Gandhi offers hope through failure for American prisoners

Ajay Joshi
Saturday, 14 March 2020

Fulbright scholar Leela Prasad is impressed to see the Mahatma’s philosophy influencing the people inside a North Carolina jail

We all know that Gandhian teachings have crossed Indian shores, and many people are well-versed with it. But when I recently met Leela Prasad, Professor of English (Dukes University) and Fulbright Scholar to India from the US, I was intrigued by her application of the Gandhian philosophy in her work.

She has been conducting a 14-week graduate-level course on Gandhi, at a federal all-male prison in North Carolina, USA and is currently in Pune to study the working of the Gandhi Peace Exam that is administered in many jails across Maharashtra by the Sarvodaya Mandal (Mumbai) and its partners. As an adjunct, she wishes to study how these teachings impact the prisoners’ lives on their release, the findings of which will hopefully culminate in a book.

“I am interested in how Gandhi’s ideas influence the lives of prisoners and ex-prisoners, especially when they have been exposed to Gandhi’s writings during their time in prison. Who is the Gandhi that they construct and imagine, and how does this figure shape their post-prison life? In what ways does this Gandhi seem to live on, despite the proclamation and evidence of his death in other parts of India and the rest of the modern world? My initial interactions have shown that these individuals become socially constructive and caring, despite the tremendous difficulties they face while in prison as well as after release,” says Prasad.

Excerpts from an interview... 

- Being a professor of religious studies, how did you chance upon working with prisoners in the US?
When I was a graduate student in the US, I taught writing and literature to an older student who was on parole. His essays were about the baby daughter he had to leave behind years ago, and in those essays, he imagined each milestone in her life in vivid detail. As I helped him structure his essays, I saw how the love for his daughter, and not for the rules of the English language, shaped his self-expression. For me, it was a powerful experience in my formation as a teacher. This experience dramatically helped me see the connection between the humanities and prison life. 

Then a few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach Gandhi as a graduate-level course in the federal [central] prison in North Carolina through a programme in my university. I was amazed by the resonance of Gandhi on the lives of those ‘on the inside’. And I became interested in learning about the other efforts to bring Gandhi’s methods and ideas into prison reform or education. 

- Why did you choose Gandhi as a subject?
There’s a story to it. During the research for an earlier book, I met an unassuming, retired schoolteacher by the name of Lakshminarasimha Murthy in Sringeri, Karnataka. I was fascinated by Murthy’s account of his 21 days in Sevagram as a young man in 1944. He had shadowed Gandhi, seen him clean toilets, spun khadi, and cut vegetables in the ashram. He actually met Gandhi for a few minutes while leaving the ashram. That experience transformed him — but not in obvious ways. I became curious about this transformation. 

The more I read Gandhi first hand, beyond the legend and the Gandhi industry we are all exposed to, the more I found it necessary to take his views very seriously. I started to teach courses on Gandhi in the university and then began to offer courses in the prisons. 

- Any specific experiences during teaching/ interaction that have been an eye opener to you?
During my teaching, there have been moments that are hard to forget. An inmate once described his weekly rationed phone conversation with his mother in which he excitedly told her about his upcoming assignment in “the Gandhi class” and she advised him to “read instructions carefully as [he] was prone to miss the guidelines of assignments.” Such instances, seemingly ordinary, moved me. Between crime, justice, and punishment, there are these ordinary moments that offer possibilities for relating differently to people behind bars. It is difficult when the only face you can see before you is that of a criminal. 

- How is it working as a woman professor in an all-male prison?
After I completed the federal training that is required of all volunteers, I was suddenly assailed by doubts. “Was I crazy to do this? I was an Indian woman with an Indian accent, wanting to teach a subject that for all I knew was going to be exotic, maybe don’t do this” and so on. But I did anyway, and it turned out to be the best teaching experience I had ever had. My prison students were critical readers; they were diligent, motivated, and respectful, caring. We have tough but honest conversations around race, gender and privilege. 

Also, I had to prepare differently than I do for my university classes because there are no fancy classroom multi-media amenities and no Internet in the prison classroom. The library is very sparse. Then there is prison-related unpredictability. For instance, sometimes the prison suddenly goes on lock-down mode because something has happened in the prison, security is ramped up, and the class is cancelled. Even a syllabus is a luxury. One has to constantly adapt but these “inconveniences” and unusual in-class dynamics have made me grow as a teacher and a person.

‘While working on this project on the ‘Gandhian Method’, certain things were clear to me. First, we all need to work on getting rid of stigma. It destroys hope for ex-prisoners and any chance of rebuilding one’s life on a better footing. Stigma in general eliminates the possibility of being recognised as a human being who has specific experiences, talents, and dreams. I have found that when we recognise the humanity of another person, that person strives to realise their best potential. 

Gandhi always saw beyond social labels — of course he acknowledged cultural and religious differences but he always recognised the human in all of us. We need to cultivate this fellow-sensitivity more than ever before today. Secondly, we must reject any ideology whose foundation has even a tiny speck of hatred in it. The so-called service to society based on an ideology of hatred and ‘othering’ will produce only band-aid remedies to the problems of some, but it will cause great harm to many others and to society itself. For change to be real, effective, and sustainable, there is no alternative to thinking inclusively across divisions such as religion, caste, class, gender, or sexual orientation.’ 

- What do you envisage to achieve by this special programme you conduct with the American prisoners?
By the time they complete the Gandhi course, American prisoners have reflected a great deal and they have engaged one another through differences of race and religion. They discover a new sense of purpose and begin to forge constructive pathways. Prison environments, as you can imagine, are brutally self-depleting, but even in these settings, it is possible to find hope, and it is possible to change. Ultimately, I am hopeful that the serious study of Gandhi will also help in bringing down the probability of prisoners committing crimes after release.

- How do the American inmates understand him? Would they have identified more with people like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others? How do they see Gandhi, Ahimsa, and Satyagraha etc?
At first, American inmates are intrigued by Gandhi and India’s colonial experience. They’ve heard the legend, some have seen Attenborough’s film. But as they come to read Gandhi quite intensively and critically, they respond to his ‘experiments’, and they agree on some points, disagree on others. In the end, a majority of inmates find Gandhi morally compelling, they find that he offers hope through failure and error in the midst of daily humiliation, pressure and violence.

I’m most struck by how they get into the nitty-gritty of the practice of Ahimsa, and into the self-discipline and love involved in Gandhian Satyagraha. Many times I see inmates attracted to Gandhi’s use of the Jain idea of anekantavada, the idea that reality is many-sided. In the US prison context, reading Gandhi is a way to both engage India through her great strengths and her great problems, as well as an opportunity to re-build oneself through honesty to oneself and to others. 

We read Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth; Hind Swaraj; Ashram Observances in Action; and selections from his Collected Works. We also read his interlocutors like Dr Ambedkar and a variety of his critics. After the course ended this semester, a reading group continued to meet to read and discuss figures and events from the American civil rights movement. There are continuities, and all of this material is relevant in our increasingly fracturing world where leadership is not to be found at the top level but in local communities and within oneself.

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