Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu peace activist in India who was assassinated 71 years ago, so why would a young Muslim a world and several generations away want to help commemorate the 150th birthday of such a distant figure?
“I have always been fond of Gandhi and in favor of nonviolent action,” explains Sergazy Nurbavliyev, a graduate student at the University of Utah. “I see a real similarity with our Prophet Muhammad.”
Lately, the Muslim world “seems violent and chaotic, which is not supposed to be,” says Nurbavliyev, who sits on the board of the state’s Gandhi Alliance for Peace. “I wanted to be on the board so I can tell Muslims that all problems can be solved without violence.”
The math student is not, of course, the only one who will be celebrating the birth of the emaciated Indian who changed the course of history.
In India, the world’s largest democracy, Gandhi’s birthday is a national holiday. The day is marked by prayer services and commemorative ceremonies, painting and essay contests, and widespread contemplation of nonviolence.
In Salt Lake City, he will be remembered in two events — one on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park and a second one on Wednesday at 7 p.m., featuring a documentary at the downtown library.
“Gandhi is just as relevant today as he was when leading thousands of people in nonviolent marches and protests against British imperialism,” says Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University. “As long as there is injustice — which is to say, as long as there is human society — there will be a need for nonviolent resistance. Gandhi and his student Martin Luther King Jr. will go down in history as two of the most important leaders of the 20th century because they invented, or at least nearly perfected, a new form of political power: nonviolent people power.”
Contrary to what its critics assert, it is “hardly a weak or ineffective weapon,” says Mason, who has a graduate degree in peace studies and is writing a book on Mormonism and nonviolence. “It’s not some starry-eyed ideal.”
Both Gandhi and King were “brilliant tacticians and strategists, on par with any of the century’s military geniuses,” he says. “In order to be effective, nonviolence requires the same kind of rigorous training, strategic thinking, and discipline that make militaries work.”
In the Book of Mormon, the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many who lay down their arms are slaughtered, Mason says, but their actions “have a transformative power on their attackers, who drop their weapons and stop the assault.”
At the same time, a message of the Mormon text is that “many battles never bring lasting peace to the people,” he says.
A lasting legacy
Indra Neelameggham was a child in India after Gandhi died, but his influence lived on in her home and in her life.
“He was a revered person in our family from day one,” says the Utah Hindu, who has been in the Beehive State for decades.
Neelameggham’s maternal grandfather was a successful restaurant owner before India’s independence, when Gandhi asked him to “feed the whole Congress — 1,500 people — for three days.”
He agreed “without a question,” she says. From that day forward, he lived a simple life, following the activist’s example.
What remains for Neelameggham, she says, is Gandhi’s ideology of serving the poor and eschewing social classes.
“No job is unclean,” the great man taught, and her family heeded. “Cleaning of the toilets, sweeping the floor, doing dirty dirty dishes for others — nothing is beneath us.”
Gandhi also advocated for the “equality of women,” which was “unthinkable in India at the time,” she says. “But he was a great soul who went against the grain of tradition.”
Santosh Gandhi of Salt Lake City grew up in Punjab, a contested area between Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan, admiring Gandhi.
“He was the most ethical person I have ever known or read about,” says Gandhi, no relation (“The name Gandhi is as common in that region as Smith is here”). “He lived by his principles. He was my moral compass.”
He hated the Indian caste system, assigning various populations to upper and lower levels of respect.
And if any of his followers “did something wrong, he would stop the movement and repent,” says the 80-something woman, who lives in the Avenues. “That’s a great lesson for our legislators. They have to set the example. You cannot expect people to do audacious things unless leaders do it first.”
Gandhi was “our hero,” she says, then jokes, “I got the privilege of having his name through marriage.”
Like the U. math student, Utah Muslim Zeynep Kariparduc sees the Hindu radical as a role model.
She values his “wise approach to understanding other faiths, his open-mindedness and, most importantly, his nonviolent philosophy,” says Kariparduc, outreach director of the Emerald Hills Institute and a board member for the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. “In his life, he dealt with various issues including the misinterpretation of Hinduism, which is a problem some people share about Islam today,” she writes in an email. “We, as Muslims, should see him as a role model in treating the misinterpretation of Islam and in asserting the reality that violence has zero place in Islam.”
Kariparduc is pleased to see that “there are social movements all over the world trying to make a change in fighting violence with nonviolent, peaceful actions.”
As a peace activist herself, Deb Sawyer was naturally drawn to the Indian icon.
Sawyer had worked on justice issues in Nicaragua and Guatemala in the 1980s, when she ran into members of the Peace Brigades. Together, they brainstormed about how to bring nonviolent strategies to other war-torn areas.
They asked themselves, “What would Gandhi do?”
In 1998, one of the Brigade members called the Utahn, asking if she would organize an event on Oct. 2. She knew that was Gandhi’s birthday.
Two years later, she and a tiny band of ardent activists formed the Gandhi Alliance for Peace.
Now, every year on his birthday, they honor their namesake and give a peace award to individuals who promote the cause in various ways.
This year, the prize goes to the Utah chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“Gandhi is extremely relevant to all those on our earth who seek to create a more-peaceful and less-violent world,” she says. “We need Gandhi right now at least as much as at any time since he started setting examples of how to organize and address poverty, discrimination and violence.”
Utah might not be as dangerous as places in Latin America, she says, “but we are part of a country that too often chooses violence when there are other choices.”
When an awful episode happens, Americans “fall into these traps, thinking we have to kill [the perpetrators],” she says. Gandhi’s example of nonviolence, she says, “helps put a break on that reflex.”