GHANDI AS A GLOBAL ACTIVIST


The Times of India

Agniva Banerjee on why an Italian party has Gandhi on its flag and what the Mahatma is doing in Palestine.


While in the centenary year of Satyagraha, Ghandi thrives in India under colonies of bacteria on soiled rupee notes, he is in political currency in much of Europe, Palestine, South Africa and America.
Radicali Italiani is a political party that was part of the coalition running Italy till a few days ago, before it was brought down by the volatile politics of that country. The flag of this organisation bears an image of Mahatma Gandhi. Emma Bonino, leader of Radicali Italiani (Italian Radicals), a 59-year-old single woman who is known to be a smoker, minister for the international trade and European affairs in the previous Italian government, and a former European commissioner, has for almost 30 years been a "rigorous" practitioner of Gandhism.
"Gandhi's name has instant recognition in Italy", says Bonino. "He is there in great detail in school textbooks and we take him very seriously". While the greatest of 20th century political icons have fallen, been commoditised or been retired, Gandhi's political legacy is being perpetuated, albeit away from home. A giant graffiti depiction of Gandhi on the Israel-imposed separation barrier with Palestine, in a village that lies between Jerusalem and Ramallah. His statues still stand in New York, London and Pietermaritzburg. In the last week of January, he was brought alive by peace crusaders like Desmond Tutu, Kenneth Kaunda and Ahmed Kathrada in New Delhi at the Satyagraha centenary celebrations. "In Europe, we don't consider the mystical elements in Gandhi's writings relevant. But we follow his political methods. We believe in passive resistance", says Bonino, who was recently in Mumbai as part of an Indian trade delegation. "For usa Gandhi is a political leader fist".
"Active nonviolence" is the creed of a pan-European alliance - the Transnational Radical Party - to wich Bonino's party belongs. Gandhi's image has adorned Radicali Italiani's flag for 20 years. Its members frequently participate in hunger and thirst strikes, and its main political campaigns have been accompanied with acts of civil disobedience.
In America, in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, there were posters in university campus asking, "What Would Gandhi do?" And, when it was announced, before President George Bush's visit to India, that he would lay a wreath in honour of Gandhi, anti-war intellectuals across the US denounced teh gesture as cynical, disrespectful and symbolic.
Three years ago, when Hillary Clinton campaigning for a Senate candidateas ,id in jest that Mahatma Gandhi used to run a gas station in St. Louis, the public reaction was so strong that she had to apologise immediately. "No, Mahatma Gandhi was a great leader of the 20th century", she said. Going Further, she quoted Gandhi, in the context of the candidate's underdog status, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, the you win".
In Palestine, Gandhi is providing a political alternative to people fighting the increasing territorial transgressions of Israel. Realising that little has been achieved through violence, a network of NGOs has launched a programme called the Gandhi Project to propagate the merits of nonviolence and passive-resistance in waging a struggle.
Gandhi has special appeal in Palestine. While he was sympathetic to the plight of European Jews persecuted by Hitler, he never gave in to endorsing Zionist territorial designs in the Middle East, and opposed the formation of Israel.
The Gandhi Project promotes his philosophy by hosting screenings of Richard Attenbourough's film (dubbed in Arabic) in cities, villages and refugee camps throughout the Palestine Territories. There have been hundreds of screenings in Bethlem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, on the separation wall at the Kalandia checkpoint and other places.
Bonino is optimistic about Gandhi's legacy. "Look at Europe. It's only through the last 50 years that wa have lived in peace. Otherwise, the history of our continent is a series of bloody battles, of long and devastating wars. Some of us try very hard to maintain peace".