This article first appeared in Swarajya Mag on24th November 2018.
A landmark moment of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s recent visit to Australia was the unveiling of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at the Paramatta City Council in Sydney. The Indian government of the day has left no stone unturned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of India’s foremost thought leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Ahead of the President inaugurating this new statue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia in 28 years, had unveiled a 2.5-metre tall bronze statue of Gandhi, which was sculpted by Ram Suttar, in Australia’s south-eastern state of Queensland.
In his speech during the ceremony, President Kovind recalled and expounded the famous lines of Gandhi’s favourite song, “Vaishnava Jan To Tene Kahiye”, saying this about it: “The essence of it is compassion, kindness, and goodness for others, for once and for always, without letting pride enter one’s mind. This captures the inner voice of the Mahatma.” He even thanked one of Australia’s popular singers, Heather Lee, for giving her voice to the song as a tribute. This perhaps gives us a curtain-raiser peep into how Gandhi has permeated Australia in significant ways.
I began research to see when the Australian media first reported about Gandhi, or whether at all they did, what was their sense, and what was the proportion of coverage. Some of the examples were noteworthy and striking as the reportage ranged from defining Gandhi as a persona to elaborating on some of the tools that Gandhi began to use to garner people together for a cause that began to find substantive resonance.
Mahatma Gandhi first appeared in the Evening News from Sydney on 8 January 1897, exactly four years after he arrived in South Africa, when he was just 27 years of age. Soon after that in 1906-1907, the World Australian news section of newspapers reported Gandhi’s first tryst to use ‘Satyagraha’ as a tool against the British in South Africa. He was far away in South Africa when the Australian media began to actually notice and showcase who Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi actually was and what were some of the ideals that he stood for.
It is fascinating to look at some substantive examples from academia and educational institutions in an attempt to contemporise history and its essence. The key is to extract the right lessons in order to learn from some of the leading lights of the past, like Gandhi, for example, and to share the learning with the present-day generation in an objective and nuanced manner.
In 2015, to mark Gandhi’s birth anniversary celebrations, the University of Sydney organised a programme celebrating his statement, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” As per available event reports, the discussion saw the participation of more than 250 prominent Australian and Indian leaders from the business, government, and education sectors. At this discussion, Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, emphasised how his thinking was shaped by a simple quotation from Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Another interesting example is of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which hosts Gandhi’s birth anniversary celebrations every year, and they even have a bust that was installed in 2010 at the library lawn. Marking the 150th birth anniversary this year, Prof Laurie Pearcey, who leads the UNSW’s global partnership team and who also happens to be the youngest pro-vice-chancellor in Australia, urged all who had gathered to reflect on the values of Gandhi in today’s world. To quote Pearcey, “Gandhi stressed that education is the key for not only changing attitudes, but also to shaping the new generation. He challenged us to be thoughtful and to be educated. He was an advocate of change and resistance, but also of harmony and tolerance and cooperation, which is why commemorating his birthday is just as important here in Australia as it is in India and in many countries around the world.”
At the event, Pearcey also confirmed that the UNSW views India as a key partner in its 2025 strategy. The university’s impressive Gandhi tribute this year also included an illumination of the library tower in Indian colours, and the digital display of Gandhi’s silhouette as well.
Think tanks in Australia are leading the way, too. One is the unique Center for Stories, which describes its mission as, “To create a vibrant, inclusive arts and cultural organisation that uses storytelling to inspire cohesion and understanding through rich and diverse programs.” This centre, which is in Perth, has scheduled a panel discussion on the topic, “Mahatma Gandhi: His Influence and Impact”, for December 2018.
The Australian legislature is doing its bit, too. From 2 October to 9 November this year, the Parliament of Western Australia hosted an exclusive exhibition of 30 photographs of Mahatma Gandhi to honour his message as well as the International Day of Non-violence. The exhibition was called ‘Borderless Gandhi’, and the Parliament described this significant collection in the following words: “Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Nationalist movement against the British rule of India, and used and promoted nonviolent civil disobedience to effect social change. His birthday of 2 October is now known as the International Day of Non-Violence. The collection emphasises the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the on-going relevance of his values of peace, equality and nonviolence.”
In 2017, the ‘Soft Power 30’ report was brought out by the University of Southern California and Portland Communications. This is a column on how museums can power a country’s soft power. The report notes, “Museums become more prominent as soft power platforms when they amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policymakers, and leaders.”
It is no wonder, then, that the state government of Victoria in Australia rolled out a four-month-long digital interactive exhibition at their Immigration Museum in April 2018, showcasing the life and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi. This exhibition had more than 1,000 archival photographs, over 130 minutes of footage, over 60 minutes of film clips, and over 20 voice recordings of various episodes of the Mahatma’s speeches. The curators of the museum had featured the period of Gandhi’s life in which he migrated from India to England and then South Africa, as well as the change he helped bring about in India on his return.
Whether it is the media, world-renowned academic institutions, legislatures, museums, libraries, you name it – Mahatma Gandhi continues to inspire much of Australia in many ways. The Indian and Australian cricket teams may be at loggerheads now, but the cultural exchanges between the two nations tell a different story altogether. That so many Australians draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi speaks volumes for the reach of the Indian value system, as much in demand now as ever before.
Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.