by Ram Mohan Rai
This was my fourth visit to America. My first visit was for one month in the year 2014, then for about two months in 2016, for four months in 2019 and now for about four and a half months in 2022. The first three trips were spent primarily with family, but even during that time I made efforts to understand more of American life, to meet the people here so that my understanding of this society could be developed. The last visit provided an opportunity to get acquainted with a Pakistani-origin youth, Jahan Choudhry, who lives in Philadelphia and works with the Saturday Free School for Philosophy and Black Liberation, through Devika Mittal, a young peace activist from India. I began to speak with him and got to know about his organization and its work. During our conversations, I learned that he was working on a commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary with his organization. They were working on linking the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi's thought. I had heard the name of Dr. King but was completely ignorant of his ideology or philosophy. Through Jahan I was also introduced to Archishman Raju and Meghna Chandra. All these young people were either pursuing higher education or working in America. They were not only mature in their thinking but were also committed towards action. While I was in the US, Raju and Meghna visited their native land, India, and met with eminent Gandhians in different institutions for which I provided an introduction.
I could not help but be impressed by their commitment to Gandhi's thoughts, devotion to world peace and justice for all oppressed classes. If anyone was doing serious work to commemorate Gandhi’s 150th anniversary, it was the members of this organization. During my stay in Seattle, Dr. S.N. Subbarao, a famous Gandhian who had come to America for his work with youth camps, also came to meet me, as did Saturday Free School member R. Divya Nair. Divya brought me two black t-shirts on which pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King were printed. Of these two people who came to meet me, one was very senior, 93 years old, while the other was a very bright young woman, but there was a wonderful harmony in their visits. One was an eternally youthful man who had devoted his life to the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, the other was a young student of the same philosophy.
This third visit of mine to the US had opened up my mind to new possibilities. A new path was opened to me that could allow me to understand and interact with American society once I was already there. I had the opportunity at this time to interact with a few other ideological friends who lived in the US.
Didi Nirmala Deshpande has been the lamp of a new perspective in my life. It was through her that I was inspired to work towards world peace, national unity, religious harmony, and peace and friendship with our neighboring nations. After her death, it was up to her comrades to continue on with her various activities. She had not only involved me in her work but also in her propaganda medium, Nityanootan Magazine. She had held the responsibility for many organizations. Such work always has an element of political maneuvering but it turned out to be a case of sour grapes for me; I tried but could not be successful. In the end, I decided to work under the aegis of the Gandhi Global Family, and made this the means through which Nirmala Didi’s vision could be made concrete.
I was born to parents who believed in communal harmony. They believed in synthesis. My father was from an uneducated, Puranic family of a nearby village while my mother was from an urban educated, progressive Arya Samaj family. Both their political ideologies were, however, the same: they were followers of the Gandhi-Nehru led Congress. My mother went to jail twice in her lifetime. Once in Gandhiji’s Quit India Movement in 1942 and again in 1978 for protesting against the arrest of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This was a period of unity between the Congress and the Communist Party of India and they worked together under a minimum common program. My teacher Deep Chandra Nirmohi was influenced by the ideology of the Communist Party and it was his guidance that caused me to join the Communist Party through the All India Students Federation, rather than follow the ideological leanings of my family. It was here that I began to develop scientific thinking. I had the opportunity to think and understand for myself.
Not only did I get the opportunity to study in the ideological classes for students in the country, but I also got the opportunity to go to the Soviet Union and get to know it in a practical way. Of course there the socialist experiment failed, but I believe that it was the experiment that failed and not socialism itself. This was also the time when the party line in the CPI proposed under the leadership of Comrade S.A. Dange had weakened. Finally, the day came when the founder of the party was expelled and I also fell victim to this changed policy of the Communists. First by forming the Bhagat Singh Sabha and then by working in other organizations, I found my way back to my mother organization Arya Samaj and they also accepted this lost member with an open heart. Thus I joined India's oldest Arya Samaj, Panipat and remained in the post of minister for 6 consecutive years and was an administrator in its associated educational institutions for 12 consecutive years. I was also fortunate to have had the privilege of working with Aruna Asaf Ali, Subhadra Joshi, Shaheed Bhagat Singh's mother, brother and other members, Durga Bhabhi and finally Nirmala Deshpande and Swami Agnivesh.
I have always been fond of traveling. By myself and with Didi Nirmala Deshpande, I have had the opportunity to travel all over India and countries of South Asia. I accompanied her to Pakistan five times out of my eight total visits to Pakistan.
I was as fascinated and excited to see America as any other Indian. Despite the fact that we spent our youth criticizing and sloganeering against them, we could not stop a certain attraction to the country. Like every Indian, I considered it to be a very prosperous country, which had every comfort that we could imagine in our wishes and dreams of heaven. When an Indian comes back from America, we feel that he has come from a fairyland, while his attitude also changes and is different from any other Indian. His tales and stories are listened to as wonders. He earns in dollars i.e. one dollar to our 80 rupees. If someone earns even 500 dollars in a month, then we think of it as 40 thousand rupees per month.
Indians who came to America also behave accordingly. Most of them are Indians who are in high positions in IT companies and earn thousands of dollars a month. Many earn millions. In comparison to Americans and other Europeans, Asians in America tend to be more talented and sharp and therefore dominate the American economy. The whole market is also filled with Asian manufactured goods, particularly Chinese and Korean. These two nations are ahead of Americans in many respects. However, it is not true that only the Asian elite comes to the U.S. Many workers and others involved in physical work also come to the U.S. They come to the U.S. in search of better job opportunities. Others were brought here illegally and have no way to return even if they wish to.
I will here speak only of Indians. Their income in America is more than what it would have been in their own country, and therefore their living conditions are also good. Many have gained citizenship, others have gained green cards and the remaining are in line. Every resident here has free education till 12th standard i.e. they are entitled to minimum education but higher education is not only in private hands, but is very expensive and difficult to obtain. Successful Indians here do not consider themselves less than any American but many Americans think differently. “America First” means that foreigners are second to Americans in the country.
I will now like to present a different side by talking of the conditions of African American people. You will find boards and banners proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” everywhere in America but it is worth considering whether this society really treats black people with respect and equality. African-Americans have the highest level of unemployment. The condition of untouchability is such that black and white settlements are never together barring a few exceptions. Due to unemployment and poverty, the level of crime is higher among black people and they have a higher number of people in jail.
The history of 246 years of American Independence has definitely changed the condition of African American people, but not fundamentally. The election of Barack Obama as President and Kamala Harris as Vice-President made people think that the whole Black community has made progress but this is not true. In such a situation, we Indians are put in a very strange position. We don't stand with Black people because in these matters we consider ourselves closer to white people. On the other hand, white people don’t consider us to be more like black people and we remain neither here nor there. We are in this condition because we are ignorant of our culture, civilization and history. We like Mahatma Gandhi printed on the Indian Rupee Note, and as a symbol of our national identity, but apart from that we do not concern ourselves with him. Black and White Americans might know more about Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose than we do.
It is not that Indians don’t love their country. Significant national days like Independence day are celebrated with great enthusiasm. Religious festivals are also greatly celebrated. They not only give adequate donations to temples, they have built many temples, big and small, in this country. Camps are organized to connect Indian children to Indian thought. They are interested in Indian politics and leaders but a strange silence of denial prevails if the subject of going back to India is brought up. They want Indianness but not India. This visit gave me the chance to understand this aspect of Indians in America.
Like I said earlier, education up to high school is absolutely free but higher education is reserved for the rich. This is not just expensive but difficult to obtain. Big Universities are under the control of corporate and education mafias who consider education to be a big profit-making endeavour given the shutting down of industries in the U.S. On the other hand, unemployment is at its peak because of the closing down of American Industries and the impact of this is felt most on the working class, particularly on black people. We will have to remember that America only makes its own weapons, aeroplanes and medicines while other essential goods are all imported. Its global economy built on industry and capital is today shaking and this world-power is groaning under its own weight. The value of money is at its lowest point and more currency is being printed to deal with this. The price of everyday necessities for ordinary people have blown up and the biggest victims of this situation are ordinary people, working people and black people.
I found in Philadelphia that there are four types of Americas. The first are the very rich people whose homes feel like they are from heaven. Second are those middle class people whose style of living gives a sense of their conditions. Third are low-income groups, the majority of whom are black, whose living conditions are like the Slums of India. The numbers of this third group are very large whereas the second group i.e. the middle class America is reaching the lowest numbers in the world. The fourth group is those youth who have given up on life and are drowned in drugs. There is an entire area that has been captured by this group. There are police in this area but not to stop the drugs, but rather to keep the addicts within certain boundaries. Every kind of drug is easily available here. The irony of the whole situation is that the larger proportion of these drug addicts are white people who are an indicator that the system is breaking down.
America is a majority Christian nation, protestant rather than Catholic. There are churches of different christian sects here just like we have our temples and mosques in every street and neighbourhood. Just like our own old system of untouchability, you can see religious places which are segregated. It is common to see a Black Church, and because it is Black, it is reflected in the situation. Its condition is difficult and abject. We also got the opportunity to participate in a program at the Church of the Advocate. The Church was dusty and its upkeep was neglected. We did get a chance to visit other Churches where the situation was completely opposite.
We could also see that the neglect in this upkeep was a result of the criminal activity of the real estate and land mafia, who want to capture this land and make huge profit out of it by converting it into a commercial institution or a housing complex for foreign students.
Skyscrapers, roads, gardens and natural lakes are certainly indicators of development but the reality of this urban development is made bare by the sights of the homeless at every corner and the beggars on every major square. This is common to see in India, but we do not call ourselves a developed nation. This is a very developed nation so why do we see these conditions?
Saturday Free School did two things to open our eyes to this situation. First, they exposed the truths about this society and it is our responsibility to inform India about this darkness, but further they also showed us that ray of hope which the youth of various nations cast by celebrating the 75th anniversary of Indian independence. This is the hope that the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi gave through his message of truth and nonviolence. These youth believe that the path of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. is the right path for the resolution of the crisis that our world faces.
That is the message of “My Trip to the land of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Ram Mohan Rai is General Secretary of the Gandhi Global Family, as well as a long time activist based in Panipat. He is also involved in initiatives such as the Agaaz-e-Dosti Yatra, the Association of Peoples of Asia and is the founder of the Nirmala Deshpande Sanstha.