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What would Mahatma Gandhi stand for in Fiji today, 2 October 2012.


What would Mahatma Gandhi stand for in Fiji, today?

Professor Wadan Narsey (Chief Guest)

Mahatma Gandhi Day, MGM High School, 2nd Oct. 2012

(paragraphs in italics left out of speech for time constraints)

  Mr Kamlesh Kumar (President of the Gujrat Education Society), Mr Kailash Rajput (Principal of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial High School), that you for inviting me to be the Chief Guest at your Gandhi Day celebrations and to speak to your students about the lessons that the Mahatma holds for us. I pay my respects to the members of the Board, and especially all my senior uncles sitting there (and one real uncle), who for decades have been serving their community so selflessly through this school.

To you students,

Let me first give an outline of my presentation, as all good teachers should do, at the begining of their lecture.  I would like you to think about the following:

1. Why are you students celebrating Gandhiji’s birthday?

2. Who have been Gandhiji’s great admirers in history? Tells you a lot about Gandhi.

3. What principles did Gandhi stand for? (Head Boys from MGM and RSMS have said a lot already).

4. The disagreements that Gandhi had with his colleagues and friends, because of his views

5. Most important of all, what would Gandhi stand for in Fiji, were he alive here today?

6. My acknowledgement of MGM alumni who I personally know- especially my four sisters.

  Why are you celebrating Gandhi’s birthday?

It is important that United Nations declared 2 October to be the International Day of Non-Violence- that is important, but that is not the main reason. You students are celebrating this day, because your school founders named this school after Mahatma Gandhi.

Therefore your first lesson at MGM should be:  why did those who built this school, choose to name it after Mahatma Gandhi? Students:  just google with the words “the strengths and weaknesses of Gandhi” and a huge literature will jump out at you: literally “information overload”.

Some information will be accurate, some not so.  The biggest challenge of the Internet as a source of information, is to know what is good and what is bad information. Nevertheless, it is fun reading the different and often conflicting views about Gandhi.

I will give you a hint of the disagreements later.

First lesson for you students today: Gandhi’s teachers thought he was academically quite average, and very poor in sports. Then, when he obtained a British law degree from a famous Law school, he was apparently very poor as practising lawyer.

This is a great lesson for all you students: how a skinny man in a dhoti, academically weak, professionally poor, became such a great person (a Mahatma), purely by the strength of his ideas and commitment to truth, his principles and his views. If he could do it, so can you all.

But holding to principles was not easy for Gandhi: especially when many of his good friends and colleagues, and leaders of India, strongly, and some violently, disagreed with his views. Gandhi paid the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs, when he was assassinated. Yet millions admire him today, including some of the world’s greatest leaders over the last century, including many Nobel Peace Prize winners.  

Who were his admirers (many of whom have also suffered for their beliefs)? *

Martin Luther King: civil rights for black people in United States; assassinated,

* Nelson Mandela, who fought against apartheid in South Africa, jailed for 27 years,

* John Lennon, the pop singer for peace in the sixties; assassinated

* Aung San Su Kyi: house arrest in Burma for decades, and  still fighting for democracy against the military government there)

* Einstein, the creator of the mathematics that led to the ultimate symbol of violence in the world, the atomic bomb, was also a great admirer of Gandhi.

* Today, Barack Obama, the President of United States of America, is one of his admirers.

Gandhi’s great principles and beliefs

What was there about Mohandas Gandhi that led these great leaders to admire him so publicly?

The Head Boys from Ratu Sukuna Memorial School and MGM High School earlier  spoke so eloquently about Gandhi, and the Principal of MGM (Mrs Rajput) in her speech referred to  Ratu Sukuna as an icon, after whom RSMS is so suitable named.

I remind you that we in Fiji are in desperate need of icons like Ratu Sukuna.

Students might also try to understand Gandhi by examining the influences on him: Hinduism (Gandhi had his own version),

his mother’s Jain religion, Christianity, Plato, and names such Salter, Thoreau,  Tolstoy, Ruskin.  

Students, as I describe the major challenges that Gandhi took on in his life in South Africa and India, I want you to think about the kinds of challenges he might have taken up, were he in Fiji today.  

Beyond “non-violence” to “non-co-operation” with oppressors

Gandhi is world famous for advocating “non-violence” in India’s fight for independence from British colonial rule. But Gandhi believed that you had to go beyond nonviolence: there also had to be resistance against the oppressors and injustice, through “non-cooperation” and other peaceful means.

Gandhi believed that India could be freed from British colonial rule by simply not co-operating with unjust rulers, even if it meant suffering personally. Gandhi believed that injustice persisted because victims co-operated: the day that all victims stopped co-operating with unjust rulers- that was the day that the unjust rulers would have to depart.

But note, it is interesting that Gandhi believed that non-violent non-co-operation would be even more necessary after independence, because the “brown sahibs” (i.e. Indians themselves) might be worse economic exploiters of the common Indian people, more greedy and corrupt that the “British white sahibs” being expelled from India.

Gandhi became the leader of the Indian National Congress in  1921. Over the years he protested against excessive land taxes imposed by the British in India on the poorest of farmers; he called for boycott of British goods, British education, British titles and honours.

He was often arrested by the British, charged for sedition, and often jailed, for years.

For Gandhi it also meant total uncompromising belief in TRUTH (which he saw as being the equivalent of God) even if it meant great personal cost to the individual. “Satyagraha” literally means “holding fast to the truth” regardless of consequences.

Where a deep principle was involved, people must fight to defend it, even with violence if necessary.  Gandhi believed that to give up resisting injustice was cowardice of the highest order.

Gandhi believed that to close your eyes to the truth of injustice in front of you, meant that you collaborated with and supported the injustice.

Gandhi also opposed  the economic exploitation of people, where greedy individuals took more than their fair share of resources. Gandhi saw economic injustice and exploitation as one of the worst forms of violence because  it happened “out of sight” and was not obvious like plain physical robbery.

He fought against poverty.

He fought for women’s rights.

He popularized the plight of the untouchables.

He believed in economic self-reliance based on cottage industries.

He opposed politics based on religions; he was bitterly disappointed at the Hindu:Muslim conflicts and slaughter of millions that followed partition into India and Pakistan.

In the end, soon after Indian Independence in 1948,  he was assassinated for his beliefs- not by a Muslim, or a Christian, but by a Hindu extremist, who thought he was “too friendly” towards Muslims.  

Life was difficult: friends, colleagues, and even disciples disagreed with his views

Many of Gandhi’s colleagues did not believe in Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence. Critics of simplistic non-violence say that this strategy (like fasting to death that Gandhi also believed in) only works when the opponents are also rational and moral people, in an open society;  it will not work when the opponents are immoral and determined to be totally unfair.

Gandhi used to say- welcome the Germans even if they invade Britain; let them kill as many Jews as they want; shame them by not resisting.

But we know that strategy was no use to the six million Jews who were murdered by the Germans, and no self-respecting country can allow themselves to be invaded without resistance.

Many freedom fighters in India (such as Subash Chandra Bose) thought that Gandhi’s policy of non-violence delayed independence for India by twenty years.

Gandhi had himself admitted that his policy of non-violence against the white apartheid rule in South Africa was a total failure.

What is not well known or publicised is that Gandhi himself thought that when non-violent non-cooperation did not work, it was better to use violence, rather than give up resisting injustice.

For instance, he called on Indian soldiers to enlist in support of Britain in World War I.  He also called on Indian logistical support for the British in World War II (although  quite opposite to the views of Subhas Chandra Bose who advocated support for Japan).

Gandhi opposed Nehru’s industrialisation program and supported protectionism and cottage industries.   There are Indian economists who believe that some of Gandhi’s views on the economy set India back thirty years (same as the early decades of communism did to China).  India only started growing when it opened up to the world trade twenty years ago.

Yet again, environmentalists who see the widespread destruction of nature and pollution in the western industrialised world, and more recently in China, India and Russia, believe that one day the world economy will have to return to principles of environmental sustainability as the most important development principle, and not just the growth of GDP and material wealth.

While Gandhi believed in the equality of all religions, there were many Indian leaders who wanted Muslims marginalized or ejected from India- many because of their selfish business interests.

While Gandhi fought against poverty and the rights of workers, he was opposed by many powerful industrialists who were close to the ruling Indian Congress Party who wanted to keep wages low, so that they could make higher profits and expand their businesses (what Father Barr might call crony capitalism).

In the end Gandhi felt betrayed by many of the Indian political leaders who were his friends, because of their selfish self-interest heading towards Indian independence.

While Gandhi sympathized with the “untouchables” (he called them Harijans- or the Children of God)  he opposed special seats in Parliament for them.

Gandhi was criticized very strongly by another great Indian leader for the untouchables, B.R. Ambedkar, after whom many universities are named in India today, for being paternalistic towards the untouchables, when all they wanted was equal rights to others.

While Gandhi fought hard for the equality and education of women, he was opposed by many conservative Indian and Muslim leaders who thought that the “woman’s place was in the home”.

Many historians also note that Gandhi was quite authoritarian and even unfair towards the women in his life, like his wife Kasturbai who sacrificed much for him.

He was also dictatorial and unfair to his son Hiralal who he prevented from going to study in England and also from marrying the girl of his choice.

So life for a saintly person like Mahatama Gandhi was not the ideal peaceful world that idealists might imagine- it was full of conflict of ideas and strategies, self-doubt and uncertainty, and yes, there were inconsistencies in his life as well.

Even Gandhi admitted that his life was a constant journey of seeking the truth, never knowing for certainty that you have actually found it. If we, you teachers, students and I are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our lives are the same.  Just as well my wife is not here today to bear witness to all my faults.

What would Mahatama Gandhi have been supporting in Fiji today?  

I believe: Gandhi would be a strong supporter of democratically elected governments and opposed to military coups.

He might agree with certain measures such as ethnic equality of all races and a common name for all Fiji citizens; he would agree with the fight against corruption; he might even agree with the need to reform institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs.

BUT he would totally disagree with using a military coup and guns to force changes down people’s throats.

Gandhi believed in using peaceful rational arguments to change people’s views- and not try to coerce them.

He would be a passionate seeker of the truth: the truth behind our military coups, the truth behind our economy, our society, our religious organisations, our politicians.

He would disseminate his findings and his views to the people, without fear; without concern for media censorship, without fear of laws that might imprison him for seeking and speaking the truth.

He would support organisations such as the Women’s Crisis Centre and its leading light, Shamima Ali, who also stands bravely for human rights of all citizens, including those of escaped prisoners, however much misery and fear they might cause us.

Please stand up, Ms Shamima Ali, so our students here can see what brave fighters look like. (applause from audience for Shamima). Gandhiji would probably ask working men and boys to share equally in household work, so that working women and girls are treated fairly and also have time for their own personal development (as I explain in the books on Gender Issues in Incomes and Employment in Fiji, that I have given to all the senior economics students in this school).  In this day and age, Gandhiji would probably even cook for the family,  to the delight of his wife Kasturbai.  

Gandhiji would support studies which seek the truth about the exploitation of vulnerable workers in Fiji, such as the books Just Wages in Fiji, funded by ECREA, which have been given to all MGM economics students. Gandhi would support those who fight for just wages for our workers, like Father Kevin Barr here (who I disagree with on the legitimacy of the military coup in Fiji but produced the report for ECREA, on which his Wages Council work has been based).

Father Barr, please stand up for the students. (applause from audience).

On a contrary note, when the Methodist Church was recently being unfairly treated, Gandhiji would have called on the religious organisations of Fiji (the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims and Sikhs) to stand up for the rights of their sister religious organisation, even if he did not agree with their call for Fiji to be declared a Christian State.

Gandhiji would have been disappointed that these organizations missed that opportunity recently.

But there is hope yet for them, the Yash Ghai Commission is still meeting. He would be pleased to see the strength of our environmental movements, and Forestry Department initiatives such as “plant a million trees” that is taking place in Fiji (although run a bit out of steam at the moment, I think).

He would be pleased to see the thousands of children from the poorest of back-grounds, for whom their “caste” is of no concern any more, and who, through this MGM High School, have achieved the highest of goals in their lives.

Among them is a friend of mine for forty years (Mr Kishor Chetty, former Deputy Government Statistician) who was in the very first cohort to attend MGM High School, and who still remembers his great intellectual conversations with Mr Gopal Bhai Patel, the first Principal.

Please stand up, Mr Chetty. (applause from audience).

And so also was his brother Mr Krishna Samy, former head of Datec, who was in the first class to do University Entrance from MGM.

Gandhi would be a firm supporter of the education and empowerment of women: he would be pleased to see Mrs Kailash Rajput sitting there as the first female Principal of this school.  She is also a great product of this school.

Mahatma Gandhi would have been pleased to see how many women this school has taught and who have moved on in the world to higher callings.

Among them would be my four sisters, who are all alumni of MGM High School and have achieved great things in life:

Dr Padma Lal (first USP gold medalist in science and environmental economist in     Australia and the Pacific region)

Champa Chauhan (business woman in Fiji and Australia)

Dr Mangi Tauh (paediatrician in Canada)

Saras Narsey (health economist in Australia and a classmate of Principal, Mrs Rajput)

The Chairman of Gujerat Education Society, in the name of my four sisters and my mother (Maniben Narsey),  I would like to donate this cheque to assist MGM High School with a tree planting program for this and all the other schools you manage.

Of course, I am not just an economist but a “Gujarati economist”, so I hope my sisters repay me when I next visit them.

Perhaps you might like to give each class their own trees to plant and look after.

And it there is money still left over, then you MGM students might plant trees in all the streets around your schools.

I would be happy to co-ordinate with Department of Forestry to obtain as many indigenous Fijian trees as we can get- so that our children know what a dakua, vesi, yaka, kaudamu, kauvula, buabua, and many other endangered indigenous species, actually look like.

Most of our students do not know our own indigenous trees.

I think Mahatma Gandhi would have been pleased to see this initiative that would reinforce the greenness and sustainability of our environment.

Gujerat Education Society Board and Principal of MGM HIgh School, I thank you indeed for the privilege of being the Chief Guest today at your Gandhi Day celebrations.

Vinaka vakalevu, dhanyabaad and thank you.


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