Building Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy: We must be the change we wish to see in the world

In the past few years, radical extremists have countered Mahatma Gandhi and his teaching and his preaching with acts of ‘war,’ ‘hate,’ and ‘violence,’ writes Frank F. Islam for South Asia Monitor

Frank F. Islam Oct 02, 2020

On this 151st birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, we are facing two grave crises. The first is the COVID-19 health crisis. Scientists and medical experts are currently developing vaccines to address this pandemic. The second is democracy is in crisis characterized by the diminishment of liberal values, the rise of rightwing demagogues, and the suppression of human rights and religious freedom in many important parts of the world. 

The antidote - the vaccine - for the second crisis is the teachings of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. What is the state of democracy in the world today? How strong a vaccine will we need to stem this virus?  

Democracy in crisis

Sadly, I must say that the state is not good.  In fact, it could be called awful. Two years ago, Freedom House - a Washington-based organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights - declared in its report Freedom in the World 2018 that democracy was in crisis. That the report showed 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House’s 2019 showed net declines in 68 countries.  A Pew Research Center survey last year found that in the United States 40 percent of the respondents were fully committed to representative democracy, 46 percent were less committed, and seven percent preferred a non-democratic option.

The Pew study disclosed that of all the countries surveyed “support for a strong leader who is unchecked by the judiciary or parliament was highest in India.” Only eight percent of the Indian respondents were fully committed to representative democracy; 67 percent were less committed, and nine percent preferred a non-democratic option.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King

India and the United States are the world’s two largest democracies.  Active and engaged citizenship is essential to keep those democracies vital and vibrant and exemplars for democracy world-wide - and to fulfill the vision of Gandhi and King. I was awarded the Martin Luther King Award in the United States in 2015. I felt doubly blessed to be given that honor because of the indelible connection between King and the other equally famous civil and human rights leader from my homeland of India, Mahatma Gandhi.

As Dr. King noted in a radio broadcast during a visit to India in 1959, “If this age is to survive it must follow the way of love and non-violence that Gandhi so nobly illustrated in his life.”

Mahatma Gandhi told us, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Dr. King advised us that, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

It is a critically important one. Because as the novelist and civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman observed, “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back - but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Wright Edelman’s statement of responsibility to carry forward the good work of King and Gandhi. They live on through each of us who are willing to pick up the baton of non-violence and use it as an instrument and to work together to build communal peace and harmony.

There are many actions that can be taken to move away from discord and anarchy and to move toward communal peace and harmony. In my opinion, the key actors and actions include:

* Religious leaders promoting interfaith dialogue
* Political leaders promoting a framework for unity
* Citizen leaders promoting communication and collaboration

There is much work to do.  There is a role to play and a contribution to be made by all concerned citizens. 

Civil engagement

The key to progress is civic engagement. Civic engagement, as I view it, takes five primary forms:

* Individual engagement – being the best one can be and personally responsible for one’s actions
* Organizational engagement - contributing to the success of the groups (e.g., business, religion, associations) to which one belongs
* Political engagement– participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government
* Community engagement– collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place
* Social engagement– advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all

I don’t know if Gandhi ever used the term civic engagement. I do know that without him, there would be no Republic Day for India, and without his influence and impact on others the United States and the world would be a far different place.

Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and his approach to civic engagement are centered around ‘peace,’ ‘love’ and ‘non-violence.’ In the past few years, radical extremists have countered Mahatma Gandhi and his teaching and his preaching with acts of ‘war,’ ‘hate,’ and ‘violence.’  If they are successful, Republic Day in India and similar holidays in countries around the world that celebrate democracy will become a distant memory.

In the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers who came before us, I firmly believe we who understand and our commitment to the values of a free society can prevent that apocalyptic vision.

It is up to us. This is our responsibility in the years 2020 and going forward.

(The writer is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)

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