India’s Journey towards New Governance
An Indian Perspective by V.C Viswanathan
V.C. Viswanathan comes from Kerala in South India. He was president of the Students Union at Madras University when Frank Buchman visited in 1953. Inspired by what Buchman and his friends had to say, Viswanathan began applying Buchman’s ideas in his first job with Caltex Oil Company. Later he decided to give his full time to the work of Moral Re-Armament for some years before becoming in turn marketing manager for two different tyre companies in Madras and Delhi.
FRANK Buchman’s love for India was kindled very early in his life. He noted in his diary in January 1902, “Today a visitor told us, ‘Had I my life to spend over again it would be spent in India. There are magnificent opportunities there for the young man’. I would so much like to go to India.” He was 24 years old.
“You will be guided beyond your wildest dreams. God has a unique part for you and your work in India… You are needed in India. You can create an organism here which would decide the future of the world.”
These were some of the thoughts Frank Buchman had in Mumbai at the start of an historic six-month visit to India in 1952–53. “What are we to think of such thoughts, written down in the night some decades ago?” wonders Garth Lean in his well-researched biography Frank Buchman: a Life. Reflecting on this, I believe Buchman’s coming with an international team was a divine intervention, which helped turn the tide in the ideological struggle.
Buchman’s longing, when he was 24, was fulfilled 13 years later. His mother tried to dissuade him from leaving America then, as the First World War had started and it was not safe to travel by ship because of German torpedoes. Buchman insisted, and reached India safely via Colombo in 1915. He stayed six months, travelling extensively throughout the country from Travancore in the south to Rawalpindi in the north and from Bombay to Calcutta, criss-crossing the sub-continent several times. He met and became a friend of many including Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. He had long walks with Gandhi on the sea beach in Madras where he stayed three days. Gandhi had just come back from South Africa and was not then a central figure in India’s political life. Buchman wrote that ‘walking with Gandhi was like walking with Aristotle’.
Buchman made nine visits to India. On his second visit in 1924-25 he met Gandhi again and many national leaders including Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawharlal Nehru, C.Rajagopalachari and the Ali brothers at the Congress party convention at Belgaum. Later he visited Gandhiji at the Sabarmati Ashram and met him again in Bishop Foss Westcott’s home in Calcutta. Buchman wrote prophetically to a friend, “He (Gandhi) is no longer a political leader, but the sphere of his influence will be sainthood and a compelling one at that”. Buchman was a true friend and maintained a close association with three generations of the Gandhi family. Years later in June 1956, speaking at the MRA world assembly at Caux in Switzerland, Devadas Gandhi, one of Gandhi’s sons, said, “I do not think there is any single message for the world today that has so much significance as MRA. You are embarked on a most essential if difficult mission, and if you fail the world fails. The basis of MRA is fundamental and calls for the highest courage and patience. You face opposition and criticism. But I believe, with you, in persistence, and the good seeds you have sown will certainly come to bear fruit”.
Gandhiji’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, speaking on the occasion of Buchman’s 80th birthday said, “Think of Frank Buchman and you must think of countless ordinary people of Asia, Africa, America and Europe of every colour, culture, creed and background who count him as their true friend. His secret has always been his intense care for people and for nations and his ability to see what, under God, they can become. To be with him is an experience–you know that you are the only person that matters for him. So it is with nations. While others protest, criticise or are cynical, he has always had the faith born of experience in his own life, that the most difficult man or the most divided nation can change and demonstrate an answer. This vision is actually being realised in many lands”.
Buchman made a positive impact on the lives of many Indians and non-Indians. David Young in his book Initiatives of Change in India – Observing six decades of Moral Re-Armament, gives many interesting anecdotes. One is the story of the change in Lionel Jardine, a senior member of the Indian Civil service in 1933. Four generations of his family had served in India since 1806. His wife Marjorie and her family, too, had a long connection with India.
The transformation in Jardine’s life and his decision to live by the absolute standards of honesty, love and unselfishness and to seek God’s guidance by listening to the inner voice had a ripple effect on the lives of many including Dr C.Chandra Ghosh, leader of Forward Bloc, a breakaway wing of the Congress Party, who believed in the use of violence if necessary for winning India’s independence. Jardine has given accounts of his encounters with many people of varied backgrounds in his autobiography, They called me an Impeccable Imperialist.
From autocrat to servant
Gandhiji once told a British friend, Roger Hicks, about Jardine, ‘You remember you were telling me stories last time about the Revenue Commissioner in Frontier Province? Well, I had the Chief Minister Dr Khan Sahib investigate them and they are all true”. They talked about others who had met Buchman in Oxford in 1934 and whose lives had been completely transformed. They had found a new purpose and motive in life. In the words of Dr C.C.Ghosh, “From being an absolute autocrat he (Jardine) became an absolute servant of the people”. Gandhiji said that this was the most important thing happening today and observed, “Politics has become a great game of chess. We know the value of the pieces and we know the possible moves and we play chess against each other. But if men’s motives and values change, like those of the Revenue Commissioner and others, then the whole board is upset and we begin again’. He went on to say, “Go tell the Viceroy from me that if we have this spirit, remembering all his wartime difficulties, we could find agreement in half an hour”. Hicks carried out Gandhi’s wish, but sadly the Viceroy’s views of the Mahatma were too set at that point for him to accept his offer.
Over the years many Indians from varying backgrounds had met Buchman and colleagues like Peter Howard and Roger Hicks, and had attended MRA conferences at Caux in Switzerland. Impressed by the change brought about in people and situations through the application of MRA ideas, a powerful national committee of Indians wrote to Buchman inviting him to bring a team to India.
‘We unite in asking you, most earnestly, to come yourself this winter to India and to bring with you an international team that we may profit by your experience. Together we must succeed in turning the world from crisis to cure and in demon-strating an overarching ideology for Management and Labour.’
Left and Right for East and West
In response to this invitation, Buchman came with four plays and an international team of 200 people from 35 nations. They stayed in India for six months journeying across India, visiting Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Agra, Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Srinagar.
On his first day in New Delhi, Buchman and his team visited Raj Ghat and laid a wreath in honour of Mahatma Gandhi. Later Buchman had the rare honour of addressing a large number of members of both houses of Parliament in the Lok Sabha presided over by the Deputy Speaker. In his address he expressed his vision for India, which appealed to the hearts and minds of many parliamentarians who heard him.
An All-Asian Assembly was held in January 1953 in New Delhi. Speaking on that occasion Dr Buchman gave his New Year message to the people of India:
“Men are hungry for bread, for peace, and the hope of a new world order. Before a God-led unity every last problem would be solved. Hands will be filled with work, stomachs with food and empty hearts with an ideology that really satisfies. That is what Moral Re-Armament is out for. It gives faith to the faithless but also helps men of faith to live so compellingly that cities and nations change. Nations where everyone cares enough and everyone shares enough, so that everyone has enough will pattern a new social and economic order for this and all future generations.
“A nation at peace within itself will bring peace to the world. A nation that makes What is Right regnant in personal, industrial, political and national life will pioneer the next historic step of progress and destiny for all mankind.”
President Rajendra Prasad received Buchman and his full team at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Dr S.Radhakrishnan (later President) also invited him and his friends for tea. On January 3rd Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to tea and talked for half an hour with Buchman at Jaipur house, which had been made available by the Prime Minister. Pandit Nehru was visibly moved when the international chorus sang India’s national anthem and other songs, especially the ‘Song of India’.
One of the MRA plays was performed before 20,000 workers at the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Hyderabad. In Madras initially some students picketed the theatre with placards and leaflets using slogans taken from Tashkent and Moscow broadcasts. But soon the general enthusiasm of the public for the MRA plays lured the protesters inside and the agitation faded away. In fact, the public interest was so overwhelming that the cast had to give open-air performances to which thousands came. The Vauhini studio in Madras built a special stage, the largest in India, and on some days the cast performed thrice to accommodate the huge crowds that waited patiently.
In Calcutta the disparity between the rich and the poor and the clash of class war were even more apparent to the visitors. But soon the MRA team won the hearts of many belonging to all classes including several trade union leaders. Sibnath Banerji, president of the 800,000 strong Socialist movement – the Hind Mazdoor Sabha - was drawn to MRA when he saw the plays and met people like Geoffrey Daukes (UK), Gordon Wise (Australia) and Cecil Morrison, ‘the Happy Baker’ from Canada. As a young man he had made his way overland to attend Lenin’s funeral in Moscow in 1924 but communism did not capture him. He was a true champion of the workers and the poor. He became an active supporter of the work of Moral Re-Armament in India and the world. Another remarkable trade union leader who became a life-long fighter for MRA was Satya Narayan Banerjee.
From Calcutta the team went west to Srinagar. Sheikh Abdullah, then Prime Minister of Kashmir, came with his wife and sons to see the MRA plays. He told Buchman, “You have here the answer for India and Pakistan. It takes patience, I saw the answer in the plays and it is God”. His wife added, “When I saw the play, I knew the spirit of God was there. It is something you don’t run into much in the world today and we are grateful”.
A new phase
David Young’s book, Initiatives of change in India (Grosvenor Books 2003) tells of the outcome of Buchman’s visit and the continuing action in India and its outreach through changes in the lives of many. Some of the landmark events were:
1) The Moral Re-Armament World Assembly at Caux in 1953 was attended by a large delegation of Indians consisting of students, trade unionists, parliamentarians, industrialists, educators and leading citizens who were enlisted as a result of Buchman’s visit to India. Their experience at Caux is best expressed in the words of one young man: “My experience at Caux was beyond all expectations. I saw the dawn of a new civilization – a world free of hate, prejudice, greed and exploitation. Men and women of every faith, race, class and colour from over fifty nations, from every continent had assembled there. Meeting real people who had experienced change in their own lives and as a result helped to bring about vast social, economic and political transformations convinced me that MRA was the way to build a new world order of equity and justice”. He like many others decided to be part of this global revolution.
2) The work of Moral Re-Armament in India entered a new phase when Rajmohan Gandhi returned to India in 1957 and decided to give his all to it despite great opposition from his family and well-meaning friends. After graduating from St Stephen’s college, New Delhi, he was sent by his father Devadas Gandhi, son of the Mahatma, to Britain for training in journalism on The Scotsman. His father sought Buchman’s help to find a good MRA home where he could stay in Edinburgh. The quality of life of the family with whom he stayed and their care made a deep impression on the young man. He decided to live by the ideas they lived. In his words, he says, “For me change meant contrasting my life with the absolute standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. It meant returning money to the Delhi Transport Undertaking for travelling on their buses without tickets. It meant apologising to a friend for jealousy because he was successful and popular. It meant writing to my old school principal to seek forgiveness for cheating in an examination. It meant being completely honest with my parents about how I spent my time and the money they gave me. It meant a decrease in my interest in myself and an increase in my concern for others. Every morning it means for me having a time of Quiet during which my conscience or the inner voice or God’s voice can clarify my motives and help me see where I needed to change and show me how I can change others.”
He was faced with a difficult decision when his father suddenly passed away. Being the eldest son there was considerable pressure on him to take up a job and take care of his mother. His maternal grandfather, C. Rajagopalachari, a close associate of Gandhiji and India’s first Governor-General and elder statesman, impressed upon him his filial responsibility. With his own ability and family background there were many positions the young Gandhi could aspire for.
G.D.Birla, a leading industrialist and family friend who owned the Hindustan Times, invited Rajmohan Gandhi to join as assistant editor of the newspaper of which his father had been the Chief Editor till he died. It was a position that carried considerable prestige and power apart from being a comfortable and secure job. Rajmohan Gandhi turned down the offer. He said, “When Mahatma Gandhi came back from South Africa his family urged him to continue his legal practice. Instead he put aside his private plans in order to free the country. Now there is a bigger job than freeing one’s country. The job is to save the world from dictatorship, corruption and war. I am going to put MRA in the first place”.
3) A visit to Caux in 1954 by a Kerala delegation consisting of leaders of different communities including Mannath Padmanabhan, leader of the Hindu Nair community, and P.T.Chacko, a Catholic and leader of the Congress party in the Kerala Legislature. It led to a new understanding and unity among the leaders of different communities ending factional fights within the Congress party. Kerala had made history in 1957 when for the first time in the world a Communist government was elected to power through a free democratic process. Mannath Padmanabhan spoke at Caux: “Communism has grown in the world because we have not heeded the teachings of Lord Krishna, Buddha and Jesus Christ. We have had religions, moral principles, and lofty ideals. Prophets and sages have talked about them for thousands of years, but we have not lived them. As we stand united to get rid of selfishness, living purity and dedicated to God, our efforts will be crowned with success. Frank Buchman is a guru. He has rediscovered the fundamental and noble principles that will lead mankind to a better life and prosperity. The key is to change men. It is the only way in this atomic age”.
4) At a press conference held in New Delhi in August 1963 Rajmohan Gandhi, together with leaders from Kerala, spoke of a bold plan to rouse India’s millions to fight for Moral Re-Armament with the same passion with which they sought political liberation. The statement declared: “As deadly as the danger from China is India’s internal disease. It lies in jealousy, impurity, hate and fear. They have produced divisions, bribery, drift and frustration. Unchecked they will lead inevitably to anarchy and dictatorship.
“A force of Indians is determined to strike at the root of our national disease. These men and women are pledged under God to change the character of our nation. The aim is to make Moral Re-Armament the dominant force in all spheres of our national life – politics, administration, business, education and defence.
“Our aim is a new social order where man no longer cheats, insults, worships, corrupts or exploits his fellow man. Where a nation is united because families are united. Where men and women live as sons and daughters of God. To create this new order across the world must be the united aim of our nation. The fight for a clean, strong, united India will need more dedication and sacrifice than the struggle for freedom required.”
5) They announced that a vigorous nationwide campaign, a March-on-Wheels, to alert and enlist India’s millions in the battle for Moral Re-Armament, would start on October 2nd from Kanyakumari for Delhi. “Our aim is to make India a nation of one heart, one mind and one goal. Conscious of our shortcomings, but trusting in the power of God, we are pledged to fight for this revolution, whatever the cost may be…We urge every patriotic man and woman to join with us in the battle.”
The marchers consisted of a core of committed Indians and included a number of foreigners. Over a period of seven weeks, the team of 75 people travelled in buses from Kanyakumari (at the southern tip of India) to New Delhi, stopping at towns and villages through the states of Kerala, Mysore, Madras, Hyderabad, Orissa, Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They spoke at meetings to every kind of person–students and workers, industrialists and trade unionists, peasants and tradesmen, citizens and leaders, men and women. To everyone the message was the same. The creation of a strong, clean and united India required people to be different. Rajmohan Gandhi’s challenge to all was simple:
1 Accept absolute moral standards in your own life and allow yourself to be used to give a lead for the country.
2 The ordinary man who listens to the inner voice can do extraordinary things.
3 An India clean, just, strong, united and honest at home, proclaiming boldly and fearlessly a revolution beyond communism and anti-communism for the entire world, is the India we shall fight under God to create.
The climax of the March was the Moral Re-Armament Assembly of nations that opened at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, on November 24.
6) The idea for building a conference and training centre for Moral Re-Armament came out of the experience of conducting training camps for young people who had responded enthusiastically to the challenge of building a clean, strong, united India. Impressed by the remarkable change in the youth and inspired by their vision for India, citizens of Panchgani including municipal councillors, teachers and senior citizens urged Rajmohan Gandhi, Russi Lala and others that a permanent training centre for training the youth should be built in Panchgani, and offered to help find a suitable site.
The creation of ‘Asia Plateau’
The building of the centre was an act of faith from the word go. First steps for purchasing the land were taken in 1965. Construction started in January 1967 and the first phase was completed in January 1968; the second phase in January 1969 and the third phase including the large auditorium, meeting rooms, dining and catering facilities were completed in early 1972.
For four decades now men and women, young and old from all walks of life, of all classes, races and religions have come to Asia Plateau from all over India and other countries of Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and Australia and have experienced here, a change in attitude, motivation and behaviour. Many found a new vision and a new purpose for their lives, making a difference in their personal lives, families, work places, communities and their nations.
A leading Indian newspaper called Asia Plateau ‘a beacon of hope’. An Indonesian youth leader said, ‘Asia Plateau may lie in India, but it belongs to Asia.’ The Sunday Standard wrote, ‘The Moral Re-Armament Training Centre is destined to change the hearts and minds of the people. From here will come out trained men and women, their ambitious task to remodel a nation. It will help mould the youth of India for the task of leading India, Asia and the world; give industrial labour the necessary training to fight not only for a fair day’s wage but also for a fair day’s work; help traders and industrialists to put people before profit; train teachers to revolutionise the educational pattern; give the peasants sufficient training…and instil in every man and woman the need to care for the family, the neighbours, the community and the world’
Buchman always believed that the ordinary man inspired by God could do the extraordinary thing. Perhaps those who are a bit out of the ordinary can make an even more far-reaching mark.
It was worth having a try
Initiatives of Change (the new name for MRA) multiplies through the inspired initiatives of all kinds of people. One day in late 1973 a letter arrived at Asia Plateau, Panchgani, from the chairman of a big textile company in Mumbai. He asked if, now that the Centre was completed and operational, he could send his 5,000 employees in batches for training in Moral Re-Armament. You can imagine the kind of discussion that took place over this letter! Could the Centre take on this assignment? Were the facilities there for handling this? Above all, who would provide the training and the faculty for these industrial people?
Some wanted to reply that while they would love to respond positively to his request, they did not feel ready and equipped to undertake this. Another suggestion was that perhaps God might be wanting to open a door and if advantage of this was not taken, other openings might be missed.
Eventually one of the Trustees at the Centre said he felt it was worth having a try. If the experiment worked out, he said, well and good. If it failed, all that would suffer would be our pride.
And so, as a start, it was agreed to plan for three seminars, one a month for three months for groups of about 75 employers in each batch. It was suggested to the chairman that each batch should consist of a cross section of his employees from senior managers to shop floor workers. They would live and eat together at the Centre irrespective of their positions in the company and all would be treated equally. For an Indian course at that time this was unusual.
A further request was made that a few representatives of other firms should also be invited, to have the chance to evaluate similar actions for their respective companies. All this was agreed and the first three seminars were fixed. In order to help carry these seminars some people from industry, who had experience of personal change and its application at the work place, were asked to come and assist.
After the trial seminars it was agreed to continue, and to hold about ten such courses a year. From those who attended the first seminars came an unexpected request. Because of deep changes which took place in some of the participants some of their wives wanted to know how this happened and could they attend and learn more. They wanted to know what had changed their husbands in regard to simple things like over-drinking, overspending money and not helping in family issues. And so it was agreed that wives could accompany their husbands, if they wished, and the company would underwrite the extra cost because they recognised the value of truly supportive wives and families.
A knock-on effect was that more and more companies began sending their employees, as well as in many cases having follow-up programmes in their factories, and a new industrial culture developing in the country. This was particularly noticeable as big and well-known companies began to send their staff. And this goes on to this day.
Man management as key to maintaining morale
Another quite different development took place at Asia Plateau through the visit one day some 15 years ago of an Army Brigadier from nearby Pune. He had been on holiday at an adjacent hill station and called in to find out what went on when passing a very attractive campus with elegant buildings and fine gardens. At the time he was commanding the Army Institute of National Integration (INI). It should be mentioned here that the Army has always had a high regard for man management as key to maintaining morale in the Service. And of course the reputation of the Indian Army is high from campaigns of the Second World War in North Africa, Italy and Burma until the present day. The first Indian Chief of Staff, General K.M.Cariappa, had supported the visit of Buchman to India in 1952/53 and continued to do so until his death.
The setting up of the INI in Pune was in pursuit of maintaining this high standard in the Army and ensuring the unity on which efficiency greatly depended. The Indian Army, the fourth largest in the world, is made up of personnel from many different ethnic, language and religious backgrounds, as is India as a country. Units have their own faith leaders as appropriate to the make-up of the unit. In the Western world these are the equivalent of Army chaplains. In India they belong, of course, to the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faiths depending on the unit concerned.
The INI was established so that these faith leaders could understand the other faiths as well as their own and thus provide a framework of unity for the Army. So the INI holds month-long courses of some fifty people in each course. This was the establishment which this Brigadier was running at the time of his visit to the Centre at Asia Plateau. Before leaving he asked whether it would be possible for him to send those participating in an INI course to the Centre for a day to study what training was being given. This was agreed and the first batch duly arrived. The result was so satisfactory that the Brigadier asked if this kind of visit could be included in the programme for every course. Not only was this readily agreed, but after a number of such visits, they were extended to two days so that the participants could get the maximum benefit. And thus it has continued to this day.
Ethical governance for the country
Another initiative resulted from the visit to Asia Plateau some three years ago of a man called Prabhat Kumar. He had been Cabinet Secretary to the Indian Cabinet in Delhi and on retirement had been Governor of one of India’s States. Now retired from that last assignment he came as an onlooker at a programme at the Centre and was impressed not only by the spirit of the participants but also the changes which took place in the people attending. He began considering the application of this kind of training to members of the Indian Administrative Service of India (IAS), which provides the framework for running the country at all levels.
In teamwork with another retired Cabinet Secretary he proposed bringing together some 30 or 40 IAS officers for four days to find out whether these men and women felt that it was something of value in their work and for running the country. To establish ‘ethical governance for the country’ was Kumar’s aim, and it could only happen through the readiness of these IAS officers to practice the ethic themselves.
The first group who came together were fully in favour of this being a regular element in the training and life of their cadre. So a second such course was fixed and has just been completed. Some comments illustrate what it meant to them.
With forty years of experience in the Civil Service, Prabhat Kumar spoke with deep conviction and passion. He said that the four days spent together have enabled everyone to think together as a community. Looking back over the corridors of time, he said, good practices were in vogue at the dawn of Independence. There was sufficient space for the civil servants to operate. Good practices were legitimatised without illegitimate interference by the politicians. This phase of mutual respect continued till about the end of the ‘60s. Phase two came into being after that. Vagueness and formality crept into the service. The politician took the decision and civil servants merely implemented his diktat. Kumar felt that internal consistency has to be re-established and the areas clearly marked out for a politically neutral civil service.
Transparency International has ranked India 83rd out 133 in their table of honest government. The most potent remedy for change is the ‘Sunshine of Information’, Kumar felt. Ethics is a personal option. One has to be prepared for flak and also to flourish with the new choice. He urged participants to give priority to project thinking and stressed the importance of micro-management of projects especially in backward areas, as this would solve the problem of poverty in Indian villages, prevalent even after fifty years of Independence.
As the five days of togetherness were brought to a close, views ranged from ‘excellent’ to ‘awesome’. Some participants were of the view that it is not only the positive stories which should get highlighted but also the stories of struggle. Shailaja Chandra, senior IAS officer and ex-chairman of the Public Grievance Commission articulated a powerful keynote address on the role of IAS officers in everyday life. One very relevant point made by her which set everyone thinking was, ‘Ends matter as much as means‘, saying that the core of conduct must have strong embedded values. She also emphasised that high ideals of honesty, duty and truth must always be upheld in public life. While achieving these ends a personal benchmark could be set. She concluded by saying that ethical leaders must select public good over personal gain.
The vision of the initiators of this programme is that it will provide a groundswell of change in the governance of the country with one by-product being that India will move up in the ranking in the Transparency International table as well as giving the population renewed confidence in the administration.