Passage to India: The symbolism of a presidential visit

The Times of India

President Trump’s visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, at the start of his sojourn in India, is a reminder that the United States and India have deep and lasting connections that transcend the prosaic details of defense deals and trade negotiations. Indeed, the two nations are spiritually connected like no other.

On January 30 this year, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, I happened to be in Ahmedabad. I decided to start my morning with a visit to the Ashram, before it was known it would be on President Trump’s itinerary. I found myself meditating then, on how change occurs in the world, of how a man and a powerful idea can unleash a revolution. I thought then of how, Gandhi, with a small group of people and a staff in hand, began a walk to Dandi on the coast to pick up salt, a modest action that began to unsettle a mighty empire.

Reports in Western newspapers drew international attention to Gandhi. On April 6, 1930, the New York Times reported, picking up the increasing drama:

“Never was there a more forlorn setting for a drama than the tiny, straggling village of Dandi, perched on hummocks above the beach and the long rollers of the Arabian Sea. A distant ribbon of white moving across the dark mudflats was all that indicated the approach of Gandhi and his followers this morning.”

Gandhi’s gesture in Dandi struck a chord in the distant United States. As he panned salt from the sea at Dandi in defiance of the British, he was enacting a drama that recalled another one from a hundred and fifty years prior, when tea from an East India Company ship was thrown into Boston harbor by American anti-colonists.

Eleven years after the Dandi March, President Franklin Roosevelt pressed Prime Minister Winston Churchill on providing greater freedom to India. He ensured that the Atlantic Charter, signed with Winston Churchill, acknowledged “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them”.

Gandhi’s movement of passive resistance, launched from Dandi, itself drew inspiration from Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay on civil disobedience. And Walden Pond outside Boston, by which Thoreau lived as a hermit, itself has a connection with US India trade! Ice used to be cut from the frozen lakes of New England, including from Walden Pond, covered with salt and sawdust to lower the melting point, and would be shipped out to India. Thoreau mused about “the pure Walden water … mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”

Walt Whitman, in his “Passage to India”, wrote in the mid-nineteenth century of how the technological advancements of his day, the railroads and the Suez Canal among them, will spark a spiritual quest that would lead the world to India. Indeed, today, when we speak of the Indo Pacific or of digital networks, recall what Whitman so presciently wrote:

Passage to India!

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?

The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands to be welded together.

With over four million people of Indian origin making their homes in the United States, and ever-increasing people to people interactions, the India US relationship has the promise to flower into a unique force that binds the two countries, a bi-hemispheric relationship that can play a pivotal role in creating a better world by first together advancing the prosperity of the people in both countries.