Tuesday, January 26, 2010

George Willoughby (1914-2010)

Vanakkam, Vanakkam!

As I travel around Tamil Nadu this January on my too-short visit with Krishnammal Jagannathan and Land for Tillers Freedom, I always greet everyone with two Vanakkams, one for myself, and one for George. I spoke with him the day before his death. He was looking forward to his visit to India in February, to greet all his old friends and to make new ones, and to introduce his two granddaughters to his great love for India, its culture, its food, and above all, as the home (though not the birthplace – that honor belongs to South Africa) of Gandhian nonviolence.

Of course, he had friends among disciples of nonviolence all over the world. A convinced Quaker, he would have reminded anyone who is interested that the true name of Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends (or Friends of the Truth). Quakers believe (it is really our only principle), that there is a Light of conscience and truth within every human being, and that we must live our lives in service to this Light. But the way to find this Light is to find this same Light in our fellow human beings, regardless of their race, religion, national origin, or political persuasion. In that way, we must all serve as lamps for each other.

Among Friends, who are often silent in their service and witness, George would have been thought of as a noisy Quaker and troublemaker (as am I). He served time in prison during World War II for refusing to fight, in prison after sailing a ship into a U.S. nuclear testing range in the Pacific Ocean in 1956, and walked through the United States and then to Russia in 1959 to protest against nuclear weapons. The Russian government was not fond of him either, as he insisted on handing out peace literature in the streets of Moscow. He was on the Delhi to Peking Peace March in 1962. He refused to pay taxes that went for war and preparations for war. And he helped train a whole new generation of American nonviolent activists in the Philadelphia Life Center and Movement for New Society, of which he was one of the founders. George was a great friend of Jayaprakash Narayan, S. Jagannathan and Krishnammal Jagannathan, Daniel and Hamsa Mazgoakur, and Jyotibhai and Malini Desai, and dozens of other Sarvodaya leaders and workers throughout India, as well as Lavanam at the Atheist Centre and S. R. Hiremath of Samaj Parivartan Samuday in Karnataka.

While Professor Willoughby was extremely well-read (and was always recommending books to me even at the age of 95), he disliked it when people spent most of their time writing or theorizing about nonviolence. He would have said there were too institutions of Gandhian Thought, and not enough Gandhian thinking, and surely not enough Gandhian action. He was appalled by the idea that one could earn a certificate in Gandhian thought from a university – the certificate for Gandhian studies could best be earned by going to prison, or working with the poorest of the poor.

He understood that Sarvodaya workers from the time of Vinobaji and JP would age, but was always hopeful that a new generation would emerge, and would improve upon the practices of the past. He did, however, have one criticism of Sarvodaya, which he did not share publicly, but which he did share with me, and which I feel it proper to share at this time. When there were riots against Muslims in Gujarat, he thought that all Sarvodaya workers should have dropped their work and their comfortable lives and rushed to Gujarat to protect the Muslims. This is what Gandhiji would have done, and to that extent Sarvodaya had forgotten the witness of Gandhi himself, and even the very reason for which he had given his life.

When I saw George for the last time in November, he was physically vigorous, maintaining his wonderful sense of humor, practicing yoga (which he had taken up for the first time), and his desk was piled high with papers and books, and ideas for action. He died with is “list of things to do” in his pocket. It is now left for us to carry them out.

Vanakkam! Vanakkam!


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