How did Gandhian principles have an influence on Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela?

By Sunil Kumar


How did Gandhian principles have an influence on Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela?

We have to analyze the historical, racial and cultural context of the three people considered and the countries involved in the discussion.

M.K Gandhi’s thought and principles evolved as an adaptation of ideas extant in India and its religions(Hinduism, Buddhists and Jains) for millennia. Gandhi’s unique contribution was the idea of satyagraha(non-violent protest) that was admired and emulated; and a dharna which is being misused to the hilt in contemporary India.

American society and the United States was built on African slavery and a major pivotal event in their history was the Civil War between mostly Southern States and the Lincoln Union Army. From lynchings upto the 1960s; America had progressed only slightly in giving equal rights to all races.

Martin Luther King; a Baptist pastor came into the spotlight when he attempted to lead a non-violent protest against the segregation and racism in American society; including in schools, universities, buses, restaurant seating, toilets, armed forces; practically every sector.

In my opinion; King was influenced a lot by his native Christianity with its original values of compassion, turning the other cheek etc that was never actually practiced by Western societies. They had gained global traction only after Gandhi brought them into the spotlight during the Indian independence movement. Even though many African-Americans were tired of the chronic racism and discrimination in their society and advocated violent resistance;

King was probably impressed by Gandhi’s “successful” use of the same. So despite police dogs; hoses spraying water; bombing of black churches and other violent means used by elected state officials to crush resistance; he called for peace and love to achieve their own aims. This is in line with Gandhi’s ideology against the British Empire. And like Gandhi; King was assassinated; but by a white sniper; James Earl Ray. Obviously; the two countries are different with different cultural contexts.

Now for Nelson Mandela and his long struggle against South African apartheid. Even though many Asian and African countries became independent in the long time period that he was incarcerated; Britain and other Western nations maintained their hypocritical posturing lecturing the world on human rights, democracy and law; while backing the brutal white regime in Pretoria; South Africa. But; as soon as he was released; Mandela became a global icon under constant media spotlight.

Gandhian impact on Mandela’s thinking. Any reasonably well-informed individual knows that a lot of Gandhi’s thinking and political action processes were formed by his time fighting for the Indian community in 1890s South Africa; and the brutal British-Boer syndicate.

When Mandela got the Nobel Prize in 1994; he mentioned that Gandhi’s inspiration was the reason he got the honour. In his words M.K Gandhi’s dedicated personal struggle against an oppressive regime; ability to brave imprisonment and values of mutual respect, unity etc were critical to the South African programme of reconstruction and development.

Despite all this fine-sounding diplomatic language; generally used on state occasions; Mandela is supposed to have believed in the efficacy of Gandhi’s non-violent methods only upto a point.

Most students of M.K.G’s life know that he resented Indians being compared with Africans in South Africa; and was a staunch defender of the British Empire until the First World War; after which he realized the duplicity of the colonial power.

For generations; Indians have been industrious and thrifty in many countries around the world; achieving a level of prosperity for which they are resented by whites, blacks or any local population.

Being black himself; Mandela was acutely aware of Gandhi’s views on Africans during his time in South Africa; privately resenting this while according respect on a global forum due to iconic stature. Nelson Mandela had friends in the Indian community in South Africa; and attributed the foundation of the African National Congress due to his admiring India’s independence struggle. In his Robin Island diaries; he admitted that inspiration for his struggle came from what Gandhi had done many years before for the Indian community in South Africa.

Interesting individuals in their own right; King and Mandela both graciously acknowledged inspiration from Gandhi in leading their own struggles against entrenched power.

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