The Gandhi statue opposite the Indian embassy in Washington
Washington, Oct. 2: The shutdown of the American federal government has not spared Mahatma Gandhi. But the shutdown has been ideologically undiscriminating and the late Deendayal Upadhyaya’s memory also suffered in the Republican crusade against President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
The US has a profusion of Gandhi statues, from Hawaii to Texas and from Washington to California. Some of these statues are located in America’s national parks or on National Park Service properties.
With the National Park Service closing all its 401 parks and services across America as of yesterday on expiry of the deadline to prevent a government shutdown, there was no access to some statues for the first time on Gandhi Jayanti today.
The Deendayal Upadhyaya lecture has been a regular feature of Washington’s philosophical milieu. In the past, it has drawn to its lectern men like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the late Stephen Solarz, a US Congressman who pioneered the quest for friendship with India many decades ago when New Delhi was not the flavour in Washington.
This year’s Upadhyaya lecture was planned for this week in the form of a seminar and the speakers included Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, Pratima Dharm — the first Hindu Chaplain in the US army — and several other Indians and Americans.
The seminar was to have been held on Friday in a hall of one of the congressional buildings on Capitol Hill. But the government shutdown has forced the cancellation of the event.
Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador to the US, has planned a presentation on digital archives on Gandhi and renderings by Grammy nominee Chandrika Tandon and her group at the embassy residence here tomorrow.
But Rao’s house, a historic mansion, is located on National Park Service grounds and has parking for no more than half-a-dozen cars. Usually, for large programmes at her residence, the nearby National Zoo lends its parking facilities for the ambassador’s guests.
But the National Zoo, which is run by the National Park Service, has been shuttered since yesterday and no one can access its parking lots. The embassy staff sent out a message last night to invitees warning them to look for street parking — which is scarce in the area — for the Gandhi Jayanti programme tomorrow.
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There is an iconic Gandhi statue opposite the Indian embassy here which was unveiled in 2000 with great fanfare by Vajpayee and then President Bill Clinton jointly. The statue was a gift to the American people from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
Luckily for the Mahatma’s large number of admirers and followers here, the statue has not been cordoned off unlike the parks, although it has been erected on National Park Service grounds, because it is right in the middle of one of this city’s busiest streets.
But there was no one from the local government this morning to clean the grounds of the venue and some followers of the Mahatma did a bit of impromptu shramdaan before they offered prayers and meditated in memory of Gandhi.
But that was a small price to pay compared to the disappointment for hundreds of thousands of people who travelled from distant parts of the world to locations like the Grand Canyon National Park and were turned away.
America’s National Parks are a huge source of revenue for the government and for businesses in and around them. According to estimates by the National Parks Conservation Association for October months in 2011 and 2102, at the Grand Canyon National Park alone, visitors spent an average of $1.2 million (Rs 7.4crore) every day.
At the World War II Memorial here, which was barricaded yesterday morning, war veterans in their 80s and 90s resorted to a mild civil disobedience when they pushed away the barricades and defied the memorial’s closure to visit the venue.
The group, mostly in wheelchairs, some others leaning on canes, had come all the way from Mississippi to pay homage to their World War II comrades. They refused to be defeated by the government shutdown.
Onlookers cheered as the group opted for a form of civil disobedience. The police did not intervene but let the group and subsequent ones enter the site.
For tourists visiting America’s capital, it is a huge disappointment that all the 19 Smithsonian museums, constituting the world’s largest museum complex, have been closed until further notice.
In the coming days, Washington will bear the brunt of the shutdown because it is not a state, but the US equivalent of India’s Union territories. All funding for the District of Columbia, of which Washington is a part, comes from approval by the US Congress.
With Obama cancelling two stops on his Asian tour that was to start on Saturday, it appeared that Republicans and Democrats in Congress were bracing for a longer shutdown of government than earlier expected.
He cancelled plans to visit Malaysia and the Philippines but will still go to Bali for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and then to Brunei for an East Asia summit.