Human Writes: A look at political greats Gandhi, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr.

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  • Sunday, 08 Apr 2018

Martin Luther King Jr. about to address a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, 'I Have a Dream' speech during the Aug 28, 1963, march on Washington DC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The flags and banners are already up, the mudslinging and backbiting have begun and politicians are metaphorically rolling up their sleeves to arm-wrestle rivals. A new “fake news” law carries possible prison sentences of six years and a redelineation exercise puts a new spin on things.

All this even before Parliament was dissolved yesterday to make way for the country’s next general election!

As we brace ourselves for stormy political skies ahead, perhaps it’s worth indulging in the ideal instead, and consider what makes great political leaders. There’s a common thread that runs through some recent political greats, and the thread runs tighter than you’d think.

Last week, the world marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

King Jr. (1929-1968) captured the imagination of millions in America and abroad with his vision of a world where people were not judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character. His dream is still a work in progress, but there’s no doubt we’ve moved forward. Former US President Barack Obama is said to be deeply inspired by King Jr..

King Jr., a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1964, envisioned a world without walls, where we are all brothers and sisters: “Regardless of the barriers of race, creed, ideology, or nationality, there is an inescapable destiny which binds us together. There is a common humanity which makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another.”

His powerful vision defined and elevated him as a leader. But that vision was shaped by the vision of another great leader: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948). King Jr. believed the Gandhian philosophy was “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”.

Mahatma Gandhi on the famous Salt March in 1930
Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s 300km-long Salt March to the sea in 1930, an act of resistance defying a British law that forbade Indians from making their own salt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, King Jr. was so inspired by Gandhi’s ideas that he travelled to India “as a pilgrim” and not “as a tourist” in 1959, where he met the Gandhi family and other Indian leaders and activists.

King Jr.’s strategy of nonviolence in the powerful American civil rights movement – a game-changing strategy first used in the famous Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s – came directly from Gandhi.

In India, nonviolence was a powerful political tool used to challenge the might of the British empire. Gandhi’s 300km-long Salt March to the sea in 1930, which especially inspired King Jr., was a huge act of resistance, defying a British law that forbade Indians from making their own salt.

The march reflected Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, or insistence on truth in a spirit of love and peace, drawn from the ancient Indian principle of ahimsa (nonviolence). In asserting what was true and right without violence, protesters won a moral victory against the British.

Gandhi became a high-profile activist in South Africa after encountering racial prejudice. He first used satyagraha in 1906 to fight for the rights of Indians there, in response to a law discriminating against Asians in the Transvaal.

A century later, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) spoke about the value of satyagraha, calling Gandhi “the sacred warrior”. Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison before leading his country out of apartheid, had long been inspired by Gandhi but at one time found nonviolence difficult to espouse. In 2007, though, Mandela declared Gandhi’s message of peace and nonviolence “held the key to human survival in the 21st century”.

Leo Tolstoy influenced political leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King

This chain of inspiration actually goes back further than Gandhi to an unlikely link: the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). The two exchanged letters that guided Gandhi’s political, philosophical and spiritual outlook. It was Tolstoy who helped Gandhi change and cement his views on violence, who helped him see that Indians could be a force against the British.

Gandhi was first struck by Tolstoy’s Letter To A Hindu, written in reply to a letter from Taraknath Das, editor of the Free Hindustan magazine. It is a long letter written in chapters quoting Indian saints and ancient Vedic texts, with profound insights. Tolstoy, who was influenced by various Asian teachings and became a vegetarian, spoke of the law of love.

He wrote: “The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of distorting falsehoods.... It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life – for home use, as it were – but that in public life all forms of violence – imprisonment, executions, and wars – might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers....”

Gandhi noted that Tolstoy “strove uncompromisingly to follow truth as he saw it, making no attempt to conceal or dilute [it]”.

It is remarkable that Tolstoy’s adherence to truth and love ultimately spawned, indirectly, so many steely leaders who were a moral force of their times. Let’s hope that continues, especially in times of political darkness.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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