longer the law in South Africa, and civil rights bills were passed in the US, Gandhi notes that ``in reality, discrimination still goes on.''

``It's really mind-boggling how deep these prejudices can be,'' he says. ``I have found that merely passing laws alone is not going to help. What we need to do is change the attitudes of people.''

Gandhi sees the need to temper an individualism that seems particularly American (especially as reflected in materialism and self-centeredness) with a concern for others, a sense of trusteeship for one's talents, and a greater sense of responsibility.

``I believe very firmly that democracy can survive only if we have rights and responsibilities,'' he insists. ``We are always fighting for our rights in a democracy, but I haven't seen anybody fight for their responsibilities.''

He would make ``rights without responsibilities'' No. 8 on his grandfather's list of ``blunders.''

While he is concerned about the prejudice and violence that seem not to have abated since his life-changing period with Mohandas K. Gandhi, Arun sees cause for optimism.

``I share that same faith in humanity that grandfather had,'' he says, ``that people are basically good and intelligent.''

Within the peace movement, Arun Gandhi is much respected. He received the ``Courage of Conscience Award'' from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Mass.

``Having Arun Gandhi with us is like having the spirit of his grandfather addressing issues of violence in America,'' says Lewis Randa, founder and director of the Peace Abbey. ``In his presence you hear and feel and experience a deep-rooted commitment and understanding of the potential of nonviolence.''

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