Flyer InteractiveCover Story

In the Name of the Father

Arun Gandhi came to Memphis to teach nonviolence. Despite a lack of official support and measurable success, he pushes on.

by Lauren Mutter - photos by Roy Cajero

y life and my work are my message, and that should be carried on,” Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi once said. “Nobody should rest until the tears from the last person are wiped out.”

Seven years ago, his grandson responded with the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, hosted by Christian Brothers University. Arun Gandhi now asks the same of the local, national, and global communities.

A Gandhi in the Making

Arun Gandhi was born into and raised in

the philosophy of nonviolence espoused by his grandfather. Nothing defined his life more than Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi’s practice of nonviolence, which meant not simply refraining from physical violence but also “passive” violence like anger and hate. It is the philosophy Gandhi would use to bring down the British empire in India and which, decades later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would use to fuel the American civil-rights movement.

Arun was born at Phoenix Farms, the commune near Durban, South Africa, that his grandfather founded in 1903 during his struggle for human rights in the racially divided country. (The Mahatma spent 21 years in South Africa before returning to his native India, where he led the struggle for independence.)

As a young man in South Africa, Arun was attacked by black youths for not being “black” enough and by white youths for not being “white” enough. His parents sent him to India to live with his grandfather in hopes that he could tame Arun’s anger through the philosophies of nonviolence. When Mahatma Gandhi was killed less than a year after Arun’s return to South Africa, Arun says he felt such anger that he wanted to hurt the assassin. Then he remembered his grandfather’s words: “Never react immediately in anger.” Arun instead channeled his energy into the commune newspaper.

At age 23, he returned to India to work for The Times of India, a large English-language daily newspaper, where he eventually became a nationally recognized columnist. While in Bombay, Arun met his wife, Sunanda. Their courtship was rocky, as her parents were ardent supporters of British rule and resented the Mahatma’s agitation for independence. Arun and Sunanda overcame the odds to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary last June.

Rising From the Ashes

In 1985, Phoenix Farms, by then a center for education and health care for poor Indians in South Africa, was burned to the ground by angry black youths. This demonstration of anger and destruction prompted Arun to consider opening an institute to keep his grandfather’s spirit alive. When the South African government rejected the idea, Arun and Sunanda looked to the United States to compare Southern racism with color discrimination in South Africa and the caste system in India.

The Gandhis came to the University of Mississippi in 1987 on a one-year fellowship from the United Methodist Church. When Arun and Sunanda’s term expired, students pressed the university to find funding for the Gandhis’ studies. Ole Miss gave them three more years of financial and social support.

During his time in Mississippi, Arun pursued his dream of opening an institute for nonviolence. The first question concerned funding, and Arun’s answer to it generated worldwide controversy: He decided to auction letters written over a period of 57 years by Mahatma Gandhi’s second son, Manilal, Arun’s father. The sale included a letter the Mahatma had written one week before he was assassinated in 1948.

Arun’s extended family begged him not to sell the letters. The prime minister of India even called, asking him to reconsider. Unsure of what to do, Arun turned to the public, writing an essay published on the op-ed page of The New York Times. The response to “What Should I Do?” was positive. Even the critical family members relented.

“We think that nonviolence is not understood effectively.”

“I think they have generally been supportive,” Sunanda says almost a decade later. “They thought we were selling the letters for ourselves.” The auction provided $50,000, which was used to begin the Mohandas K. Gandhi Foundation. Now it needed a home.

Arun wanted to build his institute in the South, where he had already begun his studies of American race discrimination. He sent proposals for the institute to more than 10 universities. All of those that responded, including the University of Memphis , rejected the plan. Just as things seemed hopeless, Christian Brothers University offered to host the institute. CBU even provided housing for Arun and Sunanda. They opened the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in the basement of Kenrick Hall seven years ago this week, on October 2, 1991. Among those who came for the dinner in honor of the opening was the Indian ambassador to the United States.

That Was Then …

Funding was scarce in the beginning, coming mostly from personal donations. CBU provides space and utilities, but the Gandhis are responsible for all other expenses. James Gilliland, a Memphis attorney who now serves in the Clinton administration, and Dr. Harry Moore, then the head of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, joined the Gandhis on the institute’s original board. Arun and Sunanda were the institute’s only employees.

A bigger problem than lack of funds was the philosophy itself and its lack of identity in Memphis. “We think that nonviolence is not understood effectively,” Arun explains.

“They don’t have a theme or a concept that is readily embraced and viewed as native to the culture,” explains Judge D’Army Bailey, who joined the Gandhi board after meeting with Arun over critical statements he had made about the National Civil Rights Museum.

Originally, Arun hoped to merge the institute with the academic environment at CBU, implementing credit courses in nonviolence; offering workshops and seminars in nonviolence and conflict resolution to the community; and implementing programs in the city schools designed to curb teen violence.

… This Is Now.

Seven years later, the institute has become popular with CBU students. “[But] the growth of the finances is not commensurate with the growth of the popularity and interest,” says Arun, now 64. He uses honoraria from his speeches to help fund the institute. The sale of Gandhi memorabilia such as books and T-shirts, program and workshop fees, grants, and personal donations help make up the approximately $130,000 annual budget. Executive Director Laura Pietrangelo says that the institute’s biggest obstacles are still “a matter of time, people, and resources.”

“It was 50 people meeting once a week,” Arun says, rolling his eyes, “with 49 of them taking a hard line – and me.”

But in the last year, the institute has hired three full-time employees – the first paid employees in seven years – and an average of 10 to 15 volunteers and work-study students help.

Brad Bates, a CBU junior, volunteers at the institute before, after, and between classes. When he arrives at work an hour before Arun expects him, Arun jokingly warns him he had better not be skipping class. “I fell in love with the place pretty quickly,” Bates explains later.

Adds Julie Gilmore, a work-study employee, “I’ve always considered them to be my mom and dad. It’s given me a community. They’re just the sweetest people ever. They’re so nice. They’re always there to give you a hug, to talk to you. It’s such a big family.”

Program Director Marie Silba says people can’t help but like the Gandhis. “They literally live everything they teach,” she says. “That’s why people are drawn to them.”

Or maybe it’s the air of celebrity that seems to surround Arun. “At first,” Gilmore says, “you’re kind of like, ‘What do I do, what do I say? Can I joke around?’” Arun is, after all, a very calm, stoic person. His graying black hair and deep, monotone voice are very dignified – almost mysterious – and, of course, there’s the Gandhi name. “But they’re just like everybody else,” Gilmore continues. “They get angry, too. They just know how to handle it better.”

Arun disavows any celebrity, but says that if there is any it’s because he’s been written about in the papers. “It’s very embarrassing,” the usually unflappable Arun says bashfully. “It’s not designed that way,” Sunanda continues. (As she describes the two of them, “I ooze out – he is more contained.”) “We want to be just like everybody else.”

And yet you may have encountered the rather incongruous sight of Arun Gandhi driving down the road in a late-model import with a vanity license plate. “Gandhi” it says simply. Arun claims the plate is actually not vain at all.

“It may be construed that way by some people,” he says, “but I did it because we have a lot of parking problems on campus, and I didn’t want to get a ticket or to be towed. This way, they know I am parked legally.”

Local Critics

The institute has met with some success, some disappointment; some acceptance, some resistance. Arun’s initial plan to implement credit courses in nonviolence was rejected by the university.

“They told me, ‘With your qualifications, we can’t allow that,’” he says. Arun’s formal education extended only to the sixth grade (“Grandfather was against formal education,” he explains). But with so much student interest, Arun says, he feels he is reaching many of those who would have taken his classes.

“I think we have had a better response nationally [than locally],” Arun says. He now spends an average of 15 days per month outside the city speaking to various groups, and his 1999 calendar is almost full, with additional dates already scheduled for 2000.

Arun and Sunanda spent the first part of this year celebrating the Season for Nonviolence, a 64-day period commemorating the 50th and 30th anniversaries of M.K. Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations, respectively. The season began January 30th, the day Gandhi was assassinated, and continued through April 4th, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Program director Marie Saliba: “It’s not about tangible success.”

The institute is also participating in the Hague Appeal for Peace 1999, an international campaign dedicated to the de-legitimization of war. Austria’s Minister of Education in has extended an invitation to the Gandhis to do workshops and help set up programs in 11 high schools there.

“We do keep a global image in mind,” Arun says. “We can’t change the whole world, but we certainly can change individuals.”

Bailey agrees: “It’s to their credit they’re here. The importance of a movement is not based on the amount of attention they get, but on the strength and resiliency of their message.”

But despite their quiet demeanor, the Gandhis have created controversy. When the Ku Klux Klan announced it would hold a downtown rally, Arun broke ranks with many Memphis leaders and suggested a counterdemonstration. Although he didn’t attend the rally himself, Arun sent about 20 people in the name of the institute. Their silent protest was a stark contrast to the noise of the Klan and the counterdemonstrators. Images of the Gandhi protestors sitting quietly while being teargassed by Memphis police made for some of the most compelling images from the post-rally riot.

Kiern Crosswhite, an activist associated with Free Radio Memphis, is critical of the Gandhi Institute’s lack of involvement. “I really get tired of hearing about [Arun’s ties to the Mahatma],” says Crosswhite. “I don’t think that necessarily lends any credibility to anything. I’m a believer in direct action, but I haven’t seen anything from the Gandhi Institute.”

Crosswhite was annoyed when the Gandhi Institute didn’t participate in a protest at a Nike stockholders meeting held recently in Memphis. Mike McCune represented the institute at the protest. “They were taking a one-day stand against Nike and saying this is what we want done, but not saying, this is what we would do [instead],” McCune says. “Gandhi’s message is always to think things through, to think ahead of what my actions would be.”

It sometimes seems that Arun has more success outside of his adopted home town. Four or five years ago, he received a letter from Hector Aiella, who was in a state prison in Pennsylvania for murdering his best friend.

“I still remember that first letter,” Arun recalls. Hector thought he had shot his friend in self-defense, but when he realized that wasn’t true, he wrote to his friend’s family asking for forgiveness. When they refused, Hector wrote to Arun, “Nonviolence doesn’t pay.”

“This letter smacks of arrogance,” Arun responded. “You have changed their lives completely. You say ‘I’m sorry’ and expect the world to forgive you.”

He instructed Hector to “live that apology.” Arun says Hector is “totally transformed. His lawyers were willing to get him a lighter sentence,” Arun says, “but Hector dismissed his lawyers and told the court, ‘I seek the maximum sentence.’”

Hector is now serving a 30-year sentence in a federal prison. Since he has been there, he has become Arun’s conduit for other prisoners. The two are developing a correspondence course in nonviolence for which they have prepared 10 lessons. He says his friendship with Hector, and with another inmate Hector referred to him, gives him “a very satisfying and fulfilling feeling.”

When he opened the institute, Arun had high hopes of reaching Memphis youth through the city schools, and he has implemented some celebrated programs. Fairley, Manor Lake, and Lakeview Elementary third-graders participate in Kindness Is Contagious – Catch It, a program designed to raise students’ awareness of the impact that their words and actions have on others. As part of the program, each student wrote an essay about someone whose kindness has touched them and read them at the spring banquet, helping the kindness nominees recognize their own impact on the others. Peacemakers is an after-school program that teaches students, especially those in high-risk neighborhoods, not only peaceful conflict resolution but also conflict prevention. Both programs have been running for several years.

Still, Arun says, “The city schools have not really opened up to us. We have found some prejudice in the school system. They see us as Hindus who have come here to proselytize.”

He says that when he first tried to get his peer mediation programs in the school system, he could not contact Superintendent Gerry House. When a friend finally helped get Arun’s message to her, she told him she would not meet with him but that she would put him on the task force for school safety, formed in 1993 to find solutions to increasingly violent behavior in the schools.

“It was 50 people meeting once a week,” Arun says, rolling his eyes, “with 49 of them taking a hard line – and me.” He says the task force concentrated on things like metal detectors instead of working to change the internal problems that were causing the children to act out. “‘You are throwing your school problem out into the streets,’ I told them.”

“I think that’s not accurately characterized,” responds Dr. Ken Strong, supervising psychologist at MCS’s Center for Drug-Free Schools. What Arun referred to as “Band-Aid” approaches, Strong says, are only part of the task force’s strategies.

D’Army Bailey says of Arun and his wife Sunanda (above): “They don’t have a theme or a concept that is readily embraced and viewed as native to the culture.”

“They were trying to deal with immediate safety needs,” he explains, like making teachers more comfortable in the classroom. “It’s not that the district is not interested, but that people want to deal with immediate [safety] concerns first.”

Strong cites the Major Rufus Gates Prevention Project, of which Kindness Is Contagious is a part, as evidence that Arun’s suggestions were taken into consideration. The 1997 Safety Report on the progress made toward providing healthy school environments also notes other preventative programs, including a peer mediation program similar to the suggestions Arun says the task force rejected.

“I think the [school] board has been not only receptive to but also diligent in implementing programs on nonviolence,” Strong says. “I don’t feel any need to defend the district’s work.”

Despite what he sees as resistance, Arun is still working within the school system to try to curb both the physical and passive violence. The Junior Auxiliary of Mississippi recently recruited the institute to help students at two schools going through consolidation to break down feelings of hostility that would come from such a union.

A Gandhi Future

Executive director Pietrangelo says the institute’s success has been “slow, subtle, and really hard to measure.” Those doubters who need hard statistics to say the institute has done some good won’t find them.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before that’s significantly observable,” adds Bailey. “They have limited resources and a broad reach that goes beyond local issues and priorities. The tradition in which Arun functions is more worldly. It’s a harder sell for local leaders.”

Brad Bates can’t give any statistics, but he explains, “I think it’s one of those things that’s hard to see. I think there’s this illusion that you have to be a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Gandhi. But you can just be a normal, good-hearted person, and it will have the ripple effect, like dominoes.”

Program director Silba concludes their point, saying, “It’s not about tangible success.”

Arun offers an example: A student in one of the peer mediation programs went home to find his parents having a heated argument. “‘I’m going to mediate,’ he told them. He sat his parents at opposite ends of the table, went through the steps of mediation, and calmed them down. His parents were so surprised they forgot what they were arguing about. When the youngster returned to the program, he told Arun, “‘Mr. Gandhi, can I be a mediator when I grow up – like you?’”

“Neither of us thought we would reach this much success,” Sunanda says, offering her own example. “Sometime, when [the students] sit back, they will recognize and remember [the teachings of nonviolence]. Even if the kids don’t know it now, they will recognize it and eventually be able to use it. That is success.”

“I don’t think we have ever regretted being here,” Arun says of Memphis. “From the community, we’ve had love and understanding. At the official level, for whatever reason, we’ve had a block.”

Despite the resistance, Arun says they will stay at CBU. “This is where we are needed,” he says. (Phil Campbell and Jacqueline Marino contributed to this story.)

This Week's Issue | Home