The first time I interviewed Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, in his makeshift office on the University of Mississippi campus, our conversation was twice interrupted by the fire alarm. “Undergraduate pranks,” he said with a shrug.

The last time I interviewed him, by telephone, he had to put me on hold to talk to a technician who was repairing his computer’s hard drive. “I may have lost the past year’s writing,” he said quietly.

These two incidents are examples of the patience that has carried him through a life spent tackling intractable problems.

Gandhi is the founder and director of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee, the purpose of which is to apply Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings to contemporary social problems.

Arun Gandhi’s definition of violence is so all-encompassing it indicts almost every aspect of contemporary Western life. For him, the term violence means emotional as well as physical aggression, and capitalist competitiveness is as much a cause for concern as shootings in the streets. In the United States, he contends, consumerism and the work ethic have had a corrosive effect on the most basic human relations. He recalls that, when he was a child, his grandfather made him search two hours one night for a pencil he had carelessly thrown outside during the day. At one point in his career as a reporter, he was so poor he had to borrow a car to show a visiting acquaintance around Bombay. Consequently, he is genuinely appalled by the desire for gain that leads parents to neglect their children for their careers, and that transforms workplaces into arenas of competition.

Gandhi was born in 1934 at Phoenix Farms, a South African commune founded by his grandfather as a community where Indians could live without economic competition or caste distinctions. In 1946, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather, who was murdered within a year. From 1957 to 1980, Gandhi worked for the Times of India. More recently, his work on racial prejudice led to the offer of a three-year fellowship at the University of Mississippi, where he found parallels between race relations in the U.S. and caste relations in India. He is the author of A Patch of White, a study of racism in South Africa, and The Morarji Papers: The Fall of the Janata Government, an account of the collapse of India’s first non-Congress Party government.

His accomplishments and actions testify to an almost inexhaustible idealism, and his distinctive personal style and blunt honesty bespeak an independent mind and a prickly integrity. In a country in which the races are often divided over symbols, he is critical of disputes about the public display of the Confederate flag and protests to rename streets after civil-rights leaders. “There are so many bigger issues than this,” he has said. Along those same lines, he is probably the only advocate of racial reconciliation in the U.S. to publicly call the $9 million National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis “a waste of money.” He knows such opinions are often unpopular and make his institute’s endorsement by any major political groups in this country highly unlikely.

— Kevin O’Kelly


O’Kelly: You think peace means trying to bring an end to all kinds of violence, in every sector of society.

Gandhi: Peace without nonviolence is impractical. Some people think, if there is no war, we have peace. But, in effect, no society is at peace at the moment. In the United States, there is street violence. This is not peace at all. No country has ever made an attempt to achieve a thoroughly peaceful society.

O’Kelly: What examples can you give of how violence has not succeeded?

Gandhi: World War II. The lives of nearly sixty-five million people were sacrificed. The Allies got rid of Hitler but Nazism still survives to plague us today. In a violent solution, we focus all our attention on a person. In a nonviolent solution, we focus on the problem.

O’Kelly: How would you have prevented World War II through nonviolence?

Gandhi: My grandfather was asked the same thing. Since it is a hypothetical situation, he gave a hypothetical answer. If the people of Europe had all come out and squatted on the borders of Germany, they could have stopped the tanks and the soldiers from going through. The soldiers might have killed two million, or even ten million, but eventually their consciences would have stopped them.

O’Kelly: Well, one could argue that the Jews did not offer violent resistance.

Gandhi: Yes, but Hitler had to engineer the Holocaust in relative secrecy, even in his own country. If more people had known about it, they would have objected.

O’Kelly: What examples can you give of nonviolent successes?

Gandhi: India achieved independence. There was successful resistance to the Nazis in Norway. When the Nazis conquered Norway they tried to introduce fascism into the school system. The teachers in Norway’s schools decided not to participate. Prime Minister Quisling used torture and killed people and imprisoned them. But they remained firm and eventually, Quisling and Hitler had to give in.

Also in Berlin during the war, Hitler ordered the arrest of Jewish spouses of German people and took them to Berlin’s central prison. The families didn’t know what was happening, so they followed the soldiers. By the time everyone had arrived at the prison, twenty-five thousand men, women, and children were gathered there. They all spontaneously decided to squat outside the prison. They did this day and night for several days. Hitler ordered soldiers to shoot, but they refused because the people were not doing anything. After several days, Hitler gave in and allowed the Jewish spouses to be released. It’s a mistake to think that nonviolence works only when your opponents are relatively “nice.”

O’Kelly: I understand you recently spent some time in South Africa, the country where your grandfather’s work began.

Gandhi: I was invited to do nonviolence workshops in South African townships. I spent two weeks in the Soweto area. While I was there, one of the black human-rights lawyers persuaded seventy-one members of the armed revolutionaries to attend one of my workshops. I had only two hours’ notice. Frankly, I was trembling. But afterward, the media interviewed them to find out what they had learned from me. They all said they were giving up their weapons and becoming nonviolent activists.

O’Kelly: A lot of American young people are growing up in an environment that provides incentives for violent behavior: If they’re tough, they’ll get respect from their peers on the street. If they don’t seem capable of fighting back, they will become the victims of violence. What can you offer them to counteract this value system?

Gandhi: I have found a lot of aggression among young people because they are unhappy with the situations in which they live. They need love and understanding, and they don’t get that in their homes. Their parents are busy in pursuit of their careers. When these kids get home from school they have no one to talk to. When I put myself in their shoes I feel angry, too.

O’Kelly: So you don’t see youth violence as a problem primarily of the urban underclass; you see it as a middle-class problem, too?

Gandhi: I think it’s a problem with family structure. I don’t want to sound like Dan Quayle here; I don’t necessarily mean two parent families. Even if it’s just one parent, the relationship with the child should be one of respect.

O’Kelly: And you think career-obsessed parents are the source of these problems?

Gandhi: I don’t have a formula, but I do know that parents are getting more and more involved in their careers and neglecting their children. If the children aren’t given the attention they need, they become victims of outside influences. We must understand that materialism is not the salvation of humanity. If we get caught in that vortex of making more money to have a better life, then we will never see the end of it. It is a vicious cycle.

For example, people in the U.S. say that having two cars is essential for a husband and wife. Later, they say four cars are necessary because their children are growing up and need to go places. People think they need more possessions, so everybody must work more and under more pressure and people get directed away from each other and there is no close involvement. I have heard parents say in the presence of their children, “We are waiting for the children to grow up and move away from the house so we can be free of the responsibilities.” When kids know that this is their parents’ attitude, they are not going to respect them very much. This is not physical violence, but it is emotional violence.

O’Kelly: You seem to want to transform society into a community instead of an aggregate of individuals.

Gandhi: If we are going to claim to be a civilized society, we need to behave in a civilized manner. What is civilization? It is not just literacy or possessions. We must foster closer ties.

O’Kelly: What do you think of the trend toward lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults as a response to the rise in violent crimes committed by juveniles?

Gandhi: I think it is very shortsighted. The whole judicial system is very gimmicky and shortsighted. Politicians are not interested in anything long-term. They like to talk about locking people up and throwing away the key. They like to say, “Three strikes and you’re out.” But if crime continues to rise at its current rate, the country will go broke just building and maintaining prisons. Politicians never speak about that.

O’Kelly: As an opponent of violence and racial discrimination, what do you feel are the newest signs of danger or trouble in American society?

Gandhi: It seems to me that anger within the African American community is making a solution more and more difficult. I sometimes wonder if the leaders of racial communities are really interested in solving the problem. There is a lot of anger toward white people as a group.

O’Kelly: Wouldn’t it be extraordinarily forgiving of African Americans not to feel anger toward white people?

Gandhi: Yes, but how long do we carry such anger? If they are looking for eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth justice, African Americans will never be able to get even with all the white people in this nation. At some point, we have to live together as human beings. In Bosnia, people are killing each other for events that happened three hundred years ago, long before they were born. What is the point?

O’Kelly: Don’t you think it might be unrealistic, given that it has been less than a generation since racial integration in the South, for there to be any full acceptance of each group by the other?

Gandhi: Yes, it does take time. My concern is not about how long it takes as much as that there be indications we are on the right road. But my finding is we are not on the right road. We in India are having similar problems with the caste system. Our new constitution was passed in 1950, and it ensured the lower castes legal equality and civil rights. But now, more than forty years after independence, we realize that divisions are becoming wider and people are becoming more intolerant.

We thought that by passing laws alone we could achieve full integration. But that is only the first step. The next step is for you and me individually to bridge the gap. No law can make us do it if we don’t want to do it. What has happened in both countries is that individuals have left the problem to the government and are not willing to do their part.

O’Kelly: How are the divisions becoming wider?

Gandhi: It’s like what’s happened here because of affirmative action: resentment and charges of “reverse racism.” It is not so intense in the U.S. because blacks are a smaller part of the whole society. You can see it more in India because there are so many untouchables; they are asserting their right to affirmative action and riots are breaking out between untouchables and other castes. There is a lot of anger. We thought the new generation would be born relatively free of prejudice, but the younger generation is as intolerant as the older generation. And the same thing is happening here.

O’Kelly: What signs of hope do you see?

Gandhi: Relations between races have improved in certain areas where politicians have not been able to exploit them. When no politicians are involved, people live and work together quite well, without getting involved in political games. I think politicians create more problems than they solve.

Even politicians among the minority communities rake up all sorts of extraneous issues and exploit people for their own purposes. I see agitations for putting up a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King or naming a road after him. This is not what Dr. King lived and died for. He didn’t want roads and schools named after him. We can’t fulfill his dream by creating animosity in the little societies we live in; we have to change each other’s attitudes.

O’Kelly: How can that be done?

Gandhi: It has to be done by both sides, both peoples taking more interest in each other — for example, on university campuses. Try to make black students feel at home, try to bring them into the mainstream of university life. You can’t do this by ignoring people.

O’Kelly: How do you feel about the increased emphasis on African American history and literature in the curriculum of American universities?

Gandhi: Mainly, I feel such studies divide more than they unite. Where such courses are offered, I see mostly blacks taking African American studies. But what we need is to try to understand each other. The white students should be learning black history and vice versa. But that is not happening. I understand why blacks want to have these programs: they want to emphasize black contributions to this country. But the sad thing is no steps have been taken to integrate the two histories into one. I once asked Leo Littweck, a white professor from UCLA specializing in black history, “What steps have been taken to write a unified American history with contributions by whites, blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities? That is the right history of this country.” He said, “That would be perfect, but unfortunately no publisher would publish it.” I was amazed by his answer. I said, “Who decides what the young people in this country will learn, the publishers or the historians?”

O’Kelly: Some African Americans have said that if a white person feels uncomfortable sitting next to a black person, then that white person is racist. What can be done about such purely emotional reactions?

Gandhi: All these things are the result of stereotypes. I think close contact can dispel stereotypes. When my wife and I were moving once, a white woman from the university helped us because she had a truck. She brought along her little daughter, who was about six years old. A black person also helped us. The little girl was fascinated that people of three different colors were working together loading furniture. It was a hot day and we were all perspiring. When we sat down to relax, the little girl came and picked up each of our hands and smelled. I asked her, “What did you find?” She said, “It’s the same.” These are the things that make all the difference.