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Americans in Gandhi's India

Samuel Stokes and Ralph Richard Keithahn (along with his wife Mildred)
Samuel Stokes and Ralph Richard Keithahn (along with his wife Mildred)

This week marked the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi didn’t just inspire Indians. He inspired many foreigners to give up their homes and comfortable lives in the West to come and live and work with him. Some even went to jail for him. Or faced deportation.

The historian Ramachandra Guha writes about many of them in his book Rebels Against the Raj

RG1: These people were regarded with great suspicion and regarded as traitors, people who had abandoned their racial and religious and national allegiance. And also, God forbid, identifying with people of a darker skin, which is what really appalled many British colonials in India.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

Ralph Richard Keithahn and Samuel Stokes were both American missionaries, one Lutheran, one Quaker. One came to north India in 1904 and one came to the South in 1925.

And both were quickly disillusioned.

RG2: As Christians growing up and Americans growing up in America, they thought Christianity meant sense of charity, service, sacrifice.

Instead the missionaries in India were lording it around like big sahibs, colonial masters.

RG3: They found that the missionaries live like sahibs in large bungalows, in gated communities, you know, having a certain condescension towards Indian, Indian Christians who they were supposed to minister to.

It was in Gandhi that they found a real brother in truth, a man of faith but not dogmatic.

RG4: So Stokes leaves the church and later in life actually becomes a Hindu and Keithahn doesn't leave the church but doesn't convert anyone.  He's kind of a Christian hanging around with Hindus and Muslims 

Samuel Stokes took the name Satyanand. He lived and worked in the Himalayas and married a local woman. He burned his western clothes, became a member of the Indian National Congress and signed its manifesto, asking Indians to quit government service. For this he was jailed by the British for sedition. Gandhi said “his white skin has proved no protection for him.”

His granddaughter Asha Sharma, a Bay Area resident spoke to KMVT after she wrote a book about him - An American in Gandhi’s India. She said at first his mother in America didn’t want to talk about her son’s arrest.

AS1: A political arrest was so unheard of in America that she feared it would be misunderstood.

But when the media picked up the story the cat was out of the bag. And she was in for a surprise when her friends found out.

AS2: Oh, how proud I would be if he were my son, said one friend. Bully for Sam, Stokes, said another. If more of us went to jail for what we believe, the world would soon be a better place.

Dick Keithahn worked on rural education in southern India. He lived in villages and fought for India’s right to self determination, he fought against social taboos like using night soil as manure. He was threatened with deportation.

Even after Gandhi died he lived and worked in India but Ramachandra Guha says he paid a heavy personal price for it.

RG5: Keithahn’s wife, leaving him and going back to America with the children. Absolutely. There is a poignancy. There's a price to pay for their struggle and their sacrifice.

His son asked him to come back to America and he said ‘I’m not going back. I’m going to die here. This is my place.’ And India is where he died in 1984.

But these American followers of Gandhi were not blind devotees of Gandhi either. Stokes for example could spin handloom cotton and liked it but didn’t agree with Gandhi on making it mandatory to be a member of Congress party

RG6: So he said, no, this spinning franchise is not unnecessary.  And if you want to impose it, I'm leaving the Congress and he left the Congress at that.

He disagreed with Gandhi about the Congress strategy around World War II

RG7: he writes Gandhi, a brilliant letter explaining in some detail and in my view, explaining compellingly why the Congress should abandon his credo of nonviolence and support the British against Hitler and the Nazis 

Stokes died right before India became independent but his legacy remains in the hills of north India where he became India’s Johnny Appleseed. Struck by the poverty in the Shimla hills he decided to try and grow apples there to help the local people says Asha Sharma

AS3: he experimented with several varieties to find out which would be most suitable for Shimla Hills. And finally, he determined that it was the American Red Delicious.

And thus even today the legacy of these Americans in Gandhi’s India lives on in ways big, small and sweetly delicious

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW.