British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Vicki Treadell spoke at the 16th Gandhi Memorial Lectures in Kuala Lumpur.
Ladies & Gentlemen,
Let me begin by thanking the Gandhi Memorial Trust Malaysia for inviting me to deliver this lecture.
I am deeply honoured and humbled by this privilege.
In considering where to begin and how to develop the arc of my narrative, I found myself daunted by the task.
I asked myself how I could do justice to this legend amongst men and tie his wisdom to some of the contemporary issues we face?
But, of course, Gandhiji himself is the inspiration: his life, his wisdom, his example; his words; his legacy. His great soul.
In reflecting upon him I found myself looking back to the time when I was British Deputy High Commissioner in Mumbai covering Western India. In this job I visited Ahmedabad several times and on one occasion I visited Sabarmati Ashram. This was a place of tranquillity. As you walked through its simple rooms, where he had once walked, I found a sense of peace. In the corner of a room his Charkha - cotton spinning wheel – and folded, neatly on a desk, a pair of his signature round metal rim spectacles. To think how he saw the world through them, to imagine the lives he touched and continues to influence left me deeply moved and inspired.
Ghandiji founded and shaped a nation - he was “BAPU” – but, more than that he touched the world. Many who followed him on their own journeys, facing their own challenges and fight for freedom, justice and fairness, were inspired by him -shaping their own legends and legacies drawing on his inspiration. People like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Like a pebble tossed into a lake, the ripples he made radiated out and continue to do so today.
Last March at the unveiling of a statue of Gandhi in London’s Parliament Sq. this is what then British Prime Minister David Cameron said :
“ This statue is a magnificent tribute to one of the most towering figures in the history of world politics &, by putting Mahatma Gandhi in this famous square, we are giving him an eternal home in our country”.
I wonder what he would have thought about the old colonial power honouring him in such a way. An eternal home in the heart of our capital, with the Mother of All Parliaments just across the road, and the India Office Council Chamber at the Foreign Office just a block away.
I imagine an enigmatic smile might have been his silent response.
So on this day – Gandhi Jayanti – we not only celebrate his 147th birth anniversary but because of his legacy we celebrate too the United Nations International Day of Non-Violence.
But we do so at a time when the world seems less certain, where violence & extremism & conflict dominate news channels.
Where some governments are yet to learn & apply Gandhi’s lessons & respect their accountability to their people.
Where fear prevents legitimate challenge & freedom of expression – where fair criticism is cast as dissent and deemed a crime.
Where inequality & inequity in society has yet to be resolved. Where policies meant to support the common man only serve the vested elite.
Where religious pluralism – one principle Gandhi championed – is under stress in many countries. Let us reflect on what he said:
God has no religion
Religions are different roads converging on the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?
It is a dangerous game when religion becomes something man prescribes and politicises as a tool of control rather something between you, your conscience and your God. Intolerance and hate are the ugly results – inclusive moderate societies become damaged, individuals or minorities suppressed and ostracised. There is no justice or fairness in this.
The rise of nationalism around the world is also a growing concern. This is countering decades of integration towards inclusive societies.
What have we learnt as a human race?
Gandhi I fear would be dismayed that although we purportedly live in enlightened times, we still have to confront darkness – the eternal struggle humankind has faced.
So we should turn once again to the wise men of the past – like Gandhiji - & the lessons that we can take & reapply. Gandhi said:
You must be the change that you want to see in the world.
So, let us begin by “ being the change that we want to see in the world.”
So in our individual lives what do we do?
How do we come together collectively to bring about change within our countries & as a family of nations globally?
Again, we can take our inspiration from Gandhi:
“ An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching”
“ A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”
“ Freedom is never dear at any price, it is the breath of life. What would man pay for not living”
“ Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth”
There is much food for thought in these pearls of wisdom.
But despite all our progress in modern times, it seems mankind is still too inclined to resort to violence in the name of securing peace.
As Gandhi said:
An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.
So if we are to start again, and regard tomorrow as a new beginning, perhaps we have to start with Education as Gandhi advised:
If we want to teach real peace in this world, we should start with educating children. But he qualified this:
By education i mean an all round education by drawing on the best in the child & man in body, mind & thinking
And he added that
Education which does not mould character is absolutely worthless.
Indeed, as someone else said, educating the mind alone without educating the heart is no education at all. When children learn and play together and are taught mutual understanding and respect magic can happen. When students are exposed to ideas and creative thinking through great literature or through an understanding of history, they gain an understanding of the wider world, of humanity’s great achievements as well as mankind’s frailties. They understand the possibilities open to them.
Open minds lead to open hearts.
And I do believe that when people are confident about who and what they are, indeed understand their own history, and so can express themselves freely and are comfortable with their various identities – whether as a citizen of a given country or their gender, religious, family or ethnic identities that our understanding of others can fully be achieved. Understanding ourselves enables us to embrace difference and accept others. There can be no greater strength for any nation than to celebrate unity through the richness and diversity of its society and its people.
And for each of us, as Gandhi advised, do we seek to live as if we are to die tomorrow & to learn as if we are to live forever? Where lessons learnt from our mistakes make us better. Where experience enriches us and informs the choices we make?
But it takes a rare person to have the courage to stand up for what is right especially in environments where, for example, authoritarian regimes deny freedoms. But history has shown us that heroes and heroines do emerge and history celebrates them in time. Those who shared Gandhi’s rallying call that:
You can chain me, you can torture me, you can destroy this body but you will never imprison my mind, have shown us all that the right cause, the determination of the just, will ultimately prevail.
It seems to me that if we can liberate the minds of people, especially the next generation, learning the lessons of history, including those from the mistakes of the past, education in the broadest sense can deliver a future much closer to the vision Gandhi held not just for the India he helped to form but for all nations of the world. That seems to me something worth pursuing.
And to close I turn to someone who inspired Gandhi and whose thoughts shaped Gandhi’s, for in this we can all find inspiration too:
Rabindranath Tagore said:
“ There can be no question of blind revolution. Instead - steady & purposeful education”
“ We can never have a true view of man unless we have a love for him. Civilisation must be judged & prized, not by the amount of power it has developed, but by how much it has evolved & given expression to, by its laws & institutions, the love of humanity”
Is it not therefore only in the fair and just application of the law, and the independence of our institutions, that we protect our rights and ensure that our love of humanity prevails.