Gandhi statue in Washington DC
Gandhi statue in Washington DC|Photo credit: flickr

The Einstein Challenge

The hurdles faced by Indian diplomats in 2000 to erect a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington DC

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” These words of Albert Einstein about Mahatma Gandhi have become as legendary as the two men, regarded as the two icons of the twentieth century. The words are inscribed on most monuments for Mahatma Gandhi around the globe.

Prime Minster Narendra Modi has given a new interpretation to Einstein’s words in a column of the “New York Times” to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary by proposing the ‘Einstein Challenge’ to ensure that the ideals of Bapu are remembered by future generations.

“As a tribute to Gandhi, I propose what I call the Einstein Challenge. We know Albert Einstein’s famous words on Gandhi…. I invite thinkers, entrepreneurs and tech leaders to be at the forefront of spreading Gandhi’s ideas through innovation,” Modi wrote.

The column, ‘Why India and the World Need Gandhi’, explored the Mahatma’s influence on prominent world leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. Modi described Gandhi as the "best teacher" and "the guiding light" who continues to give courage to millions globally and uniting those who believe in humanity.

“For Mr. Mandela, Gandhi was Indian and South African. Gandhi would have approved. He had the unique ability to become a bridge between some of the greatest contradictions in human society,” Modi said.

The op-ed ends with a call to the world to work shoulder to shoulder to end hate, violence and suffering. "That is when we will fulfil Mahatma Gandhi's dream, summed up in his favourite hymn, 'Vaishnava Jana To', which says that a true human is one who feels the pain of others, removes misery and is never arrogant. The world bows to you, beloved Bapu!" Modi wrote.

While the rest of the article is impeccable, Einstein may not have meant to say that Gandhi will be forgotten. He meant that Gandhi will be immortalised as an ethereal being, as his accomplishments would be considered impossible for a human being in flesh and blood could ever achieve.

This has already happened because it is impossible to conceive that he liberated India without firing a shot and that the millions of Indians obeyed his call to non-violence. He knew the pulse of the Indians and the British very well and he knew how to strike, when and where.

His experiments with truth are beyond the domain of ordinary mortals. In a way, we have found an escape route from Gandhian discipline by saying that he was, after all, not human. Many call him an incarnation of God. In my childhood, our evening prayers included a hymn on Gandhi.

Kerala’s national poet, Vallthol Narayana Menon, in his masterly poem, entitled, “My Supreme Teacher” has aptly said that the qualities in him existed, but never in the same person. The sacrifice of Christ, Krishna’s ways of protecting Dharma, Buddha’s non-violence, Sankaracharya’s intellect, Ranthideva’s compassion, Harischandra’s truth and Prophet Mohammad’s steadfastness - if you want a person with all these attributes, go to my Guru or read his story,” he wrote.

How can such a man ever have lived on earth? People would be convinced that he now lives in heaven and all will be well with the world as long as he kept a kindly eye on the earth. Nobody will believe that such a human being ever existed.

Of course, PM Modi was being very innovative in calling the words of Einstein as a challenge to encourage thinkers and wise men to emulate him and work hard to realise his ideas as humanly possible and relevant to the modern world.

We should not escape our own duty and responsibility by saying that Gandhi was a God and consign him to heaven. Einstein also did the same thing in his inimitable words. The Gandhi magic will endure forever and it is up to us to innovate ways and means to follow his path as ordinary beings.

I had the experience of enduring Gandhi magic many times, most notably when we tried to erect a Gandhi statue on Federal land outside the Indian Embassy in Washington. It was as early as in 1949 that the US Congress first resolved to authorise the India League of America, or any other organisation which may be organised for this purpose, to erect a memorial testifying to the wisdom and leadership of Mohandas K Gandhi as philosopher and statesman, in the city of Washington, DC.

But nothing much was done till Ambassador Naresh Chandra decided to make a Gandhi statue his legacy and decided to move heaven and earth to bring the project to fruition.

Ironically, most of the work on the statue was done during the extremely difficult phase of India-US relations, following the nuclear tests of 1998. The US Congress enacted HR 4284, authorising the Government of India to erect a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi on October 26, 1998 and President Bill Clinton signed it into law on May 19, 1999, in the midst of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, which lasted two years.

The talks were showing signs of progress and President Clinton felt comfortable enough to visit India in early 2000 and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid a return visit to Washington DC in September 2000.

The statue was unveiled on September 16, 2000 jointly by Vajpayee and Clinton. Clinton had indicated that he would spend only ten minutes at the venue, but felt inspired enough by the Gandhi magic to stay for a full hour, interacting with the PM and the guests, much to the joy of the participants.

We discovered to our horror that the Congressional approval was just the beginning of a bureaucratic rigmarole involving several Committees and offices, which had to consider the size and nature of the statue, its posture, its pedestal and its likely impact on the traffic around it.

Short of asking for changing the face of the Mahatma, they altered every plan we put forward, for one reason or another. The most objectionable condition that they put forward was that the Gandhi statue should not be taller than the statue of Winston Churchill installed in the compound of the British Embassy, a few blocks away from our Chancery.

Since the statue was already made and sent from India, the only way to reduce the height of the statue was to make the pedestal lower.

The most tense moment came when a Congressional Committee, which was to accord final permission to erect the statue called a meeting two days after our nuclear tests, which President Clinton had severely criticised to the point of imposing comprehensive sanctions against India.

We thought that the statue would be the first casualty of the tests. Ambassador Naresh Chandra and I were holding our breath when the first Congressman began speaking. He started with a harangue about the tests by saying that India had forgotten the very precept of non-violence that Gandhi had propagated.

He continued to say that it was very necessary to remind the Indians of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi by setting up the statue as fast as possible. Every speaker who followed repeated the argument and the approval was given in record time.

A prayer went up from our lips to the Mahatma, whose magic had worked at the right moment. His statue on Mass Avenue is neither gigantic, nor ornamental, but just like him, small in stature, but huge in impact on humanity.

Einstein was right in observing that future generations will not believe that such a person as Gandhi ever strode the earth as a human being, but as a superman, may be a reincarnation like Krishna or Rama.

The Lede