Sonia Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi arrive for the Nehru memorial lecture in New Delhi on Wednesday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Nov. 14: Sonia Gandhi today addressed Aung San Suu Kyi as a “keeper of Mahatma Gandhi’s flame” and led a two-minute applause when she took the stage as India rolled out the red carpet for the Myanmarese leader.
The warm welcome was seen by many as penance for India turning its back on the struggle for democracy Suu Kyi leads in her country.
Delivering the Nehru memorial lecture at the 1,000-seat Vigyan Bhavan, filled to capacity, Suu Kyi said since her arrival on Tuesday she has repeatedly been asked about her expectations from the visit and her disappointment “that India had not stood staunchly by us through the years of struggle for democracy”.
“I was saddened to feel that we were drawn away from India, or rather India was drawn away from us during our most difficult days,” Suu Kyi said.
Delhi had in the last decade and a half forged stronger ties with the ruling junta as it feared ceding ground to China in its neighbourhood.
Myanmar had not yet achieved the goal of democracy, she said. “We are trying and we hope that in this last battle, the people of India will stand by us and walk by the path they were able to proceed many years before,” she said to an audience that included her friends and classmates.
Suu Kyi had studied in Delhi between 1960 and 1964, at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and Lady Shri Ram College.
Sonia, who described Suu Kyi as one of the most remarkable figures of our times and sought her autograph, said: “She exemplifies all qualities he (Nehru) most admired — fearlessness, integrity, moral and intellectual courage, perseverance, freedom from anger and bitterness and unqualified devotion to betterment of the life of her people through the path of dialogue and national reconciliation.”
Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San, who led the Burmese independence struggle, was a friend of Nehru’s and was assassinated in July 1947 when she was barely two.
In her lecture, Suu Kyi said Gandhi’s influence on her political thinking was widely recognised but the influence of Nehru on her life in politics was less well known. She quoted extensively from Nehru’s An Autobiography and Discovery of India, two books that she said became her “maps” during her incarceration.
“To my infant mind, he was the kindly old man who had provided my father with two sets of uniform, the smartest he ever possessed,” the 67-year-old said.
In January 1947, General Aung San made a two-day stopover in Delhi while on his way to London for talks. “He had left Burma in the thin cotton uniform of the People’s Volunteer Organisation. Panditji took one look at the flimsy khaki outfit and decided it would not do for the icy weather of London. He gave instructions that two sets of a warm and smart version of the PVO uniform be made immediately,” she said.
“He (Nehru) decided that my father would also need a heavy overcoat but since there was not enough time to have one made to measure, a British Army issue greatcoat was procured. The most widely known photograph of my father shows him wearing this garment in the garden of 10 Downing Street,” she said.
Suu Kyi reminisced how she had copied a portion of Nehru’s comment on law and order outside her home where the security personnel could not miss it. Nehru had said while he admired British law and order, he disagreed with law and order founded on fear.
When her party expelled her, she went back to Nehru’s opposition of Gandhi withdrawing the civil disobedience movement, she said. “Nehru wailed,” said Suu Kyi, but kept his faith with Gandhi.