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COMMENTARY: Wolpert’s Passion

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) India and Pakistan rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, least of all on the founding fathers […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) India and Pakistan rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, least of all on the founding fathers of the nations _ M. K. Gandhi for India and M. A. Jinnah for Pakistan. In fact they usually see things from virtually opposed perspectives.

It is therefore a singular challenge for scholars to write on the area with objectivity and acceptability. Scholars writing about Pakistan with sympathy may well provoke hostility in India and vice versa.

Professor Stanley Wolpert, distinguished professor of South Asian history emeritus, at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of the few who has been able to bridge the different positions with great success.

Wolpert’s biographies of some of the greatest figures of South Asia are not only the standard work among scholars but also popular among those interested in knowing about the region. Indeed one of his earlier books on Gandhi was made into a Hollywood film called “Nine Hours to Rama.”

A giant of a scholar but with an old world charm and modesty, Wolpert has been supported in his scholarly work over the decades by his wife Dorothy. Together the two have helped shape and change the very debate about South Asia.

Both husband and wife are driven by a passion to build bridges of understanding between America and the South Asian world. Their compassion and conviction have created friendships that have been durable.

Although Wolpert’s earlier biographies on Jinnah, Nehru, Bhutto and Gandhi and his history of South Asia are well known, his obvious favorite is his last great work, “Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.”

“Gandhi’s Passion” not only provides us insights into one of the most extraordinary figures of human history but also gives us rare glimpses of Wolpert himself.

Wolpert is deeply inspired by Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence and compassion. He points out the impact of Gandhi on leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Albert Einstein once said of Gandhi that a hundred years from now people the world over may scarcely believe that “such a one as this ever in flesh and blood did walk upon this earth.”

Wolpert explains the core of the Gandhian philosophy: satyagraha _ “hold fast to the truth” _ could alternately be rendered “truth-force,” and since Gandhi equated truth with love (ahimsa), which literally meant nonviolence, it might also be called “the force of love.

“Such is the miraculous power of satyagraha,” Gandhi wrote on the eve of going to prison, “I seem to hear it whispered in my ear that God is always the friend and protector of truth. Our success in bringing this campaign to this stage is a triumph for truth.”

But Wolpert is acutely aware that Gandhi’s vision did not entirely convert his own homeland, noting he failed to convert most Indians to his faith in the ancient yogic powers of tapas and ahimsa as superior to the atom bomb. “He was not, of course, the first or only prophet of peace murdered by a self-righteous killer, nor, most unfortunately, would he be the last. But he was the greatest Indian since the 5th century B.C. Enlightened One, the Buddha.”

But Gandhi was most frustrated by what he saw as his failure to bring the different faiths together in 1947 when the subcontinent was divided into two countries and when he failed to convince Jinnah and the Muslim leadership not to allow the division of India into two states, India and Pakistan. As a result most Pakistanis see him as an implacable foe of their nationhood.

On the other hand, Hindu extremists saw Gandhi as a dangerous dreamer advocating unrealistic peace and too soft on Muslims. One of them would assassinate him in 1948.

The Gandhian argument may seem dated and irrelevant in our post-Sept. 11 world but this is not so.

On the contrary, the nuclear arms race that has developed between India and Pakistan over the last few years makes the Gandhian message both powerful and relevant as a check to what appears to be nuclear brinkmanship of the most dangerous kind.

While South Asia remains out of the limelight as long as the crisis in the Middle East captures the headlines, it is well to remember that for the first time in history the United States has close relations with the governments of India and Pakistan simultaneously and is therefore directly involved.

It is also important to remember that the subcontinent has a combined population of between one-fourth and one-fifth of humanity, most of whom live in dire poverty and that experts have called this the most dangerous place on earth.

Surely with the grim facts facing us we need to be looking for bridge-builders.

If there were one book in the vast corpus of Wolpert’s work that should be read by a global audience I would recommend “Gandhi’s Passion.” In it not only does Wolpert capture this extraordinary figure with sympathy and objectivity but also reveals to us his own passionate conviction for a peaceful and harmonious world.

DEA END AHMED