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King, Thou Shouldst be Living at this hour! By B.S.Raghavan

C3S Paper No. 0019/ 2015

I have taken the title of my talk from the immortal line of a poem on John Milton by William Wordsworth, as I think it reflects the current mood of the people everywhere. Let me then start with an invocation to Martin Luther King drawing on that poem:

Martin Luther King! Thou shouldst be living at this hour, the world hath need of thee. Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart; Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea: Pure as the naked Heavens, majestic, free. So didst thou travel on life’s common way, in cheerful godliness.We have become selfish men; O raise us up, return to us again, and give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!


I am most grateful to the distinguished members of the Indo-American Association for inviting me to deliver the Rev.Dr.Martin Luther King Memorial Lecture this year. I am particularly beholden to Mr.P.Murari who has lent lustre to the Association and steered it during the period of his presidency with his wonted dedication and commitment to raising the quality of public life. The leadership and vision of those guiding its current activities have helped further strengthen the bonds of goodwill, understanding, and cooperation between India and USA.

Indeed,the spectacular success of the visit of the US President, Barack Obama, to India this month has opened up infinite possibilities of partnership between these two great democracies, two great countries and two great peoples that will lead to tectonic changes in geopolitical, economic and security equations in this part of the world and, conceivably, in the complexion of international relations and world order as well.

In the context of today’s talk, it is pertinent to recall that a high watermark of the visit of our Prime Minister NarendraModito Washington D.C. in September last year wasMr. Obamapersonally taking him to the Martin Luther King Memorialon the National Mall. The Washington Post aptly summed up what it called “a moment of sheer diplomatic poetry” thus: “….here was America’s first black president, a living embodiment of King’s dream, showing an Indian leader the monument to King’s struggle. It was a reminder that the world’s oldest and largest democracies share an ideological heritage that links them more powerfully than talks and treaties about trade and politics.”

We are celebrating today a person whom we can call a gift to humanity as a whole. Martin Luther King, in struggling and dying for the liberation of Blacks in his own country, also symbolized the yearning of human spirit to free itself of shackles of every kind and realize its full potential. Hewas able to visualize the inextricably interwoven nature of world as early as in the 1950s, long before globalization, global village and so on, became buzz words. “We are caught”, he said,“in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  That kind of an inter-connected world without walls in which a butterfly batting its wings in Brazil can cause an avalanche on the Himalayas,makes nonsense of assumptions of clash of civilisations or violent conflicts over race, religion, creed or language.

Everyone knows that King drew his inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, but the two had never met.In choosing me to deliver this year’s Martin Luther King Memorial lecture,the IAA has stumbled upon someone who could think of himself as a link between both. When Gandhi came to the then Madras in 1946, I was one of the volunteers standing guard outside his room in the house in which he stayed on Venkatnarayana Road, Thyagarayanagar. I had the privilege of not only being with him for the better part of the day, and sometimes in the night, to attend to his needs, but also being seated on the dais along with him and his two “walking sticks” (as he called them), Manu and Abha, during his prayer meetings.

I have vivid memories of King’s “garment of destiny” even as it was being woven. When I was one of the US Congressional Fellows in 1966-67, in the immediate aftermath of that mammoth mobilization, the first in the US history, in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., we had King speaking to us on his mission. I can’t describe the thrill I felt on seeing face to face the great and magnetic personality who led the colored people of the US from helplessness to hope by his irresistible moral and spiritual power.He was forceful in his advocacy of Gandhi’s principles and strategy and said that it was no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it was nonviolence or nonexistence.

I was witness to the revolutionary changes that King’s Marchon Washington set in train in the form of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1966). I knew in person those who were on both sides of the equation, Roy Wilkins, heading the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People, Stokely Carmichael of the Students Non-Violent Coordination Committee, and Senators Mike Mansfield, the force behind the civil rights legislation and Ted Kennedy, whose statement supporting it as the new member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, electrified the nation.

I would strongly urge all of you to listen to the soul-stirring speechKing gave before the Lincoln Memorial. It is like a beautiful and entrancing sculpture, lifting the human spirit and holding aloft the eternal truths that have inspired and sustained the human race. That speech, which reverberated round the globe, is famous for each paragraph of its peroration beginning with “I have a dream”. It should not be surprising if the idea of dream itself came to King from Gandhi who, too, had projected the India of his dreams decades earlier.

Gandhi’s vision of India ran thus:“I shall work for an India, in which the poorest shall  think it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice; an India in which there shall be no high class and lowclass of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There canbe no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of the intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. …. all interests not in conflict with the interests of the dumb millions will be scrupulously respected…. This is the India of my dreams….I shall be satisfied with nothing less.”

The core of King’s dream was, as he put it,to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, to transform the jangling discords of Americaand the world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, and to stand up for freedom together.

It is clear that although the context and the country differed, both Gandhi and Kingwere alike in their aspirations.

Incidentally, in 1969, as an anchor of the newly established Delhi TV Station, I interviewed King’s wife, Coretta Scott King for an hour. To my question what her own dream was, she without a moment’s hesitation replied, “My dream is that humankind should never run out of dreams!” She couldn’t have put it better,

“for if dreams die, Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams for when dreams go, Life is a barren field frozen with snow.”

Those of you who are students of Chemistry know how August Kekule hit upon the structure of Organic Chemistry in a dream while travelling on a bus. “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen”, he told an audience of the world’s great scientists, “for then we shall find the truth”.

At the time King dreamt of equality of rights and equality of opportunity for Blacks in their American homeland, the prospect of realizing it seemed distant and bleak. That was when a deep study of Gandhi’s struggle against the British Rule in India convinced him of the power of non-violence. Being a pastor himself, King could readily relate to Gandhi’s adherence to truth and transparency, and his insistence on reformation instead of retribution. By the way he conducted his mass movement for civil rights; he was able to demonstrate the efficacy of Gandhi’s methods.  In fact, he had to innovate in a considerable measure because he was engaged in the more difficult task of fighting his own Government and a sizeable proportion of his own country’s White population which had been oppressing the Blacks, depriving them of their basic human rights and denying them access to public places, public transport and educational institutions solely on the ground of the colour of their skin.

Using nonviolent means to prevail upon the White establishment of his day to adopt measures to bring the Blacks on par with Whites in terms of entitlement to equality of rights and opportunity was no doubt a phenomenal achievement, but that is only one of the battles in a long war which is still to be won. For, intolerance, discrimination, disparities, discords, exclusivism, extremism and supremacist attitude still persist in a large number of countries of the world. Only by decisively winning that war can a new World Order be built on the sound and strong foundations of security, peace and happiness for all.

For instance, in his own land, and in his own time, Martin Luther King was constrained to observe in 1967,“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” One does not know how he would have reacted to the fact that today, military expenditure in USA under all categories amounts to more than $750 billion,exceeding the total combined expenditure of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education. As a writer in that country in a recent article asked: “How could anyone believe for a second that Dr. King’s dream had been realized, in a world where the median net worth for a white household is almost ten times that for a black household, where black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men?”

The questions that I want to pose and explore through the title I have given for my talk are these: If King, or for that matter, Gandhi, were alive today, would their methods be still effective in combating the ills and evils that we see around us? Are those methods good for all time and all types of causes?

On this, I want to let you in on an experience of mine.

When I was the Chairman of the Board of Selection of post-graduate students for admission to an Institute of Management for five years, I used the opportunity to conduct, in the course of the interview of around 250 boys and girls from all over India every year, an informal and impromptu survey of the mindset of the younger generation. I was appalled by what I heard. Here is the gist of the views of an overwhelming majority of the young boys and girls:

(1)     Gandhi and his methods are irrelevant for the modern world. Truth, non-violence, simple living, high thinking, self-denial, rectitude are all platitudes. All sins and crimes will be forgiven once you have wealth and status, no matter how acquired, by fair means or foul. Gandhi’s era did not face this much of competition or struggle to eke out a living. We will all be sunk if we keep clinging to the so-called Gandhian values.

(2)     There is little to learn from either parents or teachers; far from being role models, they seem practitioners of double standards. A parent in politics who takes bribes, a teacher who is neither an upholder nor an observer of high standards of performance is not someone for us to look up to. In any case, parents and teachers these days have no time for inculcation of values, since they are themselves in the rat race, feverishly busy with feathering their nests.

(3)     The governing class — be it politicians or public servants ~ is stone deaf and bereft of any sensitivity, empathy or consideration. It has no respect for citizens who adhere to constitutional or peaceful methods. On the contrary, once people in their thousands block roads, burn buses, indulge in riots or commit murders, the law-breakers are invited for parleys and parties with the Prime Minister or Chief Ministers who receive them and see them off at the portico. It is pointless sticking to high principles when from top to bottom it is only opportunism that rules the roost.

(4)     There is nothing wrong if talented young persons look for opportunities to show their mettle in the USA, the UK or other rich industrial countries. They constitute not brain drain, but brain bank, because, these days knowledge-sharing through information technology enabled services has become instantaneous and it is immaterial where one works.

(5)     Indian democracy is a sham and phony. Politics has become a means of plunder. Corruption has become a shameless way of life. There is no hope of any change for the better. The cure seems to lie only in a bloody revolution leading to wholesale extermination of parasites of society.

A survey conducted last year by an Indian NGO brought out the fact that 53 per cent of the college students was in favour of the military ruling the country for some years and 43 per cent felt it was all right to violate laws and rules as things couldalways be squared up to one’s advantage by paying bribes.

Does it mean that,to the younger generation,India has become out of sync with the era of patriotism and sacrificesthat freedom heroes like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and others exemplified?Have their labours been in vain? At least one of them, aged a mere 42 at the time, entertained no illusion about the shape of things to come.

Listen to Rajaji’s stunning prophecy made as early as in 1921of the degeneration that would set in after Independence:  “Freedom will come; but immediately thereafter or even for a long time it may not bring the people happiness or a good government. As soon as freedom comes, there will be a scramble for elected places; in its wake will come corruption, injustice and the wickedness caused by money and an inefficient administration. The life of the people will be like hell. Many will feel that the older regime, which was comparatively more just, efficient and honest, was better. What we get from our independence will be only freedom from indignity and slavery. Our future lies in making our youngsters good citizens by giving them from early days an education, which is likely to create good conduct, righteousness and mutual love. If that is not done, it is certain that they will be crushed under the wickedness of injustice and wealth.”

Gandhi too at age 51had a premonition that Independence was not going to be the panacea for all the ills India was beset with. In 1920, when he appeared before the Hunter Committee set up by the British Government to inquire into the JalianwalaBagh massacre,the Committee Chairman suggested to him that India under self-government might not be needing the kind of methods such as satyagraha, civil disobedience and mass agitations that he was known for.

Gandhi replied: “I cannot feel on that point so assured forever. I can imagine a state of affairs in this country which would need satyagraha even under the Home Rule.”

As for the present state of affairs in India, here is a quote: “….as a society we are becoming increasingly insensitive and callous. …. (The state of affairs in India) speaks of a stony-hearted society, not a compassionate one that produced the Buddha, Mahavira, Nanak, Kabir and Gandhi.The unabashed, vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption by the noveau-riche has left the underclass seething in frustration. One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water…..‘Beware of the fury of the patient man,’ says the old adage. One could say, ‘Beware of the fury of the patient and long-suffering people.’ ”

Who said this? He was not an anarchist or a revolutionary who uttered this grim warning, but the sober and staid K.R.Narayanan, the President of India, while addressing both Houses of Parliament on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Republic!

Interestingly, however, in respect of two notable events witnessed in independent India,Gandhian approach to remedy the situation made no headway. Jayaprakash Narayan sought to revive the Gandhian ethos with his NavNirman movement and his call for Sampoorna Kranti (total revolution) to be brought about by recourse to Gandhian methods.He even gave an open call to government servants, the police and the military to resist all measures and orders which could weaken democracy. He wanted them to defy illegal or unjust orders and to remain faithful to the Constitution and not to a particular party or person.

He based it on the rationale that the police and the military were bound to safeguard and defend the Constitution against threats from totalitarian trends in the same way as they were bound to safeguard the security of the country and the honour of the national flag. (I may point out here that disobedience to unjust laws and orders which was at the heart of Gandhian philosophy was upheld by the International Law Commission which went into the question, at the instance of the UN General Assembly.) The immediate outcome of JP’s high-minded efforts was the clamping of Emergency, and suppression of all dissent by censorship of the media and detention without legal remedies of all leaders of the opposition.

The second event began with a bang and ended with a whimper. It was the tsunami-like mass upsurge of 2011 generated by Anna Hazare, for pressuring the Government to enact his version of a strong Jan Lokpal Bill. It was also along Gandhian lines and looked at one stage like a precursor to an Indian Spring, analogous to the Arab Spring which toppled potentate after potentate in Arab countries in 2010. The tremendous enthusiasm it aroused made the Government palpably nervous, but it could not be sustained largely for want of organizational skills and internal cohesion among members of Team Anna. It got outmaneuvered by a canny Government and petered out.

Both movements were the outgrowths of the general population’s desperate craving for clean politics and good governance. In their absence, regardless of the trappings of democracy and the chant of human rights, rapacious and even criminal elements manage to enter the system, grab unlimited power to plunder the state’s resources and assets,and oppress the people. The face of every functionary of that so-called democracy the people have to deal with at their level and at every turn seems to them to be not that of a sympathetic, honest, dutiful public servant but that of an insufferably corrupt and cruel monster.

Where JP and Anna, Gandhians par excellence, failed, would Gandhi himself and his ardent acolyte, Martin Luther King succeed, if they were living at this hour?  Would they have had to reorient their earlier strategy to make sure that We, the People are restored to the pedestal of sovereign masters of the country’s destiny?

The answer to that will depend upon how we interpret their strategy. Remember, theirs were the days when print media, manual telephones and snail mail were the only means of dissemination of an idea or information. So, they had to resort to mass mobilization, since the political dispensation was impressed only by numbers and decibels, and democracy, as it was practised then, was all about numbers.

But today, knowledge and communications revolutions combined with the miracles of technology have placed at the disposal of humankind means and mechanisms making possible flow and exchange of new ideas and best practices at the speed of thought. Internet and social media have become universal in scope, scale, range and reach. Actually, as you all know, social media and information technology-enabled services were the mainspring of the Arab Spring itself.Theoretically, therefore, one can argue that with such powerful instruments at hand, Gandhi and King, if they were alive today, would not have had to bank upon spectacular Marches, but only the click of the mouse, to make the world of their dreams a reality.

But the paradox is that while the velocity, volume, variety and versatility of human exchanges and transactions have leapt to astronomical heights, they have made life unmanageably hectic for the individual citizen, householder or student. There are simply too many distractions with the result he or she has little time or inclination to devote whole-heartedly to the propagation of promotion of causes. One doubts whether it would be possible to enlist and sustain people’s participation in such large numbers as in the case of the Salt March of Gandhi or the Washington March of King.

Further, Gandhi and King were, in their time, focusing on specific goals and causes: Freedom from alien rule in the case of Gandhi, and equal rights for Blacks in the case of King. But today, the daunting challenge before them is to launch a wholesale societal revolution which will transform every average citizen into a good citizen. This will involve making every citizen shed his apathy and non-involvement in social concerns and his tendency to look the other way and take the path of least resistance. It will also involve impressing upon him that evil flourishes in the world not because of evil-doers but because good people do nothing about it, which is tantamount to conniving at it.

The more piquant question is the one that pertains to the scourge of the times: Terrorism.What would have been Gandhi’s and King’s answer to it? In the times in which they lived, terrorism hadn’t assumed today’s monstrous proportions. There have, of course, been assassinations of prominent persons in history, and terrorism by fighters for a country’s independence against colonial rulers, by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or by the Irish Republican Army, but the world hasn’t so far been witness to a phenomenon as malevolent, ruthless, ferocious and barbaric as jihadi terrorism.

However, the lives of Gandhi and King hold a vitally important lesson: That the power of one is immense. Walking all alone into the inferno of Hindu-Muslim riots marking the birth of independent India and laying his own life on the line, Gandhi brought both communities to their senses. Emulating him, the famous actor Sunil Dutt showed how even a single individual could make a difference, if he was courageous enough. He paved the way for an end to Khalistan terrorism by going on a padayatra of love, peace, harmony and goodwill in Punjab.

Is it too far-fetched to fancy Gandhi, bare foot and staff in hand, and Martin Luther King with rosary in his hand and prayer in his heart, undertaking a pilgrimage of peace to the strongholds of the likes ofTalibans, ISIS and Boka Haram to win them over to the side of humanity?

The choice of Women’s Christian College as the venue of today’s talk cannot be termed an accident. For, I firmly believe that in today’s context, it is the women who should take charge as change-agents and game changers.Remember, it was Rosa Parks, a woman, who became”the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement” in USA.Women rose to great heights in fighting for women’s suffrage. India’s own freedom struggle saw thousands of women braving British lathis and bullets and filling jails. WCC’s mission — to provide a complete, meaningful and relevant education to women so that they are intellectually well-trained, morally upright, socially aware and spiritually inspired – is just the recipe for the kind of societal transformation that Gandhi and King would wish for.

I ask you, each one of the young persons in the audience, as not only the custodians, but the sculptors, of the country’s future, to come forward and don the mantle of the Mahatma and Martin Luther King. Do not just be cursing darkness. Light a little candle. Indeed, become those little candles yourselves. Convert today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities. Let your motto be: To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield!

Let me end with the rousing lines of Lord Tennyson in his In Memoriam:

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

( This paper was presented at the The India-American Association, Chennai for Rev.DR.Martin Luther King Jr.Memorial Lecture 2015 by Mr B.S.Raghavan, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, former Adviser to the UN and Chief Secretary to the Governments of West Bengal and Tripura. He is presently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China studies.e-

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