He was only 12 when his grandfather was killed. Today, Rajmohan Gandhi—research professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—continues the work of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, spreading the gospel of non-violent conflict resolution.
He traveled to Divine Word College for a special presentation on Saturday,
September 22, at the request of Dr. Matthew Kanjirathinkal, vice president for Academic Affairs. The previous day, he spoke at Loras College in Dubuque, in observance of the United Nations International Day of Peace, where he addressed non-violent conflict resolution, drawing on his experience as a peace researcher and former diplomat. At DWC, he focused on events that helped shape his grandfather’s beliefs and work, which have resulted in his name being directly associated with peaceful existence.
He said that the life of his grandfather—who he often referred to simply as “Gandhi”—could be divided into four areas: birth in 1869 through his early years in western India; three years in London studying law; 20-years in South Africa; and 33 years in India, before his death in 1948.
His family lived comfortably, not rich, but was well placed, and conservative. He was married at age 12. During his early years, he was exposed to the hierarchical Caste System in India, where those in the lowest caste were considered “untouchable.” Also looked down upon in this strict system were Muslims. Gandhi, for instance, was told never to come in contact with the untouchables who came to clean their toilets. If he did, he would have to bathe. One time Gandhi wanted to play with the boy who cleaned the toilets.
“His mother told him, ‘If you can’t have a bath right away, touch a Muslim boy, so one pollution is canceled by another pollution,’” Professor Gandhi said.
Gandhi remembered these things when he later went to South Africa to pursue a legal career. There, it was the small Indian minority that was discriminated against.
“He realized that the prejudice that Indians felt in South Africa was the reward for their treatment of untouchables in India,” Professor Gandhi said. “This saved him from becoming angry.”
Also during this time, he experienced the horrors of war, when he led an Indian ambulance brigade in support of the British when they fought the Zulu tribe. He witnessed the waste and folly of violent attacks and came to realize that he needed to spread the truth of non-violence.
“Scholars have viewed this period in Zululand as a transformative period,” Professor Gandhi said. He went on to establish himself as a leader among Indians in South Africa in pursuit of fair treatment.
Throughout his life, Gandhi learned from his experiences, from his formative years in India, through his time in London and finally experiencing prejudice and violence in South Africa. He adapted and formalized his beliefs based on those experiences, which have been the basis for countless books and an Academy Award-winning movie. But for an hour in September, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi offered a more personal connection to his grandfather with those who gathered in the Main Chapel.
“I’ve had a chance to share my thoughts and my reflections in this amazing chapel,” he said. “It is a very great privilege for me and I will remember this for a very long time.”