Column | Bringing the Mahatma to Washington

Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi has a special appeal to overseas Indians as he was the greatest “pravasi” of all times. Being the most prosperous Indian community in the United States, the Indians have set up several statues in different parts of the country even during the Cold War. But the Mahatma could not find a place in Washington, even though the Chanakyapuri of Washington, the “Embassy Row” was littered with statues, big and small, of men and women who may not be recognised today even in their own countries Though the Indian Embassy was located on Embassy Row since 1946, when the Embassy purchased two buildings; there was no statue of Mahatma Gandhi there till the year 2000. Not that the idea had not struck anyone, but the only land available in front of the Embassy was a triangular traffic island with some trees and shrubs and categorised as Federal Land. Doing anything on that land was a Herculean task and several generations of Indian diplomats and Indian Americans found it hard to get Congressional approval for a Gandhi statue. Apart from the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist sentiments that Gandhi evoked, India-US relations have also not been very smooth during the Cold War years.

It was as early as in 1949 that the US Congress first resolved to authorise the India League of America, or any other organisation which may be organised for this purpose, to erect a memorial testifying to the wisdom and leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi as philosopher and statesman, in the city of Washington, D.C., but nothing much was done till Ambassador Naresh Chandra decided to make a Gandhi statue his legacy and decided to move heaven and earth to bring the project to fruition.

Ironically, most of the work on the statue was done during the extremely difficult phase of India-US relations, following the nuclear tests of 1998. The US Congress enacted HR 4284, authorising the Government of India to erect a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi on October 26, 1998 and President Bill Clinton signed it into law on May 19, 1999, in the midst of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, which lasted two years. The talks were showing signs of progress and President Clinton felt comfortable enough to visit India in early 2000 and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid a return visit to Washington D.C. in September 2000. The statue was unveiled on September 16, 2000 jointly by Vajpayee and Clinton. Clinton had indicated that he would spend only 10 minutes at the venue, but felt inspired enough by the Gandhi magic to stay for a full hour, interacting with the PM and the guests, much to the joy of the participants.

We discovered to our horror that the Congressional approval was just the beginning of a bureaucratic rigmarole involving several Committees and offices, which had to consider the size and nature of the statue, its posture, its pedestal and its likely impact on the traffic around it. Short of asking for changing the face of the Mahatma, they altered every plan we put forward for one reason or another. The most objectionable condition that they put forward was that the Gandhi statue should not be taller than the statue of Winston Churchill installed in the compound of the British Embassy, a few blocks away from our Chancery. Since the statue was already made and sent from India, the only way to reduce the height of the statue was to make the pedestal lower.

The sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi was cast in bronze as a statue with a height of 8 feet 8 inches. It showed Gandhi in stride, as a leader and man of action evoking memories of his 1930 protest march against salt-tax, and the many padyatras (long marches) he undertook throughout the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent. The statue was a gift from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

The pedestal for the statue was a block of New Imperial Red Granite, also known as Ruby Red, from Karnataka. Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh are also world famous for it, giving India the first rank in the export of granite blocks. This particular block was excavated from a quarry in  Karnataka and gifted by Sree and Ambika Nair. They are of Kerala origin, but settled in Omaha, Nebraska.

The pedestal was shaped from a block originally weighing 25 tons reduced to a size of 9'x7'x3'4" with a weight of 16 tons. The block was largely rough hewn and polished in parts to provide suitable surface for the inscriptions. This was done to provide a natural earth-like surface as base for the statue as befits Gandhi's personality. Ambassador Naresh Chandra personally selected the quotations from Gandhi and others and supervised the inscription. The funding was provided by a large number of donors, mostly Indian Americans, some of whom had been collecting money for the project for many years. Some individuals were prepared to pay for the statue entirely, but we insisted that there should be wide participation and received small donations to make the amount.

The most tense moment came when a Congressional Committee, which was to accord final permission to erect the statue called a meeting two days after India's nuclear tests, which President Clinton had severely criticised to the point of imposing comprehensive sanctions against India. We thought that the statue would be the first casualty of the tests. Ambassador Naresh Chandra and I were holding our breath when the first Congressman began speaking. He started with a harangue about the tests by saying that India had forgotten the very precept of non-violence that Gandhi had propagated. He continued to say that it was very necessary to remind the Indians of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi by setting up the statue as fast as possible. Every speaker who followed repeated the argument and the approval was given in record time. A prayer went up from our lips to the Mahatma, whose magic had worked at the right moment. His statue on Mass Avenue is neither gigantic, nor ornamental, but just like him, small in stature, but huge in impact on humanity.