This article misstated the date of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. Gandhi was killed on Jan. 30, 1948.
Saying His Peace
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Millions of people around the world think they have heard Mahatma Gandhi speaking in English -- although it was actually Gandhi channeled through the voice of actor Ben Kingsley in the famous 1982 movie by Richard Attenborough.
But very few English speakers have heard Gandhi directly. That's because there were only two occasions when he was recorded speaking in English, according to his grandson and biographer Rajmohan Gandhi. One speech, about religious issues, was recorded in the 1930s. The second, especially historic because it was just a few months before Gandhi was assassinated, was made on April 2, 1947.
For decades, this second speech has been largely lost to the world. A few years ago, an Italian cellphone company made a commercial using excerpts, and scattered fragments are available on the Internet.
Recently, however, the second speech surfaced in -- of all places -- downtown Washington. It had been lovingly preserved for 60 years by John Cosgrove, a former president of the National Press Club. Cosgrove's copy came from Alfred Wagg, a journalist who recorded the speech in New Delhi and produced four 78-rpm LPs that included both Gandhi's voice as well as Wagg's own commentary about the Indian independence leader. Cosgrove discovered the significance of the recording during a chance encounter with Rajmohan Gandhi, when the author came to the Press Club this past spring to promote his new biography.
Gandhi's speech -- made with the uneven diction of an elderly man who sounds as though he has lost most of his teeth -- had the same themes he visited over and over throughout his life: the importance of nonviolence, the eradication of the caste system in Hindu society, amity between South Asia's Hindus and Muslims, and a world united against violence and exploitation.
"A friend asked yesterday, did I believe in one world?" Gandhi says at one point in the speech. "Of course I believe in World One. And how can I possibly do otherwise? . . . You can redeliver that message now in this age of democracy, in the age of awakening of the poorest of the poor."
Gandhi preferred to speak to Indian audiences in their own languages. He regularly used Hindi, although his native tongue was Gujarati. This speech was made to a gathering of Asian leaders, for whom English was a common language.
The speech is especially poignant not only because we now know Gandhi had barely 10 months left to live, but also because of something it does not explicitly note. It was made precisely one day after Gandhi had set in motion one of the most audacious political initiatives of his career.
On April 1, 1947, Gandhi proposed that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of India's minority Muslim population and ardent champion of the creation of a new state called Pakistan, be installed as the first prime minister of India -- a united India. It was a staggering suggestion, roughly along the lines of Abraham Lincoln inviting Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, to be president of the United States of America -- in order to avoid the carnage of the Civil War.
Gandhi placed his radical idea before Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India. Mountbatten was floored, since Gandhi was essentially saying he would ask his own Hindu-dominated Congress Party to relinquish the power that was about to fall into its lap after decades of struggle.
Jinnah proved intrigued by the offer, according to an account Mountbatten wrote of the conversation, but Gandhi's colleagues in the Congress Party were horrified. A few days after the speech, they rejected the plan.
India was divided and Pakistan born in August 1947, with millions of people killed and displaced during the partition of the subcontinent. Several wars have broken out between India and Pakistan in subsequent decades, and the public acknowledgment of nuclear weapons on both sides 10 years ago has made this conflict between South Asian neighbors one of the most dangerous standoffs in the world.