Former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao delivered a talk about the relevance of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr in today’s world at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, United States, on January 15. Here’s the full text of her talk:

Here, as the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, it is very relevant that we discuss the legacy of two of the 20th century’s greatest figures: Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. These two immortals never met each other, but let us say that they were united by a divine and high-speed telepathy, a music of the spheres. Two tenors for the ages. Each one takes up where the other leaves off. They walk the paths of peace and seem to possess the night vision to negotiate the darkness of conflict, the minefields and the limb-tearing traps. Their voices resound. They need no amplification. The calendar years fly away as they speak.

Who were these two individuals, these immortals, to use a term that the Chinese use for heroic figures in their history? Both grew up in middle-class families where they did not want for anything; surrounded by loving parents and family, educated in quality institutions of learning, and possessed of an unquenchable yearning for knowledge about a world beyond mere territorial boundaries. They were not terribly outstanding students, but they were thinking, reflective human beings. They were men of conscience. Somewhere along the road, in the early summer of their lives, they discovered the power of taking on oppression and discrimination, prejudice and injustice, through principled non-violent action which was more than just strategic or tactical, because it became an embodiment of what they lived and breathed as human beings.

Gandhi and King. Chronologically, Gandhi comes first. King was younger than Gandhi by 60 years. In Hindu belief, one’s 60th birthday is when one is literally born again. So, I think of Martin Luther King Jr as Gandhi’s reborn avatar. Reborn in a segregated United States of America, the crucible of modern democracy, which has struggled constantly to purify her soul. In an imagined Gallery of Immortals, they stand side by side, or, they face each other, engaged in dialogue, even debate, seeking truth, clarity, their ideas supplementing each other. It is a conversation, perhaps watched closely by Abraham Lincoln, older than both of them but equally engaged in this exercise of the examination of conscience, and the removal of injustice.

Were Gandhi and King the progenitors of non-violent action? Or, do they hold a patent on non-violent disobedience? Perhaps not. But let us say, that they were born globalisers of these trends. Their actions caught the imagination of humankind, creating a path for future generations, and therefore, they belong to the ages. They inculcated a culture of peace. They were forthright, courageous, teaching self-discipline, ethical, embodying self-sacrifice and spirituality, appealing to the spirit of service in each of us, tapping that mother lode that remains quiescent until it is awoken by inspirational leadership.

I am reminded of the words of Haruki Murakami in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech in 2009: “If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals...We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us – create who we are. It is we who created the system.” Both Gandhi and King resisted that system of hard, high walls.

Or, here again, are the words of the Iran-born poet Kamand Kojouri:

“They want us to be afraid.
They want us to be afraid of leaving our homes.
They want us to barricade our doors and hide our children.
Their aim is to make us fear life itself!
They want us to hate.
They want us to hate ‘the other’.
They want us to practice aggression and perfect antagonism.
Their aim is to divide us all!
They want us to be inhuman.
They want us to throw out our kindness.
They want us to bury our love and burn our hope.
Their aim is to take all our light!
They think their bricked walls will separate us.
They think their damned bombs will defeat us.
They are so ignorant they don’t understand that my soul and your soul are old friends.
They are so ignorant they don’t understand that when they cut you I bleed.
They are so ignorant they don’t understand
that we will never be afraid,
we will never hate
and we will never be silent
for life is ours!”  

These are 21st century words that appeal to the kindness, the love, the hope, the friendship, the resilient courage, the lack of hate that embodied the philosophy of both the leaders we speak of and memorialise today. Unfortunately, today, as in the history of our human race, men (and women) build too many walls and not enough bridges. How do we solve what King called “the great new problem of mankind” – learning to live together in peace? Do we tell ourselves that we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied, again in the words of King, until “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream?” Let the guns get heavy. Let them put the guns down. It is never too late for non-violence. The non-violence that throws its opponents off balance like jiu-jitsu. Gandhi depicted how when a man tries to strike water with a sword, his arm gets dislocated. Both Gandhi and King were ordained masters of political and moral jiu-jitsu – they knew to deploy the right instruments to irrevocably disturb the equilibrium of their opponents.

Led by the Mahatma, India’s freedom struggle was a revolution, a liberation struggle without bloodshed. It inspired countless such revolutions across the world, just as the non-violent struggle of Dr King against racial discrimination and injustice to African-Americans in the United States did. Have their struggles fully culminated? The answer is no. There is still much work that remains in order to achieve that “reachable utopia of the human spirit” as I call it, or that “Beloved Community” of Dr King. Have we got poverty, gender discrimination, racism and militarism behind us? Have we created a compassionate social and civic order for our nations, especially those of us, who pride in calling ourselves democracies? Does the globalised cosmopolitanism of liberal thought and life-style feel the pulse of those wounded and physically and psychologically maimed in war, the unemployed workers of ghost factory towns, the anguish of the inner city? Are we compassionate nations? How can the arc of the universe bend closer and closer towards wisdom, justice and love? How do we transform the deep gloom of our age into the exuberant gladness of reconciliation, tomorrow?

There is a sentiment in some African countries today that statues of Gandhi do not deserve to stay that they must be taken down. He is accused of having made discriminatory statements against Africans during his years in South Africa in the late 1890s and the early 1900s. But, as the writer Pankaj Mishra notes, “Compared with other recent targets of political iconoclasts – Gandhi seems an unlikely symbol of racial arrogance.” Both King and Mandela held Gandhi up as a role model for fighting injustice and discrimination. For many African and African-American opinion makers he was a man who had achieved what had traditionally been considered impossible – leading human beings of color against colonialism and racial domination in a non-violent struggle that achieved success and left a lasting impact on history. Of course, we are not here to create or perpetuate haloes around our leaders, we must see them through the lens of history, and through the calculus of the ultimate good they achieved. In the case of Gandhi and of King, their political thought resonates today, as we struggle with the discontents of globalisation, with the marginalisation of minorities, of joblessness, and the dilution of democratic values by populist politics. Like for Montaigne, nothing human was foreign to either Gandhi or King. Gandhi, through his struggles, personified, as his great-granddaughter Leela Gandhi says, opposition to a widespread striving for the will to power. In his youth, at the beginning of his life struggle, his approach to becoming a campaign leader against supremacism aimed at all oppressed races and classes had not fully evolved, it had not become all-encompassing in its expanse and its depth. But, the evolution had begun. Gandhi wrestled constantly with the snakes of politics, imperialism, racial supremacy, poverty, caste discrimination, and inequity. His statues may be taken down by some, but his greatness will not be denied. Who, among us, even the greatest and tallest, is not a work in progress? And did not Gandhi define democracy as that which “gives the weak the same chance as the strong” in which “inequalities based on possession and non-possession, color, race, creed or sex vanish”?

As an anecdote, I would like to refer to the African-American and American connection with one of the earliest incidents in Gandhi’s public life – when he was thrown off the first-class compartment of a train at Pietermaritzburg in South Africa on a cold evening in 1893. As a tired, stranded Gandhi stood on the platform of the railway station, it was an African-American who approached him as offered to take him to a small hotel whose proprietor was American and who would be willing to offer him a place to stay in what was a racially prejudiced neighborhood. And indeed, Mr Johnston, the hotel proprietor, did offer Gandhi a room to stay and even, ultimately, invited him to dine with other residents. So, it was that a time of distress, two Americans showed basic human decency to a fellow human being, while others stood by.

Martin Luther King said his spiritual pilgrimage to non-violence began when he was a student at Crozer Seminary and attended a lecture by A J Muste on the implications of non-violence for the Christian church. At the same Seminary, he heard Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, speaking on the significance of Mahatma Gandhi, on return from a trip to India. The impact was profound and electrifying and King left the lecture with the firm resolve to study Gandhi’s life and works. In 1958, Chester Bowles, a former US ambassador wrote in a magazine article that the Montgomery Bus Boycott paralleled the beginning of Gandhi’s struggle at Pietermaritzburg in 1893 just as the Salt March of 1930 was to be mirrored in the March on Washington in the August of 1963. The success of both these sets of campaigns was that throughout their leaders sought to appeal to a higher moral law and not to man-made discriminatory laws, they walked only with God (to quote Dr King).

King expressed his approach in eloquent Gandhian language, and these are his exact words. “The Negro,” he said, “must come to the point that he can say to his white brothers: ‘we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force...We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. So, in winning the victory, we will not only win freedom for ourselves but we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that you will be changed also’.” Truly did Gandhi say, “It may be through the (African-Americans) that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

Gandhi was described by King as having caught the spirit of Jesus Christ more than anybody in the modern world. He called him the “greatest Christian” of the 20th century although he was not a member of the Christian church. Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi were all martyred but their cause lives on. The same fate awaited Dr King on an April day in 1968 but his cause cannot die.

I believe we must focus the memory of Gandhi and King into a beam that illuminates our lives for now and in the future. As the sociologist-poet St Clair Drake said, let us “justify the dreamer’s dream”. In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. These were Dr King’s immortal words. And, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, “in a gentle way you can shake the world” with the power of your beliefs, with the power of your conviction, with the power of satyagraha, your devotion to the invincible truth.

In 1959, when Dr King and his wife, Coretta, visited India, he said profoundly that he came “as a pilgrim not as a tourist”. The couple were greeted everywhere with flowers and garlands, newspaper headlines and op-eds, feted by India’s leadership, including the Communist government of the state of Kerala where they ended their visit. It was at this last stage of the visit that the Kings went to the southernmost tip of India, Cape Comorin or Kanyakumari, where the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian sea and the Indian Ocean mingle. South of this point, the vast seas stretch with no landmass in between until the coast of Antarctica thousands of miles distant. The vastness of the ocean and its immensities enthralled the Kings. An oceanic music brought sweetness to the ear, as King wrote. In his words, “To the west we saw the magnificent sun, a great cosmic ball of fire, as it appeared to sink into the very ocean itself. Just as it was almost lost from sight, Mrs King touched me and said, ‘Look, Martin, isn’t that beautiful!’ I looked around and saw the moon, another ball of scintillating beauty. As the sun appeared to be sinking into the ocean, the moon appeared to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfed the earth, but in the east the radiant light of the rising moon shone supreme.”

To King, this was an analogy of life, as he told his wife. At the darkest moment, there is another light that shines in the darkness and the “spear of frustration” is transformed “into a shaft of light”. This affirmation would be his ringing cry, giving courage to face the uncertainties that lay ahead. It was a mandate to seek a better world. Each and every one can take strength from that beautiful sunset and dramatic moonrise that King wrote about. It is a metaphor for human existence and the eternal nature of hope.

Let me end with what Gandhi said to the evangelist E Stanley Jones, one of his American friends, in 1948: “I have not seen the American people, but give them my love.” Let us celebrate the ageless lives of both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King in this 150th year of the Mahatma’s birth and on Dr King’s 90th birth anniversary.