The grandson of civil rights leader and legend Mahatma Gandhi visited VCU’s campus last week to talk about new political movements taking place in India today.
Rajmohan Gandhi was honored on Monday night as the new India Chair in Democracy and Civil Society for the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. He lectured on contemporary Indian civil rights and new political movements in India.
Founded two years ago as an annual event, the India Chair position is for visiting professors and scholars from across the country and abroad. At the inaugural event held in 2012, Indian Ambassador Nirumpama Rao and Governor Bob McDonnell were named keynote speakers and helped launch the new position.
“The chair is a source of great pride for us at VCU,” said Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John Wiencek introducing Gandhi. “It allows for our students, faculty and the broader Richmond community to gather together to discuss, challenge and learn.”
Currently, Gandhi serves as a research professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Prior to his lecture, the event began with a panel of two speakers who added economic context to the evening’s discussion of modern India.
Invited to participate in the panel were Sonal Pandya, an associate professor of politics from the University of Virginia and David Good, a senior policy advisor from Albright Stonebridge Group and former U.S. Consul General to Mumbai, India.
“We have a very distinctive approach compared to other India chairs in the country,” said L. Douglas Wilder School Dean Niraj Verma. “Many of them focus on business or information technology. We wanted to say that the traditions of democracy is the uniting force for The United States and India.”
During his career as an academic, biographer and journalist, Rajmohan Gandhi has long been involved in Indian politics. During the early 90’s, Gandhi served in the Rajya Sabha – The upper house of India’s parliament – and advocated for civil rights among India’s on-going controversial caste system.
More recently, Gandhi ran for parliamentary office in east New Delhi under the new centre-left Aam Aadmi Party. While only being a few years old, the AAP party has gathered support since its launching in 2012, winning a second largest majority of votes – 28 of 70 – in the 2013 Delhi legislative elections.
“Buying winter clothes in summer is sometimes an intelligent idea,” Gandhi said, comparing the idiom to the current political climate in Africa, the middle east and the sub-asian continent.
With street level movements and counter-movements in places like Egypt, Pakistan and Libya, Gandhi said criticism of launching political movements and activist campaigning in an, “unfavorable season” where citizens may be exhausted from politics is no excuse to not continue rallying against injustice.
Campaigning as a leader who would fight against corruption and embracing transparency in the complicated political system of India, Gandhi went on to lose in the election last Spring.
Despite the loss, Gandhi said the results of the election and disenchantment with traditional political parties suggest mounting support for AAP and social movements within the country calling for more government transparency, an end to nepotism and greater inclusivity of those marginalized in India’s diverse population of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist and many more.
“The party committed to a bottom-up philosophy of leadership, containing a large number of articulate men and women, each with strong opinions, will have to master great consensus building skills and learn a high degree of tolerance,” Ghandi said.
In attendance at Monday’s event were a number of Richmond residents of Indian descent and origin. Becoming politicized at times, several members of the audience struck back at specific allegations and claims Gandhi made about political opponents, their parties and modern India.
VCU Ph.D candidates and Tiranga – The Indian Student Association – members Nadhi Jariwala and Bhavi Modi said the more tense moments of the discussion were not uncommon, much like in the American political arena.
“We in our daily lives don’t realize [the caste system] because we’re friends with everyone from all castes and there is secularization,” Modi said. “It doesn’t come to play in our daily interactions with each other, but somehow at the political level it still plays a huge role.”
Both Jariwala and Modi, who are originally from Bombay, said the event was informative and entertaining, offering an opportunity to interact with a political and social figure of their native country. Despite being unable to vote since moving to the United States in 2012, they said Indian political and social issues are still important to them.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Jariwala said. “It’s a matter of pride for us to have an opportunity to see and hear them all the way over here.”