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Columnist Betsy Hartmann: Tribute to a man of peace and courage

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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Jan. 28, 2017, may well go down in U.S. history as the day President Donald Trump and chief adviser Steve Bannon began their full-scale assault on our religious and democratic freedoms with the implementation of the Muslim ban.

It was also the day a great Gandhian leader, Jagdishbhai Shah, passed away at the age of 82 in Gujarat, India. Jagdishbhai devoted his life to social change in the service of poor communities. In a state wracked by anti-Muslim prejudice and violence, he bravely stood up to religious hatred.

I had the honor of meeting Jagdishbhai when I served as a volunteer in the city of Vadodara, Gujarat in 1971-72. One of my jobs was working with a women’s group in a Muslim neighborhood. I remember women telling me about fearing for their lives in the 1969 anti-Muslim riots in the city. One had lost her husband to the violence and many others had lost their homes.

I was a young, idealistic and naïve college student, and Jagdishbhai and his family took me under their wing. He mentored me about local and state politics and modeled, along with his wife Manjuben, the best of Gandhian ideals. While both were from privileged backgrounds, they lived simply and eschewed consumerism and religious prejudice. In addition to their service work, Jagdishbhai became an editor of the well-known Gandhian journal Bhumiputra.

As the years passed, I lost touch with Jagdishbhai, but in 2015 when I returned to India on a Fulbright, I visited him. Though he was largely bedridden from Parkinson’s disease, his mind was active.

While I was there, social justice advocates came to see him seeking his wise counsel. I met his two grown-up sons, one a doctor who runs a nature healing center, the other a leader in the movement for organic agriculture. Their activities are based in the Gandhian ashram where the extended family lives.

On that trip I learned more about how Jagdishbhai practiced the true courage of his convictions. In 2002 anti-Muslim violence swept through Gujarat state. Its then chief minister, Hindu Right politician Narendra Modi, is now India’s prime minister. Whether he was directly responsible or not, the state government did little to stop the carnage. At least 1,000 people were killed and thousands more dislocated. Muslim women and girls were gang-raped and mutilated.

Jagdishbhai was part of a coalition of progressive groups that led a peace march through Vadodara. He stood firm when a right-wing Hindu mob attacked his ashram, setting three vehicles on fire.

And once he literally put his life on the line. A friend in Vadodara recounted how Jagdishbhai phoned one night, asking him to accompany him to a Muslim part of the city where an attack was imminent. My friend agreed even though he knew that they were both risking their lives. Luckily, their presence cooled down the hostile mob and prevented violence.

In the aftermath of the riots Jagdishbhai engaged in relief efforts in the Muslim community. When I visited him, he cried when he spoke to me about the brutality of that time.

During India’s emergency rule, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975-76, Jagdishbhai was imprisoned with other Gandhian leaders under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. They opposed the government’s dictatorial powers, which included severe restrictions on the press. There are eerie parallels between that period in India and the situation emerging in the U.S. today.

The widespread protests of the Muslim ban give one hope that Americans too will live up to the courage of their convictions, stand up for the rights of Muslims and other communities scapegoated and targeted by the Trump administration, and resist attacks on civil liberties and freedom of the press.

In the process, we should look not only within, but beyond our borders for the sung and unsung heroes and heroines who can inspire us. For me, Jagdishbhai is one of them.

Betsy Hartmann, of Amherst, is professor emerita of development studies and senior policy analyst of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.