Mahatma Gandhi

It’s become fashionable in Christian circles for believers seeking guidance on any matter to ask simply “what would Jesus do?” The practice seems to have taken hold in certain Hindu circles in Fiji, judging from an astonishing speech given during the week by the prominent economist and anti-government campaigner, Professor Wadan Narsey. It was astonishing because Professor Narsey stood before hundreds of students at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial High School in Suva and invoked the name of the revered Indian statesman to support a blatant exercise in partisan local politics.

Wadan Narsey (photo:Pacific Scoop)

He’d been invited to speak to the students as chief guest on Mahatma Gandhi Day by Kamlesh Kumar, the President of the Gujarat Education Society and Kailash Rajput, the Principal of the MGM High School. Both men seem certain to be asked some very pointed questions by the parents of MGM students. Because their children were subjected to an extraordinary intellectual and emotional barrage by one of the Fijian Government’s most strident critics. And on any rational examination of the speech, Wadan Narsey totally crossed the line, using the revered Mahatma for his own purposes in the grubbiest of political exercises.

Young minds manipulated: MGM students (photo:Fiji Times)

It was meant to be a celebration of Gandhi’s life but had all the hallmarks of a local political rally, with the students asked to applaud two other prominent government critics in the audience, human rights campaigner Shamima Ali and workers’ advocate Father Kevin Barr. Lest their be any doubt about the overtly partisan nature of the speech, to follow is the relevant passage in full. Decide for yourself if the MGM High School was an appropriate venue for such a rousing address.

What would Mahatma Gandhi have been supporting in Fiji today?

 I believe: Gandhi would be a strong supporter of democratically elected governments and opposed to military coups.

 He might agree with certain measures such as ethnic equality of all races and a common name for all Fiji citizens; he would agree with the fight against corruption; he might even agree with the need to reform institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs.

BUT he would totally disagree with using a military coup and guns to force changes down people’s throats.

Gandhi believed in using peaceful rational arguments to change people’s views- and not try to coerce them.

He would be a passionate seeker of the truth: the truth behind our military coups, the truth behind our economy, our society, our religious organisations, our politicians.

He would disseminate his findings and his views to the people, without fear; without concern for media censorship, without fear of laws that might imprison him for seeking and speaking the truth.

He would support organisations such as the Women’s Crisis Centre and its leading light, Shamima Ali, who also stands bravely for human rights of all citizens, including those of escaped prisoners, however much misery and fear they might cause us.

Please stand up, Ms Shamima Ali, so our students here can see what brave fighters look like. (applause from audience for Shamima).

Gandhiji would probably ask working men and boys to share equally in household work, so that working women and girls are treated fairly and also have time for their own personal development (as I explain in the books on Gender Issues in Incomes and Employment in Fiji, that I have given to all the senior economics students in this school).  In this day and age, Gandhiji would probably even cook for the family,  to the delight of his wife Kasturbai.

Gandhiji would support studies which seek the truth about the exploitation of vulnerable workers in Fiji, such as the books Just Wages in Fiji, funded by ECREA, which have been given to all MGM economics students.

Gandhi would support those who fight for just wages for our workers, like Father Kevin Barr here (who I disagree with on the legitimacy of the military coup in Fiji but produced the report for ECREA, on which his Wages Council work has been based).   Father Barr, please stand up for the students. (applause from audience).

On a contrary note, when the Methodist Church was recently being unfairly treated, Gandhiji would have called on the religious organisations of Fiji (the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims and Sikhs) to stand up for the rights of their sister religious organisation, even if he did not agree with their call for Fiji to be declared a Christian State.  Gandhiji would have been disappointed that these organizations missed that opportunity recently.  But there is hope yet for them, the Yash Ghai Commission is still meeting.

Professor Narsey is entitled to hold these opinions but is he entitled to air them at a school gathering of several hundred students without context and an opposing view? Leaving aside the motherhood statements on domestic job sharing, many of these claims would be hotly contested. Yet hundreds of impressionable young minds were manipulated in an emotive way that raises serious questions about Professor Narsey’s judgment. It also raises serious questions about the judgment of the school itself and the Gujarat Education Society. Parents of MGM students deserve some answers. They would doubtless approve of their students being instructed on the greatness of Gandhiji. Instead, the name of the Mahatma was hijacked and used in a shameless exercise in partisan local politics.