By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism
When asked to describe Mahatma Gandhi, most would say he was an Indian independence leader, human rights defender, and spiritual guide. However, “People don’t think of him as a journalist” even though “he was a journalist from an early age, and died as a journalist.”
This is according to professor, historian, and author Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Professor Gandhi was the featured speaker at a program titled “Gandhi: The First Peace Journalist,” held at Park University on Aug. 26.
The evening began with a presentation by Gandhi documentarian Cynthia Lukas about Gandhi’s background as a journalist. Gandhi was a prolific journalist and editor who was well-known in India for his articles stressing social justice in such publications as Indian Opinion, Young India, and Navajivan (A New Life). Lukas said his writing avoided inflammatory, “poisonous journalism” (as Gandhi termed it). Instead, Mahatma Gandhi emphasized civility and politeness in his articles, striving always to “step into the shoes of our opponents.”
Professor Gandhi agreed, adding that it is “certainly correct to describe Gandhi as a journalist.” His grandson said Gandhi was a staunch defender of the free press who nonetheless understood the need to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, to “put a curb on his own pen.”
My presentation followed, and supported the premise that Gandhi was indeed a peace journalist. I listed several characteristics shared by Gandhian and peace journalism. These include rejecting “us vs. them” narratives; journalism as public service; media as a tool to de-escalate conflicts; using journalism as a means to foster reconciliation; carefully choosing one’s words to avoid sensationalism; giving a voice to the voiceless; and emphasizing facts and truth.
Regarding language, I shared a quote with the audience. Writing about the “Indian Opinion” journal, Gandhi said, “I cannot recall a word in those articles set down without thought or deliberation, or a word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please…”
The truth, and facts, had no more strident champion than Gandhi. I presented this telling quote from 1926: “The way to peace is the way of truth. Truthfulness is even more important than peacefulness. Indeed, lying is the mother of violence. The truth of a few will count; the untruth of millions will vanish even like chaff before a whiff of wind.”
Professor Gandhi agreed with my assessment that Mahatma Gandhi was indeed a peace journalist. He cited an incident where the Mahatma called out those who had labeled an opponent a snake. “To liken someone to a snake…is a degrading performance,” the professor quoted his grandfather.
The final speaker was Park professor Abhijit Mazumdar, who discussed inflammatory and often hate-filled speech in South Asian media. He cited examples from social media, including hash tags like #HatePakLovers, as well as inflammatory name-calling on Indian TV like “shrieking raccoon” and venomous snake.” In addition, he noted many examples of false news that have been reported by Indian television. Professor Gandhi added that Indian media often spread “toxicity.”
The event was sponsored by Park University’s Center for Global Peace Journalism, which also arranged Prof. Gandhi’s appearances in several Park University classes.
The students were thrilled. “A once in a lifetime opportunity…A class I’ll never forget…Inspiring…” were among the avalanche of positive comments from Park University students who met and were inspired by Prof. Gandhi.
In peace journalism class, Prof. Gandhi addressed the shortcomings of media, but left the students hopeful that media can become more responsible. He said he was impressed by the work that many U.S. journalists do, and the “commitment and quality of social journalists.” Prof. Gandhi said he was depressed because of a “lack of substance,” media bias, and the media’s desire to “keep viewers glued to the screen” through sensationalism. He was critical of Fox News’ “unfortunate bias” that supports the “curious notion” of white supremacy that suggests that only whites are the rightful owners of the U.S. “The way to confront them (white nationalists) is with the real American ideal” upon which the country was founded. “The U.S. has stood for justice and equality. We have to remind America of this,” he said.
The discussion about nationalism in the U.S. and elsewhere continued in Intro to Peace Studies class. Gandhi said that nationalism in the U.S. means ”reclaiming” of the country for whites; and in India, “reclaiming” the country for Hindus, despite Mahatma Gandhi’s lifelong struggle trying to build bridges between Hindus and other religions. Prof. Gandhi also answered a question about the viability of non-violent approaches to peace. While he acknowledged that these tactics haven’t always worked, he said it is an unassailable fact that “violence hasn’t brought peace.” Gandhi further defended non-violence with the logic that violence begets violence, leaving non-violence as the only viable option.
In both of his classroom stops at Park, Prof. Gandhi discussed the current crisis in Kashmir, where 2,000 people have been arrested, the internet and phone service shut off, and over 400,000 Indian troops are deployed. He mentioned-repeatedly-that the recent Indian government decision to strip Kashmir of its special limited sovereignty status was made “without consulting even one Kashmiri.” He firmly believes in the right of self-determination for Kashmiris, a right he said has been trampled by the current Indian government. Park University students were thrilled to meet and be inspired by Prof. Gandhi. “I was impressed by the transmission of calmness and knowledge when he talks,” said Marcelo Aquino. International student from India Aadarash Chandan noted, “His views about the events are realistic, practical, and yet polite. His audacity is unmatched.” Destiny Webb spoke for many students when she commented, “He gave good advice and a better outlook on a non-violent society. His words were extremely wise.” Finally, Nathan Moore said, “His views and thoughts on peace were very informative and got me to thinking about peace in my community.”
I know I speak for my students when I say we were truly honored by his presence and his wisdom.
–Follow my blog (http://stevenyoungblood.blogspot.com) and on Twitter @PeaceJourn