Year-long celebrations for Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary begin in Washington with Capitol Hill event

Indian Embassy partners with community and business organizations to kick-start commemoration period

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, November 29, 2018 – Year-long celebrations for the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi commenced on Capitol Hill with US lawmakers, senior Indian diplomats, community activists, press and media persons, gathering in the Rayburn House Office Building for a formal and dignified event befitting the father of the Indian nation.

The frigid temperature outside did nothing to cast a damper on the earnestness of the heartfelt proceedings inside.

Speaking at the “inspirational event” on Gandhi and his legacy, Ambassador Navtej Sarna said, “We know him as the father of the nation. We know him as the person who led India’s struggle against colonialism and actually got us our freedom. But, I think he was so much more than that. He was one of those rare human beings who actually lived his life to his own standards which he set, which nobody asked him to set, and which he discovered for himself”.

Ambassador Navtej Sarna lighting the ‘diya’ (ceremonial lamp) at the launch event on Capitol Hill for the year-long celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Looking on, from left to right, are: Amy Hariani, Vice President of USIBC; Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois); Nissim Reuben, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee; and community activist Dr. Bharat Barai

With Indian-American congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi by his side, the envoy noted, “It is appropriate that this event is being held in the House of the lawmakers because I think people like Raja are working with a vision of society and anybody who is a visionary, who is looking at correcting the wrongs of society, cannot but take inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi whose entire life was, as he said, ‘my life is my message’. Everything that he did was based on certain values, a rock hard discipline which would not let him depart from those values and beliefs”.

India’s top diplomat here spoke of Gandhi’s “very deep values in international terms”, his immense impact around the world including his influence on South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. On a trip to India, King famously said, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist. But to India, I come as a pilgrim”.

Reflecting on Gandhi’s legacy, Sarna said, it is “a time to remember, a time to reinforce, a time to apply those teachings and those messages to our life”. The US capital city, he noted, is well acquainted with India’s independence leader through the Gandhi Memorial Center, and his statue situated on public land across from the Indian Embassy which was approved by the US Congress.

With the help of lawmakers like Krishnamoorthi and the “tremendous Indian-American community”, we will see more developments like this, said the ambassador calling them a “win, win, win”.

Peace can only be achieved by Non-Violence: Reverend Martin Luther King III

It is noteworthy that during a visit to India in February 2009, Congressman John Lewis (Democrat-Georgia), a veteran of the civil rights movement who was arrested some 40 times during the 1960s, said, “If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King and Gandhi, there would have been no Barack Obama today. Many years ago, Gandhi showed the world that nonviolence was one of those immutable principles in the struggle for justice”.

Tuesday evening on Capitol Hill, Krishnamoorthi declared, “There is absolutely no way that I could be standing before you in the absence of Mahatma Gandhi”. Referring to the “profound influence” that Gandhi had on King and the civil rights movement in the United States, the lawmaker affirmed, “Without that civil rights movement, without the breaking down of the racial barriers that held so many people back in this country, there is no way that people who look different from some of the previous occupants of my office could have come to the fore, and that includes me”. It is an “incredible bounty that we have all enjoyed and that I have personally benefitted from”, he added.

The Illinois Democrat affirmed, “Our perspectives, our horizons have widened because of this man. It is up to us to step up and take advantage of those opportunities and get even more involved”, in civic life, he said.

Noting that Indian-Americans voted across the country in this year’s midterm elections, Krishnamoorthi implored members of the community to do more: to run for office, but with a caveat – not to run for Congress from Illinois’s 8th congressional district which he represents.

The lawmaker pointed out that Ambassador Sarna will be retiring in two weeks after 38 years of service to India which was received with a round of applause.

Congressman Ami Bera of California who has the distinction of being the longest-serving Indian-American member of Congress believed it is important to reflect on the lessons that Gandhi taught in today’s somewhat “chaotic times and often chaotic politics — his lessons of putting service and humanity first, and addressing injustices with strength. It is not passive resistance”, he said noting “it takes a lot of courage to do what he did. Gandhiji showed us what that path forward is”, said the lawmaker who has served as the Democratic co-chair of the House India Caucus.

Republican Congressman David Schweikert of Arizona lights the ‘diya’ (ceremonial lamp) in the House Foreign Affairs Committee chamber as part of the celebrations marking the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi

Republican Congressman David Schweikert of Phoenix, Arizona, informed the gathering that the second most common religion in his state is Hinduism. Urging the community to stay engaged, he said, “We need to communicate to members of Congress the complexity of issues facing Indian-Americans”.

The lawmaker mentioned that he has traveled to India on multiple occasions and on one of his trips he collected a poster of Mahatma Gandhi which is among his most “prized possessions”.

The program also featured remarks by: Amy Hariani, Vice President of the US India Business Council (USIBC); Srimati Karuna, director of the Gandhi Memorial Center based in Bethesda, Maryland; Nissim Reuben, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee; community activist Dr. Bharat Barai; and Mansi Patel of Indiaspora. Jay Kansara of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) served as the eloquent emcee.

Srimati Karuna, director of the Gandhi Memorial Center, addressing a launch event on Capitol Hill for the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi

Warmly inviting everyone to the Bethesda, Maryland-based Gandhi Memorial Center, Srimati Karuna noted that “Gandhiji called upon all of us to be Satyagrahis” (seekers of truth).

Representing the business community at the event, Hariani said, “It is appropriate that we are celebrating Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary today on Giving Tuesday. He is one of India’s greatest gifts to the world”.

Referring to a news headline, Gandhi goes global, Kansara said, “It is hard to think how much more global or universal Gandhi’s message can be”. He extolled the Indian Embassy for raising the bar by gathering musicians and performers from across the world to perform Gandhiji’s favorite bhajan, ‘Vaishnava Jana To’, written by Gujarati poet Narsinh Mehta in the 15th century. The audience was treated to the fusion video by artistes from over 120 nations.

Artistes of SAPAN (South Asian Performing Arts Network) perform ‘Vaishnava Jana To’, Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan, to mark the beginning of his 150th birth anniversary celebrations in Washington

Given that the US was not represented in the musical homage, members of the DC-based South Asian Performing Arts Network (SAPAN) rendered a live version of the bhajan, in the US House of Representatives, to be incorporated in the video. A short biopic on Gandhi was also screened for discerning viewers.

The Capitol Hill event was organized by the Embassy of India in Washington together with multiple partner organizations such as Indiaspora, HAF, Gandhi Memorial Center, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, USIBC, US-India Friendship Council, The Art of Living Foundation, Jain Society of Metropolitan Washington, Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA), and Jain International Trade Organization.

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