In unusual freezing temperatures the morning of Jan. 30, Harsh Vardhand Shringla, India’s recently arrived ambassador to the United States, began his two-day visit of Atlanta at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park by laying a wreath at the feet of the statue of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, 71 years to the day that India’s founding father was assassinated in 1948.
Amb. Shringla, who had assumed his diplomatic post in Washington only three weeks earlier, acknowledged Gandhi’s leading role in the campaign for independence from Britain and Dr. King’s espousal of non-violence, a value he shared with Gandhi and espoused as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.
Gandhi was killed in Delhi by a militant Hindu nationalist who believed he favored the political demands of India’s Muslims. The 78-year-old Gandhi had been fasting in protest of the violence that had broken out among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs prior to Independence Day. He was in a weakened state on his way to a prayer meeting when he was shot three times by the assailant who leapt out of an adoring crowd of onlookers.
Dr. King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, by a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary. He was 39 years old.
“It’s no coincidence that the two men are linked,” Mr. Shringla said citing their shared idealism and philosophy of non-violence at the base of the six-foot, four-inch bronze statue, which had been first unveiled at the park on Jan. 24, 1998 by Andrew Young, whose career includes former service as Atlanta mayor, in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Joined by Swati Kulkarni, India’s consul general based in Atlanta, and members of the Gandhi Foundation, Amb. Shringla acknowledged that Atlanta was his first stop outside of Washington since assuming his post. He went on to visit the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church and Dr. King’s birth home.
During a press conference following a luncheon of the Atlanta Committee on International Relations that drew 200 guests to the Capital City Club downtown, the ambassador called his visit to the park “a tremendously moving experience to be able to pay homage to both of these men.”
He praised Gandhi for inspiring Dr. King and others including Rosa Parks whom he cited several times during his visit. By refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus in 1955 Ms. Parks, a black seamstress, was arrested and taken off the bus, a move which helped launch the Civil Rights Movement.
Citing both his and Consul General Kulkarni’s services in South Africa, the ambassador recalled Gandhi’s early experience of being kicked off a train at the Pietermaritzburg Station June 7, 1893. Although he had a 1st class ticket, Indians were forced to ride in 3rd class and he was removed from the train when he refused to leave, an experience that was critical in Gandhi’s development as a political activist and similar to Ms. Parks’ experience.
“Even a century after his dying, he continues to be relevant,” the ambassador said of Gandhi during the press conference. “His legacy stems from the fact that his mission is really far from done as far as the human race is concerned.”
He went on to underscore the importance of “non-violence, peace and truth as the world becomes more violent,” and he cited new challenges presented by violence including “threats of terrorism, new threats of epidemics, new traits of global warming, climate change, and natural disasters.”
The prevalence of these threats, he said, have provoked competition among nations over scarce resources such as the scarcity of water and energy, leading to more conflict, not more cooperation.”
He declared that he had not come to eulogize Gandhi, but rather to stress the importance of his views in the daily lives of people. And he pointed the vote of the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2007 to establish Oct. 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence to coincide with Gandhi’s birthday.
Towards the end of the luncheon, Andrew Young was called upon by R.K. Sehgal, a local businessman and former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, to say a few words. Mr. Young responded that he had been thinking about the career of recently deceased U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, a longtime civil rights activist who had been inspired by Gandhi as a student during visits to India.
Mr. Wofford’s obituaries mentioned that he helped persuade John F. Kennedy to make a crucial phone call to Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, during the 1960 president campaign when Dr. King was locked in a Georgia prison cell.
That call is often credited with turning the critical black vote in Mr. Kennedy’s favor in his campaign against former President Richard Nixon.
Mr. Young added that as ambassador to the U.N., he often relied on the advice of Rikhi Jaipal, India’s permanent representative there, on issues of protocol.
Mr. Shringla reminded the attendees that Atlanta was his first visit out of Washington due to Ms. Kulkarni’s being “the first out of the blocks” among the five Indian consuls general based in the U.S. to extend an invitation. But, he added, his visit kindled a desire to return and further reflect on the city’s achievements as both a center for civil rights and for providing opportunities for Indian students and businesses.