When Manmohan Singh went to call on Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week, I wonder whether the great Burmese lady recalled her first encounter with India and Indians. In the 1950s, as a young teenager, she moved to Delhi with her mother, who had been appointed Burma’s ambassador to India. The years she spent in our country were absolutely formative to her intellectual (and moral) evolution. As Peter Popham writes in his recent The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, “Intellectually, moving to India proved to be a crucial step for Suu. In the Indian capital she discovered at first hand what a backwater she had been born and raised in, and began to learn how a great civilisation, which had been under the thumb of the imperialists far longer than Burma, had not lost its soul in the process, but rather had discovered new modes of feeling and expression that were a creative blend of Indian tradition and the modernity the British brought with them.”
After taking her first degree at Delhi University, Suu Kyi moved to Oxford for further studies. There she was courted by some very articulate Indians, but in the end settled on a quiet and contemplative Englishman named Michael Aris. Aris was a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, devoted to his studies, and to his wife. By all accounts, this was a very happy marriage, albeit one where the division of gender roles was utterly conventional. Suu was the housewife and homemaker, Michael the scholar and star. They lived in Oxford, raising two boys, he spending the days in the library, she shopping and cleaning and cooking.
In the 1970s, Michael Aris was invited to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla. Scouring the institute’s library, Suu Kyi renewed her interest in Indian nationalism. In a monograph she wrote for the IIAS, she praised Rammohan Roy, who had “set the tone for the Indian Renaissance”. Later nationalists ensured that “social, religious and political aspects of reform should move together”. Of Indian thinkers, Suu Kyi admired Rabindranath Tagore (whose poems and songs she still quotes) and, most of all, Gandhi, who reconciled tradition and modernity in a manner she found most appealing. “In spite of his deeply ingrained Hinduism”, she remarked, “Gandhi’s intellectual flexibility made him accept those elements of western thought which fitted into the ethical and social scheme he considered desirable.”
When Suu and Michael were courting, she wrote him a letter in which she said that, if they married, “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them.” The lines were prophetic. In 1988, Suu Kyi visited Rangoon to see her ailing mother. While she was there, a popular uprising broke out against the military regime. As the daughter of the great nationalist hero Aung San, she was drawn into the struggle, and soon became its symbol and rallying-point. Her subsequent career is well-known: how she led her newly formed party to a landslide victory in the elections of 1990, how instead of honouring that verdict the generals put her under arrest, how for the next twenty years she was separated from her husband and sons, while battling a brutal regime with such tenacious courage that she was compared to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
A close friend of hers once remarked, “Gandhi is Suu Kyi’s role model and hero.” In his book, Popham picks up on this point, comparing his subject repeatedly with the Mahatma. Her tours through the Burmese countryside were inspired by Gandhi’s travels through India after his return from South Africa. Popham says of her opposition to armed resistance that “the moral advantage Suu possessed, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King in other times and places, was that she and her followers would never meet violence with violence.”
The comparison is natural, not forced. As I see it, there are at least six respects in which Suu Kyi’s career parallels that of the Mahatma: 1. a leavening of politics with morality, which comes in both cases from a religious faith, which is devout without being dogmatic; 2. a commitment to non-violence in word and in deed; 3. a willingness to reach out to one’s rivals and opponents; 4. an openness to ideas and innovations from other cultures; 5. an utter fearlessness, with death holding no dangers for them; 6. great personal charm, a feature of which is a sense of humour.
However, while Aung San Suu Kyi can certainly be compared to Gandhi, she cannot (as she perhaps would be the first to acknowledge) be equated to him. Gandhi came first, crafting the techniques of non-violent resistance of which Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi have been such outstanding exemplars. Besides, Gandhi’s range of interests (and obsessions) was far greater.
India is much larger than Burma, and much more diverse in linguistic and religious terms. Gandhi lived and died for Hindu-Muslim harmony, but we know little of how Suu Kyi intends to stem Budddhist chauvinism in Myanmar by giving greater respect to Muslims, tribals and other minorities. India is a far more hierarchical society than Myanmar; so can be no real parallel in Suu Kyi’s life to Gandhi’s lifelong struggle against untouchability. And Gandhi was also a precocious environmentalist.
That said, Suu Kyi is far closer to Gandhi, and a much better Gandhian, than any Indian now living. Indians who currently claim to speak in Gandhi’s name include the prime minister, Manmohan Singh (whose inaugural speech in May 2004 committed his government to Gandhi’s talisman to think always of the poorest of the poor); Sonia Gandhi, whose connection to the Mahatma is as president of a party he built and to which he owed a life-long allegiance; and Anna Hazare, whose cheerleaders regularly and repeatedly claim to be the next Gandhi.
Compared to this Burmese heroine, these are all nakli Gandhians. As one colleague in the democracy movement recalled, Suu Kyi’s skill as a leader is that “she never takes the upper hand, she never uses her family background to dominate”. One wishes one could say the same thing about Sonia Gandhi. Again, Suu Kyi’s quiet, understated, personality, her calm dignity, her expansive intellectual vision — these are in sharp contrast to the spitefulness of tone, the love of publicity, the limited horizons, of Anna Hazare. And her steely courage, her decisiveness in times of crisis, stand at the other extreme from the timidity and pusillanimity of the Indian prime minister.
In terms of position, there was a profound asymmetry between the two who shook hands this past Tuesday. One was the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, the other a powerless member of parliament in a mid-sized country which is erratically and episodically emerging from authoritarian rule. In terms of moral standing, of course, the asymmetry runs in the reverse direction. It is probably too much to hope that by shaking his hand and dignifying him with an appointment, Suu Kyu might have transferred a small amount of courage to her visitor.