Independence Day: US-based peace activists reflect on India’s 75-year journey

Ritu Jha-

Renowned peace activist and professor emeritus at California State University at Fresno, Sudarshan Kapoor is delighted at the celebrations that accompanied the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, but was disappointed that his home town could not celebrate on account of a “perceived threat of violence by separatist elements within our Indian community.”

Born in Punjab, India, Kapoor came to the United States in 1963. In 1967 he began teaching at Cal State Fresno, where he became professor of social work, community development and peace studies. He founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University. He also started the Peace Garden project, which currently honors Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar E. Chavez, and Jane Addams.

Prof Kapoor did not name the group or a person, but said, “We organized India’s Independence Day celebrations for the last 40 years, but for the last couple of years, Khalistani elements started creating problems and the Indian community felt they don’t want their children to see violence. We used to get a lot of participation from children.”

He said Fresno’s Indian community last celebrated Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019, and since then there has been no celebration.

Prof Kapoor said many Sikh people participated but separatist elements would create problems, including demanding the removal of the Gandhi statue from Fresno State University.

“We have a Peace Garden there where we have erected statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. That is my legacy,” he said.

In a dejected tone, he said, “Because of a minuscule minority of separatists who want to foment trouble, we are unable to raise the national flag in a free country.”

Kapoor’s peace activism is legendary. In 1992, Fresno mayor Karen Humphrey appointed Kapoor to the city’s Human Relations Commission. He served for 12 years; four as its chair. He was a founding director of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence. Since its inception in 1984, he has served on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee, City of Fresno. Kapoor also started and co-ordinated the “Stop the Hate, Build the Culture of Peace Week” in Fresno.

Nationally, Kapoor was co-executive editor of the journal Peace & Change. He co-chaired the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development (now the Peace and Justice Studies Association) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Kapoor recalled the first celebration in 1947. “I was a young man and participated in every event in my community and school. We replicated these enthusiastic celebrations here in Fresno.”

About India’s current political situation, he said, “I respect the India’s Prime Minister for what he is doing for economic development, progress is not enough if people do not feel secure. India should recognize and celebrate diversity. Communal harmony was central to Gandhiji’s philosophy. He gave his life for that cause.”

He added, “We have religious diversity and all of India’s great teachers promoted tolerance and living like brothers and sisters. That same thought should be maintained going forward.”

Prof. Kapoor remembered how, during his teaching days at the prestigious Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, he had several Muslim colleagues and how “we were like brothers.”

He said, “We have a strong army that protects the country but we do not, unfortunately, have a good neighborhood. We live in a very insecure neighborhood.”

About Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ (A Tricolor in Every House) campaign, Prof. Kapoor said that he is happy that after many years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the governing BJP in India, finally accepted the tricolor. “They can have their own flag, but they have to accept and recognize India’s national flag,” he said.

Another peace activist Raju Rajagopal, a board member of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) shared his thoughts about India. “I was in awe of each of the colors in the Indian national flag: saffron for self-sacrifice, white for peace, green for prosperity, and the wheel of dharma (righteousness) in the middle. When the RSS and its affiliates refused to honor the tiranga for decades after independence, they were in fact rejecting the very values that have stood by the nation for 75 years. Their new found love for the tiranga is as shallow as their reverence for Gandhi and Ambedkar.”

He said that Independent India has had several ups and downs, but there is much to celebrate. “From a country whose democratic and pluralistic future many were skeptical of in 1947, and through food shortages and rationing, costly wars, license raj, political crises, communal riots, etc, India has emerged as an important global player. I have much to be grateful to ‘Mother India’ who prepared me well to face the world, with a quality education that has allowed me to succeed in my adopted country, America,” Raju said. “I am also grateful that India has allowed me to continue to participate in its development by openly embracing me as an “Overseas Citizen of India.”

On the flip side, he added, even after 75 years, India has been unable to live up to its egalitarian constitution to make equality a reality for all its citizens. “Casteism and untouchability are still major hurdles to achieving true equality. Sadly, in the last few years, India appears to be on a backward journey, with Dr. Ambedkar’s dream of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” being systematically replaced with the hate, hype, hubris and hypocrisy of a new polity that is spreading like a virus, eating India’s very soul.”

He added, “On this 75th year of India’s independence, it seems to me that we are in a second struggle for independence. Liberation from unjust laws, arbitrary arrests, intimidation of the media, Islamophobia, a co-opted justice system etc., which are hollowing out all democratic institutions and are.”