Shabana Azmi. Image: Simon Fraser University/Wikimedia Commons

Mahātmā Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, born October 2, 1869, lawyer, politician, writer and social activist, used peaceful civil disobedience to eventually lead the people of India to independence in August, 1947.

To this day, Gandhi continues to be a role model and inspiration for social and human rights activists working to improve the human condition. Gandhians can be found around the world, but they’re also at home in Hamilton, ON.

Dr. Rama Singh, Professor of Biology at McMaster University, dreamt of creating an event to honour the birth of Gandhi. On October 2, 1992 that vision came to fruition when the first Gandhi Peace lecture was held at the Hamilton Convention Centre on what would have been Gandhi’s 123 birthday.

Intended to be a one-time event, the lecture evolved into the Annual Mahatma Gandhi Lectures on Nonviolence endowed by donations from the Indo-Canadian community and inaugurated by Ovid Mercredi, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, at the McMaster Centre for Peace Studies in 1996.

Twenty-five years later, on October 2, 2017, Singh was in the same conference room addressing an overflowing crowd that included many who had been at the inaugural lecture.

Over the years many important and influential speakers have given the Gandhi Peace Lecture, but this year’s speaker was especially exceptional because she had eluded Singh’s efforts for a very long time. Singh actually described keynote speaker Shibanna Azmi as “Meryl Streep, Jody Foster and Julia Roberts all in one. But then, as an added bonus, she is a Gandhian.”

Multi-award-winning actor; social activist; former member of the Indian Rajya Sabha or Upper House of Parliament; symbol of Hindi-Muslim unity; and voice of women, Azmi is an ardent supporter of interfaith dialogue and understanding.

Star of 140 Hindi films as well as 12 international films, most Canadians recognize Azmi as Radha from Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film, Fire. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Radha eventually leaves, moving in with her same sex lover. By playing such unconventional roles, Azmi continually questions the conventional role of women. This theme is played out not only through her work, but also her words and her own life.

Singh referred to Azmi in his introduction as, “A woman who through her thoughts, words, and deeds has earned the love and respect of the masses of India, and has become the jewel in the crown of Indian democracy, and above all, a proud daughter of my hometown, Azamgarh.”

In her speech entitled, Towards a Violence Free Society for Women, Azmi declared, “A world free of violence for women includes everyone. The weak and the strong.” To that end, Azmi believes that, “Religious fundamentalists of all kinds need to be opposed. Liberal Hindus, Muslims, and Christians need to work together.”

In India, where 840 girls are born for every 1000 boys, Azmi believes, “A girl child faces discrimination from birth–if she is allowed to be born. Distinction between male and female roles needs to be questioned. Worldwide support of gender inequity needs to end.” Azmi went on to say, “Civil society must offer resistance and in that we find our strength.”

In order to achieve the empowerment of women, girls and even men who are victimized by patriarchy’s demarcated violence and machoism, Azmi believes the patriarchal mindset needs to change. This means “Balancing ying and yang to create a whole person not one that is male or female.”

Azmi believes that “Decision making is the foundation to equality. Financial literacy means financial power and that equates into equity.”

Following Azmi’s inspiring call to action, a dinner was held in her honour. The only thing more enticing than the meal was the conversation I had with Dr. Anand Sundaram. It turns out Sundaram’s father was a close friend of Gandhi and young Anand spent quite a bit of time with him.

Sundaram’s father, V.A. Sundaram, met Gandhi in 1915. Gandhi invited the 18-year-old student from Madras, India to study at his Ashram at Ahmedabad. Sundaram eagerly took Gandhi up on his offer.

One of 40 students at Sabarmathi Ashram, Sundaram soon became Gandhi’s private language teacher. Unfortunately, Sundaram felt unable to live up to Gandhi’s extremely high expectations. So he left the Ashram after seven months, but not before a deep father-son relationship developed that kept the men connected until Gandhi’s death 33 years later.

In 1931, at the height of the Indian struggle for independence, Gandhi sent Sundaram to Europe to lecture, meet with politicians, artists and intellectuals; and spread awareness about the Indian case for independence. During his seven months of travel Sundaram met with many important and influential people, including Einstein and the Pope.

From 1926 on, Sundaram worked as a secretary for Madan Mohan Malaviya, a close friend and collaborator of Gandhi’s. Sundaram was tasked with convincing wealthy Maharajas to donate to the newly established Hindu university Malaviya founded in Varanasi.

A regular visitor to the university, Gandhi always made a point of stopping by Sundaram’s house on campus to visit with the family. Sundaram remembers his childhood walks and talks with Gandhi with great affection.

After Gandhi’s death in 1948, Sundaram erected a memorial stone beside his house commemorating the spot where Gandhi had once performed a public prayer. The memorial, which still stands, gave rise to the home’s name, “Gandhi Bhavan,” or Gandhi House.

In 1945, Anand Sundaram wanted to travel to Europe to study. When Gandhi got word of this he wrote to Sundaram’s father to say, “It would not be right to argue that just because I went to England all others should. Should others repeat all mistakes that I have committed? I don’t believe that you can serve India better by studying abroad. To think this is sheer ignorance. To feel that education abroad is the best betrays ignorance. I do not give my blessings to those who wish to study abroad. Blessings from BAPU.” Accordingly, Sundaram studied at home in India and that turned out to be a very good thing.

The evening, a feast for mind and palate, wasn’t complete without a chat with my good friend, fellow activist, and our host for the evening, Professor Rama Singh. A teacher of human diversity and human nature Singh told me, “Patriarchy may be embedded in the origin of human civilization, but there is nothing in our behaviour that cannot be molded by our action through education and cultural modification.”

As the Gandhi Peace Lecture and dinner fades into a beautiful memory and as we come to the end of another chilly November and Woman Abuse Prevention Month, I’m encouraged, inspired and hopeful that those who attended the Peace Lecture and dinner will share the evenings message that it’s time for true gender equality. Because only when we achieve that will we be able to end violence against women and girls.

Additional material about Anand and V. A. Sundaram provided by Marc Albano Muller.

Image: Simon Fraser University/Wikimedia Commons

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Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...